Painting as an Art 
by Richard Wollheim.
Thames and Hudson, 384 pp., £28, November 1987, 0 500 23495 7
Show More
Show More

In the Preface to his new book Richard Wollheim tells how he ‘evolved a way of looking at paintings which was massively time-consuming and deeply rewarding’. He looked at them for a very long time – longer than us – and then they told him what they were all about.

I came to recognise that it often took the first hour or so in front of a painting for stray associations or motivated misperceptions to settle down, and it was only then, with the same amount of time or more to spend looking at it, that the picture could be relied upon to disclose itself as it was. I spent long hours in the Church of San Salvatore in Venice, in the Louvre, in the Guggenheim Museum, coaxing a picture into life. I noticed that I became an object of suspicion to passers-by, and so did the picture that I was looking at. To the experience, to the hard-won experience, of painting, I then recruited the findings of psychology, and in particular the hypothesis of psychoanalysis, in order to grasp the intention of the artist as the picture revealed it.

Wollheim claims that the experience of art ‘always craves to be understood’ and, in his ‘view of the matter’, understanding ‘takes the form ... of coming to see the work that causes the experience as in turn the effect of an intentional activity on the part of the artist’. He adds that intention in this context ‘must be taken to include desires, beliefs, emotions, commitments, wishes that the agent has’. In the first chapters of the book, he explains this ‘view of the matter’ at great length. And then, taking various European painters from Bellini to Picasso, he traces these ‘desires, beliefs, emotions, commitments, wishes’, making extensive use of the ‘hypothesis’ of psychoanalysis. The comically humourless account of his long sessions alone with great pictures acknowledges that access to all this ‘intentional activity’ may be hard: but not because the artists belong to different periods and countries. Psychoanalysis encourages the idea of an unchanging basic structure of the human mind. ‘Beliefs’ and ‘commitments’ have changed greatly, however, and if one admits their significance, then it is rash to disdain, as Wollheim does, the value of a historical approach.

Historian would have been able to explain to Wollheim how tricky the evidence is and how unwise it is for an old picture to be ‘relied upon to disclose itself’. ‘Of course,’ he concedes, almost as an aside, later in the book, ‘there are changes that a picture can undergo after it has left the artist’s hands: the paint can crack. And some of these changes can occur without there being any concomitant alteration to the picture’s surface: a painting can come to be admired by a great poet, or it can fall into the hands of a crafty dealer. But I do not see, nor is any explanation ever offered, how or what the mechanism would be by which such changes could include change in content or meaning.’ Whether or not such changes ‘include change in content or meaning’, they certainly stimulate mistakes concerning both.

Consider, to start with, what else apart from cracking can occur. There is the dirt which, until very recently, veiled the ancestors of Christ painted by Michelangelo in the lunettes of the Sistine Chapel, because of which highly intelligent and sensitive commentators supposed that it was Michelangelo’s intention to show how these marginal precursors belonged, as it were, to the shadows of history.

As for the admiration of great poets, Wollheim himself, in another part of this book, mentions the meaning attached to a famous painting by the 17th-century Dutch master Gerard ter Borch, a meaning reflected in the title, L’Instruction Paternelle, given by J.G. Wille to a print of it; and how Goethe, describing a tableau vivant modelled on this print, expanded on the nobility and dignity with which the seated man admonishes, with his raised hand, his daughter, standing before him, who turns slightly away in shame, whilst her mother looks into her glass with embarrassment. The joke, Wollheim explains, is that the painting ‘represents a young aspirant whore coolly bidding up the price for her favours, while the beady-eyed madame of the brothel looks on with simulated indifference’. Comparison with other paintings and with captioned prints of the period does suggest that this is indeed a scene involving mercenary sex, although Wollheim can hardly be sure that the girl is so cool, or indeed that she isn’t genuinely reluctant, since he cannot see her face. The matter has not been settled. Another idea, recently put forward, is that it represents a proposal of marriage! But in any case, should it not bother Richard Wollheim that Goethe looked at this painting long and hard and then got it all wrong?

A painting ‘can fall into the hands of crafty dealers’. It is not clear to what consequences of this he alludes, but I suppose he must have in mind the labels which dealers provided – labels with titles and attributions which are sometimes only demonstrated to be completely wrong after centuries of acceptance. Portraits of Macchiavelli turn out to be of anonymous merchants, paintings by Rembrandt turn out to be by his imitators, and the copy in the basement turns out to be by Raphael. Like all of us, Wollheim has been deeply affected by the reputations which certain painters enjoy – reputations reflected in labels, in the hanging of galleries, in the emphasis given by guidebooks and general histories of art, reputations often originally partly created by dealers. If he didn’t take a great deal on trust, he would surely have had a hard time knowing which pictures to spend his hours in front of.

In the Preface he tells us that we will soon appreciate that he is not drawn towards ‘social or sociological explanation of the arts’. He admires for their ‘learning and originality’ the ‘two great proponents of this method in the English-speaking world: T.J. Clark on the theoretical, Francis Haskell on the anecdotal, wing’, but dismisses both as not promising much ‘as far as my interests, or the central problems of the study of art, are concerned’. Both these writers have done much to discourage the sort of confidence Wollheim exhibits by dwelling on the ease with which art has been misinterpreted. Both, also, have investigated the expectations and standards of the public for which artists worked – expectations and standards which artists sometimes took for granted, sometimes sought to gratify and sometimes deliberately subverted, and which need to be reconstructed if we are concerned with understanding an artist’s intentions. This sort of reconstruction is not one of Wollheim’s interests. It may still be one of the ‘central problems of the study of art’.

Much of the time Wollheim’s interests are philosophical. He defines his position in relation to those so erroneously assumed by others in that type of jerky, tightly self-observant prose favoured by philosophers. ‘I want to indicate the type of account I believe is appropriate to pictorial meaning. It is an account that runs counter to a number of views widely held today of what it is for a picture to have meaning ... Another way of putting the account that I am against is to say that it assimilates the kind of meaning that pictures have to the kind of meaning that language has ... What kind of account of pictorial meaning do I substitute for that furnished by the linguistic model?’ And so we reach his conclusion, more contorted still, and with metaphors added: ‘The marked surface must be the conduit along which the mental state of the artist makes itself felt within the mind of the spectator if the result is to be that the spectator grasps the meaning of the picture.’ Grasping meanings whilst mental states make themselves felt is quite enough for the mind of this reader without having to puzzle out how a surface becomes a conduit. And, after all the effort, is this really such a remarkable thought?

The lay suspicion that modern philosophers are often engaged either in laboriously re-stating the obvious or in talking nonsense is confirmed in the first part of this book, and nowhere more so than at the end of the first chapter. The penultimate section concludes with a hushed announcement:

The artist is essentially a spectator of his work. To understand why this should be so, I propose to raise, and leave you with, a question which, as far as I know, has not had much attention paid to it within aesthetics. It has not been found worth it. This question, long ignored, long despised, is, I believe, going to take us a good deal further into the philosophy of painting.

The next section opens:

Over the centuries, there have been many many changes in the conditions of painting. There have been changes in the materials, in the physical scale of the work, in painting’s social evaluation, in the presiding conventions, in the mutual expectations of painter and public, in myriad things. But, as painting’s representation of painting makes clear to us, there has, amidst all this flux, been one noteworthy constancy, and that has been the posture, the bodily stance, that the painter adopts in the act of painting. It has been the practice for the painter to position himself in front of the support, on that side of it which he marks, facing it, with his eyes open and fixed upon it.

Who but a philosopher practised at proposing bizarre hypothetical models would envisage an artist at work behind his easel, turned away from it, with his eyes closed? Six illustrations accompany this conclusion. It is amusing to note that in one case – a painting by Corot in front of which we presume that Wollheim has not spent too many hours – a woman is represented facing a canvas. Was this to demonstrate that Wollheim’s masculine pronouns were not intended to cause offence? Alas, she is dressed as a contadina and holds a mandolin and must represent the artist’s model marvelling at her employer’s work in his absence. In all the other illustrations but one, incidentally, as Wollheim does not remark, the artist seems not to look at his own painting but at his subject. The exception is a photograph of Jackson Pollock ‘working’, and he of course had no subject in this sense. In their paintings of painting, artists did not, then, always bother to make it clear that they looked at the marks that they were making. However, I expect they knew that we non-philosophers would know that they did so.

What Wollheim has to say about particular works of art is certainly not obvious. A start-ling but by no means unusual case is provided by the beautiful and moving double portrait (in the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston) by Degas of his sister the Duchesse de Morbili looking up with raised eyebrows and placing her hand tenderly on her husband’s shoulder. Wollheim discerns here an effect of ‘disengagement, of remoteness’, and yet I find it hard to think of a 19th-century painting which more strikingly employs the device, so important to informal portraiture in Europe since the early 16th century, whereby the beholder is put into the position of an intimate friend who has surprised the sitters. For Wollheim, the sitters are ‘revealed as chill, indifferent, etiolated: there is, we are led to sense, a deep, persistent inhibition of feeling.’ I can only protest that everyone with whom I have discussed the portrait finds the couple deeply sympathetic, and deeply sympathetic to each other. Perhaps Wollheim lacks sympathy with the convention of refined society whereby affection is often expressed obliquely and ironically – as here in the Due de Morbili’s apparent haughtiness. If so, hours and hours of looking may not be of much help.

The artist over whose work Wollheim spends longest is Ingres. He invites us to consider the artist’s entire oeuvre and asks: ‘What then are the pictures, the compositions, to which he was particularly drawn?’ The answer, he claims, is that

for Ingres the kind of histoire that was imbued with the deepest appeal was one where a revelation occurs. It occurs within a family: it involves the confrontation of an emotion that has long been kept in check, but can be no longer: and the emotion, once revealed, calls for a massive change of heart. Sometimes such an accommodation may be hoped for, sometimes it is too much to expect. What is constant is that a father must melt.

Most emphasis is placed by him upon the story of Antiochus and Stratonice to which Ingres repeatedly returned throughout his career. In the episode which Ingres invariably chose to represent we witness the court doctor arriving at his diagnosis, and in most versions Ingres depicted his instantly self-censored expression of horror at its implications. What the doctor realises, from the racing pulse of Prince Antiochus who writhes upon the bed beside him, is that the cause of the youth’s mysterious illness must be love for his stepmother, the exquisitely beautiful Stratonice, who stands elsewhere in the room. The episode which Ingres never represented, and at which he never even hinted, although other artists who had treated the subject (most notably Pietro da Corona and Jacques-Louis David) had done so, is the subsequent decision made by King Seleucus to give Stratonice to his son to save the boy’s life. I take it that this is the act which could be described as the father’s ‘melting’. And yet the King’s grief for his son is surely such that we must wonder whether the histoire corresponds with Wollheim’s pattern. The King’s love for his son is constant. There is no ‘massive change of heart’.

The theme of the melting father is detected by Wollheim in many other works by Ingres, including his greatest male portrait, that of Louis-François Bertin. Wollheim tells the story of how impressed Ingres was by seeing Benin’s expression and attitude when he was arguing (with his sons in one version): it was the expression of someone stimulated by opposition to greater self-assurance, and Ingres adopted it in the painting. There is an ironic benevolence as well as power and alertness in Bertin, but ‘melting’ is the least appropriate adjective one could apply to that unforgettably solid bulk, so effectively enthroned in stout polished mahogany, and to the tension which creeps up the arms from each claw-like hand and passes from the shoulders into the rising lines of the opposite eyebrows.

The family in which the ‘melting’ takes place needn’t be a human family: it can be the Holy Family, and it can be a metaphorical family – ‘the sequence of artists which forms the tradition of painting’. The idea of an apostolic succession in art was indeed one to which Ingres was deeply attached, and there is something appropriate in his most obvious imitation of his revered Raphael being a painting of Christ donating the keys to Peter. It is a painting the action and meaning of which are utterly clear and decisive. The moment represented is one in which all doubts are resolved. The remarkable rigidity of the kneeling Peter is reinforced by the hard folds of his drapery, which form a strong diagonal along the line of the second key he receives and the raised right hand of Christ. But Wollheim remarks on the

somnambulism of the central characters, the staggering gait, the vertigo ... confusion of identity ... introduced into the heart of a family to be. Who is giving? Who is receiving? Which is father? Which is son? Where does Raphael stop, and where does Ingres begin?

None of this prepares us for the final chapter entitled ‘Painting, Metaphor and the Body: Titian, Bellini, De Kooning, etc’. Here we learn that ‘one constituent of corporeality, which is an optional aspect, for corporeality does not insist on it, is that a picture endowed with corporeality will get itself thought of – thought of metaphorically, of course – as something which a body also is. It will get itself thought of as a container.’ Wollheim goes on to cite the beautiful passage by Walter Pater which dwells on the significance of listening in the paintings of Giorgione and his school. Such a picture as the Concert Champêtre, according to Wollheim, ‘gives rise to the thought that the sounds lie around inside it.’ This in turn gives rise to the thought that the painting is a container. (Oddly, the avoidance of box-like perspectival space by Venetian artists is taken to make these paintings more like containers.) Bodies can also be thought of as containers. So, yes, ‘the painting is a container: like a body’ – at least it ‘gets itself thought of as’ one by Wollheim. He proceeds to propose that there is something very Venetian about the paintings of William de Kooning. These, too, are containers, but crammed ‘with infantile experiences of sucking, touching, biting, excreting, retaining, smearing, sniffing, swallowing, gurgling, stroking, wetting’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 10 No. 8 · 21 April 1988

SIR: One would have hoped that you could handle Nicholas Penny’s discussion of Richard Wollheim’s book (LRB, 18 February) better than merely to chop off the last few paragraphs! There he was, turning an effete backwater into a fascinating read, when, just as he was gathering himself for some final, devastatingly quiet denunciation, you cut him off. The missing paragraphs please! Just why is it so outrageously silly to think of paintings and bodies as containers?

Tim Sharp
Chiang Mai, Thailand

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences