Anita Brookner (1928–2016)

Anita Brookner, 1986. Photo: Peter Jordan / Alamy Stock Photo.

ANITA BROOKNER, WHO PASSED AWAY ON MARCH 10, came into the limelight when her novel Hotel du Lac was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 1984. It was hailed instantly as a masterpiece; it would be followed by many more.

For the most part, Brookner created haunting, introspective portraits of women coming to terms with the loneliness of middle age and how the world around them was vanishing. She created an original voice, elegiac yet incisive, in which one can sense echoes of her own life. Even as she got older, she continued to gain critical acclaim. Yet for most of her life, Brookner taught art history at the Courtauld Institute in London. It was Anthony Blunt, former surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, who took her under his wing. He would end his life in disgrace when he was exposed as a Soviet spy. Nonetheless, Blunt had a formidable presence, and Brookner’s years at the Courtauld were happy ones. She remained there until her retirement.

The granddaughter of Jewish immigrants, Brookner was born in South London in 1928 and brought up in a large Victorian house in Herne Hill. Against her parents’ wishes, she studied art history at the École du Louvre in Paris. She felt elated by her newfound freedom, spending days looking at art, studying, and writing. After returning to England, she taught art history at Reading University before moving to the Courtauld.

Specializing in eighteenth-century France, Brookner wrote elegant monographs on Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Jacques-Louis David. But her love of nineteenth-century French novels brought her closer to focusing on the relationship between writers and artists, from Denis Diderot to Joris-Karl Huysmans. David, who witnessed the French Revolution and the collapse of the Napoleonic empire, was a pivotal figure for Brookner. After the Congress of Vienna, hope in reason and rationality was abandoned forever—only to be replaced by spleen and nostalgia. The central figure in this modern age was Charles Baudelaire, the “man in the black frock coat.” For Baudelaire, the greatest art critic of his time, imagination was the sovereign faculty, which allowed us to transform the experience of reality into an expression of the Ideal.

Baudelaire was quite aware of the physical and moral evils of mankind. Such a realization had religious undertones; the nineteenth century’s sense of mourning coincided with a taste for what is considered ugly and horrible, as though the creator had abandoned mankind and inflicted moral suffering upon him. As Baudelaire dreamed of finding redemption, art can be seen as a search for (and means of) spiritual perfection.

When Baudelaire wrote his tribute to Eugène Delacroix, he still thought he might be able to free himself from evil through this ideal of universal harmony. But in later years, he saw life as a mere form of exile, one which offered no harmony. Both Brookner’s novels and her art criticism are filled with such a vision. She could be scathing in her criticism (of Michael Fried’s much-discussed Absorption and Theatricality, for instance). Generally, she was a beloved mentor to a generation of art historians such as Neil MacGregor and Norman Bryson. I was fortunate enough to be her student just before she retired.

In a rare interview, published in the Telegraph in 2009, Brookner reminisced about her years at the Courtauld: “Teaching. Students! Lovely people! Then I did feel integrated. I felt I was doing what I most enjoyed. I loved the company. I loved the ideas, the images. And I loved the conversation! The exchange was valuable. That was authentic. Everything else was made up.”

By nature a shy and reserved figure, Brookner had a great flair for self-analysis. She also understood her students and their motivations with keen psychological insight—she encouraged the viewer to articulate his own feelings, as well as a vision based on his own character. The work of a particular artist, say, David, had to be analyzed within the larger framework of historical circumstances; yet subjectivity could not be avoided. In the case of David, she saw the revolutionary hope of creating a world of higher morality and virtue dashed as the artist anticipated the Romantic ideal by relinquishing intellectual control. Most crucially, Brookner believed that art had to be emotionally alive, and she advocated Baudelaire’s “impeccable naïveté,” which she termed the “ability to see the world always afresh, either in its tragedy or in its hope.”

Her advice was invaluable. Nearly every sentence she uttered is engraved in my memory. My fellow student Cornelia Grassi remembers the last thing Brookner said to her before our written exams: “Art doesn’t love you and cannot console you.” As Baudelaire recognized, it provides temporary solace, at best.

Olivier Berggruen is a writer and art historian based in New York. He is curating a retrospective of Picasso’s Neoclassical period to be held at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome next year.