Saturday, 22 August 2015

Things you didn't know about Nikolaus Pevsner

Stephen Games: Pevsner: The Early Life: Germany and Art (2010)
Aug 2015

Games has an excellent idea - to fill in the bits we don't know about Pevsner. What was Pevsner's German background? How did he become a symbol of a very British attitude to English art? How much did he know about England (and English art) when he arrived in the UK in 1933?

But this idea is sadly flawed in its execution. It is noticeable (Games draws attention to it) that when he edited and introduced a volume of Pevsner radio broadcasts, he was lambasted in the UK press for implying that Pevsner was a Nazi. Now, I don't think that Games in this book suggest for a moment that Pevsner was a Nazi. But it is a matter of regret that Games does not stick to the basic rule of biography: don't invent, and don't guess.

It is easy enough to spot the guesses: the uses of the little words "would" and "must". For example, when Pevsner got married, in 1923, "it was by all accounts a strange ceremony".  By whose account? Well, Pevsner's new wife had a new step-mother, Margarete. It was felt by the Kurlbaum sisters that Margarete was glad to get Lola out of her house. "She wasn't a wicked woman or cruel step-mother", recalled Marianne Kockel, "but she had let's say, very little understanding of children."

Who were the Kurlbaum sisters? And who is Marianne Kockel? There are references at the back of the book, but these are people at several removes from Pevsner remembering events over 60 years earlier. Repeatedly, Games uses family members or friends to provide what is presented as corroboration for the author's opinion.

It gets worse. Games suggests the atmosphere was tense because Lola, Pevsner's wife, was pregnant. On what grounds? Their first baby was born 35 weeks later. Perhaps she was pregnant, perhaps she wasn't; but Games then goes on to make assumptions: "if Lola was pregnant, it was probably Margarete who made both families realize that a quick solution was needed." [ch9].

There are many other similar questionable inferences: start with a guess, and by the time you get to the inference, people may not have noticed the jump to a conclusion. Games admits he was not given access to Pevsner's diaries, and seems to have concluded that talking to any family members, descendants, friends, will serve. At the same time, he is quick to point out every time that Pevsner gets the slightest detail wrong.

Here is another example of what to me is rather questionable reasoning, this time from shortly after Pevsner had arrived in England. He had no job, no money, and was not equipped to teach anything about English art. At the time, his specialist topics were the Italian Mannerists and a thesis about 18th-century architecture in Leipzig. Hence he was dependent on English benefactors. On 23 November 1933, Games tells us he met Philip Florence, an academic at Birmingham University. But that very precise date is the only specific detail we are given. The rest of the paragraph is complete surmise:

When Florence and Pevsner met on 23 November 1933, they probably talked about Pevsner's wish to set up a course on German art history ... and Florence would have been interested in this because ... both being from overseas, they may also have exchanged impressions about what they regarded as England's peculiarities.  ... Florence's approach would have been statistical and economic, however, and since Pevsner wasn't a statistician or an economist, there didn't seem to be anything useful he could say."

After a paragraph of guesswork, Games then continues to draw his conclusion: "In spite of this impasse, Florence was obviously impressed by Pevsner."  How does he know?

The point is not that it makes much difference with the incidents above if Games is right or wrong - it's not really that important. But the more a biographer makes unwarranted references, the more I as a reader begin to question his conclusions about the things that are important. An author and reader have a relationship of trust. I trust the author, based on my limited knowledge of the subject, and when I see cases where the author's conclusions are dubious or uncertain. I begin to lose that trust. There are indeed things I don't know about Pevsner - but I start to become suspicious of many of the author's conclusions in this book.

An example is a comment about Pevsner's thesis, The Architecture of the Baroque Period in Leipzig. This is accompanied by a long and leisurely discussion of meanings of the term "baroque", including pupils of Pevsner remembering what other people had said about the term (is this relevant?) Then we move to Pevsner's own definition. Pevsner was co-author of the Penguin Dictionary of Architecture (40 years later)This book actually has three authors, so it is incorrect to say it is Pevsner's book. But in any case, the definition Pevsner has in the Penguin dictionary of  the term baroque - if it is indeed by Pevsner - is a standard one. Games points out that the townhouses described by Pevsner do not have typical baroque features; they lack any kind of flourish. For his thesis, Pevsner was simply using the term "baroque" to mean a historical period - so why the preceding paragraph? That Games knows what the term "baroque" means? That Pevsner doesn't know what the term means? 

Given the questionable nature of some of the references, what should we do about material that has no citation? For example, when Pevsner (or "Nika", as Games likes to call him at this age) goes to the Leipzig Thomas School, "he felt overshadowed by his mother and the dynamic personalities that she brought into the home ... he also felt overawed by his older brother." How does Games know this? No citations are given for any of it.

So in all, a wonderful subject, which is handled in a rather questionable way. The mixture of assertion, inference and irrelevance (together with substantial sections at the start and end where Games complains about his critics) leaves me dissatisfied. I have now reached the end of the first volume of this very expansive biography - it took me ten minutes to find out from the book when Pevsner was born, in 1902. I will read the next volume with interest, but with caution. At this rate, I've got a good few hundred pages still to go before we answer any of the big questions. 

Friday, 21 August 2015

Tristes Tropiques: the unintentional classic

 Those haunting jacket pictures! Pretty much every edition of the book (except the very first, below) has featured Levi-Strauss's own photographs of the peoples he encountered.  If ever there was a book that wore its heart on its sleeve, as it were, it is Tristes tropiques, the 1955 account by Claude Levi-Strauss of his ethnographic field trip to Brazil; the only major field work he ever completed.  Those photos capture the haunting, strange, sad pride of these vanishing (probably by now completely vanished) peoples. In fact, one of the groups he encountered was actually on their journey to join the modern world. Levi-Strauss persuaded them to turn round and to pretend to be primitive.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Gerald Brenan and the Face of Spain

Gerald Brenan is, as far as I know, in a unique position. Many commentators visited Spain during the Civil War and left accounts of the political and social situation. But Brenan went one further: he went back, after the War was over. He was living in Spain when the Civil War broke out. He left Spain in 1936, and then his book The Face of Spain, published 1950,  describes his return 13 years later, in 1949. He revisits his house, near Malaga, and meets his former housekeeper. As the author of two highly regarded books on Spain (The Spanish Labyrinth and The Literature of the Spanish People), he appears to have an unrivalled position for commenting on the political and social situation in Spain.

What emerges from his account is not just the sufferinf and poverty of Spain in 1949; it is the remarkable fact that the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath seems to have been completely forgotten by subsequent generations outside Spain. I remember going on holiday to Ibiza when I was around 12 or 13. This will have been while Franco was still alive, and there was no mention of the means by which he had come to power, or the lack of democracy and free speech in Spain. Franco was just the face on the stamps; holiday making came first. The achievement of Spain, which Brenan points out very clearly, is that the country made everyone outside it forget what had happened.

Compared to more recent, more academic historians, such as Paul Preston or Helen Graham, Brenan has an admirable ability to talk to people and to capture their views. This gives an immediacy to the book that no academic account can match. Nonetheless, I’m not entirely happy with the book. Perhaps the most dated parts of the book are Brenan’s comments on art and literature. Perhaps these are minor points to quibble at, but for me they represent some rather questionable attitudes of his:

·         French is at the top of the cultural pecking order. Brenan writes about Spanish writers and describes them in terms of their nearest French equivalent: Perez Galdos as almost as good as Balzac, but (let’s be clear) not as good as Balzac.
·         Similarly, Spanish Baroque is compared with and found clearly inferior to the Italian Baroque: “Spanish Baroque has a power of stirring the emotions and putting the mind into a state of confused exaltation and astonishment that is not given by the more intellectual and classically rooted Baroque of Italy.” [p54] That word “confused” intrigues me – I don’t find Spanish Baroque any more or less confused than Italian Baroque, and certainly no less intellectual. I think such a comparison reveals more about Mr Brenan’s preconceptions than about his evaluation of specific artworks.
·         “Spanish cooking, it must be admitted, has no claims to compete with French… but an Englishman will find absolutely no cause for grumbling till he has been living in a Spanish hotel for at least a month.” I would be grumbling if I lived in any hotel for a month. 

In any case, the attempt to define national characteristics is itself questionable. Behind all the above judgements is the idea that there is such a thing as the Spanish character, the Italians character, and so on. And just as not every “Englishman” would only be impatient after a month in a Spanish hotel, not every Spanish bus is fit for the scrap heap [p83].

Behind all this can be detected a certain early 20th-century British  aristocratic snobbishness, a feeling of cultural superiority. It’s as if Brenan says, yes, I have lived in Spain, but don’t worry, I understand you are an English reader and you will have your standards. I will tell you quite frankly where the Spanish are simply not up to scratch. That kind of attitude as displayed by Brenan has not worn well.