Michael Fried, who is also a poet, has a dense, self-questioning, fervent prose style. Somewhat perversely he has, over the last three decades – that is, since his doctoral dissertation on Manet was printed as a special issue of Artforum in 1969 – put this prose to the service of art-historical scholarship. It might have been otherwise. While still in his twenties Fried had become a leading critic of contemporary art, an occupation which may not sound very different from being an art historian, though perhaps less respectable. Yet from Baudelaire onwards, an engagement with contemporary painting has been vital to some of the greatest poets; and the best art critics, aside from those who were primarily artists, have been writers who’ve taken art on as a sideline. Even the rival giants of American art criticism when Fried was a young man, Harold Rosenberg and Fried’s own mentor Clement Greenberg, started out wanting to be all-round literati before becoming specialists in the fine arts; but Fried, who was one of the first wave of art critics to have a PhD in art history, seems to have been the only one of that group to have been tempted, however briefly, by the older model of the writer-critic rather than the academic.
Perhaps this accounts for the difference in tone between Fried’s criticism and that of his peers. Where they were combative and polemical, he exhibited near religious intensity, as though he wanted something from art, a sort of exaltation or transcendence, that criticism was hardly suited to express. This desire is most evident in what is probably the best known sentence Fried has written, the last line of his 1967 essay ‘Art and Objecthood’: ‘Presentness is grace’ – a line that refers back to the citation from one of Jonathan Edwards’s sermons at the head of the essay; and in the Talmudic minuteness with which he unravelled the significance of stylistic features that to other observers seemed hardly so momentous. ‘Flatness’, for instance – the annihilation of the illusion of deep space that had been the glory of classical art – was one of the big issues of those days, and the artist-critic Robert Smithson had great fun with Fried’s finding that certain polychrome sculptures by the painter Jules Olitski consisted of surfaces that had the miraculous property of being ‘flat, but rolled’.
Speaking of the American painters he championed in the 1960s – Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Frank Stella – Fried observed that their work ‘not only arises largely out of their personal interpretations of the situation in which advanced painting found itself at crucial moments in their respective developments’: it ‘also aspires to be judged, in retrospect, to have been necessary to the finest Modernist painting of the future’. In other words, the basic content of such painting was its concern with its own place in the advancement of art. Fried’s sense of history was progressive: he understood the present as directed towards the future, rather than as self-contained. And by initiating his art-historical work with a study of Manet, who has always been seen as a crucial figure in the development of the very Modernism of which his contemporary heroes – the painters I’ve mentioned, or the English sculptor Anthony Caro – were the exponents, Fried seemed set to search out the background to this progressive history.
But it’s hardly surprising that, once in the academy, Fried imbibed a different view of history, one that is properly historicist in the sense that it sees the past as self-contained, indifferent to a present that had, in Fried’s previous conception, been its future. In the lengthy and ruminative 1998 introduction to Art and Objecthood, his collected criticism, Fried was careful to distinguish between the sort of thinking that goes into art history and the sort that goes into art criticism: history is not judgmental, while criticism is nothing but. Yet he concludes by expressing a faith that in his work ‘the poems, the art criticism and the art history go together, that they share a single vision’.
Fried’s choice of Adolph Menzel as the subject of his latest book suggests that he has become a different sort of historian, with a different sense of what history is, from the young man who wrote on Manet and Stella. Menzel has never been central to the history of Modernism. There is good reason for the second section of Fried’s book to be called ‘Who Is Menzel?’, and to provide a capsule biography and contextualisation of a sort his writings on Manet or Courbet had no need for: few art lovers outside Germany know who Menzel is and, as Fried himself admits, ‘it is fair to say that his paintings have never really been seen to count in an essential history of 19th-century painting.’ The prominent early 20th-century German critic Julius Meier-Graefe wrote about Menzel as he did about Cézanne, Van Gogh and others in the mainstream Modernist tradition, but in order to salvage Menzel for his French-oriented vision of art history, Meier-Graefe had to make a rigorous distinction between the progressive artist of the early ‘private’ pictures such as Rear Courtyard and House (1844) or Balcony Room (1845) and the conventional public artist whose elaborately worked-up history paintings showed him to be merely a superior illustrator. This is not very different from the way historians of French painting used to distinguish between the ‘private’ Corot, whose oil sketches looked forward to the Impressionists, and the painter of elaborate Salon pieces, some of them with mythological subjects (Meier-Graefe: ‘From fresh Impressionism came stale Romanticism’). But the trend in recent decades, as the Modern tradition itself has become a historical artefact, has been to claim to see a painter like Corot as a whole – and therefore to judge him not insofar as his paintings were a necessary link to the best work of future artists, but rather according to how well his work fulfilled the demands of the moment. The closer any particular past development is to us, the more difficult it is to maintain this historicist commitment to the self-containment of the past: art historians continue to cordon off the early Symbolist Mondrian and the naturalist who continued to paint flowers all his life from the properly Modernist artist who reduced everything to primary colours and straight lines meeting at right angles.
Still, even Mondrian is becoming harder to break into good and bad bits. Menzel, too, is now to be restored to wholeness by Fried – both as having had a singular career and as forming a necessary part of some future synthesis of the history of 19th-century painting. But who is Menzel? Why does it matter if we see him whole or otherwise? Fried, noting the paucity of interest in him outside Germany and the difficulty of accounting for him even there, nonetheless correctly remarks on the ‘widespread agreement that Menzel was one of the two foremost German painters of the 19th century, the other being Caspar David Friedrich.’ Unusually, he was an illustrator before he turning to painting, and towards the end of his life he turned away from painting again, devoting himself mainly to drawing. A dwarf, born in Breslau in 1815, he grew up in the milieu of his father’s lithography workshop, which was eventually moved to Berlin. When the elder Menzel died, his 16-year-old son took over the family business. He briefly attended the Art Academy in Berlin, but quickly dropped out and went back to work. His fortunes changed in 1839, when he was commissioned to make 400 illustrations for a history of Frederick the Great; drawing them and supervising their execution as wood engravings occupied him until 1842. He followed this with equally voluminous illustrations for The Army of Frederick the Great and Its Uniforms and The Works of Frederick the Great, projects that occupied him until 1857.
In the meantime, however, he was painting. His first inspiration came, apparently, through exposure to the works of John Constable in 1839; within a few years he was painting the small studies of everyday urban sites that include some of his best known work but which began to emerge from his studio only around the turn of the century, just before his death in 1905. Rear Courtyard and House, for example, is all the more striking for the fact that it seems to be a painting of hardly anything in particular. The very vagueness of the title (whether or not it is Menzel’s) is significant. What the picture shows is a seemingly arbitrary patch of unkempt and unlovely terrain. Glimpsed at an odd angle and from above, the yard is one of those places where the city’s built environment seems to peter out and go to seed; though crossed by fences and framed by the sides of buildings, it seems indifferent to any formal order. Fried speaks of a ‘sense of makeshiftness, of an entire environment having been put together, constructed, not in a spirit of permanence but rather in one of improvisation’. But he goes on to stipulate, and this is more important, that it does not
seem quite accurate to speak of Rear Courtyard and House as sketchlike, as is often done, despite the rapid improvisatory play of the brush and also despite the sense in which the painting eschews not just traditional finish but all suggestion of finality . . . On the level of execution as well as on that of the motif, Rear Courtyard and House presents us with an image of the sheerest makeshiftness, but just as the viewer is not led to imagine a fuller description of the chosen motif, so there is nothing about the execution to suggest that if only the work of painting were carried further or started again in a more ambitious spirit we would have before us a more complete or definitive or in any respect superior version of the present canvas.
What the passage brings out is Fried’s passion for precise expression and his determination to make close distinctions, such as the one between the sketchlike and the improvisatory, that other writers would ignore; but it’s worth developing a point that Fried implies here but doesn’t quite articulate: that Menzel realigns our sense of the distinction, central to the disputes that shaped 19th-century French art and our response to it, between a sketch and a finished painting. Manet, as the proponents of the academy never tired of complaining, believes that he is making paintings, but in reality he only brushes in sketches. Fried himself explained the force of Manet’s rejection of academic finish by saying that his ‘problem . . . was not so much to know when a given painting was finished as to discover in himself the conviction that it was now a painting.’ Even in paintings which weren’t intended for public exhibition, Menzel didn’t so much disdain the idea of finish as redefine it.
As his immense productivity alone would attest (his memorial exhibition at Berlin’s Nationalgalerie in 1905 included 129 paintings, 291 watercolours, gouaches and pastels, 6405 drawings and 252 prints), Menzel was possessed of a fierce work ethic. His admonition to the gifted younger painter Max Liebermann was: ‘Your talent you have from God, I value in an artist only the effort.’ It is worth bearing in mind that Menzel was essentially an autodidact, having fled the academy within months of his arrival, and the earnestness and concentration evident in every centimetre of Rear Courtyard and House are indifferent to the academic notion of finish – which, as Pierre Bourdieu once put it, aims at ‘transforming the painting into a literary work’ by effacing all reference to the painting’s pictorial and material specificity. But the painting is equally distant from the rising aesthetic of the unfinished, which based the judgment of an artwork only on the inward conviction of its fitness and not on any calculable degree of professional labour invested.
No other 19th-century artist painted like this. At least in these ‘private’ pictures, Menzel represents not an eclectic synthesis, but a completely distinct solution to the problems of mid-19th-century painting. Compositionally, Rear Courtyard and House is, as Fried says, anti-classical in a way that 19th-century French painting never was. But it is a peculiarity of Fried’s insistence on Menzel’s indifference to classical order that he never quite names what replaced it. The term ‘classicism’ is always one part of an opposition: it might be classical and baroque, or classical and romantic, or even classical and decadent. But none of these suits Menzel. His specificity is everywhere apparent yet difficult to describe; perhaps this is why he lacked successors. His paintings remain uniquely compelling and, indeed, strangely contemporary: the terms which Fried conjures to describe them would seem just as appropriate to the ‘makeshift constructions’ of some installation artists: Jessica Stockholder or Joëlle Tuerlinckx, for example, artists whose work is always based on careful observation of what happens, however arbitrarily, to be there in a particular situation.
Menzel didn’t always paint like this. He became a history painter, gaining success with his minutely detailed reconstructions of the past, and for a time he was something like an official court painter, while at the same time retaining his independence. An account of Menzel’s work that squared with his lived relation to his own time would have to take more thorough account than Fried does of his stupendously meticulous reportage. The Coronation of King William I at Königsberg (1861-65), for example, essentially a history painting of painstakingly accurate scholarship, though set in the painter’s present, includes more than a hundred detailed portraits worked into the crowd of dignitaries. Fried does not energetically contest the general view that a picture of that sort is more valuable as a document than as a work of art, but he does analyse at length a number of Menzel’s later paintings, such as the oneiric, almost surreal gouache, Crown Prince Frederick Pays a Visit to the Painter Pesne on His Scaffold at Rheinsberg (1861), which Fried sees as Menzel’s allegorical reflection on his own art, comparable to Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio (1854-55), which was known to Menzel, or to Thomas Eakins’s William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1876-77) – both paintings on which Fried has reflected at length in previous books.
Pesne on His Scaffold is an apt choice for Fried’s effort to show how the aesthetic of makeshift constructions that Menzel arrived at in the 1840s was still active in his later work; nothing in this picture seems stable and, as Fried notes, that includes the position of the viewer. This provisionality fits very well with his claim that Menzel’s was an ‘art of embodiment’ in the sense that it deploys what Merleau-Ponty once called the ‘lived perspective’ (as distinct from the mathematically constructed perspective that has been central to Western painting since the Renaissance), which emphasises the way that human beings see things, not in a single all-encompassing glance from a fixed viewpoint, but rather in a series of glimpses caught by mobile eyes in mobile bodies. (Fried uses the term ‘embodiment’ in many, sometimes incompatible ways, but this seems to be its central sense for him.) Neither Rear Courtyard and House nor Pesne on His Scaffold is organised around a single centre of interest; we have to take them in bit by bit rather than as unities, so that in order to apprehend them the viewer must be an empirical body and not an idealised eye.
Readers of Fried’s writings on the art of the 1960s might raise their eyebrows at his current preoccupation with the whole body as a vehicle for pictorial perception, because it seems to contradict his insistence on ‘opticality’ as a characteristic virtue of work such as Jackson Pollock’s, and on the instantaneousness of one’s perception of it. It also appears to conflict with his harsh criticism of what he has called the ‘theatricality’ of minimalist sculpture, which turns out to mean its concern with the physical circumstances under which the viewer encounters it. Fried articulates this apparent volte-face in other ways, too: in his praise of Menzel for his ability to make painting express time, or to evoke ‘different sensory modalities’ such as hearing or touch. Fried has to strain to make this last point. Does the mysterious viola-player in Pesne on His Scaffold really lead us ‘to imagine the music he makes filling the space’, as Fried claims, or does he rather make more palpable the silence inherent in all painting, as it seems to me? This strain makes it clear that there are ulterior investments in this line of interpretation beyond the explication of a particular painting or oeuvre.
But then a willingness to strain credibility has been part of Fried’s critical method from the start. He has always been aware that any truly productive interpretation must go beyond verifiable fact – that it is a wager. In his discussion of The Wheat Sifters (1853-54) in Courbet’s Realism (1990), for example, he turns the image of peasant women sifting wheat into a metaphor for Courbet’s application of paint to canvas. Such passages must have had his more sober-sided colleagues tearing their hair out, but they also made his kind of art history a continuing inspiration for critics of contemporary art, who know they have to make interpretative leaps in approaching works whose meanings have not been stabilised. Now, however, going out on a limb seems to make him nervous in a way that would have been incomprehensible to his combative younger self. This book is littered with half-embarrassed acknowledgments of how shaky his interpretations can be: ‘Not that there is any warrant for associating . . . But those affinities are sufficiently compelling . . .’; ‘Again, I stop short of calling this a self-portrait . . . But the image is . . .’ – these two examples are drawn almost at random from a single page. Similarly, Fried is continually seeking to buttress his reading of Menzel’s works by drawing parallels with cultural authority figures ranging from Kierkegaard and Kafka to Walter Benjamin and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The comparisons are invariably resonant, yet often feel poorly integrated: they should either have been more punctual and suggestive or else more elaborately developed. Menzel’s Realism is a passionate book, at times touching in its very awkwardness, but as a makeshift construction it’s not quite as workable as Menzel’s own.