Nicholas Penny

  • Painting as an Art by Richard Wollheim
    Thames and Hudson, 384 pp, £28.00, November 1987, ISBN 0 500 23495 7

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.

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