John Russell Interview

The Art Newspaper, July-Aug. 1999, p. 49.

“I wanted to teach, in an almost subliminal way but I did not want to preach. That is still what I try to do” (Interview: John Russell), The Art Newspaper, July-Aug. 1999, p. 49.

By Jason Edward Kaufman

For more than half a century John Russell has written art criticism for two of the most widely read and influential newspapers in the world: the Sunday Times of London and The New York Times. He has wielded considerable power lightly, making his office neither a pulpit nor a courtroom bench, but rather a kind of genteel salon in which to carry on an easy conversation with a learned friend. He set out neither to correct public taste nor to tilt against those who do, happy instead to serve as his readers’ cicerone on elegant rambles through the field of high culture. A gifted writer with an innate feel for the musical potential of prose and a penchant for delightful turns of phrase, his buoyant style conveys the sheer pleasure to be had in aesthetic delectation. Read him often enough — whether on painting, music, theatre, persons, or places — and it’s hard to imagine looking at the world in any other way.

Russell came of age during the 1930s and WWII, a period when, as he recalls, “art was not one of the must-see must-know elements in English life.” Art history had yet to become a course of study when Russell attended Oxford, yet it became an abiding interest, and upon graduation in 1940 he reported to the Tate Gallery as an unpaid intern. Two days later the building was bombed and he was evacuated to Worcestershire where he completed his first book, “Shakespeare’s Country”, published when he was 24. He began to pen book and drama reviews, becoming a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement (1945-74) and to the magasine Horizon, then edited by Cyril Connolly. A piece he wrote about Lytton Strachey afforded entree to the Bloomsbury Group, which then included Clive Bell and members of the Strachey family, whom he credits for “an amazing lesson in clear thought and fearless exploration of ideas.”

In 1945, Ian Fleming, the future inventor of James Bond, recommended Russell as a book reviewer to the London Sunday Times. Within five years he succeeded Eric Newton as art critic, which post he would hold for twenty-five years, during which he would champion artists such as Riley, Hodgkin, Kitaj, Hockney, and Caro early in their careers, organise exhibitions of Roualt, Modigliani, and Balthus at the Tate, and write books on Seurat, Vuillard, Ernst, Moore, and Nicholson. It was not until 1960, when he was 40 years old, that Russell first visited New York as a foreign journalist invited by the US State Department. “It seemed like a wonderland,” he recalls, “and in many ways it still does.” On a return trip in 1973, Hilton Kramer, then the chief critic with The New York Times, invited Russell to join the staff of the paper. He never looked back, spending the last twenty-five years with the Times, including a stint as chief critic (1982-90). Among his other works have been monographs on Francis Bacon, Paris, and London, and a survey “The Meanings of Modern Art”. On the occasion of his newest book, “Matisse: Father & Son”, we spoke with the eminent Anglo-American about his distinguished career:

Jason Edward Kaufman

JEK: What do you imagine is your role as a critic?

JR: When I first began writing, my aims as a critic were simple. I wanted to persuade people to go and see things that I myself liked. I wanted to teach, in an almost subliminal way, but I did not want to preach. That is still what I try to do. I write from my own experience and hope that this will make some readers see art in a new way, or have some kind of new understanding. I write really for myself, to find out what I think. That’s probably my main motive. Some critics set out with a great armory of convictions and great programme for the future. I don’t do that. Though I have convictions I try not to sound too important. I’m not trying to be the final arbiter. What I don’t like I don’t write about and I consider it a waste of space and a waste of the readers’ time. There is so much now going around that is worth writing about with a certain enthusiasm that I would feel it a mistake to try to correct others’ opinions. If they like it, let them like it. Why not?

So that’s how it has worked out. When I was 16 I made up my mind that the happiest way of life for me would be to wake up early in the morning, write something, take it downtown and get paid for it. And, so far, that’s how it has worked out.

Did you experience a culture shock when you moved from London to New York?

New York differed from London in two vital ways. There was more — much more — to look at, and there were more people who wanted to read about it. Art in New York was one of the driving, generative forces in the city’s cultural life. In London it was a continual struggle to persuade one’s editor that art was worth having in the paper at all, except as a charitable favor towards myself. In New York that was entirely untrue. The Sunday Times did not offer anything like the enthusiasm which the New York Times offered. I do still think fondly on London and go there with great pleasure for a week, then I start getting restless again.

The arts in the U.S. have been the subject of heated ideological debate in recent years. What do you make of the so-called “Culture Wars”?

The decline of the National Endowment of the Arts over the last ten years is the greatest single disservice that could be done to the cultural level of the United States. There is not a household in this country that will not be the worse — now or tomorrow — for this betrayal, which passed unnoticed in almost every newspaper and was greeted with equanimity, if not with delight, by both Congress and the Senate. It is incomprehensible to a foreign observer that a great nation should think of severing a support system — the NEA, in all its forms, and to a lesser extent the National Endowment for the Humanities — that gave millions of Americans access to a fuller and happier life. In Britain, in France, in Germany and in Scandinavia it is a matter of national self-respect that every citizen should have access to high achievements across the whole spectrum of cultural achievement. In that context, Washington, D.C. is the hometown of dumbing down.

For your new book “Matisse: Father & Son” [published by Abrams] you had exclusive access to the Pierre Matisse Gallery archive. What was your relationship to Pierre Matisse?

I had known Pierre Matisse for twenty-four years, and he had been best man at my marriage in 1975 to Rosamond Bernier. Rosamond had known him since she was at Sarah Lawrence, and in the 1980s he had asked her to record some interviews with him “for the sake of history”. After his marriage to Maria-Gaetana von Spreti in 1974, the four of us had traveled together in France, in Russia and elsewhere. So we all had, to that extent, a shared background, and Rosamond generously let me use material from her interviews.

I had no idea of the scope of the archives when I accepted the invitation. It was a 70-years’ hoard of letters — part private, part professional. There were hundreds and hundreds of letters, almost all of them unknown. In art-historical terms, it was almost like walking into the tomb of Tutankhamen or the Lascaux caves. That said, I cannot claim that it was a difficult book to organise. The entire archive had been sorted, put in chronological order and under the names of the correspondents. So the difficult and taxing work had already been done. The letters drove the book. The translations are my own, but basically each correspondence had its own rhythm and its own dynamic. Complicated and often difficult situations had to be clearly and fairly set out. But what I really had to do was to control the traffic, give the right extracts at the right length, and make linking comments whenever they were needed.

The book covers an immense amount of ground — the history of Pierre’s gallery, his collectors, and his major artists — Miro, Giacometti, Dubuffet, Balthus and others. It covers the development of American taste in European art from 1930 to 1990. And, finally, it covers the relationship between Pierre Matisse and Henri Matisse which is spelled out in one of the great father/son correspondences. Pierre Matisse became, with time, his father’s closest confidant. Very little was held back between them. This gives a completely new perspective to what had always been regarded as a difficult and uneasy relationship. I may be biased — in fact, I am biased — but for me this book was one long revelation.

Generally speaking, what needs changing in today’s art world?

I think that art should be allowed to go private. It should be a matter of one-on-one. In the last few years, the public has only heard of art when it makes record prices at auction, or is stolen, or allegedly withheld from its rightful owners. We need to concentrate more on art that sits still some place and minds its own business. We all hope for a strong response from art, but the kind of buzz that we have to live with nowadays is the enemy of art. Quietness and slow time are its friends. Let’s hope that their turn will come.

Jason Edward Kaufman ©

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This article appeared in The Art Newspaper, July-Aug. 1999, p. 49.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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