Sir Alfred Munnings, president of the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in the 1940s, was famous for his masterful paintings of racehorses. His own favorite sport, though, may have been trashing modern art; grounded in the traditional school of painting, Munnings often publicly expressed his hatred of his contemporaries, from Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse to Francis Bacon. (Artists like John Constable, however, were perfectly deserving of praise.) Vocalizing those feelings was evidently insufficient for this critic, however, who also spent ample time penning scathing opinions of modern artists. An archive of his letters, revealed to the public for the first time, offers a glimpse of what was evidently a frustration-filled obsession. Over 60 of his letters, written between 1931 and 1952, will be feature in tomorrow’s sale of printed books and manuscripts at Chiswick Auction, with the collection valued at £2,000–3,000 (~$2,600–2,900).
Many of Munnings’s letters are addressed to Thomas Bodkin, who served as director of Ireland’s National Gallery and later of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, England. In them, Munnings makes clear his wonder over Picasso’s apparently undeserved success: “Only £1,500,” he notes about an artist’s work that has received his approval. “Half the price of a blasted Piccasso (sic)! What is the world coming to?”
In another letter, he calls the famed artist “a menace” and scrawls, “To hell with him. He never was a good artist. One of a group of the best legpullers this weary world … has ever seen.” Munnings, without fail, misspelled Picasso’s name in his documents, always embellishing it with an extra “c.” He may have simply been terrible at spelling — he refers to T.S. Eliot as “Elliott” — but these errors may have also “been part of his disapproval of these frightful modernists,” as Nicholas Worskett, a books specialist with Chiswick Auctions, told the Guardian.
So incensed with modern artists was Munnings that he relayed an anecdote to make his feelings known at a speech delivered at a 1949 Academy dinner. One day, he had said, he and Winston Churchill were walking down Piccadilly, and Churchill asked, “Alfred, if I saw Picasso walking down the street ahead of us, would you join me in kicking him up the arse?” Munnings had said yes — though when Churchill later heard the story, he denied that it ever happened.
Aside from equestrian images, Munnings himself focused largely on painting landscapes and scenes of rural life. And although he hated modern art, he did appreciate and embrace Impressionism, as described in Smithsonian.
“Munnings stood for everything that was reactionary in that speech when, in fact, he wasn’t as reactionary as perhaps he thought he was,” Malcolm Cormack, who once served as curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, said. “He owed a great deal to Impressionism. You can’t think of Munnings without seeing those wonderful impressionist landscapes that he did.”