Self-Portrait with Donors: Confessions of an Art Collector
by John Walker
Atlantic Monthly/Little, Brown, 320 pp., $ 12.95
Another Part of the Wood: A Self-Portrait
by Kenneth Clark
Harper & Row, 288 pp., $11.00
Though it can have been no part of their original intention, both these books unexpectedly make one think. Cast in a form appropriate to the recollections of a diner-out, they still lead one to ask such questions as: What is art? What is justice? even What is a life?
When a man settles down to write about his life, the presumption is that he had led one. The autobiographical mode assumes not just that interesting things have happened to the writer, that he has intersected the lives of others, but that he has, in some sort of way, in his own way, made something of his own life, that he has given it a shape, however complex or ill-realized it may be. It must be said at the start that neither Lord Clark nor Mr. Walker is altogether convincing on this score, though, as it turns out, for very different reasons.
For superficially the two men, one English, one American, have much in common. Both were born rich. Both became art historians. Both trained themselves as connoisseurs of art, and both for a time came under Bernard Berenson’s influence. Both have a strong sense of public service, and have had eminently successful careers. Each was for a period director of the national gallery of his country, Mr. Walker in Washington, Lord Clark in London. Neither, it would seem, is most at home in the company of his professional colleagues. Both have worldly interests.
But here the resemblances between the two men end, as a comparison of their books reveals. For, if it is accidental that, while Walker devotes a chapter to Clark, Clark nowhere mentions Walker (perhaps his book stops too early?), it certainly is no coincidence that Walker finds certain things in Clark that he cannot understand. He cannot understand, for instance, why Clark’s peerage hasn’t given him “unalloyed satisfaction.” He cannot understand why, even after Civilisation had been on the best-seller list in America for weeks, Clark should still worry about what “a few dons and professors” think of the TV series. (Could it be, Walker wonders, intellectual snoberry?) More significantly, he cannot understand how Clark could have resisted the lure of Berenson, with whom both men worked at I Tatti. That anyone with whom Walker finds himself in sympathy should have found anything unsympathetic or even unpalatable about the trade in attributions on which the life at I Tatti rested is a thought that Walker, in spite of a display of open-mindedness, is unable to entertain.
It would be natural to suppose that this difference in attitude comes down to a simple disagreement in belief. When Walker writes that “B.B.’s life and fortune were made baptizing works of art,” one might think he had no reason at all to doubt the innocence of those transactions in which evidently large sums of money changed hands. The text of Self-Portrait with Donors does not sustain such an interpretation. In trying to justify Berenson’s …