In the decades between 1930 and 1980, when New York replaced Paris as the center of modern art and art history expanded into a successful and fashionable discipline. Meyer Schapiro was the only art historian who had the strength and independence to do original work both inside and outside the academy. He was equally at home in the manuscript room of the Morgan Library, in the Museum of Modern Art, and in the ateliers of artists. He wrote with the same verve and acuteness on “The Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art” as on “The Nature of Abstract Art.” As an intellectual and a scholar, he is unique among the great art historians of his time.
Schapiro always resisted writing an exhaustive book on a single topic. Changing subjects and perspectives with restless curiosity, he made his observations and developed his arguments in a great many widely scattered articles, introductions, and reviews, which were not always easy to find. In 1977 Braziller re-published Schapiro’s classic papers on Romanesque art, most of which he had written in the Thirties, beginning in 1931 with his doctoral dissertation on the sculptures of the French abbey of Moissac. In 1979 the same publisher brought out two more volumes of selected papers by Schapiro: one collecting his articles on late antique, early Christian, and medieval art, the other containing most of his contributions on modern art. In 1994, the year of Schapiro’s ninetieth birthday, a fourth volume has appeared, which brings together the more theoretical writings of the distinguished former professor of art history at Columbia University.
A considerable corpus of Schapiro’s writings is therefore now widely available. Even after decades, during which our ideas about medieval and modern art have changed, Schapiro’s studies remain astonishingly fresh, although the results and conclusions they propose may sometimes look outdated. The battles he fought are over, but the intellectual energy and critical honesty of his writings are undiminished by time.
The four volumes of selected papers not only demonstrate the remarkable range of Schapiro’s learning, they also recall the intellectual turmoil, fights, and disillusions of an impassioned and difficult period in art and art history. In the ideological struggles of the Thirties, Schapiro, together with Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, was one of the “New York Intellectuals,” who were men of the left but who opposed Stalinism and made a case for modernism in art and architecture.1 Schapiro’s position in the debates over these questions was a complex yet flexible one. Some of his papers reflect his Marxist partisanship in the 1930s, and for this reason are especially vigorous in their arguments. Yet he was never sectarian and he never sacrificed his belief in the autonomy of art over the dictates of any ideology, including Marxism. In a lecture at the New School for Social Research in 1936 he insisted: “When we speak of the social basis of art we do not mean to reduce art to economics or sociology or politics. Art has its own activities which distinguish it from other activities.”2 Schapiro always maintained his personal independence and never betrayed his rare sensitivity as an art historian, regardless of his political convictions. Many of his writings, in fact, gain their particular strength from the tension between his ideological and his aesthetic perspectives.
The publishers have arranged the articles by period and subject, which was the only reasonable decision they could make. It may, however, be interesting to follow their sequence in the order in which they were written and to observe the wanderings and detours of Schapiro’s intellectual and scholarly itinerary. For since the end of the Twenties, Schapiro has been one of the most lively and inspiring voices in art history; but he has never been representative of any of the schools, trends, and methods that shaped, dominated, and limited the discipline. He was primarily neither a connoisseur nor an addicted iconologist. He concentrated neither on the social history of art nor on the psychoanalytical understanding of the creative process, perception, or semiotics. With an astonishing mastery of detail he explored all of these approaches but none of them exclusively.
Schapiro’s 1966 paper, “On Perfection, Coherence, and Unity of Form and Content,” where he questions the extent to which those qualities of art works could be “regarded as conditions of beauty,” demonstrates his characteristic independence. When it was published, art history was still widely under the influence of Erwin Panofsky, who believed that the task of the art historian was to establish the meaning of the work of art. Panofsky regarded works of art as unified wholes, and interpreted them as coherent cultural symbols and visual expressions of the artist’s world view. Schapiro, in opposition to the prevailing academic approach to art, pointed out that perfection, coherence, and unity of form and content may be lacking in great works while present in lesser ones. “Coherence, for example, may be found in many works that fail to move us, and a supreme work may contain incoherences,” he writes.
Even where a single great artist has been responsible for a work, one can detect inconsistencies brought about by a new conception introduced in the course of work. So in the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo has changed the scale of the figures in mid-passage. One can recall other great works of literature, painting, and architecture that are incomplete or inconsistent in some respects. And one might entertain the thought that in the greatest works of all such incompleteness and inconsistency are evidences of the living process of the most serious and daring art which is rarely realized fully according to a fixed plan, but undergoes the contingencies of a prolonged effort. Perfection, completeness, strict consistency are more likely in small works than in large.
He describes the cathedral of Chartres as an example of artistic greatness in spite of its unfinished state and its stylistic inconsistency:
If the Parthenon holds up artistically in its ruined state through the grandeur of its qualities in all that remains of the original, in Chartres we accept a whole in which very different conceptions of form have been juxtaposed. The two west towers, begun by two architects of the twelfth century, were completed at different times, one of them in the late Gothic period in a style that is opposed in principle to the rest of the façade.
But Schapiro’s principal difference from Panofsky lay in his stress on the limitations of “our perception of such complex wholes as works of art.” He pointed out that rather than seeing a work of art as a unified whole, we frequently focus on only a few selected aspects of it and view it in the light of past experience. Qualities such as the perfection and coherence of the whole thus appear to us not as an immediate certitude but as a hypothetical judgment, which each viewer modifies through fresh observations and new interpretations. For Schapiro, critical seeing is not a single, quasi-mystical perception of the work of art but a gradual and indeed collective process.
To see the work as it is one must be able to shift one’s attitude in passing from part to part, from one aspect to another, and to enrich the whole progressively in successive perceptions.
I have argued that we do not see all of a work when we see it as a whole. We strive to see it as completely as possible and in a unifying way, though seeing is selective and limited. Critical seeing, aware of the incompleteness of perception, is explorative and dwells on details as well as on the large aspects that we call the whole. It takes into account others’ seeing; it is a collective and cooperative seeing and welcomes comparison of different perceptions and judgments.
During his long career, Schapiro has written about the most diverse subjects and periods, from early Christian art to Abstract Expressionism. But with the exception of one article on Freud and Leonardo and passing references such as the one to Michelangelo, he has never written about the Renaissance. It may be symptomatic that he avoided its ideal of harmony. Schapiro was always more interested in the tensions between form and expression, high art and popular art, the patron and the independent artist. He never tired of asking how such conflicts and contradictions affected the objects he studied. Schapiro was the only major art historian who used his knowledge of Marxism to try to identify social tensions and feelings of alienation as forces that shaped styles and forms that may seem to us both expressive and incoherent. This unique achievement sets him apart from more superficial Marxists such as Arnold Hauser and Frederick Antal, who did little more than embellish conventional art history with ideas and concepts taken over from sociology or economics.
Schapiro first became known in the academic world shortly after 1930 through his studies on Romanesque sculpture. The subject had been fashionable in North America since the end of World War I. Romanesque capitals and figures appeared in American collections, and the vast publications of the indefatigable Arthur Kingsley-Porter had provoked a romantic enthusiasm for the bizarre and emotional aspects of this strange religious art from the distant medieval past. But Schapiro’s approach in studying the sculpture of Moissac, Souillac, and Silos had nothing in common with fashionable sentimentalism. He went into the Romanesque cloister armed with his own twentieth-century experience: he was not only accustomed to the complex stylizations of modernism but also had a keen eye for popular imagery and, as he had written in 1929, for the “less sophisticated contemporary arts whatever their motivation or value.”
At Moissac he discovered a religious art that, far from displaying an orderly, homogeneous use of “generalized forms and abstract geometrical combinations,” was full of conflicts between archaic primitivism and increasing realism, between rigorous coordination and restless tension. His meticulous descriptions of sculpted figures, such as “a leering old woman, with open, toothless mouth, stringy neck muscles and flying, disarranged hair,” led him to the observation that “the process of abstraction in Romanesque art includes an audacious distortion of ideal and symbolic figures for expressive ends.” The fantastic variations of the sculptures of Moissac go so far beyond the iconographic demands of the project that Schapiro declared emphatically:
It is important to observe that at the very beginning of the modern tradition of sculpture there is already great freedom and divergence from a common method in the same project, and that the variations are not uniformly directed.
The profound mistrust of any sort of schematic order or blind authority in the arts and their interpretation can thus be observed from the very beginning of Schapiro’s career. Thirty years later his arguments defending Abstract Expressionism against the charge of mere automatism were nearly the same as those with which he had explained the orderly disorder of the capitals at Moissac.
Schapiro’s study of Romanesque art was by no means the only source of his ideas about expressive incoherence. In the sculpted images of Romanesque portals and cloisters, Schapiro saw the same conflicts, alienations, and antagonisms that he had already observed in his modern surroundings. In his paper “From Mozarabic to Romanesque in Silos” he wrote: “In treating a theme for the first time, the skilled Romanesque artist often invents ideographs and affective distortions like those of far more primitive artists and children.” In his article on “The Nature of Abstract Art,” which appeared in 1937 in Marxist Quarterly, he made a similar observation:
If today an abstract painter seems to draw like a child or a madman, it is not because he is childish or mad. He has come to value as qualities related to his own goals of imaginative freedom the passionless spontaneity and technical insouciance of the child, who creates for himself alone, without the pressure of adult responsibility and practical adjustments. And similarly, the resemblance to psychopathic art, which is only approximate and usually independant of a conscious imitation, rests on their common freedom of fantasy, uncontrolled by reference to an external physical and social world.
There are many other examples of such reciprocal illumination of modern and medieval art. In a review of the John Reed Club exhibition “The Social Viewpoint in Art,” published in 1933 in New Masses, Schapiro deplored its failure to include popular art:
For an exhibition could easily have been arranged with a carefully prepared series of pictures, illustrating phases of the daily struggle, and reenacting in a vivid, forceful manner the most important revolutionary situations. It could have included examples of cooperative work by artists,—series of prints, with a connected content, for cheap circulation; cartoons for newspapers and magazines; posters; banners; signs; illustrations of slogans; historical pictures of the revolutionary tradition of America. Such pictures have a clear value in the fight for freedom. They actually reach their intended audience, whereas the majority of easel paintings are stuck away in studios.
Always alert to the presence of popular elements whatever the period, he describes an eleventh-century Spanish manuscript containing images of the demons of hell as “a monastic work not issuing directly from the illustrations of the Latin theological texts, but affected by less institutionalized popular culture,” which reminds him “forcibly of folk art.”
But do such applications of the same criteria to a John Reed Club exhibition and to a medieval monastery merely confirm the platitude that even the sharpest art historian can’t avoid seeing old art with modern eyes? Perhaps, but Schapiro is never complacent enough to look on art—old or modern—in purely aesthetic terms. Art for him can be an active force in the continuing process of human repression and liberation. In “The Nature of Abstract Art” he writes:
In renouncing or drastically distorting natural shapes the abstract painter makes a judgment of the external world. He says that such and such aspects of experience are alien to art and to the higher realities of form; he disqualifies them from art.
Many aspects of modern art are thus “discovered experimentally by painters who seek freedom outside of nature and society and consciously negate the formal aspects of perception—like the connectedness of shape and color or the discontinuity of object and surroundings—that enter into the practical relations of man in nature.” In an article published two years later in 1939 on “The Sculptures of Souillac,” he wrote that “sculpture has begun to emerge as an independent spectacle on the margins of religious art, as a wonderful imaginative workmanship addressed to secular fantasy. But this fantasy is governed by the content and material levels of social experience.”
Since the days of the Romantics, medieval art had been a playground for atavistic fantasies. (One has only to think of Henry Adams.) Schapiro, by contrast, built up a fascinating interpretation of Romanesque sculpture as a precursor of modern art, emphasizing its freedom as well as its conflicts and incoherencies. It was a vision of haunting contemporary relevance. When in 1938 Schapiro, in the company of Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer, listened to a radio broadcast by Hitler, he drew a caricature of the screaming dictator which looked like a representation on a Romanesque capital.
In 1941, two years after his articles on Souillac and Silos, Schapiro published his famous paper “Courbet and Popular Imagery: An Essay on Realism and Naïveté.” The subject couldn’t have been further from Romanesque sculpture. Yet the qualities of primitiveness and naïveté that Schapiro found in Courbet’s realism were curiously similar to those that had fascinated him in the images decorating medieval monasteries. He dismissed the idea that Courbet’s “popular themes” were “merely tendentious and doctrinaire, the result of his friendship with Proudhon. This view,” he wrote, disregards “Courbet’s identification with the people and the precise content of his pictures.” One recognizes here the voice of the critic who had criticized the Reed Club exhibition for failing to include popular art. Courbet’s realistic portrayals of the lower classes were part of a widespread interest in the 1840s in popular imagery and folk themes, particularly among those who also were committed to the struggle for social justice. Yet the essay ends on a tone of resignation about the revolutionary possibilities of art. Schapiro finds a deep contradiction in a realism based on popular themes, as becomes clear from his discussion of the French writer Champfleury, one of Courbet’s great defenders.
In his book on popular images (1869), [Champfleury] recommends in the concluding chapters on the art of the future two opposed things: the preservation of popular imagery as a conservative didactic instrument, conciliation being the “supreme goal” of art, and the further development of realism by vast murals of modern industry in the railroad stations and public buildings. On the one hand, realism is the lyric of modern progress; on the other hand, the primitive art and the sentiments of the peasantry are the bearers of an eternal wisdom. Thus the movement, attacked for its positivism and materialism, also promoted the taste for primitive arts which were to serve later as an example in the repudiation of realism and the idea of progress.
As Champfleury became more and more conservative during the Second Empire, he became less interested in progress and increasingly looked to an idealized view of “the people” for social stability. “The eternal tasks of the peasant were recommended as a happy alternative to the inconstancies and revolutions of urban society.” For Schapiro, the example of Champfleury demonstrates how easily “folk images with their old conservative teachings” can be turned into “the most reliable instrument of social harmony.” Politically (if not in his painting), Courbet himself became more radical in the 1850s and 1860s, but Schapiro finds traces of Champfleury’s ambivalence toward the political events of the late 1840s in Courbet’s great painting of The Burial at Ornans. “Here,” he writes, “the history of man is like natural history and assumes a timeless and anonymous character…. Thus the consciousness of the community, awakened by the revolution of 1848, appears for the first time in a monumental painting, in all its richness of allusion, already retrospective and inert.” Since the mid-Thirties popular and public art have been much on Schapiro’s mind. In 1936 he had voiced his skepticism of the art program of the New Deal: “In their seemingly neutral glorification of work, progress and national history, these public murals are instruments of a class.”3 The article on “Courbet and Popular Imagery” echoes such doubts about the capacity of art to contribute directly to progressive social struggles.
During the Forties Schapiro expanded the range of his explorations in medieval art. Beneath the learned references and footnotes, the attentive reader can recognize the unfaltering convictions of the author’s combative mind. In 1943 he published an article on “The Image of the Disappearing Christ.” The paper is a masterpiece of iconographic investigation. English portrayals of the Ascension around the year 1000 developed a new variation on early Christian versions of the scene, in which “only the legs or feet of Christ were represented. the rest of the body disappearing in the cloud.” Schapiro links this image to empiricist and pragmatic tendencies that were already evident in England.
For what distinguishes it above all from other subjects which have been enriched or recast by new details drawn from the living world is the importance of the act of seeing as an objective moment of the story. The scene is conceived from the viewpoint of the apostles as eyewitnesses of the Ascension (“why stand ye gazing, men of Galilee?”); it is their real vision of the disappearing Christ which replaces the visionary and theological image of the triumphantly ascending Lord. Even Renaissance art rarely ventured to show Christ in this way, although it possessed to an immeasurably higher degree the power of rendering the perspective phenomenon of Christ’s disappearance.
Schapiro is surprised to discover that at this point in the Middle Ages, “the subjective, individual side of religious feeling should emerge in art in this daring realistic form,” and concludes: “It indicates the weight of the popular, the individual, the contemporary, the novel, and the local, as against the stabilized institutional forms.”
One finds a similar conclusion in his superb article from 1944, “The Religious Meaning of the Ruthwell Cross,” an imposing stone monument erected in Dumfriesshire on the English-Scottish border during the seventh century. In an essay of immense erudition he finds the key to the work in its prominent sculpture of Christ and the beasts in the desert, an extremely rare motif in medieval art. He writes that
this conception of Christ and the beasts, abandoned by the triumphant church of the fourth century…survived through the Middle Ages among the hermit monks and the independent religious spirits, like St. Francis, who were possessed by a more spontaneous and lyrical Christianity and took as their model the Christ of the desert or the open country and the streets.
What matters for Schapiro is never the scholarly result alone. He engages all his vast learning to suggest that in the history of art one can often discern a struggle for the liberty of sensual and human expression against norms and order.
This becomes movingly clear in Schapiro’s untiring defense of abstract art. He always resisted the prejudices of orthodox Marxists against what they considered the empty formalism of abstraction. He was painfully aware of abstract art’s remoteness from social life. But in its isolation he saw art’s only possibility of maintaining its sincerity and independence. In his 1952 article on the Armory Show of 1913, he described the disillusion of left-wing intellectuals during the 1940s and concluded:
Artists today who would welcome the chance to paint works of broad human content for a larger audience, works comparable in scope to those of antiquity or the Middle Ages, find no sustained opportunities for such an art; they have no alternative but to cultivate in their art the only or surest realms of freedom—the interior world of their fancies, sensations, and feelings, and the medium itself.
This tone of resignation is even more audible in his paper from 1957 on the Abstract Expressionists, in which Schapiro laments the declining importance of painting in society and the limited practical effects the painter may have on the world. But his conviction that even a socially marginalized art is vitally important for the freedom of expression remains deep.
Painting by its impressive example of inner freedom and inventiveness and by its fidelity to artistic goals, which include the mastery of the formless and accidental, helps to maintain the critical spirit, the ideals of creativeness, sincerity and self-reliance, which are indispensable to the life of our culture.
The papers selected from Schapiro’s writings for Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society, with two notable exceptions, date from the 1960s. In those years Schapiro was one of the mandarins of art history. His activities as a New York intellectual during the Thirties and Forties had made him into a heroic figure from a bygone past. But the cultural climate had changed. In the days of the flower children, the student movement, and Pop Art, Schapiro’s writings became withdrawn to a marked degree from the new contemporary scene. The essays occasionally even have a slight academic flavor. With the notable exception of a remarkable article from 1969 on semiotics, they contain no echo of the crises and changes of the Sixties. Naturally Schapiro remained the lively and vigorous thinker he had always been, and every line in these essays is full of intellectual tension. But he sums up, looks back, is more reflective than combative. His convictions remain the same, but the battles, hopes, and illusions of his early years are past. The intellectual has made his peace with his position as a brilliant outsider in art history.
The title of this volume, Theory and Philosophy of Art, is not quite apt. No doubt Schapiro has always been more acute in his thinking than most of his colleagues. Yet it soon becomes refreshingly clear that Schapiro never wanted to be just a theorist. His contributions usually begin with a single work of art, and with a specific artist’s struggle under concrete conditions in society and history, and on various occasions Schapiro has spoken out against art historians who limit themselves to theories of art. As early as 1936 he reproached the new Viennese School of “Kunstwissenschaft” for preferring “teleological deductions to an empirical study of historical conditions and factors,” and in one of his passionate statements against the Surrealists in 1937 he wrote that “the peculiarity of an individual work of art can hardly be grasped through a generalized symbolism.” If Schapiro is a theorist, he is a very idiosyncratic one.
Only four of the papers selected for this new collection are devoted to general questions. In 1953 Schapiro published a long essay entitled “Style” which has for decades been taken as a major statement of the problems of defining style in the visual arts. On the surface, it offers a broad and surprisingly neutral discussion of the different concepts and explanations of style that art historians such as Heinrich Wölfflin and Alois Riegl have proposed since the beginning of the century. Never before had Schapiro tried to be so objective and systematic. But the most fascinating passages of the article are those in which he characteristically points out the limitations of style as a unifying concept. Not only may a single style fail to describe all the works of a period, a work of art may contain more than one style within itself.
In medieval work the unframed figures on the borders of illustrated manuscripts or on cornices, capitals, and pedestals are often freer and more naturalistic than the main figures. This is surprising, since we would expect to find the most advanced forms in the dominant content. But in medieval art the sculptor or painter is often bolder where he is less bound to an external requirement; he even seeks out and appropriates the regions of freedom…. The execution of the landscape backgrounds behind the religious figures in paintings of the fifteenth century is sometimes amazingly modern and in great contrast to the precise forms of the large figures. Such observations teach us the importance of considering in the description and explanation of a style the unhomogeneous, unstable aspect, the obscure tendencies toward new forms.
In another part of the essay, Schapiro voices his alarmed skepticism of explanations of style based on ethnic or national character, which had become prominent in the Thirties. While “historians and critics have felt the need of a theory that relates particular forms to tendencies of character and feeling,” he wonders whether “the psychological explanation of unique features in an individual’s art can be applied to a whole culture.” In his view, there is no uniform correspondence between the traits of a culture and the characteristics of its art. He asks ironically: “Would a psychological treatment of Sioux Art, for example, give us the same picture of Sioux personality as that provided by analysis of Sioux family life, ceremony, and hunting?” In the most systematic article Schapiro ever wrote, he remains marvelously freewheeling and unsystematic.
At the end of this paper, Schapiro speaks of social interpretations of style, but his discussion is surprisingly brief and sounds distressed. He notes that “Marxist writers are among the few who have tried to apply a general theory” of the social explanation of style, but he seems reserved about the relevance of such theories to particular styles:
The great interest of the Marxist approach lies…also in the weight given to the differences and conflicts within the social group as motors of development, and to the effects of these on outlook, religion, morality, and philosophical ideas.
Only broadly sketched in Marx’s works, the theory has rarely been applied systematically in a true spirit of investigation,…Marxist writing on art has suffered from schematic and premature formulations and from crude judgments imposed by loyalty to a political line.
A theory of style adequate to the psychological and historical problems has still to be created.
The essay on style shows him as an uncompromising rationalist who refuses to go along with any kind of mystification.
The same critical penetration characterizes Schapiro’s essay “The Still Life as a Personal Object—A Note on Heidegger and van Gogh.” At first one may wonder what could provoke a New York intellectual to spend his time analyzing Heidegger’s provincial musings to the effect that a pair of shoes in a painting by van Gogh expressed, as Schapiro summed up Heidegger’s argument, “the being or essence of a peasant woman’s shoes and her relation to nature and work.” But from the article and from the “Further Notes on Heidegger and van Gogh” added in 1994, it becomes clear that Schapiro felt morally obliged to defend against a gross misinterpretation van Gogh’s distinctive work as a painter and his personal history of struggle and suffering. Schapiro points out that Heidegger has misunderstood the painting, which in fact represents the painter’s own shoes.
Alas for him, the philosopher has indeed deceived himself. He has retained from his encounter with van Gogh’s canvas a moving set of associations with peasants and the soil, which are not sustained by the picture itself. They are grounded rather in his own social outlook with its heavy pathos of the primordial and earthy.
What seems to have angered Schapiro most in Heidegger’s mistreatment of van Gogh was the shallow pretentiousness of a metaphysical interpretation that disregarded the artist’s labor and intentions at a specific moment in his life. Schapiro accuses Heidegger of neglecting “the artist’s presence in the work”: “In isolating his own old, worn shoes on a canvas, [van Gogh] turns them to the spectator; he makes of them a piece from a self-portrait.”
Such insight into the possible autobiographical meaning of the objects appearing in a still life would not have been possible without the impact that psychoanalysis had made on Schapiro since his early years. He recalls how as a boy he read Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. He cites writings by Otto Rank and was close to the psychoanalyst Paul Schilder, whose book The Image and the Appearance of the Human Body seems to have been important for him. The first explicit reference to psychoanalysis appears in his article “From Mozarabic to Romanesque in Silos” in 1939. Cautiously he alludes to a possible “sexual connotation” in a relief of the cloister in Silos, which represents the Doubting Thomas. But it is characteristic that he feels obliged to add:
The psychoanalytical investigation of the sculpture would not necessarily exclude or contradict the social interpretation given above, since the sexual symbolism and content depend also on relations and objects—the city, the instruments, the new values of the religious subject—which are historically and socially conditioned.
Schapiro turned to Freud because he became aware that psychoanalysis could open a door to aspects of the work of art that would otherwise remain closed. But he differed from Freud in his conviction that even the deep unconscious levels of the work of art are shaped by specific social circumstances. The independent Marxist was also an unorthodox Freudian.
Schapiro took up Freud more explicitly in a paper published in 1956, “Freud and Leonardo: An Art Historical Study.” It is a discussion of Freud’s book A Childhood Reminiscence of Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the most intriguing psychoanalytical text on art ever written. Schapiro is full of admiration for Freud’s analysis, which he praises as “ingenious in probing hitherto unnoticed avowals of the artist.” He points out, however, the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the analytical and the historical approach. He observes that “Freud’s theory provides no bridge from the infantile experience and the mechanisms of psychic development to the style of Leonardo’s art.” He shows, moreover, that the motifs of the hawk in Leonardo’s work which Freud explains as personal reminiscences are in fact all part of long-established iconographic traditions of which Freud was apparently unaware. But with his usual subtlety Schapiro also qualifies his criticism: “In appealing so often to history in this paper, I do not mean to oppose historical or sociological explanations to psychological ones. The former, too, are in part psychological.” As with many papers by Schapiro, this article ends not with a definite conclusion but by presenting unresolved questions: History or psychology? Marx or Freud?
Twelve years later Schapiro tried to overcome this conflict in one of his richest essays: “The Apples of Cezanne: An Essay on the Meaning of Still Life.” This paper reads like an art historian’s answer to the problems that Freud’s book on Leonardo had left unsolved. Schapiro shows how Cezanne uses the apple, a motif with erotic associations dating back to the myths of the ancients, as an instrument to express and sublimate his deepest anxieties and desires. Schapiro concludes:
In this carefully arranged society of perfectly submissive things [apples] the painter could project typical relations of human beings as well as qualities of the larger visible world—solitude, contact, accord, conflict, serenity, abundance and luxury—and even states of elation and enjoyment.
To my knowledge, the psychoanalytical approach has never been applied with such sensitivity to the visual arts. But perhaps a price had to be paid for subtlety. In turning from Marx to Freud, Schapiro’s approach in the astonishing “Apples of Cezanne” seems to be strangely reticent.
Three articles in the new volume deal with art critics and art historians: Denis Diderot, Eugène Fromentin, and Bernard Berenson. Schapiro praises Diderot as a spokesman for the freedom of the artist. He respects Berenson’s connoisseurship without sharing his values. Berenson came from a Jewish background similar to Schapiro’s, but had disguised his humble origin through religious, aesthetic, and social conversion. He had combined “scholarship and trade” and abused art by concentrating on its value as precious merchandise for the wealthy, thus betraying the austere values Schapiro had stood for during his entire life as a scholar and intellectual. That judgment may explain the tone of this last paper, which sounds unusually terse compared with Schapiro’s other writings.
Schapiro’s relation to Fromentin is more complicated, for clearly he is fascinated by the relation between Fromentin’s critical powers and his work as a painter. He praises Fromentin’s The Old Masters of Belgium and Holland in terms that could very well be used to describe some of his own insights into painting:
Only a man for whom painting was a life preoccupation could look at pictures with his minute discernment. More than in its craft knowledge, the virtue of the book is in the sustained attitude of discrimination and judgment, resting on keen, tireless observation of the fabric of the painting as a sensory matter, like the musician’s attentiveness to sounds, but penetrating at the same time with a wonderful power of sympathy into the artist’s personality or moral nature, to use Fromentin’s old-fashioned term. His exact notation of qualities, tones, rapports of colors and forms, is never just descriptive or analytic; it flows out of an instantaneous savoring of the whole which is prolonged and tested by further scrutiny of the work and aims also at a truer vision of the artist’s physiognomy. There is nothing comparable for intensity of perception in the entire literature of art criticism.
In spite of this praise, however, Schapiro demonstrates how Fromentin’s uneven judgments, particularly his doubts about Rembrandt, reflect his limitations as a painter.
We may put it rudely by saying that Fromentin in doubting Rembrandt was defending himself, as in elevating Rubens to the heights he was pointing to his own absolute goal. Rubens was an infinitely more vigorous, masculine Fromentin, the kind of artist Fromentin would have liked to be, a Delacroix without nerves and more robust, equally at home in the religious and secular spheres….But Rembrandt was the dream of his unhappy conscience, his earliest self, the bohemian and romantic chimera of Fromentin’s youth, a stubborn, sincere, fanatical, uncompromising poet-painter, at odds with authority, whom the modern artist dared not follow and very early sacrificed to his need of success. The sad Dutchman grapples with the oldest secret wishes of Fromentin, and in doing so denies the rightness of Fromentin’s public ideals.
At the end we may ask: Is there a common theme linking Schapiro’s widely scattered investigations? Perhaps one could answer that what lends all his papers their remarkable intellectual vigor is the author’s unfaltering conviction that of all members of society, the artist has a special capacity for imaginative independence. But Schapiro knew that under the conditions of modern technocratic society, the artist could only preserve that independence through opposition and withdrawal. In 1957 he wrote in his paper on “Recent Abstract Painting”: “What makes painting and sculpture so interesting in our time is their high degree of non-communication.” Yet what was true of artists was far from true of the art critic: no one has spoken and written more eloquently on behalf of the unfettered expression of artists over the centuries than Meyer Schapiro.
February 2, 1995
For the biography of Meyer Schapiro see H. Epstein, “Meyer Schapiro: A Passion to Know and Make Known,” Art News, Vol. 82 (1983). For Schapiro and Marxism during the Thirties see the articles by A. Hemingway, P. Hills, and D. Craven in Oxford Journal, Vol. 17 (1994). ↩
Published in the record of the First American Artists’ Congress, 1936, p. 31. ↩
From his article “The Public Use of Art,” Art Front, November 1936, p. 36. ↩