The Conversion of Paul by Michelangelo

Michelangelo: The Conversion of Paul, circa 1542–1545; in the Cappella Paolina, Vatican City

Objectivity is a conundrum. At least it is in the humanities. Different people define it differently, and what one person claims is an objective opinion or interpretation another will dismiss as little more than prejudice. These debates, which have become especially strident in academic circles in recent years, fascinated the art historian Leo Steinberg, who died in 2011 at the age of ninety. Some fifty years ago, in an essay entitled “Objectivity and the Shrinking Self,” Steinberg described objectivity as an ideal, achievable but also fragile. “There is no escape from oneself,” this adventurous and scrupulous scholar wrote, “and little safety in closing art history off against the contemporary imagination.” The publication of Steinberg’s collected essays—with three volumes already out and two others on the way—makes this a good time to consider not only a formidable career but also what is knowable in the visual arts and the humanities more generally.

Sheila Schwartz, an art historian who worked closely with Steinberg, has edited these essays with a discernment that’s matched by the elegance of the volumes, which are among the most beautifully produced art books of recent years. Michelangelo, whose dauntless achievements Steinberg returned to again and again, is the subject of the first two volumes. Among the material in the third, which embraces Renaissance and Baroque art, are essays on Mantegna, Pontormo, Caravaggio, and Velázquez. The fourth volume, currently in preparation, will focus on Picasso, and the fifth on other modern artists. Interspersed throughout them are some of Steinberg’s 1995–1996 Norton Lectures, “The Mute Image and the Meddling Text,” in which he pursued long-running concerns about the tangled relationship between artistic intention and scholarly interpretation.

Steinberg was certainly not alone in his insistence that whatever we read about a work of art must be tested against the evidence of our eyes. What was unusual was his unwavering faith in the interpretive power of artists themselves, whether to shape a theological or philosophical debate or to reshape our understanding of another artist or the art of the past. Steinberg’s activities as a collector of prints, the subject of an exhibition at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin this spring, were in many respects an extension of his engagement with the interpretive power of images. In the centuries before the invention of photography, prints were a major means of transmitting visual ideas, and the thousands of prints that he eventually acquired, each the product of a painstaking artisanal process, were a constant reminder to make sure to see something clearly before saying anything about it.

Steinberg was already arguing for the power of images to express complex ideas in his Ph.D. thesis, a study of the iconography of one of the masterworks of Roman Baroque architecture, Francesco Borromini’s austere jewel box of a church, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, the essay collection he published in 1972, a dozen years after completing his Ph.D., established him as a challenging interpreter of modern and contemporary art, with essays on Rodin, Picasso, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. In Rauschenberg’s early compositions, Steinberg saw a rejection of artists’ traditional way of looking out at the world (what he called “the Renaissance worldspace”) in favor of a work of art that was a sort of psychological bulletin board—a “flatbed picture plane.” Having made what has proven an enduring contribution to the theory of twentieth-century art—his use of “post-modern” in writing about Rauschenberg is often credited as the first appearance of that term—Steinberg proceeded over the next quarter-century to shake up the study of older art, perhaps most notoriously with The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (first published in 1983 and extensively expanded in 1996).

If the central argument of Steinberg’s work remains difficult to grasp, that’s because his thinking is so insistently multipronged—even multivalent. While the essays in Other Criteria have been praised for their incisive critique of formalist theory, Steinberg has himself been accused of imposing excessively formal readings on Renaissance paintings. Some of his widely discussed contributions to art history—especially his assumption, in The Sexuality of Christ, that the painters of the Renaissance were fascinated by the theological implications of the Christ Child’s exposed genitals—were grounded in a belief that his colleagues had not looked forthrightly at what was right before their eyes. But at other times, especially in his writing on Leonardo da Vinci, which began with an essay in the 1970s and culminated with Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper (2001), he argued that what other historians had claimed was the simple truth was nothing of the kind.

While Steinberg worried about an overreliance on texts, he had no compunction about turning from an image or gesture that he had seen in a picture to theological writings if he thought they might further illuminate matters. His admirers found something deliciously daring about his method. His detractors wondered if he was imagining things. He was accused of imposing modern values and assumptions—whether intellectual, psychological, or sexual—on premodern works of art. But he in turn criticized some of his younger colleagues for “disdain[ing] the painting of long-dead European males” on “moral grounds”; he worried about the tendency to “demonize” the art of the past “with a little deft rhetoric”—which would be the rhetoric of the present.


Steinberg must have seen himself as something of an outsider. He certainly didn’t mind being at odds with his colleagues. Contrarianism came naturally to a person who’d grown up in a world where being independent-minded could be the key to survival. Born in Russia in 1920, he fled with his family to Germany when he was three and then to England when he was an adolescent. He studied painting and drawing at the Slade School in London, emigrated to the United States in 1945, and in the 1950s, even as he was focusing on art history, taught drawing at the Parsons School of Design in New York. He didn’t receive his Ph.D. until he was forty.

This complicated personal history may not have been a bad preparation for the tumultuous state of art history in the decades of Steinberg’s greatest activity and impact, from the 1970s through the 1990s. In those years the study of modern and contemporary art achieved an academic prestige once reserved for the art of earlier centuries. And a new generation of scholars, with an appetite for Continental theory, questioned the monographic studies of particular artists and monuments that their elders had regarded as the essential art historical pursuit. A skeptic might say that Steinberg split the difference when he found a home for some of his most daring observations on the art of the Renaissance in October, a magazine that for several decades defined the art historical avant-garde. Steinberg was the contrarian’s contrarian—he delighted in operating without a permanent intellectual passport.

The deep question that all Steinberg’s work raises is how past the past really is—and how past and present relate. Both traditionalists and anti-traditionalists in the humanities have argued, for different reasons, that we delude ourselves when we imagine that we can know what people were thinking or feeling in other times and places. Steinberg obviously believed that the possibility existed. He approached the art of the past with the assumption that although a twentieth- or twenty-first-century person thinks and feels differently from a fifteenth-century one, the differences aren’t insurmountable. If he saw a diagonal movement in a painting, he took it for granted that a person living five hundred years ago could have seen it too. It’s this assumption that troubled E.H. Gombrich, himself an art historian with a formidable intellectual reach. In a discussion of Steinberg’s work on Michelangelo’s late paintings, published in these pages in 1977, Gombrich worried that Steinberg was trying “to bring the work close to his twentieth-century audience” and argued that he risked forgetting or denying that “history is about the past, not the present.”*

What Gombrich missed, I think, was that for Steinberg, embracing the present didn’t mean denying the past. If anything, he believed that his sense of himself as a modern man heightened his appreciation of a range of different ideas and ideals. He was looking for a meeting between artists and audiences of different times and places. He sometimes urged his interlocutors to literally put their bodies in the positions of the figures in a painting or a sculpture so they could see how a certain pose or position actually felt. His assumption was that a crossed leg would feel more or less the same to the person who was crossing the leg, whether in 1500 or in 2000. That assumption was of course grounded in a belief that there is such a thing as a core human experience—something in feeling and thinking that remains at least somewhat constant no matter how much in the world may change. To some Steinberg was arrogant. To others he was the best kind of humanist.

Steinberg was a great believer in what he referred to in his book about Leonardo’s Last Supper as “moreness”—the urge to see more in a work, think more about a work, offer more possibilities. If his writing is often most convincing when he’s confronting the kinds of artists earlier generations regarded as titans—Leonardo, Michelangelo, Velázquez, Rodin, Picasso—it’s because the rapacity of his thought never risks overshadowing their achievements. While he had no difficulty working in prose forms of different lengths—there is, for example, a beautiful short essay on some of Picasso’s late erotic etchings in the forthcoming volume—he developed many of his most powerful ideas in the extended, labyrinthine essays that were his forte.


Nowhere is Steinberg’s technique more convincing than in the volume dedicated to Michelangelo’s paintings, which begins with a study of an early composition, the Doni Madonna; contains a number of explorations of the Sistine Chapel; and concludes with an extended study of the final frescoes, in the Cappella Paolina of the Vatican. (The essays on the Cappella Paolina, first published nearly fifty years ago, precipitated Gombrich’s critique.) What interests Steinberg in Michelangelo’s work is the deep theological thoughts and delicate human feelings that are embodied in his aggressively physical figures and gatherings of figures. By teasing out what he sees as the philosophical complexities of Michelangelo’s work, he deepens our sense of the spiritual stresses that give these classical bodies their startlingly un- or even anticlassical power.

Some of Steinberg’s interpretations may be controversial, but what always strikes me as exactly right is his emphasis on Michelangelo’s imaginative processes. It may be that in some of his essays he veers off in the wrong direction or goes too far. Whatever his missteps, at every turn he is pursuing one essential idea. He believes we can reclaim as knowable human inventions these paintings and sculptures—the Sistine ceiling, The Last Judgment, the Roman Pietà—that we all too often regard (and, perhaps, dismiss) as inscrutable natural wonders.

Steinberg offers a striking interpretation of an aspect of the Sistine ceiling that doesn’t often receive much attention: the figures of the Ancestors of Christ arranged in the spandrels and lunettes where the ceiling meets the wall; they are the subject of one of the Norton Lectures. Steinberg believes that Michelangelo rejected the traditional representation of the Ancestors of Christ in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian church decoration as a succession of isolated male figures in favor of a vision of men and women joined in marriage, sometimes accompanied by their children. He sees these human couplings as underscored if not generated by the arched shape of the enclosing lunettes, where “the durable union of unstable halves [is] center-joined,” so that “in Michelangelo’s vision, these dependent halves become coincident with the pairing of man and wife.”

Leo Steinberg

Lisa Miller

Leo Steinberg, circa 1987

No summary can begin to suggest the wealth of Steinberg’s thinking here and the challenges he poses to interpretation, both formal and iconographic. What before Michelangelo had been a chilly genealogical succession has been turned into a celebration of growth and change. Steinberg believes that Michelangelo sensed in this evolutionary story an analogy with his own struggles as an artist. What he refers to as the Ancestors’

doing, their operare, though it manifests little outward exertion, is the type of all productive activity; so much so that we can hardly speak of, say, fertile invention, fecund imagination, prolific output, or fruitful labor, without recourse to the lexicon of procreation…. The Ancestors signify the vita activa.

In Steinberg’s understanding of the Sistine ceiling, this vita activa is contrasted with the vita contemplativa, represented by the images of the Prophets and Sibyls.

Steinberg’s Michelangelo is a man not only of great and deep feelings but also of subtle and nuanced ones—and even, perhaps, a liberal spirit. In the essay “The Last Judgment as Merciful Heresy” he argues that however much the flesh may seem to weigh down the spirit in Michelangelo’s vast painting, the artist had serious doubts about “the eternal torment of sinners and the vindictive, retributive nature of the Last Judgment.” To see Michelangelo’s Last Judgment as an overwhelmingly dark vision, he believes, is to accept an interpretive tradition that fits it into the program of the Counter-Reformation. Steinberg’s highwire exegetic act, which includes an intricate analysis of the meaning of the pose of the figure of Christ, leads to the conclusion that Michelangelo’s sympathy was more with salvation than damnation, and that the half of the fresco “which leads to the realm of grace…reflects…some of Michelangelo’s inmost longings, expressed in motifs of unguarded passion and tenderness.” The artist, Steinberg believes, was giving shape to ideas he shared with a group of Catholic reformers, the Spirituali, who gathered around his close friend Vittoria Colonna.

In another essay, “The Last Judgment and Environs,” Steinberg persuades us that this greatest of wall paintings is conceived so as to seem to expand beyond the wall it takes up, until it embraces the entire chapel. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, he concludes, isn’t so much a matter of determining who is saved and who is damned but of dramatizing Christ’s final conquest of humanity, expressed through “the encirclement which the painting visits upon all it confronts.” “We are witnessing the ever-imminent end of the papacy, the Vicariate, as Christ comes to assume dominion in person.” Writing of the Medici Madonna, Steinberg summarizes Michelangelo’s genius with epigrammatic precision: “In Michelangelo’s hands, anatomy becomes theology.”

Given Steinberg’s affinity for maximalist artistic personalities, it’s not surprising that when he turned his attention to modern times he focused again and again on Picasso, the only artist of the twentieth century whose range, both formally and intellectually, might be described as Michelangelesque. It was Steinberg’s view that conventional interpretations of Cubism as a fracturing of natural forms could no more define Picasso’s achievement than a conventional interpretation of fifteenth-century Italian painting as controlled by one-point perspective could describe the spatial subtleties of Andrea Mantegna’s work. For Steinberg, Cubism was

not a preformed optical or physical space, like a preexistent receptacle, but a space comparable to that engendered by language, or music—a space generated by dint of successive utterance. In other words, a semiotic space, without preformed physical properties other than reactivity.

Steinberg approached the artists who interested him the most not as figures who made one or two radical contributions to the history of art but as personalities whose achievements, from youth to old age, had the power to excite and incite. In “The Algerian Women and Picasso at Large,” a long essay included in Other Criteria, he explores what he regards as the central paradox of Picasso’s achievement, beginning with a close study of the fifteen variations on Delacroix’s Women of Algiers that Picasso produced in the winter of 1954–1955. How can it be, Steinberg asks, that this artist who is almost invariably associated with Cubism and its flattening of pictorial space had “the most uncompromising three-dimensional imagination that ever possessed a great painter?”

The paradox, it turns out, is a provocation—both for Picasso and his interpreters. Picasso is emboldened by his never-ending argument with the insistent planarity of the pictorial arts. In “The Philosophical Brothel,” an essay about Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, originally published in 1972 and significantly revised over the years, Steinberg insists that Les Demoiselles, so often said to define modernism’s “movement away from ‘significance’ toward self-referential abstraction,” must instead be understood as a wide-ranging discourse on the human passions, immersing the viewer in what Nietzsche called “wild naked nature with the bold face of truth.”

Although Picasso’s later work always had a following in Europe, Steinberg’s essays of the 1970s and 1980s did much to encourage American scholars and critics to see in the artist’s narrative and figural experimentation in the post–World War II decades not a rejection of the possibilities of pure abstraction but a reconsideration of narrative and metaphor in the aftermath of abstraction. Much as Steinberg reimagined Michelangelo’s work in the Cappella Paolina as transcendent asceticism—he disagreed with historians who dismissed the chapel as evidence of diminishing powers—he celebrated Picasso as an artist forever challenging his own creative possibilities, even if that meant contradicting the conclusions that some artists and critics had already drawn from his earlier work.

For all that could be imperious about Steinberg’s attitude toward his colleagues and the state of art historical scholarship, there was something modest and even self-deprecating about his appetite for inquiry. In “Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public,” an essay first presented at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960, he cross-examined his own hesitant reactions to the work of Jasper Johns. He recalled being initially put off by the paintings. Nevertheless, they “remained with me—working on me and depressing me.” They “kept me pondering,” he continued, “and I kept going back to them. And gradually something came through to me.” Although I find Steinberg’s writings on Johns and Rauschenberg among his least satisfying—their work isn’t multifaceted enough to incite his avidity—the investigative spirit that he brought to his first encounters with their paintings and sculptures is the same spirit in which he approached his most challenging subjects. He believed that it is only by confronting our equivocations that we can even begin to achieve something like clarity.

Steinberg’s activities as a print collector, the subject of the exhibition at the Blanton Museum (which was organized by Holly Borham, a curator there), have much to tell us. There is no question that his collection has its share of masterworks, by Picasso and others. But however much he revered printmaking as an autonomous artistic act, he was just as attuned to its status as a reproductive medium. He was fascinated by the craftsmen who made copies of images and compositions (anything from an ancient sculpture to a painting by Michelangelo). Sometimes these copies revealed how a work that had been altered over the years had originally looked. But Steinberg was equally interested when a reproduction altered the original work in ways both subtle and not so subtle. For him these transformations amounted to a process of imaginative comment and critique. To change the position of a figure or the arrangement of a composition, as printmakers often did, was a way of grappling with something that one didn’t understand or found troubling or thought could be improved. Steinberg enjoyed entering into a kind of dialogue with these transformations, attempting to tease out some rationale. His essays on Michelangelo’s Last Judgment are illustrated with about a dozen different sixteenth-century prints in which the great composition is conceived in various ways.

In the catalog of the Blanton show (which will be published next year) Peter Parshall, for many years curator of old master prints at the National Gallery in Washington, makes a valuable connection between Steinberg’s print collecting and what has certainly become his most famous coinage: “The flatbed picture plane.” Steinberg saw in Rauschenberg’s early works an omnium gatherum of visual information not unlike the elements that the compositor arranges on the bed of an old-fashioned printing press (headings, lines of text, images). The flatbed picture plane, Steinberg argued, “makes its symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts, bulletin boards.” He had in mind “any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed—whether coherently or in confusion.” Steinberg may have overemphasized the radically modern nature of this type of composition; similar strategies can be seen in medieval illuminated manuscripts, in which a single page often contains lines of text, ornamental initials, a picture in an illusionistic frame, and elaborate marginal decorations. (In his preface to the 2007 edition of Other Criteria he acknowledged that a generation earlier he had overlooked the medieval “artists [who] labored at manuscript illumination” as “antecedents of the modernist flatbed.”)

Obviously this method of composition by accretion had a particular relevance for Steinberg. I believe it paralleled his own interest in building an essay out of a variegated assortment of images, texts, thoughts, and second thoughts—his own kind of flatbed picture plane. “Who’s Who in the Creation of Adam” is structured as a chronology with sections headed by dates that range from “1547–53” to “2001…” “The Last Judgment as Merciful Heresy” is organized in fifteen numbered propositions. The Incessant Last Supper includes six appendices, one devoted to a discursive discussion of forty-nine “copies and adaptations.” The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion originally included thirty-nine numbered “Excursuses.” When it was republished in an expanded version, Steinberg added a “Retrospect” with nine more numbered sections, much of it devoted to his arguments with the scholars who had criticized his original text.

Steinberg’s writing has some of the quality of a grand collage—an assemblage of ideas. His essays do not necessarily have a single arc, but more often consist of a succession of observations, assertions, and arguments. They grow incrementally. The literary approach makes sense because it’s in the service of a more general intellectual approach. In writing about Borromini Steinberg suggested “eschewing the primary form as a governing concept, substituting the principle of simultaneity.” In many of his later essays he advocated ambiguity. Far from regarding these as uniquely modern modes of thought, he viewed simultaneity and ambiguity as timeless possibilities. He liked to return to the same object again and again, each time regarding it from a slightly different angle. Though he risked overwhelming his readers with this montage of images and information, he did so with a dry wit that brings to mind his admiration for the comic sensibilities of Johns and Rauschenberg. Steinberg enjoyed the play of possibilities. He may have even been a little bit ironic about his own packrat inclinations.

In an introduction to the volume dedicated to Michelangelo’s paintings, the art historian Alexander Nagel recalls Steinberg asking him, “When did pleasure cease to be a central part of scholarship?” About his work there is always a sense of pleasure—even, sometimes, the pleasure of the trickster or the smarty pants, stirring the pot. He liked tangles, paradoxes, double entendres. There is sometimes an erotic shadow drama to be discovered beneath or beside the scholarly drama. That is certainly true of The Sexuality of Christ, in which Steinberg presents an altogether sober theological argument for the prominence of the Christ Child’s genitals in Renaissance painting that only the most obtuse reader can fail to simultaneously appreciate as a guided tour of masturbation and tumescence in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe.

In an essay about a painting by Jan Steen known as The Drawing Lesson, Steinberg argues that what the young female student is looking at isn’t the corrections that the master is making on a sheet of paper but the statuette of a handsome young male nude on the table. He has a serious point here—about the female gaze and its significance in Baroque painting—but I don’t think we can discount his pleasure (and amusement) at revealing the oversimplifications (and perhaps unconscious bowdlerizations) of which other scholars have been guilty. Writing about the Virgin Mary, whom the Catholic theologians described as beautiful but not sexually desirable, Steinberg can’t resist observing, “Beautiful yes, but no turn on. Well, it’s easier said than done.”

There was always something of the old-fashioned romantic enthusiast in Steinberg’s admiration for the achievements of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Velázquez, and Picasso. But he was equally attracted to the “uncompromising impersonal objectivity” that he saw in Jasper Johns’s early work. For Steinberg the question was how to reconcile a passion that was inarguably subjective with a desire for something like objectivity. Perhaps the answer was that objectivity demanded the acceptance of uncertainty. Could objectivity be a sum of uncertainties? I am reminded of the opening lines of Wallace Stevens’s “Connoisseur of Chaos”:

A. A violent order is disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)

Steinberg was fascinated by disorder. He certainly believed in order. And he couldn’t imagine a text without those pages of illustrations.

This Issue

May 13, 2021