What a book to begin 2014 with! Outsider II: Always Almost, Never Quite is the second and final volume of UK art critic Brian Sewell’s sexually outrageous, personally vituperative and artistically perceptive autobiography — and it’s just as engrossing, possibly even more so, than the superb first volume (reviewed Feb. 12, 2013).
Sewell has been loudly vilified and quietly admired for his belief that art is, as it has always been, exceptional craftsmanship fired by poetic vision. He never says this in so many words here, but this is what he means, and why he has no time for much contemporary art and almost all installations. Moreover, he aspires to write prose with the elegance he so admires, and the resulting combination of trenchant opinion and caustic wit makes this book irresistibly attractive. Sewell’s sexual outspokenness, therefore, is not at the heart of the book, as some have assumed, but simply the icing on an already sumptuous cake.
Sewell was a pupil and later a close associate of former Courtauld Institute director Anthony Blunt, and when Blunt’s spying activities were revealed in 1979 Sewell stood by him. He describes here how he smuggled him, disguised, out of his flat and past a crowd of waiting journalists. He quotes an assessment of Blunt’s Guide to Baroque Rome (1982) as “the greatest architectural guidebook ever written,” and goes on to pay tribute to his “warmth, wit, enthusiasm and evident humanity.” That such a man should have remained in any way involved with a political ideology he had long ceased to believe in was a case of unbelievable short-sightedness, Sewell feels.
This book must have been a legal minefield for its publishers. Both institutions and individuals are subjected to caustic assaults that would take your breath away if you weren’t already in fits of laughter. London’s Metropolitan Police’s Fine Art Squad, for instance, is “wholly unqualified in any technical sense, [and] connoisseurship a word they could not even spell.” Someone is “a sweaty little tyke of sixty or so,” and the BBC is, in the arts, “patronizing, complacent, mealy-mouthed [and] cliche-ridden.” A named TV presenter is described as having “the physical charms of a North Korean despot and a command of French that compels him to pronounce Seurat as Sewer Rat.”
By Brian Sewell
He observes that the Paris police in May 1968 exhibited a “blind brutality obviously enjoyed by those inflicting it,” and that press officers “are not employed to tell the truth.” Someone, also named, is described as “a florid thick-skinned man who tanned his face with almond oil until it looked like pork crackling” and who was “an ignorant cheat of whom few housewives could be rid without parting from their silver teapots for a sixpence [NT$1].”
Regarding the Courtauld Institute, Sewell simply notes how, after the scandal, their employees left out Blunt’s manuscript notes on artistic matters for the garbage collector (though some pages were retrieved by students), and that in the post-Blunt years, instead of a thorough grounding in historical styles and the legends so often illustrated by classic painters, students were offered tendentious courses such as “The Representation of Race in British Art 1730-1860.”
Sewell has some special interests, to each of which a chapter is devoted. One is the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. Sewell visited him in Spain four times and offers much erotic and scatological detail about him — some observed, some the result of speculation. On his first visit, Dali required him to lie in the armpit of a Christ-figure he was in the process of constructing in his garden, and to masturbate. With his waxed mustache, green velvet suits and appalling halitosis, Dali becomes a ridiculous figure, yet Sewell nonetheless concludes that he is probably the last in the line of genuine Old Masters.