Meyer Schapiro’s Mousetrap

Gabriel Josipovici

  • Late Antique, Early Christian and Medieval Art: Selected Papers, Vol. 3 by Meyer Schapiro
    Chatto, 414 pp, £20.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2514 4

I have always thought that there was a striking resemblance between Freud’s earliest case histories, which he published as Studies in Hysteria, and the Sherlock Holmes stories. In the Studies, as in Sherlock Holmes, we are presented with the man of wisdom to whom people bring their problems; who listens in silence; then asks a number of carefully considered questions; and who finally solves the mystery and restores things to the order they were in before tragedy struck – or at least unearths the culprit. There is even an episode in the Studies about the great doctor on holiday in a mountain resort. But a man like Freud and Holmes can, of course, never take a holiday: here, too, a mystery is brought to him to solve; naturally, he obliges.

The clarity and elegance of Freud’s accounts cannot hide the enormous amount of sheer knowledge that he brings to each case; that knowledge is never used to impress either the reader or the patient, yet it is there behind every decision and remark the doctor makes. Nor is it simply knowledge about his chosen field: rather, it is an awareness of Classical culture, literature and the humanities, which are never seen as mere fields of study but always as part of our lives as civilised human beings.

The same combination of extreme clarity of thought and lightly carried erudition is to be found in the great German-speaking art historians of this century. Panofsky’s essays in particular, like Freud’s, convey the excitement of a detective story together with that quite different excitement which comes from seeing great learning deployed for valuable ends. Quite often an essay begins with a particular problem to solve, produces evidence from some learned source which suddenly seems to resolve the difficulties, then points out that this raises a new kind of problem – and so the essay spirals in towards the centre, until not only has the specific question been answered, but the whole of a past epoch has grown meaningful for us.

Nevertheless, as with Freud, doubts creep in after a while. One senses that, behind the apparent catholicity of taste and the seemingly insatiable curiosity about the past, there lies a distinct pattern of prejudices. Gombrich has ably argued that Freud’s taste in artistic matters is very much that of the average late 19th-century Viennese bourgeois. But what are we to make of Gombrich’s own recent remark: ‘As one who still likes Beethoven symphonies and is likely to stay away when a modern work is announced...’? Does not the implied opposition smack a little too much of prejudice? Of course, it is possible to see the Warburg school’s high valuation of Renaissance and Classical art, and its distrust of what seems to be modern irrationality, in historical terms – as its reaction to the Nazi glorification of the primitive but I think the roots go deeper. Panofsky is really not very far from the average late-19th-century Viennese bourgeois when he writes, in his great book on Dürer: ‘But where a picture like the woodcut from Colard Mansion’s Ovide Moralise of 1484 strikes us as almost comical for want of expressiveness and dramatic concentration, Dürer’s drawing, executed only ten years later, has the force of a classic tragedy.’ I, on the other hand, find the woodcut utterly delightful and the Dürer a pompous bore.

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[1] ‘The third of four volumes, two of which, Modern Art and Romanesque Art, have already been published by Chatto and Windus.

[2] It is a great pity that this otherwise beautifully produced book does not runs to coloured illustrations. A good deal of Schapiro’s analysis of the Beatus apocalypse will thus be lost on the reader, since that work depends to a large extent on its strikingly bold colouring. But he can make up for this by purchasing another Chatto volume in their series of manuscript illuminations, Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination by John Williams.

[3] His remarks here need to be filled out by reading his superb essays on Van Gogh, Picasso and Mondrian in Modern Art.