Dali; Pablo Casals; Wyndham Lewis The Artist; & Stephen Spender

Arthur Marwick | Published in History Today
  • Dali
    Meredith Etherington-Smith - Sinclair Stevenson, 1993 - xx+553pp. - £20
  • Pablo Casals
    Robert Baldock – Gollancz, 1992 - 334 pp. - £20
  • Wyndham Lewis The Artist
    Tom Normand - Cambridge University Press, 1992 - xvi+230pp. - £35
  • Stephen Spender: A Portrait With Background
    Hugh David – Heinemann, 1992 - xii+308pp. - £17.50

A mixed bag, and biography has never been my bag (history is a broad church but my preference is for the full choir rather than the solo voice). Still we have got some potent persons here, big in their vocations and makers of waves in worlds well beyond. The infinitely inventive Picasso is, rightly, everybody's symbol of twentieth-century art; unprompted by the Sinclair Stevenson blurb I would have to agree that his much lesser compatriot ranks number two (as symbol, polemicist, and public figure, not as artist). Casals was interpreter, not creator, yet many (including myself) treasure his recordings (and memories of live performances) well above the products of the three artists. As performer he was the one who received the applause face-to-face; and he opposed fascism and supported nuclear disarmament.

With regard to Wyndham Lewis one might well adapt Churchill's neat words on Austen Chamberlain, remarking that he never played the game, yet still he always lost. Nonetheless, Futurist and Fascist, this cantankerous sod, if scarcely the most fascinating personality of our time (T.S. Eliot, quoted in the publishers' blurb), is not someone one can readily ignore. Stephen Spender, I fear, is the John Major of the group, important more because he was around (and around and around) than for anything he actually did. 'Above all', says the Heinemann blurb, 'David demonstrates with great authority the extraordinary degree to which Spender's life has reflected the mural, cultural and political dilemmas that have confronted liberal intellectuals during this century' – 'liberal intellectuals' as in 'Football League', of course, 'English' being understood.

It is provided by Hugh David in an efficient, encapsulated account, genuinely filling a gap since there is not really anything else, but bitty (nine chapters, each divided into sub-chapters of only a couple of pages or so) and starved of the life-blood of the essential primary sources since the family refused access to the private letters still held by them. The author speaks of 'leafing through' such papers as are already available in libraries, scarcely the verb I would expect a dedicated scholar to use; post-Larkin, this biography seems a little flat. Rather different is Normand's study of Wyndham Lewis, a work of meticulous scholarship in many archives, by the only one of our four authors who is a professional academic; it does not make one like Lewis, but it goes a long way towards explaining him.

Dr Baldock, publisher, professional writer and amateur cellist, has also worked diligently among all the archives and his shorter Casals can stand proudly beside H.L. Kirk's massive work of twenty years ago. Two points intrigued me. Following two previous marriages, Casals at eighty married a pupil of twenty. Baldock's handling of this is a model of understanding and taste. Of music, Casals declared that 'it must be something larger than itself, a part of humanity'. Did that conviction make him a better cellist, or does inspiration come from elsewhere? Baldock cannot really answer, of course, but he is a sensitive guide to the special demands of creative interpretation.

A photograph on the back flap discreetly informs us of the sex of the new biographer of Dali. Production is in the American mode: to the best of my knowledge Ms Etherington-Smith's study covers all the: ground it should, and is soundly-based; but since an airy preface and flimsy notes are made to stand in for full scholarly apparatus, I cannot be sure; certainly putative future researchers are poorly served. However, of the four subjects, hers is the most intrinsically interesting, the most versatile (surrealist film-maker as well as painter), and the most rumbustious. Etherington-Smith has written the book to match.

History is the study of the human past in all its aspects. What, then, do these books contribute? The creations of Dali and Lewis are part of the fabric of our era, responses to the general crisis of the twentieth century and expressions of the modernist self-conscious- ness in the arts. In analysing late twentieth-century culture, elite and popular, we think we know the weight to attach to electronics and studio sound. The career of Pablo Casals reminds us of the difficulty of assessing the precise significance which continues to attach to live performance – from early Beatles to late Pavarotti.

Arthur Marwick is the author of Making Contemporary Britain: Culture in Britain since 1945 (Blackwell, 1991).

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