Professor Norbert Lynton

Art historian and critic who directed the Hayward Gallery in its heyday and later taught at Sussex


Norbert Casper Loewenstein (Norbert Lynton); art historian and arts administrator: born Berlin 22 September 1927; Lecturer in History of Art and Architecture, Leeds College of Art 1950-61; Senior Lecturer, then Head of Department of Art History and General Studies, Chelsea School of Art 1961-70; London Correspondent, Art International 1961-66; Art Critic, The Guardian 1965-70; Director of Exhibitions, Arts Council of Great Britain 1970-75; Professor of the History of Art, Sussex University 1975-89 (Emeritus); Trustee, National Portrait Gallery 1985-99; Chairman, Charleston Trust 1998-2006; OBE 2006; married 1949 Janet Irving (died 2004; two sons; marriage dissolved 1968), 1969 Sylvia Towning (two sons); died Brighton 30 October 2007.

In an unpublished interview in 1998, the art historian Norbert Lynton remarked that "to learn about art from living artists, and to watch them, hear them discussing their work and watch them working, trying to understand why the painting they did yesterday annoys them so much today . . . was so refreshing".

Although he had studied for two BAs, the first at Birkbeck, where he was taught by Niklaus Pevsner on whose Buildings of England series he subsequently worked, and the second at the Courtauld Institute, it was equally from artists that Norbert Lynton learned how to look at art. His was a practical, empirical formation as much as an academic one, that laid the foundations for a career as art critic, Director of Exhibitions at the Arts Council and finally Professor of the History of Art at Sussex University.

Lynton began in the early 1950s teaching the history of architecture at the School of Architecture in Leeds, moving across to the School of Art as soon as he could in 1955. There, under the direction of Harry Thubron, whose classes Lynton had previously attended, his eyes were opened to modern art.

While he continued to teach the art of earlier centuries, he talked to Thubron, Terry Frost, Tom Hudson and Victor Pasmore about the present. It was a damascene experience. First up were Mondrian and Klee and then Pollock, swiftly followed by Rothko. On trips to London to see landmark shows at the Tate and the Whitechapel Art Gallery and on visits to Germany, ticking off the public collections, Lynton educated himself in modern art and the art of looking. He passed on this knowledge to students attending Thubron's summer schools, among them Bridget Riley, who in those tutorials was introduced to the recent history of radical abstraction.

In 1961, by then separated from his first wife, Janet, and living with a former student, Sylvia Towning, Lynton left Leeds for London to teach at Chelsea School of Art. Being in London meant greater access to contemporary exhibitions and to a wider range of artists. He had been reviewing for Art News and Review and was recommended by Lawrence Alloway as his replacement on Art International.

Following Patrick Heron's retirement from writing, there were few critics capable of serious, unaligned art criticism in Britain. David Sylvester and John Berger were pre-eminent and Lynton had the opportunity to measure up to them, when he began reviewing for The Guardian in 1965, but his approach was substantially different.

Witty and elegant, his articles could also be cynical and ironic. He dismissed Picasso's work, shown in a major exhibition at the Grand Palais in 1966, stating that after Cubism the "ratio of nonsense to significance becomes more and more extreme". The tone of his reviews at times manifested a certain smugness. More at home with early Modernism than its subsequent developments, he was less perceptive when it came to contemporary art as his "Critic's Choice" exhibition at Arthur Tooth & Sons in 1970 demonstrated. Nevertheless he had a good understanding of contemporary sculpture.

Lynton's prominence and evident command of art history led to his appointment as Director of Exhibitions at the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1970, the year after he and Sylvia were married. While it was a wrench to leave teaching and reviewing, he recognised the opportunity presented by directing the programme at the newly established Hayward Gallery, the Arts Council's flagship. It had opened in 1968 with a memorable Matisse exhibition followed by some small contemporary shows and Lynton continued to programme this kind of mix.

This was the heyday of the Hayward. Ably assisted by Joanna Drew, who was to succeed him so successfully when he left in 1975, and under the supervision of Robin Campbell, the Director of Art, Lynton put together a programme that museums nowadays would be proud of. Such landmark exhibitions as "Art in Revolution: Soviet art and design since 1917" (1971), more or less the first time the British public had seen Soviet art; "French Symbolist Painters" (1972); "The Impressionists in London" (1973); "Pioneers of Modern Sculpture" (1973); "Edvard Munch" (1974); and "Vorticism and its Allies" (1974) were the building blocks of the programme.

But Lynton also had the vision to integrate the contemporary with the historic and thus the Hayward gave one-person shows to Bridget Riley and Bernard Cohen, mounted the pioneering "The New Art" (curated by Ann Seymour, a Tate curator who would never have been allowed to mount such a show at the Tate) and, in 1974, put on a succession of contemporary one-person exhibitions by Lucian Freud, Diane Arbus, Morris Louis and Antoni Tàpies.

Perhaps his most far-sighted decision was to take photography seriously as an art form. Aside from the Arbus show, Lynton supported the idea to mount "The Real Thing: an anthology of British photographs 1840-1950", put together by David Mellor and Ian Jeffrey. Beyond the Museum of Modern Art, New York, none of the principal museums or galleries of modern art had accepted photography as fine art. The national collection was housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum and it was not until the early 1990s that the Tate began to take photography seriously, hence its impoverished collection.

Lynton encountered difficulties at the Arts Council. The chairman of the Art Panel was the powerful John Pope-Hennessy, Director of the V&A and then the British Museum. Lynton ran into difficulties with "the Pope" so it was only a matter of time before he left. After a visiting professorship at the Open University, he was invited to apply for a professorship at Sussex University in 1975.

For Lynton, leaving the politics of the Arts Council behind and perhaps seeing a funding crisis in the making after the return of the Labour government in 1974, Sussex represented a great escape. He had enjoyed directing the Hayward Gallery, but teaching was perhaps closer to his heart.

Lynton was a well-loved teacher. Although he prepared his seminars in advance he also taught in the moment, responding to images on the screen as he saw them, noticing details that were not previously apparent and which shed further light on its meaning. He was a gifted viewer of art. He enjoyed teaching in tandem with colleagues, establishing a constructive dialogue in front of his students in a manner that would now be considered uneconomic. One of his colleagues described it as like playing tennis, with Lynton making shots that his colleagues had to try to return.

Lynton's greatest gift was to impart to his students the ability to see. He had little time for critical theory. His style of writing was descriptive but he saw more than others and this is what could make it illuminating. Lacking a further degree, he would jest with his colleagues: "You are the scholars. I am merely an enthusiast." His books read like those of a gifted enthusiast and were aimed at the general reader. He published substantial monographs on Ben Nicholson (1993) and William Scott (2004), whom he knew well, and was the first person to translate into English the writings of Paul Klee.

The book he is best known for, however, is The Story of Modern Art, a work he proposed to Phaidon as the modern counterpart to E.H. Gombrich's world-renowned The Story of Art. It was written at a pivotal moment in art historical studies, when art history began to embrace the methodologies of the social sciences and philosophy as well as incorporating social history. Lynton rejected the challenge these new approaches posed and chose to ignore them. The book is elegantly written. He had a talent to make complex issues and concepts simple to understand and he had a wide-ranging knowledge but, by the time it was published, in 1980, it seemed slightly old-fashioned.

Lynton retired from Sussex in 1989. He had been diagnosed with cancer and may also have felt uncomfortable holding out against the tide of a developing art history. After it came out that he was having an affair, he and Sylvia separated. He was a lover of women as much as of art.

Aside from teaching Lynton had served as Dean of the School of European Studies. During his term of office he persuaded the university to accept the gift, without an endowment, of the works and papers of Arnold Daghani, then a little-known Middle European artist who had survived the Holocaust. While many thought Lynton misguided at the time, with the subsequent establishment of the university's Centre for German-Jewish Studies, this archive has proved invaluable.

Perhaps it was Lynton's own roots in Middle Europe that attracted him to the gift. Born Norbert Casper Loewenstein to a father of Jewish origin and a Catholic mother, Lynton came with his family to London in 1935, his father having predicted the outbreak of violence and war. But the family fell on hard times and Lynton and his two older brothers were sent back to Germany to continue their education. In April 1938 his parents sent for their sons for a second time after the situation in Nazi Germany worsened.

Lynton was installed at Douai School, a Catholic foundation near Newbury, Berkshire, while the world tore itself apart. He thoroughly enjoyed his schooldays and was pleased to be away from his mother with whom he had a troubled relationship. He became head boy and was approached to be a monk but declined. Although he later described himself as agnostic, his Catholic upbringing was ingrained. The feeling of being a refugee never left him either; nor did a slight Middle European inflection to his otherwise meticulously English accent.

Lynton could be somewhat aloof and withdrawn. He found it hard to show his vulnerabilities. Perhaps this was the legacy of his refugee experience. But he was also hospitable to his colleagues and students. He was widely read in the tradition of the great German academics and passionate about music and literature as well as art.

Retirement allowed him to concentrate on writing as well as working on such exhibitions as Henry Moore in Delhi in 1987 and another Moore show in Russia, 1991-92. In the last few years he completed a manuscript on the work of Vladimir Tatlin, to be published by Yale University Press, in which he adumbrates a view that Tatlin's celebrated Tower was connected to the figure of St John the Baptist. He was also in the process of writing a short book on Robert Motherwell and had completed a monograph on Bernard Cohen.

He celebrated his 80th birthday in September with parties in London and Brighton. Cancer had appeared at the beginning of the year and by August he had found out it was terminal. He maintained his sardonic sense of humour, as well as his armour, until the end.

Jeremy Lewison

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