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Masterwoodworks

Limewood does not come, as I used to think before reading. Michael Baxandall’s admirable book, from some kind of citrus tree. The lime tree is a linden tree and it is the broad-leaved lime (Tilia platyphyllos)—as opposed to the small-leaved variety (Tilia cordata)—that provided the basic material for sculpture in the region that runs south from central Germany all the way to the Tyrol, roughly from Frankfurt to Bolzano. There it was used especially for a type of large-winged altarpiece, most intensively in the years 1475-1525, roughly the span of Dürer’s life; indeed, one of the first illustrations in Baxandall’s book is a beautiful Dürer water-color of three lime trees. In other regions wood sculptors normally used oak or walnut, and occasionally other hardwoods, but limewood sculpture is an unusual and rather special medium. The title of Baxandall’s book may appear modestly and misleadingly to examine a very narrow subject, while, in fact, what he treats is much the most important part of Renaissance sculpture in Germany.

The work of the German limewood sculptors is impressive, indeed spectacular. If the names of even the most prominent of these artists, Tilman Riemenschneider and Veit Stoss, are not widely known, they are nevertheless very great sculptors. But most of the major works are still in German churches and museums and because of their fragility they cannot travel to the large exhibitions which are so important in forming taste today. Baxandall’s book, beautifully produced and with numerous and excellent plates, makes it possible to form an idea of these insufficiently known masterpieces.

A typical work is the High Altar of Blaubeuren, near Ulm, executed around 1493. (See page 55; a detail appears on this page.) It is about thirty-six feet high: the central part or “corpus” presents the Virgin and Child and four saints, all life-size or just over, standing on little pedestals and sheltered under canopies with a rich and flamboyant late gothic ornamentation. The wings—Flügeln—that close the altar carry reliefs of the Nativity and Adoration of the Magi, while above are busts of the abbot who commissioned the altar and of the ruling lord Graf Eberhard im Bart of Würtenberg. Below the corpus are Christ and the Apostles, placed just behind the altar table as if performing the last supper. At the top, held by an elegant tracery, Christ is represented as the man of sorrows with St. John and the Virgin. The reverse of the wings carry paintings, as do a pair of outer wings that close the altar altogether.

All the sculpture is coated with gesso and painted, along with a generous addition of gilt. The wide cheekbones and sharply accentuated features of the main figures are vivid and strikingly German. The rich play of draperies is not unrelated to the body underneath, but it is treated with an expressive and ornamental independence unthinkable in the contemporary Italian world of Verrocchio and the young Michelangelo. The large statues relate to one another in a subtle and elaborate counterpoint of slight sinuosity quite distinct from Italian contrapposto.

The sense of line and texture, the use of the play of light as structural element mark this sculpture as German, quite different from the sense of volume and feeling for the anatomy of the human body that one finds in Italy. An emphasis on craft, on virtuosity in carving, also emerges very clearly from Baxandall’s discussion as a major feature that distinguishes these sculptures from the more abstract tradition of Italy. Baxandall has not only analyzed the craftsman’s mentality but also his methods:

The Riemenschneider hair offers half-a-dozen coiffures for males, two or three straightforward cutting operations being variously combined: one could count in his oeuvre many hundreds of knobs of wood grooved more or less spirally with skew firmer, drilled with a hole in the middle, and presented as a curl on head or beard.

Even the “unremitting but indeterminate” pathos in Riemenschneider’s work Baxandall finds something of a trick, if a great one.

Most historians of art are primarily concerned to ascribe particular works to specific artists, and to show where the works fit in the career of the artist. Not Baxandall. In matters of connoisseurship, he is ostensibly, not to say ostentatiously, modest. He writes, “In the few cases where I have not been able to suppress a heterodox opinion of my own (in the way of attribution) I have marked it as distinct: the recurrent phrase ‘in my view’ is therefore self-deprecating in tone.”

It is clear, however, that he is intimately acquainted with the literature and the problems involved in attribution and has his own distinctive ideas about them. Indeed the “Notes on Plates and Sculptors” constitute an excellent summary of previous scholarship. It is not simply his own ability and judgment that Baxandall distrusts, but the enterprise of attribution itself. The Blaubeuren High Altarpiece I described above was once attributed to Jorg Syrlin the Younger, and then to either Michel or Gregor Erhart. Baxandall comments, “On the whole, the case for Michel (see notably Paatz) is preferred here to that for Gregor (notably Otto), but the terms of the argument are unreal.”

What interests Baxandall is to relate the particular character of his sculpture to the conditions surrounding its production, what he calls its “circumstances.” He assumes that art depends on such circumstances, and even that works of art tell us something irreplaceable about the historical situation in which they appeared. This is hardly a new idea, but Michael Baxandall brings to his project a subtle intelligence, a competence in art history as well as cultural history, a scholarly tact that are most unusual.

After a brief introduction in which he limits and defines his inquiry and presents his cast of two dozen artists, roughly divided into three generations, Baxandall examines the material and tools they worked with. He brilliantly shows how the artists took the particular character of limewood into consideration and how the large forms of the statuary reflect this concern. We move in a convincing way from the cellular structure of the tree to the peculiarities of the statues that derive from the qualities of the wood, such as the inclination of the Virgin’s head or the long roughly vertical folds of drapery. (The deep incisions of vertical folds lessened the chances of the wood splitting, while a horizontal fold was more vulnerable.) The even and tractable texture of the wood was suited both to virtuoso carving and to the sensitive handling of surface texture, especially after the gessoed and polychromed sculpture was replaced by Riemenschneider with works on which the wood itself is apparent under a coat of varnish.

Baxandall not only points out the consequences of the wood for the appearance of the sculpture, but convinces us that this corresponds to a particular awareness of limewood at the time. Although locally grown, limewood was expensive; and there was, moreover, a special respect for this wood, probably reinforced by superstitious beliefs attached to it. Baxandall appeals to Paracelsus, the sixteenth-century Swiss doctor and alchemist, for the notion of ‘chiromancy” which the Renaissance scholar extended from the reading of the lines of the hand to the interpretation of exterior signs in general in order to understand the nature of things. This may at first seem farfetched and we may feel that all too much has been made of Paracelsus, especially since Michel Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses. Baxandall himself realizes the danger of taking this somewhat obscure figure as representative of thinking at the time. But when we read in Paracelsus that “people who work wood, carpenters, joiners and such, have to understand their wood by chiromancy of it, what it is apt and good for,” the quotation is too eloquent to be brushed aside.

Baxandall examines the growing feeling throughout the Reformation that religious images, devotional images especially, were idolatrous and sinful. He shows that the iconoclastic movement, which put an end to the Florid style of sculpture, as he calls it, did not destroy as many works as one might have expected. One unanticipated result of this movement was to stimulate the development of secular sculpture, especially public fountains and erotic cabinet pieces. The religious sculpture, as Baxandall’s analysis points out with great originality, had already in fact provided some of the same satisfaction as the secular genres.

Baxandall only concerns himself with the best sculpture of the time and pays no attention to the innumerable mediocre altarpieces that filled the churches during the period. This choice is not merely a matter of aesthetic preference but corresponds to Baxandall’s focus on advanced sections of society and on what is distinctive and original about Renaissance Germany. He shows that the economic conditions in which these exceptional carvings were made were by no means those in which ordinary sculptures were produced. They were not the work of ordinary craftsmen but of virtuoso specialists working for a very small but powerful minority of merchants and patricians. These sculptors managed to beat the system of the traditional medieval guilds by modeling their commercial strategies on those of their patrons.

The guild existed to protect its members from competition and secure work for all of them as equitably as possible; but in order to do so, it limited their individual freedom of action, regulating the kind of work they could or could not take on, how many apprentices they were allowed to hire, and so forth. The great limewood sculptors, while retaining their membership in a guild, managed to create monopolies. As Baxandall writes, “The system of the guilds could not contain the outstanding men this book is about, and instead they turned from oligopoly to monopoly of one form or another: they are the Fuggers of art and realize in their carving the new economic Europe.”

By monopoly, Baxandall means “no more than the position of sole or dominant seller of a commodity,” and he astutely argues that a highly individual and prestigious style is one way of cornering a market. The limewood sculptors also practiced the “classic integration monopoly” by creating large workshops and subcontracting the parts of the work which did not fall within their own competence, like the joining of the framework or the painting. Baxandall gives a vivid account of their fights both with the guilds and with certain autocratic patrons, who preferred to keep control by contracting directly for the different stages of production.

The strong assertion of individuality that we sense in the limewood sculptors’ work is not simply something we impose on it from our sense of modern art; it was a conscious issue at the time. This point emerges clearly in an attempt by some sculptors of Strasburg to introduce a new condition for being admitted into the guild as a master: the creation of a figure without a pattern or model, that is, a work of the craftsman’s own invention. In other words, they wished to enforce originality rather than mere technical competence as a standard. This proposal provoked opposition and controversy. Baxandall also advances less direct but nevertheless explicit evidence for the notions of personal style and originality in the theories evolved at the time, or shortly before, by the Meistersingers, the poet-musicians like Hans Sachs who were made famous by Wagner.

Still, if individuality was a value of the time and was cultivated to an unprecedented degree, there were also other more general qualities that emerged partly in opposition to it. Baxandall has found that Welsch and Deutsch were terms to designate distinct styles. Welsch applied to the French and Italian people and here it must refer to the Italianate (rather than Italian) style of the German Renaissance of which the Fuggers chapel in Augsburg is a striking example. The Deutsch or German style must have been felt as the more traditional and indigenous art; and behind this aesthetic polarity we sense an arising national consciousness. Ulrich von Hutten, whose distaste for the Fugger chapel is quoted by Baxandall, gave it vehement expression. It is significant, however, that in the text where Baxandall found the two words as stylistic terms is a verse spoken by a sculptor who brags of practicing both manners with equal skill. The distinction, therefore, is more important than any individual artist’s preference for one or the other style.

Baxandall looks for a vocabulary of the time which could better account for German sculpture than the traditional terminology of art criticism which was elaborated to fit Italian art. (His brilliant first book Giotto and the Orators examined precisely how this vocabulary came about during the early Renaissance and how the concepts it articulated have helped to shape visual experience.) Rather unexpectedly, Baxandall finds his main source in the writings of the progressive school-masters of the period called “Modists,” who concentrated on handwriting as an elaborate skill (hence the word modist from the various “modes” of writing). They had a taste for an ornate linearity still reflected in the modern “gothic” type face of Germany. Baxandall shows that the terms they used to describe the complex shapes of their scripts seem surprisingly appropriate for the analysis of the sculptures.

Here Baxandall is all the stronger for his prudence. “It would not be sensible to transfer such a system of analysis to the forms of sculpture, but it offers insight into a peculiar sensibility, alien to us, rich in categories of visual interest, and balanced toward an exaggerated attention to line.” He wants not so much to borrow a terminology as to understand a frame of mind, and in the end we are, I think, prepared to accept the idea that the modist discourse reveals something active in the artistic process of the time, something that “seems a constructive element in the High German perception of pattern.” Appeals to the poetic theory of the Meistersingers, to treatises on fencing and dance, and less surprisingly to the writings of Dürer, reinforce and enrich Baxandall’s reconstruction of what we might call a distinct “visual mentality.”

Baxandall’s book ends with a detailed discussion of four pieces by four different sculptors: Michel Erhart of Ulm, Tilman Riemenschneider of Würzburg, Veit Stoss of Nuremberg, and Hans Leinberger of Landshut. These close analyses are presented as a corrective to the generalizations of the rest of the book; the critical terms discussed before are constantly brought back in order both to demonstrate how they apply to particulars and at the same time to show where they do not account for them. Baxandall displays here a disconcerting virtuosity almost worthy of the sculptors themselves, both in his extraordinary control of the critical language and his heroic effort to sacrifice neither objective description nor subjective perception. In his discussion, one is always made aware that the work of art, whatever the “intention” of the artist and the weight of “circumstances,” is also perceived by a spectator who brings his own “circumstances” and his own motivations.

With all his interest in the psychology of the period and his taste for historical reconstruction, Baxandall thus respects our own contemporary experience as crucial for any understanding of past art. He shows, for instance, with great powers of evocation how Riemenschneider’s Last Supper changes as the hours of the day go by, how the curiously central figure of Judas, absorbed by shadows in the morning, comes to life as the sun gets behind the altar, lights his face, and makes him the hero of the scene. One may be somewhat skeptical about the extent to which Riemenschneider may have consciously planned his work according to changes of light; but we never doubt the genuine quality of Baxandall’s perceptions as he describes the unfolding of this visual drama.

This respect for our own experience of art does not weaken but actually strengthens Baxandall’s sense of history. His book is among the most sophisticated attempts that have been made to treat art as a part of culture—much less sweeping and mechanical, for example, than Panofsky’s famous essay relating gothic architecture and scholasticism, and consequently much more convincing. It will, deservedly, become a model for art history.

Still, one may have a few reservations. Baxandall insists on arguing by example only, and his distaste for theory keeps him from a fuller discussion of his own method, specifically of the way he relates art to the social and cultural life of the period. Such a discussion would have dispelled an occasional indecision, or even timidity that one senses in this otherwise exceptionally strong book.

Baxandall refuses any simple-minded, one-sided view of the relationship of art to society, the kind one finds almost caricatured in the “Marxist” art history of the German scholar Frederick Antal, to take a famous and celebrated example. There, isolated aspects of social and political life determine the character of art in a direct and exclusive way. For instance, Antal’s understanding of Jacques-Louis David’s stylistic development—and a very superficial understanding it is—reflects directly Antal’s naïvely simplified view of David’s politics during and after the French Revolution.

That Baxandall should wish to dissociate himself from such crudeness is more than understandable. His own sophisticated scheme for integrating art and social life has to be extracted from his case studies. He is, however, so fearful of being, or appearing to be, doctrinaire that he sometimes undermines his own accomplishment. One of the most brilliant and subtle parts of the book, for instance, is the detailed treatment of Riemenschneider. While traditional interpretations place the sculptor in the mainstream of the Reformation, Baxandall shows that the artist’s emotionalism and narrative imagery can be better understood as catering to a middle-of-the-road clientele trying to keep a balance between the Catholic aristocracy and subversive reformers. Riemenschneider’s preference for a monochrome wood over the traditional polychromy is understood as part of an attempt to save religious images from the suspicion of idolatry. Still, as if afraid of being too convincing, Baxandall writes:

There is a symmetry between his [Riemenschneider’s] problem and his solution, between circumstances and performance, but they are not in an isomorphic relation in the sense of piecemeal correspondence between this particular circumstance and that particular device, between feared idolatrous impulses and monochromy, and so forth: and to the extent that it may have implied that it was, this account has been false.

Does Baxandall mean simply to reject exclusive one-to-one explanations, to claim that an artistic device fulfills more than one function and that Riemenschneider’s monochromy, for instance, is not only a response to the fear of idolatry? If so, he could have said so more clearly. Or does he mean that monochromy is not really a response to the fear of idolatry? This would compromise his entire book. I suspect that Baxandall, who is here uncharacteristically evasive, may not strictly hold to either view and may only be expressing an uneasiness he does not put to rest. The relation between monochromy and fears of being accused of idolatry is a real and important one for understanding Riemenschneider’s use of this artistic device. Yet it is not necessarily a dominant concern when it comes to understanding a particular work, where the integration of monochromy in an aesthetic whole would be of greater immediate importance. We might say, roughly, that the relation of monochromy to idolatry is necessary to understand Riemenschneider’s style rather than to appreciate single works. Instead of clarifying the issue, Baxandall seems to suggest that we should not take his analysis too seriously because it only gives the illusion of working.

It is disturbing that in concentrating on the limewood sculptures Baxandall leaves out the surrounding art of the period. He writes: “It is fair to say that I have isolated the Florid episode of limewood sculpture not just from adjacent periods and regions but from the other visual arts—painting and engraving, goldsmith’s work, and of course sculpture in other media—more sharply than some scholars would find acceptable. But it is the Florid limewood sculpture I like much the most, and I decided to ride my taste.” This decision seems not only arbitrary, but rather perverse in view of the fact that the altarpieces themselves often have paintings—sometimes by prominent painters, like Bernard Strigl—and that one of the creators of the style, Michael Pacher, was as much a painter as a sculptor. The neglect of the ornamental framework of these imposing complex constructions is equally disappointing. Surely Baxandall’s disregard of the artistic environment obliterates “circumstances” of the sculpture.

Baxandall’s decision seems less puzzling, although in my opinion unfortunate, if one understands it as a way of separating art from the rest of culture of the period in order to distinguish them clearly. This distinction allows him to use art as a document that registers a state of society, “to look through the sculpture into early Renaissance Germany.” Baxandall divorces this documentary use of art from its appreciation and understanding. This is implied when Baxandall writes in his preface: “The suggestion is not that one must know about Renaissance Germany to enjoy the sculpture, but that the sculpture can offer a fresh focus on the cultural history of Renaissance Germany.” This sharp division between art as historical evidence and art as aesthetic experience suggests a traditional view in which aesthetic experience transcends other cultural phenomena and is apart from everything else—the view most strongly asserted by the great Italian aesthetician Benedetto Croce.

But when Baxandall examines how the altarpieces function as a complex means of religious as well as social communication, or when he deciphers the social and economic behavior of the artists as it is inscribed in their works, his attitude seems very different. Here, art is understood as part of culture and not simply as related to it. We feel that we are dealing with the actual significance of the works of art, that we are not simply looking “through” the sculpture but that we are looking at it in history, and that we understand and appreciate it better in so doing. Baxandall does not confront the differences between these two distinct and to some extent incompatible approaches.

The price paid by Baxandall for his radical pragmatism is that he is unjust to his own thought. This does not mean that we should be too. For there is in fact a powerful integrating element in Baxandall’s analysis. Among the circumstances he examines, and not the least of them, we find the “mental categories,” the articulation of visual procedures, the conventions, and, one is even tempted to say, the “language” of sculpture.

This concern with the methods by which art conveys its meaning is not new with Baxandall. His earlier book Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Florence examined how art exploited conventions and mental habits found in the daily life of the time: conventional gestures of social behavior, practical mathematics to compute the capacity of containers and vessels, etc. This book was somewhat crude, but it established concrete connections between art and the cultural conditions that surround it. In the new work, Baxandall’s concern for ways of communicating meaning is all the more effective for being more nuanced and integrated in a complex view of art (as in the example I gave earlier of how the discourses of the modists help reveal the procedures of the limewood sculptors). This central preoccupation allows him to establish actual relations where most culturally minded art historians content themselves with suggestive but undemonstrable relationships between the appearance of art and the other aspects of culture, or even with mere juxtaposition.

This interest in the “language” of art brings Baxandall close to many writers who try to overcome the staleness of traditional art history by borrowing from the intellectual equipment of linguistic analysis and so-called “structuralism.” Baxandall’s appeal to Paracelsus’s semiology may seem like an unnecessary effort to legitimize this attitude or even to hide it under the appearance of a traditional historicism. (Of course, the modern trend sometimes goes back to very old ideals.) But Baxandall is closer to contemporary semiology than to the magic of Paracelsus, closer than he himself appears to believe. He pretends to have written a narrow and old-fashioned book, which is, in fact, wide-ranging and brilliantly modern.

Letters

Marx in Art April 30, 1981

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