Richard Wollheim

  • Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist and Society by Meyer Schapiro
    Braziller, 253 pp, £19.95, October 1994, ISBN 0 8076 1356 8

One of the essays included in this volume is entitled ‘Eugène Fromentin as Critic’, and it opens: ‘The Old Masters of Belgium and Holland is the first and perhaps the only book of its kind: a critical study of painting by an accomplished artist who is also a first-rate writer.’ Anyone acquainted with Meyer Schapiro will be amused. For, whether or not this is a correct assessment of Fromentin as a critic (the essay that follows suggests some qualifications), applied to Schapiro himself, these words have the ring of truth, if heavily understated.

Schapiro, too, is an artist of great accomplishment – three small works of great freshness, a watercolour, a pastel and a drawing, given me over thirty-five years ago, have been a source of continuing pleasure – and this has allowed him an insider’s appreciation of some of the subtler or more material effects of art. And, as a writer, he has evolved a distinctive style – though, so naturally does his prose read, it seems odd to talk of evolution – which enables him to convey with great precision the results of the eager, exploratory way he looks at works of art.

Schapiro, it hardly needs to be said, brings to the understanding of art a great deal more than the virtues of the writer and the artist. He is one of the most erudite scholars of the century, who has read widely in the literature of art and has looked with great care. He is at home in the biological sciences, in the classics and in Renaissance Humanism, in perceptual psychology, in psychoanalysis, in Hebrew studies and Patristic writings, in philosophy and logic and the development of modern science. He has very broad aesthetic interests, and writes with true sympathy about Celtic manuscripts and the Flemish masters, about Courbet and the sculptors of Moissac, about early Christian mosaics and Rembrandt and the New York School. He has a natural love for what I suspect is the least loved of all forms of art: the visionary. Since his youth he has been interested in the great European theories of personal and social emancipation, and he has played a significant role in the left-wing intellectual politics of New York. He is a famous teacher and a legendarily brilliant and inspiring lecturer. Finally – and I do not doubt that, in Schapiro’s scheme of things, nothing has weighed more with him – he has always been at home in the company of artists, and they in turn have sought him out, and not just for the kindness and helpfulness he has always shown them. In a brief tribute written in 1972, Thomas Hess, a champion of post-war art, who was close to Schapiro, described him as having been a friend to the New York pioneers of Abstract Expressionism, a hero to the second generation, and to the third wave ‘a more distant figure, a professor, a classic’.

All this might suggest that Schapiro is an intimidating figure. Certainly his mind, encased in a head that might have been carved to order, of great delicacy, with a lofty forehead, long, wavy hair and eyes that register every passing thought, is something formidable. But the man is different. He has preserved an enthusiasm and lightness of spirit, completely untouched by any social manner or forced bonhomie, and this he brings, not only to his relations with friends, but, remarkably enough, to the perception of art, where he is able to see a whole dimension that eludes scholars of either a more solemn or a more worldly bent.

In the autumn of 1959, Schapiro told me a story, which – I read the other day – has passed into history. One day in 1935 he went to the Museum of Modern Art to see the large retrospective of Fernand Léger. In one of the galleries he noticed another man, looking typically French, who examined the paintings with sufficient attentiveness for Schapiro to go up and offer him some of his own observations. For a while the two walked round together, talking and looking, until it dawned on Schapiro that the Frenchman, the man in the beret as it were, with whom he had been sharing his opinions, must be Léger himself. Léger then said: ‘You seem like a man who knows a lot about painting. Could you tell me what in your opinion is the single greatest work of art in New York and then we might go and look at it together.’ ‘I had no difficulty in answering his question,’ Schapiro told me. ‘I said the Beatus Apocalypse in the Morgan Library, and we then spent a morning looking at it.’ It was Schapiro’s view that the bands of colour that float free of the figures on some of its pages profoundly influenced Léger, and were the source of his couleur libre paintings of a few years later.

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