The Language of Forms: Lectures on Insular Manuscript Art
By Meyer Schapiro
(Pierpont Morgan Library)
Romanesque Architectural Sculpture
By Meyer Schapiro
(University of Chicago Press)
When Meyer Schapiro died ten years ago, at the age of ninety-one, he had a place in American intellectual life that was extraordinarily large and also rather mysterious. Quite a few of the people who mentioned his name with a quickening excitement, a catch in their voices, had probably not read a single one of the exacting essays about medieval art on which his scholarly reputation rested. His fame had everything to do with the multi-facetedness of his intellectual exploits, with the reach of his imagination. He had moved from medieval art to modern art and back again, and shifted easily from broad theoretical overviews to closeup observations. I think that people who were acquainted with a few of his works—perhaps the essays on Cezanne and Van Gogh written for lavishly illustrated monographs, or the brief commentaries on ancient Israeli mosaics and a medieval Haggadah—were drawn to his free- spiritedness and his restlessness, to an excitement about the range of human possibilities that was natural in a person who had immigrated to the United States with his family in 1907, when he was three, and come of age amid the hurly-burly of New York. Schapiro was a figure of seigneurial cosmopolitanism who felt absolutely rooted in his time and place, a man with a serene self- assurance who was insatiably curious about other people and times and places.
This is a story that Saul Bellow might have told. Schapiro was a product of the public schools—he had gone to P.S. 84 in Brooklyn—and grew up with the intellectual self-confidence to dissect the errors in such master-thinkers as Freud and Heidegger. He had devoted his life to beauty while writing for the Marxist Quarterly and the New Masses and helping to found the liberal-socialist journal Dissent. And his brilliant academic career never prevented him from finding the time to visit artists’ studios. He had even, so it was said, helped de Kooning decide when his first Woman was complete. When Leger was in the United States during World War II, Schapiro took him to the Morgan Library to see a Spanish Romanesque illuminated manuscript, which, with its bold planes of color and daringly geometricized figures, had a deep impact on the Frenchman’s work. No wonder many people came to recognize in this tough-minded idealist an exemplary New Yorker—the best kind of intellectual that the city, and maybe even the country, had produced.
The art critic John Russell has recalled how “in January 1993, during the last weeks of the Museum of Modern Art’s great Matisse exhibition, it was suddenly whispered one day among the huge attendance that Meyer Schapiro was there.” And his presence, the presence of this earthy and august intellectual, “seemed to be as memorable as anything in the show.” The fascination that Schapiro exerted was in some broad sense the fascination of a teacher. Although he was associated with Columbia University for more than half a century, he came to be most widely known through the lectures on modern art that he gave at the New School in the midcentury years, lectures attended by an audience that was seeking not degrees but simply knowledge.
These lectures were the perfect medium for Schapiro’s flexible, wide-ranging mind, because in his hands the lecture became a form of improvisation, an imaginative adventure, a play of possibilities. There may have been about Schapiro’s lecture style—about his combination of specificity and broad- mindedness, and his eagerness to familiarize a large, somewhat heterogeneous audience with the news of modern art—an afterglow of the democratic optimism that had made the lecture such a central factor in the upsurge in cultural education in the nineteenth century. His lectures were experiments in a lofty popularization, an effort to help a relatively broad audience grasp the real issues in modern art. While Schapiro was never a theatrical virtuoso of the lecture hall in the manner of Dickens or Wilde, his modesty and wit and scholarship had their own kind of theatrical power, and one still hears people speak with awe of certain evenings when Schapiro was unstoppable, when his easy erudition left his audience rapt, at moments even aghast.
Schapiro’s admirers were acutely aware that the power of the lecture hall was ephemeral, and although he had been publishing a wide range of essays since the 1930s, those to whom his work meant the most quite naturally feared that the breadth of his viewpoint, his gift for setting art in the widest context, would not outlive him. These concerns were answered, to some degree, in the later years of his life, when with the goading of those close to him, Schapiro began to put more and more of his writings into book form. Four volumes were published while he was alive: Romanesque Art (1977); Modern Art: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1978); Late Antique, Early Christian, and Medieval Art (1979); and Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society (1994). Since his death, the process has continued, guided by the sure hand of his widow, Lillian Milgram Schapiro, who died only a few weeks ago at the age of 104. There has been another volume of his theoretical writings, a volume devoted to his studies in the semiotics of visual language, a volume of lectures on Picasso, and even a collection of Schapiro’s own drawings and paintings. (He was a gifted and practiced draftsman who produced works ranging from beautifully limned portrait studies to small, striking abstract paintings.)
The most exciting addition to the Schapiro canon in the past decade has been the publication of several groups of lectures, on Impressionism and Romanesque art. It was certainly Schapiro’s intention, when he accepted various invitations to speak publicly in the 1960s, that the transcripts of these events would form the basis for future books. During his lifetime it was often said with regret that he had not yet managed to write the great synthetic book about medieval or modern art that so many people believed he had in him. And although he never managed to transform these lectures, at least not to his satisfaction, we are very lucky to have them, edited by art historians with a delicate feeling for the exploratory power of Schapiro’s thought. The Patten Lectures, given at Indiana University in 1961, were edited by James Thompson and published in 1997 as Impressionism: Reflections and Perceptions. In 1968, Schapiro gave a series of lectures at the Morgan Library on early European manuscript painting, focusing on the British Isles in the seventh and eighth centuries, which have been edited by Jane Rosenthal and published as The Language of Forms: Lectures on Insular Manuscript Art. And now the Norton Lectures, which Schapiro gave in 1967, have been edited by Linda Seidel and are appearing with the title they had when first presented at Harvard: Romanesque Architectural Sculpture.
This growing shelf of books by Meyer Schapiro might be expected to generate a growing commentary on his work, and indeed in the last years there have been several conferences or lecture series dedicated to Schapiro’s legacy, at Columbia University, at the Louvre, and at the University of Rome. With Schapiro, however, we are now in that curiously ambiguous period that often comes after an influential figure has died, when the immediacy of their impact has waned and the permanent shape of their work remains to be defined. The riches of the recent publications, as extraordinary as they are, may have the paradoxical effect of adding a layer of confusion to our picture of Schapiro. For if one mark of an intellectual is to be found in what he chooses to publish, then what are we to make of the fact that Schapiro did not choose to publish much of what is now in print, at least not in its current form?
There is reason to believe that Schapiro himself did not believe that his work would ever yield a coherent pattern; he certainly published no summing-up volume, no magnum opus. The four volumes published during his lifetime each carried the subtitle “Selected Papers,” which strikes me as something more than a conventional academic phrase. Schapiro was announcing, I suspect, that completeness was not only not possible—it was perhaps not even desirable. He may have been suggesting that there were so many important things to be said that what one was finally going to be able to say would be, by its very nature, “selected.”
IF THERE WAS SOME ESSENTIAL point of pride in Schapiro’s variegated achievement, it was that his reach was too wide and too deep to permit a unifying view. The spectacularly close analysis of geometric patterns in the 1968 lectures on Insular manuscript painting (“Insular” refers to the art of England, Ireland, and Scotland) can be said to come out of an entirely different view of the world than the discussion of the erotic undercurrents of still-life painting in the famous essay titled “The Apples of Cezanne,” which appeared in the Art News Annual in the very same year. Even if there is some unity or thread that can ultimately be found in these wide-ranging studies, it is one that can be discovered only after we have acknowledged how diverse Schapiro’s interests were, with their almost crazy-quilt quality of shifting approaches and juxtaposed ideas.
Schapiro’s achievement becomes easier to grasp when we consider his arthistorical concerns as one strand in the larger story of intellectual and artistic life in New York from the 1930s to the 1960s. There has been a good deal of emphasis on the Marxist background of mid-century intellectual life, and the extent to which anti-Stalinism and some of Trotsky’s later writings on the freedom of the artist created the atmosphere in which artists and intellectuals in those years came to celebrate the freestanding value of art. Yet the portrait of Schapiro as a liberal-spirited socialist that emerges from such an account, no matter how accurate and attractive it may be, scants the fact that for Schapiro, and for many of his contemporaries, Marxist or socialist ideas were part of a larger intellectual and imaginative adventure. Like so many brilliant young men and women, Schapiro came of age as successive waves of European thought were reaching American shores, and Marx was absorbed along with Hegel and Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer and Freud and even Spengler, in a bewildering variety of ideas and vantage points, a flood full of riptides and undercurrents. All this emboldened Schapiro and his generation to try to grasp what these thinkers themselves had tried to grasp, which was nothing less than the meaning of the world, of life, of man.
It is difficult today, at a time when the finest thought is often characterized by a penetrating skepticism, to recall how grandly heroic certain ideas, Will and Spirit and Progress, still looked in the second quarter of the twentieth century. Like so many of the writers who came of age in the world of Partisan Review—such as Lionel Trilling, Randall Jarrell, Clement Greenberg, Dwight Macdonald, and Saul Bellow—Schapiro learned to think and to feel by immersing himself in the wraparound visions of the great Europeans. Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Spengler wrote profusely, creating in their theoretical and philosophic works imaginative realms that young men and women found themselves inhabiting, much as they inhabited the vast fictional kingdoms of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Balzac.
Schapiro’s generation, which grew up in the afterglow of these triumphantly scaled visions, somehow sustained an intellectual optimism, albeit an increasingly tempered one, even as the calamitous developments in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia made certain passages in Nietzsche and Marx look almost unbearably sinister. While Schapiro’s generation became penetrating critics of many forms of intellectual grandeur, eager to point out what was woolly or obscure or fantastical in Hegel and Nietzsche and finally even in Freud, they were at the same time emboldened by these immense intellectual adventures. When Schapiro, late in life, spoke of “style,” or “worldview,” or “unity,” these words suggested ideas that, however carefully he might want to circumscribe them, still had a nineteenth-century grandeur about them, a sense of vast horizons, of extraordinary possibilities.
The atmosphere of mid-century New York, at once intellectually expansive and toughly independent, pushed intellectuals to develop a response to European thought that was sharp and direct—that cut down to size the fiercely expansive European visions. The New Yorkers were too restless and too fast-moving finally to have much patience for the huge volumes that nineteenth-century Europe had produced, although they prided themselves on having read them from beginning to end. When the Americans chose to express the ideas that were closest to their hearts, they favored the short form of the essay or the casual context of the extemporaneous lecture. And the very choice of a literary form became, whether they knew it or not, a philosophical statement. So many of the key books of the mid-century moment are essay collections: Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, Greenberg’s Art and Culture, and Jarrell’s Poetry and the Age come immediately to mind.
The quality of thought in the essays collected in these books can be very, very large; whole worlds are revealed in the lightning bolt of a sentence. But even when the approach is broad, the writers want their grandest statements to have a quickening attack, a speed. There is a directness to the style, a straightforwardness that grows out of a distaste for the ponderousness of European ideas. Anything that smacks of traditional literary style is rejected; even the short, aphoristic forms sometimes favored by the Europeans strike the Americans as overly contrived. For the New Yorkers, it was the essay that signaled an ease, an intimacy, an efficacy, with ideas.
THERE MAY BE NO AMERICAN thinker of the mid-century years who was at once so deeply attracted to the grandeur of European ideas and so skeptical about those enormous visions as Meyer Schapiro. Schapiro had been in Germany in the 1920s and was familiar with the works of Alois Riegl and the Vienna School, those daring art-historical theoreticians who were building on the heritage of Kant and Hegel. In 1953, Schapiro published an essay titled “Style,” which for decades stood as a solitary, magisterial celebration of some of the essential theories of the origins of style—but it is a survey that is as critical as it is admiring of Riegl and Wolfflin, and it is characteristic that Schapiro concludes, after briefly discussing Marx, that “a theory of style adequate to the psychological and historical problems has still to be created.” When he remarks that such an understanding cannot be developed until there is “a unified theory of the processes of social life,” one wonders if he believes that such a unified theory is even possible.
Everywhere in Schapiro’s writing there is a reverence for largeness—and a desire to deflate those impossibly bold dreams. Two of his most famous essays, on art-historical studies by Heidegger and Freud, amount to takedowns of key European thinkers. He writes about Heidegger’s study of Van Gogh’s paintings of shoes, which Heidegger interprets as the shoes of a peasant. Schapiro acknowledges that Heidegger has taken from his encounter with Van Gogh’s canvas “a moving set of associations with peasants and the soil,” but then hastens to add that these associations “are not sustained by the picture itself”—for, as Schapiro explains, the shoes in fact belonged to the painter.
Schapiro’s study of Freud’s work on Leonardo, while a devastating critique of Freud’s scholarship, is grounded in a deep admiration for the father of psychoanalysis. Schapiro sees “the hand of a master in [Freud’s] powerful theory which is expounded there with a beautiful simplicity and vigor” and praises Freud’s “noble image of Leonardo’s mind and character.” Yet this does not stop Schapiro from anatomizing numerous problems in the writing, beginning with the use of an erroneous translation of a passage in Leonardo’s notebooks, which leads Freud to a series of reflections on the vulture when in fact Leonardo is talking about a different bird, the kite. This analysis of Freud’s errors and blind spots and logical inconsistencies eventually brings Schapiro to some more general observations—on the difficulty of explaining the development of new artistic forms in psychological terms, and on the necessity of framing one’s understanding of an artist’s psychology within the psychological and social conventions of a particular time.
The critical spirit with which Schapiro approached Freud and Heidegger and a number of other European thinkers was grounded in a profound suspicion of what Schapiro himself obviously saw as the allure of such all-embracing visions. If there was some essential attitude that Schapiro shared with the artists who were his friends, among them Barnett Newman and Willem de Kooning, it was precisely this complexly ambivalent view of the monuments of European thought. When de Kooning, speaking on abstract art at the Museum of Modern Art in 1951, said that he had “learned a lot” from the great theoreticians of early modern art but was “completely weary of their ideas now,” he was registering a skepticism that animated Schapiro’s searching analysis of the modern movement. Newman, a close friend of Schapiro’s who had hardly anything good to say about European painting, was an enthusiast of Impressionism, to which Schapiro devoted so much of his energy in the lecture hall. And when Newman registered his impatience with Kant and Hegel and the other great philosophers of art and then went on to articulate his own aesthetic viewpoint, there was a sense that Americans were finally taking themselves as seriously as they in fact did take the Europeans. One finds the same bracing self-confidence in Schapiro’s vigorous aesthetic statements, in the essays “On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art,” “On the Humanity of Abstract Painting,” and “On Perfection, Coherence, and Unity of Form and Content.”
IF SCHAPIRO’S ATTITUDES HAVE some kinship with those of his artist friends, the range of his interests also parallels very closely the subjects covered in the great European avant-garde art periodicals of the 1920s and 1930s, the years when Schapiro was starting out. Early Christian and Romanesque art were featured in these magazines, along with the work of many artists who would be crucial in Schapiro’s writing, including Courbet and Seurat and, of course, Picasso. A Byzantine mosaic from San Marco and a thirteenth-century stone head had been among the illustrations juxtaposed with modern works in the Blaue Reiter Almanac, edited by Kandinsky and Franz Marc before World War I. The interest of Picasso and Matisse and many other artists in the Romanesque and Byzantine periods was well known, and the manuscript paintings that so interested Schapiro, with their powerfully expressive stylizations, were reproduced in avant-garde magazines, sometimes in conjunction with modern works.
Early twentieth-century artists saw in Romanesque, Byzantine, and medieval art a wonderful freedom. They saw artists who were blissfully ignorant of the fixed standards of representation and classical structure that would dominate European art from the Renaissance through the Baroque. The central thrust of the modern movement was not that art ought to be anti-realist or anti-classical, but rather that realism and classicism, like all other modes and manners, had to be tested against a personal standard of authenticity. This was the attitude that dominated the avant-garde in the first third of the twentieth century, when Schapiro made his early visits to Europe, and you might say that he carried those views with him all his life. It is significant that despite the great range of his interests, Schapiro scarcely ever wrote about the art of the Renaissance or the Baroque, those periods that the avant-garde had been inclined to reject as too thoroughly conventional in their philosophies and their forms.
For the moderns, any work of art that stood outside the standard histories, whether an African mask or a Romanesque tympanum, could suggest a fresh approach to the act of creation. And the work of an artist who remained anonymous—an artist who carried none of the psychological or biographical baggage with which Vasari had weighed down the artists of the Renaissance— could present a paradoxically strong artistic personality, because it was a personality expressed through form alone. It is precisely this search for fresh, unexpected expressions, a search that had elated the early twentieth-century avant-garde, that animates Schapiro’s lectures on Romanesque painting and sculpture.
IT IS SOMETIMES SAID THAT Schapiro, by focusing on the elements of surprise, imagination, and playfulness in Romanesque art, was combating an older art- historical attitude that saw in the work of the anonymous Romanesque artisan an impersonal submission to larger imperatives, whether of an architectural or a theological nature. Schapiro himself, in the Norton Lectures, quotes Georges Desvallieres, an early twentieth-century critic, as saying that “as our ancestors, the Romanesque workmen, deformed their figures from the need for a certain equilibrium between the architecture and the personages who are to be inserted in it, so Matisse, in drawing, takes account of the rectangle formed by the paper.” Schapiro is at pains to reverse this equation, and to argue that for the Romanesque artists formal choices were often narrative or psychological choices—that these artists “deformed” so as to express. And if Schapiro was here contesting a rigidly formal reading of both modern and Romanesque art, it is also true that what Schapiro discerned in early European art was very close to the possibilities that Picasso, Matisse, Miro, and Klee had discerned in these non-naturalistic varieties of representation.
The pleasures of Schapiro’s lectures, although they were given in the late- modern 1960s, are what might be called early-modern pleasures: the pleasures of close looking, and of the search for unexpected ways to express the most self- evidently human experiences. Schapiro offers a powerful argument for the expressive power of non-naturalistic form in the opening pages of the lectures on Insular manuscript art. He lingers lovingly, exactingly, on the ways that figures and animals and decorative borders are constructed of repeated or regular geometric forms. He stays with these images, looking very closely, until we begin to see how the apparent regularity and symmetry of the pages breaks into irregularity and asymmetry, unlocking a range of psychological and metaphorical meanings.
Schapiro emphasizes the elements of surprise and unpredictability in these illuminations. He begins with a lion, which here takes the place of the eagle as a symbol for St. John, from the seventh-century Book of Durrow. He points out that from what might be called a basic design standpoint it is surprising that the horizontal form of the lion is set in the overridingly vertical space of the page, leaving large open areas both above and below the lion. Schapiro’s analysis is too elaborate for summary treatment, but the essential point is that it is the very unexpectedness of the relationship that gives the page its deeper drama. What initially, according to Schapiro, “appears a conflict among the major axes of figure, field, and frame” turns out to be complicated by a series of extraordinarily delicate echoes and concurrences between the ornamental patterning of the lion and the ornamental patterning of the border. The tension between the horizontal lion and the vertical page is at once underscored and resolved through the echoes of the green of the animal in green areas in the border just to the left and right of the animal. These establish an implied horizontal axis that balances the overwhelmingly vertical axis of the page. Thus a composition that at first appears resplendently regular turns out to be stamped with a whole range of particular and even idiosyncratic artistic choices.
The direction of the tiny feet in another image from the Book of Durrow gives the still symmetry of the image a dynamic energy. The figure who symbolizes St. Matthew in the Echternach Gospels, so singular and elemental, is locked into place by an ornamental border that takes on a mysteriously active role, extending as it does into the very center of the page. And on another page in the Echternach Gospels, a rearing lion that has an elegant, curvilinear, almost rococo power is set against the equally elaborate play of sharply angled lines that break free of the border and suggest an asymmetrical cage. These pages are presented by Schapiro as extraordinary demonstrations of artistic freedom, as reflections of a feverishly open-ended creative process.
Schapiro is well aware that in early medieval Europe iconographic decisions would never have been left in the hands of a painter or a sculptor. The arrangement of the figures on a church facade was a matter of theology, to be determined by the Church. But in the lectures on Romanesque architectural sculpture, which focus on the art of central and southern France that Schapiro had first studied in the 1920s, he points time and again to choices of placement and representation that are so emotionally powerful, even sometimes so idiosyncratic, that they cannot but be the result of individual artistic decisions. While the overall arrangements of figures and forms often suggest a fixed hierarchy—with Christ at the center, for example—Schapiro emphasizes that these hierarchies are subject to many daring variations. Of the portal at Vezelay, he writes that “the whole has the appearance of rotating forms rather than forms which are as stable as columns,” and he describes how the figure of Christ “breaks through the boundaries of the inner tympanum,” and he notes movements that are “eruptive” and forms that force “the architectural lines apart” and are even “anti-architectural.” A little later, speaking of the church at Souillac, he describes carved forms that are “like a freehand drawing. It has not been measured.” What Schapiro sees in the Romanesque is as often a break with symmetry as an affirmation of symmetry. Schapiro obviously believes that the Romanesque artist felt comfortable pushing at the pre-existing architectural or theological schemes, transforming what was given in a wide variety of ways.
It is one of the great strengths of Schapiro’s thought that he can discern the psychological implications of forms and structures without insisting on some single rigid meaning. A discussion of the cross-legged posture of many figures in Romanesque art is especially exciting. Linda Seidel, in editing the Norton Lectures, has preserved the movement of Schapiro’s speech, and it is a pleasure to listen in as he seizes an idea and expands on it. “The crossing of the legs in the Middle Ages,” he says, “is not a posture of relaxation but a posture of tension, a posture—a self-inhibiting posture, a posture which expresses a great strain in the human being and is often associated with anger, as in figures of Herod and Nero. And above all, it is a posture which gives to the entire figure an aspect of paradox, of contradictoriness: an upper part which is stable and relaxed, the lower part which can barely maintain itself or which assumes an unnatural crossing and instability, and in a permanent manner. “ The way that Schapiro here lingers on a thought is wonderfully characteristic. A little later he pushes deeper into the psychological implications of the pose, suggesting that it “has something to do with feelings of guilt, feelings of regret, or some troubled state of the individual in which he is divided in his attitude, his response to his surroundings.” And then, as Schapiro applies these general observations to specific cases, they are further complicated. He easily accepts contradictions. His approach, while beautifully open-ended, avoids the self-indulgence that so often cripples such broadly speculative thinking.
AT THE CORE OF ALL OF Schapiro’s writings is a belief in the centrality of individual experience, whether it is the experience of an artist about whom we know a great deal, such as Leonardo or Picasso, or the largely anonymous artists who carved the facades of Romanesque churches and decorated the pages of Insular manuscripts. In 1947, in his essay “On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art,” Schapiro argued that, as far back as the eleventh and twelfth centuries, churchmen had understood the impact that form and color might have on the individual. And in the last chapter of the Norton Lectures, devoted to images of animals in this art, Schapiro considers these beasts less as iconographic elements than as forces of nature that an individual responds to in absolutely human terms—to their ferocity, their alienness, their unexpected beauty. Even Schapiro’s discussion of the emergence in the eleventh and twelfth centuries of sculptural programs on church facades is grounded in the idea of the individual. For he sees these facades as related to the growth of urban experience, which was characterized, like all urban life, by the development of the sense of the individual in relation to the group. The world that Schapiro describes in Romanesque Architectural Sculpture is one where there is a development of “new practical and secular interests,” where individuals are beginning to act independently as they cultivate their “skills and ingenuity.”
For the reader who is most sympathetic to Schapiro, this emphasis on the role of the individual can seem so natural as to scarcely require comment. But there are many scholars of art and literature who would argue that artistic style, both in its broadest outlines and its most specific forms, derives from social and historical pressures that the individual is scarcely able to comprehend, much less control. This critical view of Schapiro was articulated by the late art historian Michael Camille, in an issue of the Oxford Art Journal dedicated to Schapiro in 1994. “I can no longer say I believe,” he wrote, “in some of the forces that Schapiro sees shaping Romanesque art, let alone the possibility of a totally individual expression, a free display of form or a genuinely original visual thought.” Camille’s argument is presented rather ironically, as if he were the naughty student ribbing the old professor, starting with his title: “How New York Stole the Idea of Romanesque Art.”
Basically, Camille is saying that Schapiro has made the fatal error of reasoning backward from the sense of individualism that he knows in postwar American art, and has thereby created a badly distorted portrait of the anonymous artists of the Romanesque period. Where Schapiro might see an individual’s feeling for wit and for the bizarre in certain Romanesque figures, Camille sees “not the beginnings of an artistic self-consciousness that will lead to de Kooning’s fevered repaintings in a New York studio, but massive fear and self-abnegation, misogynistic monastic spirituality, bestiality and cruelty. “ For Camille, and for many other historians, what Schapiro sees as individual choice can be more accurately described as a cultural gestalt.
Schapiro was surely aware of this line of argument, with its underlying claim that all talk of individualism reflects modern bourgeois values; this idea was already coloring American academic thought when Schapiro gave the lectures on Romanesque art in the mid- to late 1960s. I think our awareness of these issues helps to explain why Schapiro labors so long and so hard to point out the particularity of the choices that were made by the Romanesque artists. It is Schapiro’s argument that these choices are too specific, too idiosyncratic, to be explained by some argument about the general temper of the times. But it is also important to remember that these complex arguments about the origins of style are grounded in a fundamental philosophical disagreement. Schapiro’s understanding of Romanesque art is based on an essential belief about humankind, namely that individuality—the sense of it, the yearning for it, the struggle for it—is quite simply the core of the human. This is the fundamental idea from which everything that he thought or wrote derives.
THIS BELIEF IN THE ESSENTIAL place of individuality in the making and the experiencing of art was powerfully articulated during the Renaissance, and took on a particular ferocity among the avant-garde movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with their Nietzschean faith in the individual will. The artists whom Schapiro knew in New York, de Kooning and Newman especially, may at moments have imagined that they were the freest artists who ever lived, operating as they did in a world where the academic traditions had no authority whatsoever. Yet this extraordinary freedom also provoked certain perplexities. If art was to this astonishing degree an expression of the subjectivity of the individual, then how was one to explain the timeless or transcendent quality in art, the more-than-individual power that characterized the greatest painting and sculpture?
The essential aesthetic question for mid-century New York was how to reconcile the radical subjectivity of artistic experience with the desire to create a visual language that was legible, comprehensible. This question, which drifted through the noisy discussions at the Artists’ Club and the Cedar Tavern, preoccupied Schapiro as it preoccupied other writers of the time, among them Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg. While Rosenberg, like Schapiro, was deeply attuned to the wide variety of pressures that contributed to the formation of a work of art, his grasp of the issues, full of dazzling intuitions, was far less searching than Schapiro’s. It has become customary in writing about the mid-century years to juxtapose Greenberg and Rosenberg, but I think the far more revealing comparison is between Greenberg and Schapiro.
FOR BOTH GREENBERG AND Schapiro, coming of age meant overcoming the provincialism of the United States and embracing a cosmopolitan vision. And in the arts, to be cosmopolitan meant assimilating a broad, deep sense of quality. It was that sense of quality, experienced as a shock of recognition in the first flush of excitement over the works of Picasso and Matisse and Mondrian, that enabled these men to grasp the weakness of the social realist and American scene painting of the 1930s as well as the limitations of the minor Surrealists, whose fantastical inventions both Greenberg and Schapiro saw as a brand of luxuriant kitsch.
By the 1950s, however, as there were more and more judgments to be made about the claims of more and more avant-garde artists in the United States, it became increasingly important to develop some general account of the quality that one had first discerned in Picasso and Matisse and Mondrian. And by the 1960s, when the assertions of artistic individualism sometimes suggested a nihilistic vehemence, any account of the philosophic underpinnings of the sense of quality became ideologically fraught.
For Greenberg, the only way to confront an ever more confusing situation was to assert that quality was a unified, singular, simplified thing. Dismissing any attempt to celebrate the particularly literary or psychological power of a work of art, Greenberg declared that quality could be discerned only through a flash of intuition, an epiphany that folded form and content into an experience of “valuing, esthetic valuing.” This was an experience that somehow eradicated all the particulars that the artist had created, even though it was also somehow grounded in those particulars. Arguing for a view of quality that owed much to Kant (although some of Greenberg’s philosopher friends would question his grasp of Kant), Greenberg opted for a mystical idea of quality, for a moment of intuition, a revelation. Greenberg and his admirers were too astute to claim that the story in a painting by Poussin did not matter, or that it was trivial whether Rembrandt had painted his own son or a hired model; but they were fearful that if they gave too much importance to these things, they would find their way back to the literalism of American scene painting or the kitsch of Surrealism. And so what Greenberg opted for was a mystical marriage of form and content. As he said of a Mondrian, if it “didn’t excel by its content, its form would have availed it nothing; if it didn’t excel by its form, its content would have availed it nothing.” Greenberg was championing an instinctive objectivity—an objectivity that, although Greenberg would probably not have put it this way, was grounded in an existentialist insistence on the absolute truth of the individual experience.
When Schapiro wrote a paper in 1966 titled “On Perfection, Coherence, and Unity of Form and Content,” Greenberg’s ideas were at the zenith (or just past the zenith) of their influence, and I think there is little doubt that Schapiro was responding to them. He begins by speaking of the idea of unity or perfection as rooted “in an immediate intuition of the structure of the whole”— which was precisely where Greenberg located quality. But Schapiro, while acknowledging the allure of such moments of revelation, hastens to observe that “the judgments of these qualities often change with continuing experience.” Moreover, “they are never fully confirmed, but are sometimes invalidated by a single new observation.” The richness of Schapiro’s thinking owes something to his evident pleasure in the grandeur of ideas such as unity and coherence, and something to his deftness in showing how paradoxical such ideas are. He discusses cases where we experience works as whole or perfect, only to find out later that they are in fact fragments of larger works, or are not as the artists intended them to be.
“Perfection,” Schapiro argues, is “a hypothesis,” and if part of the pleasure of looking comes from measuring the particulars of a work against this hypothesis, the experience is anything but an instantaneous one; it is in fact a process of comparisons and reflections. For Schapiro, the story in a Poussin painting, the beauty of Poussin’s color, and the arrangement of Poussin’s forms are elements that one experiences sequentially, perhaps overlapping, but to imagine that they can all be conflated into one mystical moment—he does not accept that. “We do not see all of a work when we see it as a whole,” he concludes. To do so would be to devalue the various aspects of the work. “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.”
If, for Greenberg, the individual seizes a moment of revelation, for Schapiro the individual makes a number of choices as to how to look. Aesthetic experience becomes a series of decisions, an evolving experience. The danger here is that the individual can be confronted with a nearly infinite range of choices. For Greenberg, Schapiro’s approach might suggest an almost dizzying subjectivity, a freedom to look in so many ways and in so many directions that there is finally no center to the experience. Schapiro would respond, I think, that it is the work itself, the incontrovertible thereness of its colors, forms, shapes, and textures, that puts some limit on our subjectivity. The insistence with which Schapiro focuses on details in the lectures on Insular manuscripts is grounded in this idea, or so I believe. In the presence of the work of art, the individual can think and experience many things—we can think formally, psychologically, historically—but each of these reflections must be tested against the hard facts of the work of art. Schapiro insists upon the possibility of subjective experiences that do not dissolve into subjectivity, and his writings again and again demonstrate this possibility by example.
IN 1967, WHEN SCHAPIRO GAVE THE Norton Lectures, his writings were probably being read with more eagerness and attentiveness than ever before. The ferment in the academic world in the late 1960s and 1970s made the multiplicity of approaches that Schapiro encouraged, his philosophical and methodological pluralism, extremely attractive. At a time when socialist and leftist and Marxist ideas of one kind or another were circulating in the universities, his long-running interest in the social aspects of art—beginning with his emphasis on interpreting Impressionist paintings as a reflection of bourgeois experience- -was immensely suggestive to younger art historians. His work in his lectures on Impressionism and in his essay “Courbet and Popular Imagery,” where Courbet’s naturalism is related to the simplified structural forms of popular art and children’s art, shaped a generation of art historians; by now there is a long shelf of panoramic studies of the relationship between art and society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that would be unimaginable without Schapiro’s example. At the very same time, however, Schapiro was presenting papers on semiotics and structuralist approaches to works of art, which helped to inaugurate a new systematic approach to formalist thinking that would influence yet another generation of art historians.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Schapiro’s work suggested to many the astonishing power that art historians might have if they only availed themselves of all the analytical tools at their disposal. To some, his rather circumspect studies in the sociology and semiotics of art opened vast fields of study, suggesting projects that had some of the grandeur that once characterized the work of Riegl and Wolfflin. Yet I think there was something else that Schapiro wanted to tell his colleagues, something that they were perhaps less eager to hear. The very range of his approaches, his willingness to devote extraordinary energy to apparently obscure problems, suggested a supreme humility before the work of art, a belief that no one approach could do justice to the complexity of even a good—much less a great—work of art. Far from imagining that semiotics or sociology could offer a complete understanding of art, Schapiro seemed to believe that every perception that we have about a work of art is partial, an idea among ideas. And it is this insistence on treating insights discretely, on not weaving everything together into one thing, that brings us to the essence of Schapiro’s thought.
Schapiro was far from being the only art historian of his time who could write acutely about formal matters. Erwin Panofsky, in his book on Titian, offers passages of formal analysis as sensitive as anything Schapiro ever produced; but whereas for Panofsky the formal analysis of the various phases in Titian’s work becomes one aspect of a larger edifice, Schapiro tended to want such observations to stand apart. He wanted the discrete elements of interpretation to retain their stand-alone power, their individual authority. While Panofsky would attempt a complete portrait of a person or a period in his books on Durer and early Netherlandish painting, Schapiro preferred the largeness of a near infinity of partial views. Like his friend de Kooning, who had once observed that “content is a glimpse,” Schapiro built a world out of glimpses, deep, penetrating glimpses, glimpses of many different things seen in many different ways. In this accretion of viewpoints—in his lectures on Impressionism they range from close observations of brushwork to considerations of literature, science, and sociology—Schapiro built up a sense of experience as inexhaustibly rich.
In the limitless variety of his conversation and his lectures, in the variegated nature of the writings that he published while he was alive, and in the mingling of severity and exhilaration with which he approached the grandest philosophic ideas—in all of this Schapiro may resemble, more than any art historian of his time, a figure in the world of philosophy. I am referring to Isaiah Berlin, the great philosopher of pluralism. Schapiro and Berlin had been friends since the 1940s. Schapiro attended the Mellon Lectures on Romanticism that Berlin gave in 1965. (In the midst of a correspondence provoked by Schapiro’s critical essay on Bernard Berenson, Berlin, who had a far more favorable impression of the old aesthete, observed to Schapiro that “I believe in your capacity for discovering the truth much more than in my own.”) Both men united a passion for the cosmopolitan culture of the West with an unabashed connection with their Jewish roots, and somehow sustained the optimism of the best of the old Enlightenment ideals in the face of the horrors of the twentieth century. Certain of Schapiro’s essays, such as “On the Humanity of Abstract Painting,” have exerted precisely the kind of deep, almost spiritual influence that we know from some of Berlin’s writings. And both Schapiro and Berlin, since their deaths, have been the subjects of a considerable number of posthumous publications, collections of writings and lectures that they obviously hesitated to publish during their lifetimes. These friends both loved the printed word so much, they were so acutely aware of its power, that they believed they must be completely ready before they took the plunge. For Schapiro, as for Berlin, it was always important to have the other side of the story, to affirm a fundamentally liberal belief in the essential place of variety and variability in human experience.
If Schapiro’s work looks more elusive now than it did during his lifetime, it is because the more we read him, the more multi-faceted his vision becomes. The work of art always takes the starring role in this complicated movement of thought and feeling. The limestone carving or the manuscript page or the oil painting is absolutely there, an undeniable fact, at once the product of an individual act of will and an object to which we bring the full range of our experience. Schapiro joins the freedom of art to the freedom of the individual through a constant vibration of sympathy and understanding. His prose, which initially beguiles with its modesty and its mildness, has a gathering power, a precision and a lucidity that finally suggests a poetic play of possibilities. He reframes the grandiose dreams of European art within the democratic vistas of the United States, and without in any way distorting the art of the Old World or of the art of the New. If there is a unity to Meyer Schapiro’s writings, it is that when taken together they comprise an unprecedented celebration of the varieties of artistic experience.
This article originally ran in the October 30, 2006 issue of the magazine.