A Magical Critic

Form and Meaning: Essays on the Renaissance and Modern Art

by Robert Klein, translated by Madeline Jay and Leon Wieseltier, with a foreword by Henri Zerner
Viking, 263 pp., $19.95

Robert Klein was a Rumanian Jew, born in 1918. As was to be expected from this time and place of birth, his life was not an easy one. Before the out-break of the Second World War he studied philosophy in Prague, science in Bucharest. After the outbreak he first did military service, then compulsory labor for Jews; after the liberation of Rumania, he engaged as a volunteer in the war in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In 1947 he won a French government scholarship to study in Paris which was afterward withdrawn. From 1948 to 1962 he supported himself in Paris by odd jobs, which included dish-washing, while working for a diploma in aesthetics with a thesis on Giordano Bruno. He was employed as secretary and research assistant by Augustin Renaudet and Marcel Bataillon. In 1962 he became attached to the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and worked with André Chastel on various projects. He was professor of history of art at the University of Montreal for the academic year 1965-1966.

In 1966 he went to Florence as fellow of Harvard’s Berenson foundation at the Villa I Tatti. His many brilliant published essays and reviews had aroused interest in his work and he seemed set for a successful career as an art historian. His attractive personality had won him many friends who were overwhelmed with dismay at the news of his suicide in April 1967.

A collection of his writings was published in 1970 with the title La Forme et l’intelligible. The French volume was itself a selection from the mass of Klein’s essays. Form and Meaning is an English translation of a selection from the French volume, which should still be consulted for the omitted material, particularly the concluding essay on ethics which has dropped off in the English volume.

Klein was above all a Renaissance scholar, though with continuations into the modern period. His field is not easy to define, art historian, historian of culture, he was both of these. Among the subjects studied in this book are Renaissance perspective, utopia and utopian planning, Lomazzo and mannerist art theory, the impresa. The title of the book, which is that of one of the longest essays, suggests that a leading theme is Form and Meaning, applied mainly to the form of a work of art and its meaning. The essay on iconography, based on Panofsky’s work, is obviously concerned with this problem. The concluding essays on modern art contrast this with Renaissance theory and practice.

As reviewer of this book, I am in something of a quandary. Among the most important essays in the book are those on perspective, which are well known to specialists. About these I am not qualified to speak and so shall refrain from discussion, beyond indicating that Klein’s perspective studies are now available in English in this volume. About modern art, I know nothing; on this topic, too, I shall wisely refrain from ignorant prattle. But some of Klein’s interests do cross with mine,…

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