Words and Pictures: On the literal and the symbolic in the illustration of a text
Meyer Schapiro, who could plausibly claim to be the most interesting art historian today, has not yet written a book. This is part of the legend that surrounds him, as well as one of the reasons why he is still a controversial figure. It is not, however, strictly true. In 1964 he published a short monograph on a Romanesque manuscript, The Parma Idelfonso, but excellent as they are and influential as they have been, these last are essentially long essays with notes to the plates. The new little volume under review will not change the situation: for many people, especially envious colleagues, Schapiro will still be the famous art historian who never wrote a book.
Not that he is unproductive. A man of bewildering intelligence, with a formidable memory, the widest culture, and an inexhaustible curiosity, he has since the mid-1920s regularly written articles that range from the most technical subjects to the most general, from Greek art to current movies. His two principal fields of scholarship are astonishingly far apart: nineteenth-century French painting, and the early Middle Ages from Irish and Carolingian manuscripts to Romanesque sculpture; he has also contributed much to the criticism of modern art. His mind is basically a critical one; characteristically, many of his contributions are book reviews, sometimes harsh and devastating ones, but always illuminating the subject.
The underlying principle of his criticism, in this new book as in his other work, is that a single observation can always be interpreted in different ways. Only a variety of observations and arguments can prepare the way for a relatively definite conclusion about a work of art. For Schapiro all possible clues have to be followed up; he draws on a range of knowledge well beyond the usual equipment of art historians and uses it with all the sophistication of traditional philology. “I see that you know very little about the history of dirigibles,” he is supposed to have said, sadly but kindly, to a student who had guessed wrong the date of a painting where such a machine appeared.
Are these philological investigations only a game? Or do they bear upon our understanding of art? For some critics art should speak for itself without learned interference; like Malraux, they bring all works into a universal present. Others, more historically minded, claim that we can understand the art of the past only by a scholarly reconstruction of the original circumstances of its creation and the contemporary attitudes to it. They want to carry us back into the past. The first position may appear as a brutal manipulation of the work, an appropriation of it. It severs the work from the intentions of the artist and from the conditions of its appearance, makes it available only for consumption. The second, however, is reactionary escapism. One recalls, for instance, the attitude of Dietrich von Bothmer at a particularly unfortunate moment during the controversy …