- 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.
The story over, I confessed my ignorance of the Beatus Apocalypse, and asked Schapiro what it was, and could we – meaning my wife, my young stepdaughter and myself – go with him to the Morgan Library, which was across the street from the apartment he had found for us, to look at the manuscript together? This we did and, for three hours or more, Schapiro’s attention was totally engrossed by the illuminated pages before him. It was an amazing example of concentration, and I could understand why his wife once said to me: ‘Do you find that you lose weight when you work hard? Meyer does.’ All the while Schapiro either commented on the mise-en-page, comparing one sheet with its neighbour, or pointed out to us small, but to his mind significant, details or irregularities of form, or mark, or placement of colour. He interspersed these observations with light-hearted remarks intended, in the first instance, to amuse my stepdaughter. ‘What is the coiled snake saying? He’s saying, “Sorry, I’m all tied up at the moment.” ’ But these remarks, I suspected, either then or later, also had an ulterior purpose. They were addressed to the eye, and were designed to free it up, to allow it to recognise vivacity of imagination and freedom of invention, wherever they might surface.
There is some artificiality to the idea that one volume of Schapiro’s writings should be explicitly devoted to issues of the theory and philosophy of art, for everything that he has written, including the dense studies of Romanesque art based on a close perception of individual works, have a theoretical edge to them. When the great monastic churches of Santo Domingo de Silos and Moissac come alive under his pen, the more general issues of art are not ignored.
To say this is close to truism. It is rehearsed on the back of the book’s cover, where it is claimed that ‘Meyer Schapiro’s concern with theory at a time when art history was becoming unduly pragmatic [sic] has made him the model for younger generations.’ What is more striking in the present collection, however, is that the theory has been so developed or its presentation so oriented, that room is expressly allowed for these aspects of art most valued by Schapiro – spontaneity, lyricism, free energy and the personal, as expressed in touch and tone.
Let me start with the 1966 essay entitled ‘On Perfection, Coherence, and Unity of Form and Content’. On the face of it, this essay sets out to distinguish between various theories, all of which start from the old idea of the work of art as something unified in a special way so that no element can be subtracted from it without grave loss. First, a distinction is drawn between descriptive theories of unity and those which are prescriptive. Of the latter, Schapiro notes that, when the work is on anything except a very modest scale, they do not concur with our intuitions, for we freely admit that Homer, Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Tolstoy are full of inconsistencies, and do not allow this to worry us. Secondly, we can distinguish theories which identify unity with an overall impression or a gestalt of the work from those which make a claim about the organisation of every single constituent. Thirdly, there are theories that look for unity in the matching of form and content, and here we must distinguish between those which claim that there is, or should be, a real internal relationship between the two and those which get the required result a priori by subsuming form under an extended sense of content.
These and other distinctions are highly useful, and failure to recognise them can lead to the perpetuation of pointless disputes. In an age that tends to contrast theory with commonsense, it is salutary to realise that Schapiro gets where he does by the application of commonsense to old academic theorising. In the recent Meyer Schapiro number of the Oxford Art Journal, which has much to tell us, though it largely confines itself to his thinking before 1950, a revealing story is told. André Breton and Schapiro, who were friends during the war, used to disagree about the value of dialectical materialism, Breton pro, Schapiro anti, and it was decided to resolve the issue by debate. Each man chose a team, with an eye on victory. Schapiro’s team, which consisted of Ernest Nagel, the philosopher of science at Columbia, and A.J. Ayer, represented positivism de pur sang.
In addition to these painstaking analyses, the essay contains the suggestion that the most fruitful way of looking at any theory of unity is to regard it, not as making a claim about how works of art are or should be, but heuristically, or as advocating the adoption of a particular mental set with which, or through which, we should perceive them. Yet what Schapiro is most concerned to establish is the limitations of looking at art exclusively in this way, or the price that doing so exacts. Inevitably, it blunts our finer perceptions. It discourages us from scrutinising the work, part by part, aspect by aspect, and it has the likely consequence that small effects that go against the grain, or unexpected forms of organisation, or incongruities that betray the restless spirit of the artist, will elude us.
Schapiro’s famous essay on style, also included in this volume, is another call not to compromise our awareness of the richness or complexity of a work by bringing it under some larger, regulative concept. This time the regulative concept that threatens to engulf particularity is style. Once we start to think either of a given style as dominating the most minute detail of any work produced within it, or of the cycle of styles as preventing any work being produced outside them, we deny the possibility of spontaneity.
It is therefore a matter of considerable moment to Schapiro to be able to tell us that there is no compelling reason to adopt either of these imperialising views of style. Once again, victory lies with commonsense. It is not hard to see the natural affinity that Schapiro must have felt with the great systematising art-historians, polymaths like Wölfflin and Riegl, whose elaborate structures come, certainly, out of a love of intellectual complexity, but also from a genuine feel for the richness and variety of art. But Schapiro resists. He resists exaggeration, and demands that the full range of the evidence be attended to.
It would have been easy for Schapiro, and consonant with his deeply held social views, to have associated the presence of the spontaneous, the informal, the disruptive in art with the intervention of marginal or socially excluded groups. Certainly, in his own field of early medieval art, he found examples – in the sculpture at Souillac and Santo Domingo de Silos, and on the edges of illuminated manuscripts – that gave support to, and were in turn explained by, such a hypothesis. Indeed, Schapiro may be said to have pioneered the social interpretation of what he called ‘disco-ordination’ in early and medieval art. But generalisation from these cases struck him as unfounded. How about those works of art where conventional and advanced elements are found side by side and are indubitably the product of the same hand?
In another essay, which is surely among the fundamental writings of art history, ‘On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art: Field and Vehicle in Image-Signs’, a new twist is given to the issue of pluralism, and a broader form of explanation, within which social explanation is one possible variant, made available. The essay can be thought of as telling what Freud might have called a ‘Just-So Story’, since an issue of theory is engagingly disguised as a historical narrative.
In the beginning, our ancestors made figurative images of the animals they hunted. In doing so, they paid no attention to the surface on which the images were inscribed. Then they did, and, when they did, found uses for the ground, either representational or to enhance the image. But they paid no attention to the fact that, as surfaces do in nature, the ground had its bounds. Then they did, and, when they did, distinguished between the horizontal and vertical edges, and found distinctive uses for each, but they paid no attention to the fact that the ground with its edges could be looked at various ways up. Then they did, and, when they did, settled for one way as the right way up, and started to find uses for orientation. And so on. Step by step, and not without regression, intentional or accidental, a medium was developed out of the natural materials as each aspect was explicitly recognised, thematised and assigned a meaning.
If, in his highly abridged version, the story gives us a hopelessly idealised view of the course of art, its value should not be in doubt. For it shows how, at an indefinite number of points, conventional art in areas that have been recognised and unconventional art in areas that have not been recognised could exist side by side. It would then be a matter of the historian’s judgment what further factors, social or psychological, might be introduced to explain these discrepancies.
In the mid-Fifties, Schapiro came to London, where he gave two talks, both of which attracted considerable attention, and had, in their different ways, an enduring influence. One was at the Slade, and was the first systematic exposition given in England of the aims and achievements of the New York School. It would be interesting to have a checklist of those who heard it.
The other talk was at the Warburg, which was still housed in the dark splendour of the now demolished Imperial Institute, and was a highly detailed evaluation of Freud’s essay on Leonardo. As I remember it, the most arresting aspect of the talk for the audience was the respect and careful attention it gave, and regarded as due, to Freud’s ideas. Schapiro insisted at the time – his disclaimer is included in the text published in the present volume – that, whatever he found to say about Freud’s reconstruction of Leonardo’s personality, none of it implied criticism of psychoanalytic theory itself, which, in the present case, had been faultily applied. Arguably, over the decades, Schapiro’s tone has sharpened.
The donnèe of Freud’s essay is Leonardo’s attenuated homosexuality, which the essay proposes to explain, in line with the developmental theory that Freud had propounded, by reference to Leonardo’s identification with his mother. Because of this, Leonardo loved boys as she had loved him, and loved them more or less in the way she had loved him: chastely. As to the identification itself, what made this plausible was that Leonardo, having, as an illegitimate child, spent his earliest years alone in the bliss of his mother’s undivided love, found himself, around the age of three, transferred to the grander house of his recently married father: the identification was a defence against the threatened loss of the mother.
In explaining Leonardo’s homosexuality, the proposal had the added appeal of being able to explain, in conjunction with further factors, other and seemingly diverse aspects of Leonardo’s life. It could explain – I shall omit what the further factors would be – Leonardo’s interest in scientific research, his carelessness and tendency to leave work unfinished, his preference for the depiction of women and young boys, his comparative sexlessness, and, supremely, how, in the wake of a chance encounter with a woman who had his mother’s smile, a sudden eruption of creative energy led him to compose large works depicting the intimacy of two women, both mothers, of more or less the same age.
Many of the facts that Freud seemingly relied on are disputed by Schapiro, and what he has to say about two things – the actual course of Leonardo’s childhood and contemporary modes of representing St Anne and the Virgin – appear particularly damaging. There is evidence to suggest that Leonardo was brought up from the beginning in his father’s house, and the cult of St Anne had already given rise to the Anna Matterza icon, which showed the infant Christ with his mother and grandmother – one variant of it representing the two of them as coeval.
There are ways of interpreting Freud’s essay that might make these errors of fact less significant, however. Might it not be that he intended his essay, not to establish an explanation of Leonardo, but, rather like the case-histories, to illustrate a psycho-developmental hypothesis by means of an example that had (or so Freud thought) the charm of plausibility? And might it not be that all that Freud had really to establish as far as Leonardo’s depictions of the Holy Family are concerned is not that Leonardo devised the image, but that he put it to singularly poignant use? In connection with this last point, Schapiro, who finds something ‘rigid and artificial’ in the Louvre St Anne, makes the powerful observation that psychoanalytical explanations cannot be altogether separated from judgments of quality.
A more complex issue is whether it is as fatal as Schapiro thinks to Freud’s reconstruction that he mistranslated the famous screen-memory that Leonardo transcribed in his Notebooks. For the large bird that is supposed to have flown down and put its tail in the infant Leonardo’s mouth, was not, as Freud thought, a vulture, a bird extolled in myth, but a kite. Schapiro claims that Freud used the screen-memory as crucial evidence for the nature of Leonardo’s relations with his mother, so that without it the essay falls to bits, and that is why Freud could never have admitted to his error. Apart from the issue of whether Freud’s intentions in the essay were probative, I am not altogether convinced that he did assign such an important evidential role to the recollection. Though, it must be conceded, it was found important enough to worm its way into the title of Freud’s essay.
However we reckon these particular issues, Schapiro’s discussion of the interconnections between historical and psychoanalytical interpretation remains a natural starting-point for any serious consideration of applied psychoanalysis.
If we are to grasp the full measure of what Schapiro has to tell us, yet another persona must be added to those I have attributed to him. He is a witness to the greatness of art. He believes in the supreme value of the arts, which he associates with the idea of freedom. He respects the importance of the humble, but he is not afraid to celebrate the genius of the great. He recognises the diversity of the ages, but sees them as so many phases of a continuous human endeavour. Like Aeneas in the underworld, he salutes the past, and the present, and those yet to be, as parts of the same historical succession. And all this he proclaims, not nervously, not with qualification, but in rhapsodic tones. Schapiro is – I have put the things he sets store by in this way, rising to a climax, for there is no chance that the term will not seem forced or exaggerated – a bard. There is a bardic intensity to his glorification of art in the system of human life, and to his insistence on its continuing values, which does not require him to make out that the early Christian mosaicists were abstract artists, or that Rembrandt was not interested in the human face, or that Rothko worked hard on his portraits.
Writing of Diderot in 1964, Schapiro came close to a confession of his own faith when he said of his subject that he
is so intensely concerned with artists not simply because he loves their paintings or sculptures. The artist is for him an example par excellence of the free man. As a producer he works from inner necessity; art is his life and in this work he appears as his own master, creating from impulse but guided by an ideal of truth, and correcting himself for the perfection of the result and not from fear of others. What Diderot says about the artist’s freedom can be applied to the freedom of the citizen, which is a condition of the latter’s dignity. In his warmth and spontaneity the artist is a model of the natural, productive, self-fulfilling man. Feeling and thought are equally active in him and joined to a truly social nature. Through this freedom and full individuality he serves others, including a future mankind
That is not the staple teaching of art history, but it is the belief that has animated the lifework of a great scholar, born in 1904.