Outsider II: Always Almost, Never Quite, Brian Sewell (Quartet Books, 2012)
I’m slipping. When I said I hoped that the art-critic Brian Sewell would live to write the second volume of his autobiography and say more about Salvador Dalí, he had already written it and devoted an entire chapter to Dalí. Further, as a committed Guardian-reader, I’d already read a review of the book in Britain’s premier purveyor of progressive performativity. My memory must be suffering from all the drink, drugs and debauchery. I think the recycled title confused me too. I also think this is the better half of the autobiography. For one thing, it explains more clearly why Sewell matters and why so many people admire him, including me:
I am one of the brave brotherhood of those who have been publicly insulted by Norman Rosenthal. By a Bond Street dealer who thought his stock and reputation impugned I have been beaten about the head and shoulders with a wet umbrella – clammily unpleasant but, unfurled, an ineffective weapon. I have been punched in the right eye by a young painter, the blow so heavy that it disrupted sight for several weeks and the bruise spread over my cheek and neck before it faded, pummelled by a lesbian clad from top to toe in black leather (for me an occasion of almost helpless laughter), and jostled from their exhibition by video artists who shut down their contraptions and turned off the lights as soon as I entered their room in the Camden Arts Centre. These small events, the screams of feminists and the low booing of billiards players in the Chelsea Arts Club, are expressions of rage easier to tolerate than the closing of ranks by those who run the art establishment, whose defensive refrain “He’s only an art critic” they believe excuses them from taking notice of anything I write or say. Even Nicholas Serota once felt it proper to terminate a discussion with “I’m a museum director and you’re only an art critic” when he thought he’d lost an argument. To compliant critics, however, serving their purposes, these panjandrums are quite prepared to drop to the low kowtow. (ch. 11, “The Venomous Critic”, pp. 205-6)
If Sewell had been compliant, he’d almost certainly have been knighted by now. But he’ll go to his grave as plain “Brian Sewell” and that is undoubtedly the way he wants it. At eighty-one and in poor health, he knows his grave isn’t far off: the sixteenth and final chapter is entitled simply “Death”. He describes the failure of his flesh – “My spine crumbles, my hips creak, and like most men of my age I have had the dreaded slippery finger of the urologist probing my prostate gland” (pg. 272) – but says he fears dementia even more than impotence and incontinence. He doesn’t fear being dissected after death, however, or the irreverence of medical students:
Ideally, what is left of me should be buried in the garden with the bones of the dozen dogs already there, nourishing the roots of yet another tree. (Loc. cit., pg. 274)
Dogs appear a lot in this book. So does buggery, both active and passive: “I give as good as I get and I don’t have to pay for it” he says he once said to an offer of sexual service (pg. 134). That’s in chapter eight, “The Blunt Affair”, which is devoted to the unmasking of Sewell’s friend and lover Anthony Blunt as a Soviet agent. Not that Sewell admits to being Blunt’s lover: for all the candour elsewhere about bath-houses (ch. 5, pg. 74), bumming in barracks (ch. 3, pp. 46-7) and banging one out for Salvador Dalí (ch. 4, pp. 54-5), he’s discreet about his sex-life when he wants to be.
His refusal to abandon Blunt is another example of his failure to be compliant and earn himself a knighthood. I’m less sympathetic with it than I am with his disdain for modern art and female artists, but it’s another example of Sewell, as a homosexual, putting loyalty to another homosexual above his loyalty to humanity. I don’t think that’s putting it too highly: communism was an evil and ugly system and Sewell has to pretend that Blunt was naïve in his politics, “drifting”, “uncertain” and “trapped by affections and unwise personal loyalties” into becoming “a Communist spy of sorts” (loc. cit., pg. 147). And it is true that Blunt led a detached and unworldly life:
One episode particularly amused Michael [Kitson] – in search of a restaurant we passed a McDonald’s and Anthony murmured, “How strange to find a Scottish restaurant in Düsseldorf.” (ch. 8, “The Blunt Affair”, pg. 127)
But Blunt spied on behalf of a system that did not allow people, scholars or otherwise, to lead detached, unworldly lives. Under Stalin, even poached eggs were subordinated to politics:
…for many years practically every work published in the Soviet Union or its dependencies was studded with references to Stalin and his glorious intellect. This applied even to manuals of physics, cookery books, and so on, though it was still possible to distinguish between ritual homage and genuinely Stalinist works: there was not really any such thing as “Stalinist physics”. (Main Currents of Marxism: Volume III, The Breakdown, Leszek Kołakowski, ch. vii, “György Lukács: Reason in the Service of Dogma”, pg. 254, Clarendon Press, 1978)
But there was definitely a Stalinist art-criticism and Blunt would have had to conform to it. And conformity might not have saved him from arrest, torture and execution: Stalinism destroyed countless innocent people, because terror was the fuel it ran on. Sewell notes that Blunt turned the Courtauld Institute “from a finishing school for witless girls into a seminary with a worldwide reputation”, then regrets his failure to do the same elsewhere:
The pity is that his political life was not subject to such a transformation … It is difficult to believe so intelligent a man … At heart he had no politics … he was touched by Britain’s evident poverty in the Thirties, touched by the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War, touched by the inevitability of conflict with Germany, but it is to be doubted that he had any profound interest in the political reasons or remedies for them … How then could so scrupulously scholarly a man, so dry, precise and considered in everything he wrote of art and architecture, be such a fool as to put his scholarship at risk for a political philosophy in which he had virtually no belief? (ch. 8, “The Blunt Affair”, pg. 147)
And Sewell’s answer? It was all down to “Guy Burgess, with whom he perhaps never went to bed but who won from him undying loyalty”. For “Burgess” read “Blunt”, for “Blunt” read “Sewell”. Sewell, of course, didn’t embrace Blunt’s politics, but if Sewell had been Blunt’s age, would he too have become “a Communist spy of sorts” and worked for Stalin? It seems entirely possible. There’s food for homophobic thought there, alas, as there is elsewhere in the book for Islamophobic and antisemitic thought. Sewell is no more an Islamophobe or antisemite that he is a homophobe, but he may supply material for bigots in his descriptions of homosexual gang-rape and cruelty to animals in Muslim countries (ch. 7, “Turkey”, passim) and in catty remarks about members of another much-oppressed group:
… Norman Lebrecht, [big-time Mahler-booster and] former music critic of the Daily Telegraph. … Never was a favourite so puffed-up with amour-propre, so arrogant and so thick-skinned; never was a man so loathed by those with whom he worked and sought to oversee. (ch., “The Evening Standard”, pg. 198) … [I] accepted [the] invitation knowing nothing of the programme but expecting it to be an evening of Schubert or Richard Strauss. It was not; it was an exquisite punishment knowingly inflicted – entirely of Sondheim unrelieved. I would rather have had a tooth drawn. (ch. , “Loose Ends”, pg. 255)
His remarks about Salvador Dalí’s halitosis and projectile-mastication, on the other hand, are candid, not catty. Sewell says “I wished he farted more and breathed less” (pg. 57), but Dalí himself “knew his breath was foul and claimed that [it] kept flies from perching on the wings of his moustache; when one once did it was made immortal in a photograph” (ibid.). That’s in chapter 2, “Salvador Dali in Cadaques”, which is perhaps the most interesting and entertaining part of the book. Dalí is one of my favourite artists, but I’d never seen him in quite the light cast by Sewell’s recollections:
He was one of only two men I have known capable of sputtering, not only on himself with a napkin tucked below his chin, but over every neighbour at a table for four with napkins on their laps. The other man was Bernard Crick, founder of the Orwell Prize for political journalism, who, on the occasion of giving it to me, ruined a favourite tie in plain green silk, bought because it it perfectly matched (or so I thought) the green of Dali’s velvet [suits]. (pg. 57)
Sewell met Dalí because, having adopted “two beach dogs, Scipio and Hannibal”, on holiday in Catalonia, he was cutting up “the windpipe and lungs of a sheep, complete, intact and very bloody” outside a café. Dalí and Gala “whispered to a stop” near him in a “great green pre-war Cadillac” (pg. 51). Dalí, “dressed top to toe in velvet of a dark green to match the car”, then approached Sewell, who he supposed had been waiting for him:
“Do you know who I am?” he asked, his attitude imperious. “Of course. You’re Dali,” I replied – and to this day I do not know whether he was flattered that I knew or disappointed that he had been denied another opportunity to announce to all in earshot, “I am Dali.” “And you’ve been waiting for me” – half question, half accusation. He seemed surprised when I said that I had not. To me, but not apparently to him, it was a preposterous notion that anyone would lie in wait for him with the dogs, the blood, the knife, the windpipe and the lungs as an elaborate ruse to draw him into conversation, but this is indeed what he supposed. (Loc. cit., pg. 51)
This chance encounter produced an invitation to Dalí’s house, with its giant egg and phallic swimming-pool, and a Debris Christ in whose “left armpit” Sewell was invited to “masturbate (again the excessive rolling of the r)”. He nonchalantly obliged while Dalí “clicked” a “camera” and “fumbled in his trousers” (his own, that is, not Sewell’s) (pp. 54-5). Sewell doubts that there was film in the camera, suspecting mere “camouflage for a voyeur who, though brazenly addicted to the habit, was still, at his age, both embarrassed by residual shame and unwilling to admit to homosexuality” (pg. 56).
He realizes then that “Dalí, for all the fawning interest of strangers, was alone and could not bear his loneliness – Gala, his anchor in Cadaques since 1930, was not enough” (ibid.). And so, undeterred by his axillary initiation, he accepted Dalí’s hospitality again: that was the first of “four long visits to Cadaques” (pg. 65), which allowed him to observe “a dirty Dali so to speak” and to see “hundreds of drawings that could never be published or exhibited, revealing the depths he had plumbed” (pg. 66). Almost everything in this chapter is quotable, as Sewell describes Dalí’s egomania, eccentricity, neurosis, absurdity, pretension, self-parody and self-mockery. But the chapter ends with the simple, sane judgment that Dalí was “the last of the great old masters” (ibid.).
Sewell has met many other old masters in paint, if not in person, but it isn’t just Dalí who mixes art with absurdity in Outsider II:
At the bottom of the tree were the dozens of dealers who dealt from the back of a van and, in the case of Raymond de Romare, from a caravan; this, badly parked in Duke Street, St James’s, narrowing an already narrow street, was ripped to shreds one day by a passing army lorry, leaving his stock of ghastly paintings lying in the road among the splintered timbers. One of them, on a large sheet of copper, was badly bent; unwilling to pay the cost of a restorer’s attempting to flatten it, he gave five shillings to the driver of a steamroller to drive slowly and ever so gently over it – of which the consequence was a much larger and much thinner sheet of copper with not a flake of paint adhering to it. (ch. 2, “Scratching a Living”, pp. 32-3)
There’s also this, at the end of a section devoted to the charismatic and larger-than-life forger Tom Keating:
On his death in 1984, a partial clearance of his studio gave rise to an outpouring of respect by the art market in the only way it knows – it paid absurd prices at an auction. Christie’s had already held one sale, presumably to settle taxes, the year before, and this second sale was thought to be the last chance to buy a Keating. It was not – sales continued until at last the penny dropped and the salesroom recognised that there must now be a forger of Keatings… (ch. 6, “The Seventies”, pg. 91)
Both halves of Sewell’s autobiography are long and detailed, but they must represent a bare fraction of the memories and experiences that crowd his brain, which “has so long thrilled in wonder at masterpieces of art and architecture” (ch. 16, “Death”, pg. 274). Masterpieces like the mosque converted from a church at Barhal in Turkey, “the masonry as crisp as the day it was cut, the arcaded outer walls as mathematically precise and proportional as any of Bach’s Goldberg Variations” (ch. 7, “Turkey”, pg. 111). Sewell also “fell” into “traps of longing, lust and love” for cars in the days before “art … surrendered their design to the computer” (ch. 15, “Loose Ends”, pg. 269). He says that, at the end of the Second World War, cars returned to the streets of London and Kensington “became an exhibition site of wonders from the Twenties and Thirties, not only of the familiar grandees, Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Lagonda, but of such now long-forgotten marques as Autovias and Packards, Salmsons, Railtons and Broughs, Hudsons, Cords and Auburns” (ibid., pp. 268-9).
Yet despite his devotion to man’s art and artifice, Sewell says this of the same trip in Turkey on which he saw the church at Barhal:
There were no bears, but at one point I disturbed an eagle on a ledge — and perhaps have seen nothing more beautiful than the one lazy flap of its wings that set it on a seemingly effortless vertical flight up the sun-warmed cliff behind it. (Loc. cit., pg. 112)
I think that is an example of something many people might not associate with Sewell: his humility. He is a far more interesting and erudite man than most of his critics, but he can echo Landor: “Nature I loved, and next to Nature art.” Landor goes on to say that he “strove with none,/For none was worth my strife”. Sewell can’t say the same: he has thought many people worthy of strife, if not in themselves then for the absurdities and pretensions of the art they produce or promote. Sewell’s sharp tongue and sharp pen have won him many victories, because he is cleverer and wittier than his enemies are. That’s why they have resorted to physical attacks, despite controlling so much of the art-world. Sewell has ruled a small corner of it, but he knows that there is much more to the world than art. Important truths like this are not found in art, for example:
Two in the morning is no time to find that the contents of one’s knapsack are sticky with ginger marmalade. (ch. 7, “Turkey”, pg. 104)
That is Sewell in a nutshell: alive to the absurdity of life and able to describe it memorably. If you’d like to learn more about him and the ginger marmalade, Outsider and its Outsider await.
Previously post-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:
• Mum, Bum and Caravaggio — review of the first volume of Outsider
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