Vol. 11 No. 7 · 30 March 1989

Scholarship and its Affiliations

Wendy Steiner on the Blunt case

3041 words

In Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution, Anthony Blunt instructs Her Majesty the Queen about pictures. ‘Because something is not what it is said to be, Ma’am, does not mean it is a fake.’ ‘What is it?’ she asks. Sir Anthony gingerly suggests: ‘An enigma?’ Here as in Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, the figure of the spy illustrates the irreducibility of human and aesthetic mystery, the contradictions that all personalities enshrine, the confusion that no amount of pedantic energy can resolve.

In the Twenties, as a schoolboy at Marlborough, Blunt embodied the aesthetics of Pure Form. At Cambridge in the Thirties, he signed on as a Soviet spy, one of the ‘Homintern’ that included Guy Burgess. During the Forties he doubled as an MI5 agent and a Soviet mole, became Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, and directed the Courtauld Institute. Awarded a KCVO in 1956, betrayed in 1963 but granted immunity, he was publicly exposed in 1979, during which year the Queen revoked his knighthood and he voted for Margaret Thatcher. Blunt is the enigmatist’s enigma.

The English imagination has responded strongly to this compounding of spycraft, scholarship, homosexual intrigue and royal scandal. Blunt’s 1979 exposure and his death in 1983 occasioned books, plays and films; and he figures in virtually every item in the seemingly endless literature on British espionage. Bluntiana have already outstripped Blunt’s own prodigious oeuvre. But one constituency has remained more or less silent about Blunt: the academy. George Steiner’s searching New Yorker essay in 1980 provoked no particular response from art historians and theorists. The British Academy debated Blunt’s expulsion after his exposure, but despite rancorous arguments and the dramatic resignation of A.J.P. Taylor, their proceedings did not lead to publications, conferences, lectures, or any of the other manifestations of a scholarly cause célèbre.

One has only to compare the recent furore over Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man to see how slight the impact of the Blunt affair has been on the academic community. Mutatis mutandis, all three men had disreputable if not dishonourable commerce with totalitarian regimes, all three produced widely influential and respected scholarship, and all three kept secret or at least unacknowledged their political pasts. Victor Farias’s recent claim that Heidegger may have supported the Nazis for more than the few months of his university rectorship and Ortwin de Graef’s discovery of de Man’s youthful contributions to the collaborationist paper Le Soir have thrown the European and American academies into confusion. Opponents of deconstruction may now appeal to historical fact to establish that the approach entails a deliberate splitting of art from political events: an ‘irrationalist fatalism’, as Frank Lentricchia would have it; or, for Terry Eagleton, a covert polemic against Marxism. And scholars whose entire orientation proceeds from Heidegger’s or de Man’s writing are forced to explain how a person can be both theoretically compelling and politically unacceptable.

In both cases the assumption is the same: there must be some connection between the theories of Heidegger or de Man and their political activities. Post-Modernists, deconstructionists and Marxists alike believe in the ‘ideological subtext’, convinced, like Fredric Jameson, that ‘there is nothing that is not social and historical ... [and] “in the last analysis” political.’ Having rejected the positivist claim that scholarship can be independent of ideology, we read everything ad hominem. Moreover, we fear contagion. Have we inadvertently ingested fascist poison with our deconstructive milk?

It is the connection between ideology and scholarship that is on trial in the current academic debates: this and the belief in the consistency of identity, the self as a seamless web. Already the richly humanistic efforts of Geoffrey Hartman, Pierre Bourdieu and Christopher Norris are rescuing the work of Heidegger and de Man without endangering the principle that ideology and text are invariably (if complexly) related. But what do we do with Anthony Blunt? Here was no mere polemicist but an agent of an enemy power whose commitment lasted not for a few months but for his entire adult life. Here was a man whose influence over scholars, students and art professionals was both profound and frighteningly discrete – so discrete, in fact, that a good part of the art-historical establishment of England is content to brush him aside as a distinguished pedant with an amusingly kinky set of secrets. Yet Blunt represents the limit case for academic freedom: the respectable scholar with illegal affiliations.

If we accept that all scholarship is a product of ideology, Blunt’s power should give us pause. He was in attendance at the birth of English art history. It is not sufficiently well-known how young the discipline is in this country: that no courses in the field existed until 1931 when the Courtauld Institute was established, that before then one studied the subject, as Blunt himself did, by ‘reading’. Blunt began lecturing at the Courtauld in the second year of its existence, became an assistant director a few years later, and director in 1947; he was instrumental in moving the Warburg Institute to London in the Thirties; and by all accounts, transformed the Courtauld from a high-class finishing-school to a world centre for the training of academics and other professionals which had no institutional competition until the Sixties. As time went on, Blunt had wide influence in every aspect of the administration of culture in England.

Yet he did not use this power to promote any political ideology. Colleagues, students and publishers insist that ‘there was nothing Marxist about his art history and he never tried to influence people politically.’ Indeed, to the committed Marxist of our day, Blunt was ideologically retrograde. Paul Overy, for example, claims that Blunt is responsible for de-politicising art history: ‘the director of the [Courtauld] institute ... was Anthony Blunt, a long-standing Soviet spy. To provide a convincing cover for his later activities ... the Courtauld was devoted to a conception of art history which was formalist and value-free.’

This view would probably have bewildered Blunt. From his standpoint, he was teaching a deeply felt left-historicism, the principle that art history is the study of works in their historical settings: not the esoteric interpretation of the iconographers, specifically not the formalist appreciation of the Pure-Formers, but a Marxist-informed contextualism. ‘Works of art are produced by artists; artists are men; men live in society, and are in a large measure formed by the society in which they live. Therefore works of art cannot be considered historically except in human and ultimately in social terms.’ This position, which Blunt enunciated in the Thirties, was the basis of his work thereafter.

In short, Blunt had the power and the conviction to inculcate in the art-historical establishment of England a ‘hidden agenda’. He himself believed that all cultural products carried such baggage, and he would be in sympathy with the attempt to understand his own scholarship as a product of its context. Yet he left an interpretative enigma. A ‘master of compartmentalisation’, he produced a scholarly corpus which could have belonged to any disenchanted formalist – which is to say, virtually any (American) scholar writing today. At the same time, his involvement with Marxism in the Thirties was a matter of public record and the historicism and anti-formalism of his work are quite apparent. We cannot explain his art history as either a cover for or a reflection of his Soviet sympathies. In Blunt’s careers as spy and scholar we find the connection between text and ideology strained to breaking-point by a proponent of that very connection.

In what way, we might ask, would we expect a Soviet agent’s ideology to manifest itself in his art history? What would constitute ideological baggage: would it be the urging of a people’s art, for example, or the tying of creative achievement to class? In fact, both are to be found in Blunt’s writing, but one sees equally an attunement to aesthetic form and artistic intensity. Throughout Blunt’s oeuvre there is this split between formalist and left-historicist viewpoints, which Blunt – deludedly, I think – experienced as a sequence: ‘From Bloomsbury to Marxism’, was the title he gave to a glib memoir published in 1973. An ideological reading of Blunt’s work recovers irresolvable contradiction at every step. But if this is the scholarly manifestation of a Soviet agent’s belief system, it is also the mental set of thousands of humanists nowadays who have passed from the extreme formalism of their early training to the contextualism of feminism, the New Historicism, Afro-American studies and Marxist criticism. Blunt’s treason is not a sufficient explanation for his scholarly orientation, nor does his scholarship definitively point to authorship by a spy. Instead, his story has relevance for almost any Post-Modern academic.

If one had to locate a common factor in the spy and the scholar it would be anger against authority, which began with Blunt’s early exposure to modern art. At Marlborough, he and Louis MacNeice bounced rubber balls across the rounders pitch, held elaborate teas, and generally thumbed their noses at their games-playing peers. Blunt disdained politics, ‘preferred Things to People’, and immersed himself in the writings of Roger Fry and Clive Bell. He hung modern pictures in his room and published an article in the rebel magazine the Heretick arguing that ‘to call a work of art immoral is like calling an ink pot sympathetic.’ This amorality so scandalised one parent that he threatened to have his son removed from school if the Heretick were not suppressed. Blunt’s response to Marlborough was that ‘if this represents the establishment, I shall conspire to destroy the establishment.’

For a 16-year-old schoolboy to be writing that ‘modern art should be judged by the same standards as Persian rugs,’ by ‘the formal qualities of pattern and colour’, indicates not only an astonishing aesthetic precocity but an equally extreme anti-authoritarianism. By the Thirties, however, when the Post-Impressionists had become the favourites of the smart world, one could not dismay the establishment by extolling avant-garde line and colour. Marxism was harder for them to swallow. At this point, swept along in the Communist surge at Cambridge, Blunt did an aesthetic (and hence political) about-face. Matisse became a slick sensualist of colour and Picasso was ‘clogged in a love of the obscure and the unusual’ – ‘the last refinement of a dead tradition’ glorifying the artist’s individuality. Pure Form was suddenly an unimaginable conviction, given Blunt’s ‘ingrained belief that a painting can be altogether of greater importance than even the best Persian carpet.’ The rebutting of his own words suggests that in his defiant scorn for the bourgeoisie he was entering into combat with himself.

Blunt was converted to Marxism and espionage in 1933 or 1934. From 1932 to 1938 he was art critic of the Spectator, and in his almost weekly essays one can see his aesthetic and political transformation as it takes place. At first, in often forgettable reviews of exhibitions and art books, Blunt expresses an orthodox Bloomsbury line. He is against the idea that photographic realism is the goal of art, does not care what impels an artist to paint as long as the result is formally satisfying, and thinks the Communist use of the word ‘bourgeois’ is unreflecting. By July 1933 he realises that ‘art and life are, God knows, different, but they are not wholly unrelated to each other.’ He takes the Pre-Raphaelites to task for trying to drag the working man into a dream of medievalism without improving his material existence. He inveighs against Italian Futurism as fascist propaganda, and in November 1934 he writes a rather strained parable called ‘The Beaver and the Silkworm’, the moral being that a proper creator is like a beaver assembling bits of reality rather than a silkworm spinning art out of itself. After a trip to Russia in 1935 come three enthusiastic articles, and by October of that year Blunt exclaims: ‘How did we ever believe in significant form.’ The next week in a piece entitled ‘Sleepers Awake!’ he reveals that ‘the intellectual is no longer afraid to own to an interest in the practical matters of the world, and Communism is allowed to be a subject as interesting as Cubism.’ His Marxism was open. He wore a red tie.

In the years that followed, Blunt called for a new pictorial realism, artists’ unions, and the transformation of museums from pleasure gardens into classrooms. He disdains individualism in favour of communal aesthetics on the model of Medieval (or Soviet) art, and differentiates Nazi control of culture from that of the Communists. Pure Form is pernicious and Surrealism a subversion of the populist and realist goals of society; the critic’s duty is not to say what is formally good or bad but to explain art as an ‘expression of man’.

In September 1938, this Marxist programme culminates in a three-part disquisition on value entitled ‘Standards’. Here Blunt argues that the only scientific basis for artistic judgment is history. The critic’s job is to place the work in a movement and determine whether the movement aimed at producing the maximum material good. If it did, the work is good; if not, it is bad. The next step is to investigate how the painting expresses these values, and this involves an analysis of content and form so complex that it may elude a purely logical explanation. Nonetheless, since the difference between a Christ by Giotto and one by a minor follower is evident to many people, this stage in evaluation is a matter of common judgment, a communal sense of value. The last step is the critic’s voicing of his or her personal reaction to the work. Like the work itself, this is to be seen as a historical fact, but not one of any great value. With ‘Standards’ Blunt ends his regular contributions to the Spectator and largely stops the airing of his personal taste.

He now turns full-time to scholarship (and espionage). Those who view his art history as a cover, however, exaggerate the discontinuity between it and his journalism. In his books and essays, Blunt performed the deep contextualising which he had advocated in a thorough, workmanlike and rather dull fashion. The only moments of authorial warmth appear in descriptions of artists. Blunt speaks with admiration of Rouault’s hatred of his society, of Poussin and Borromini’s disdain for the material rewards of pleasing patrons, of Alberti’s unwillingness to be manipulated into passivity by Lorenzo di Medici. He scorns the likes of Vasari for transforming the vital independence of ‘humanist’ painting into courtly good manners and a kowtowing to authority, or the Précieux of 17th-century France for being so disempowered by Henry IV that ‘conversation took the place of action.’

Blunt’s 1959 depiction of Blake is particularly striking. The fervent Jacobin of the 1780s becomes the disappointed humanist of the 1790s, horrified at the Terror abroad and the political oppression at home. Blunt sees Blake turning more and more inward towards ‘mental strife’, seeking solutions in philosophy and religion rather than political action. He is not a madman, as the 19th century tended to depict him, but a superbly traditional artist, influenced by the formal clarity of Michelangelo and Raphael and disdaining the chiaroscuro and sfumato of the Venetians. Politically and aesthetically, he is a ‘minority fighter’ who ‘defied the world’, ‘his complete individualism and his bold defence of personal liberty have clear topical significance today ... his passionate sincerity, his uncompromising integrity, his “hundred-per-cent” quality command respect and admiration.’

We might discern more than a little identification in these portraits of artists, and if so, the internal contradiction Blunt sees in them between passionate principle and cold reason is revealing. In all his favourites, this conflict is the burden of the description. The arch-exemplar is his ‘first love’, the rationalist Poussin, whose art and life Blunt portrays as embodiments of Stoic philosophy. Blunt’s fascinated descriptions of Poussin at work suggest, too, an eerie image of the puppet-master-spy. Poussin formed his compositions by arranging and re-arranging wax figures on a little stage until their disposition suited him, manipulating them – in Blunt’s fervid similes – like chessmen, a corps-de-ballet, a dramatis personae. It is a fitting – perhaps a fittingly sinister – image of the spy. But it is also a wistful image. ‘It is easier,’ he was later to write. ‘to be strictly rational in theory than in practice.’

Blunt’s life and writing, like those of the artists he admired, evoke a series of paradoxes. One can neither locate a convincing ideological stance in his life nor a definitive political subtext in his work, but merely an autobiography of contradiction, anti-establishment reaction and formidable self-control. His case strains the coherence of principles like academic freedom and political loyalty. It would be nice if we could state categorically, like Beethoven, ‘I despise treacheries. Do not visit me again’: but almost no one associated with Blunt has been able to connect these two sentences – the general and the personal condemnation.

Just as Blunt’s life reveals this blank in our morality, his career reveals our tattering confidence in intellectualism itself. ‘Art,’ he said, ‘is produced by men living in society and not in an ivory tower,’ and we recognise an echo of Picasso’s more eloquent words, which Blunt himself quoted: ‘How would it be possible to feel no interest in other people and by virtue of an ivory indifference to detach yourself from the life which they so copiously bring you? No, painting ... is an instrument of war for attack and defence against the enemy’. To break out of ivory indifference but not to deny the love of the mind, to understand how one’s work – whether painting or scholarship – could be an instrument of war, to know what the war is and who is the enemy, to question the relation between text and ideology, the coherence of personality, and the meaning of academic freedom, and to appreciate the complexity and discontinuity of ideologies co-existing in every person and every aesthetic product: these are the challenges that Blunt’s life be queathes us. It is a legacy less fashionable but perhaps more directly relevant to us than that of Heidegger and de Man, Blunt’s fellow academic enigmas.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 11 No. 9 · 4 May 1989

Wendy Steiner’s article on the ‘Blunt case’ in your 30 March issue, bringing up the fact that no art historian has written on the subject so far, prompts me to signal that my book, which has just come out, The Interpretation of Pictures, contains a long section on this subject. No art historian familiar with Blunt and his work with whom I have discussed the subject has ever expressed agreement with George Steiner’s argument, as Ms Steiner seems to do, and omission from her account of Blunt’s attachment to the Warburg Institute and of his relations with Johannes Wilde produces a view of Blunt’s ‘scholarly corpus’ and the principles underlying it which makes for a strong disagreement between what she writes and the way in which I put together the different aspects of Blunt’s persona. Essentially, the history of art history is at issue here in important ways linking those within the discipline to those outside of it.

Mark Roskill
Department of Art History,

Your contributor, Wendy Steiner, is two Directors out. It was not Anthony Blunt, the third Director of the Courtauld Institute, but W.G. Constable, the first, who was one of those instrumental in bringing the Warburg Institute to London in 1933. For the record, and in gratitude, Constable’s colleagues in the rescue were C.S. Gibson and Sir E. Denison Ross, together with the committee they got together in Britain and – of course – the Warburg family.

J.B. Trapp
Director, Warburg Institute,

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences