Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 6, 2019
Peter Mack and Robert Williams, eds. Michael Baxandall, Vision and the Work of Words Studies in Art Historiography. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015. 204 pp.; 16 color ills.; 15 b/w ills. Cloth $130.00 (9781472442789)

Michael Baxandall, who died in 2008 just shy of his seventy-fifth birthday, is one of a handful of postwar scholars who were quickly recognized as some of art history’s greats. A string of classic texts and a restless, searching expansion of his range from the Italian Renaissance to the Northern one and into the eighteenth century, combined with a firmly original scholarly viewpoint, afforded him the status of a deep thinker who merits careful study. During Baxandall’s lifetime, Adrian Rifkin edited a volume, About Michael Baxandall (Wiley-Blackwell, 1999), subjecting his methods to scrutiny. The book under review was published in 2015 as the successor of a conference at the Warburg Institute in May 2012.

The conference and book sought to assimilate recent source material about Baxandall, including interviews and his recently published personal memoir (Episodes, 2010) and fiction. These resources reveal new influences and concerns that help us to understand the scholar better. Many of the contributors knew Baxandall. Their discussions are not strident. Instead, they query their friend or teacher in a gentle but searching way that Baxandall himself used to address the work of art.

Alex Potts reflects on the “visual conditions of pictorial meaning,” an aim identified by Baxandall as the goal of his research in Words for Pictures (2003). In particular, Potts reflects on the art world during the formative period of Baxandall’s education in the late 1950s and 1960s. Pairing Baxandall with contemporary art shows some of the ambivalence of the concept of unproblematic meaning and draws attention to the “marginal” that one finds in his writings. Describing Jean Dubuffet and Georg Baselitz as artists who controlled various forms of attention in their work, Potts sees their modernist concerns reflected in Baxandall’s own “strategic indirectness,” an “acrobatic deadpanness” (20).

Jules Lubbock examines the significance of Baxandall’s enduring admiration for his teacher F. R. Leavis. Baxandall encountered Leavis at Cambridge and was struck by his approach to literature: not reducible to rules or methods but based on an ethics of respect for the work of quality. Lubbock examines some of Baxandall’s notes and drafts to show how he saw his art historical task, sometimes not evident in finished works such as Giotto and the Orators (1971). Here, the same desire for a “shortcut between social life and the visual arts,” which he admired in Leavis, expressed itself (36).

Alberto Frigo reflects on Baxandall’s avowed reverence for the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci in “Baxandall and Gramsci: Pictorial Intelligence and Organic Intellectuals.” Frigo reconstructs what Gramsci might have meant to Baxandall as he traveled to Pavia to study in the 1950s, at a time when Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks were only recently published. Using the art historian’s novel A Grasp of Kaspar (2010), Frigo homes in on a phrase referring to the notion of “common sense.” Especially helpful is his discussion of that notion in Gramsci as a kind of organic folk culture that coordinates beliefs and thought, and that is neither abstract nor spiritual like the zeitgeist. Gramsci stressed the concreteness of “opinions, convictions, criteria of discrimination, standards of conduct,” which was extremely amenable to Baxandall as he formulated an approach to art history.

In “Art History, Re-enactment, and the Ideographic Stance,” Whitney Davis portrays his Berkeley colleague’s commitment to the practice of art history as entailing a kind of reenactment. In Patterns of Intention (1985), Baxandall had introduced the “triangle of re-enactment,” consisting of the “brief” or “charge” of the artifact, culture or resources needed (or not) for its construction, and the description of the result. Davis connects this triangle to the commitment to reenactment as found in both Erwin Panofsky and R. G. Collingwood. Finally, he relates this to the “ideographic stance,” or the question of art history’s attention to the particular at the expense of the general (“nomological”), concluding that in spite of Baxandall’s protestations he succumbed to the seduction of generalizing laws, hence his strong interest in perceptual psychology.

Robert Williams addresses “Inferential Criticism and Kunstwissenschaft” and Baxandall’s longstanding aim to infer causes and thereby “explain” pictures. Passing chronologically through his career, Williams first directs attention to the role of language in Giotto and the Orators in allowing for a “specifically historical engagement with art” (94), concluding that Baxandall is “the Wittgenstein of art history” (94). In Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (1972) Baxandall expanded beyond texts to illuminate the “period eye,” without, however, collapsing art into history, since the “intentional unity and cogency” (97) of great works of art resisted such efforts. Williams sees something of a retreat in Baxandall’s later works—Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence (1994) and Shadows and Enlightenment (1995)—in which the category of “the visual” is entrenched and unproblematic.

In “The Presence of Light,” Paul Hills notes Baxandall’s attention to light and atmosphere both in life (with reference to his memoir and fiction) and in art, collecting his remarks about works seen in different light conditions, and his instructions on how to photograph them. Hills notes Baxandall’s experience as a curator and links this experience to what might otherwise seem like incongruous attention to shadows in his later work. Channeling Baxandall to discuss works by Antonello da Messina, Giorgione, and Titian, Hills makes observations on light and color and the general way in which each of the painters combined thematic, formal, and descriptive elements to exercise his pictorial intelligence.

Evelyn Lincoln, in “Printing and Experience in Eighteenth-Century Italy,” recounts one of Baxandall’s seminars at the University of California, concluding that Painting and Experience is a “guide, but not a Method” (122). She ends her chapter reviewing her own seminar investigating prints of the Chinea, a Roman festival in which the rulers of Naples and Sicily were given sovereignty of their lands for another year. These single-sheet prints, perhaps more so than altarpieces of the fifteenth century, do not immediately reveal the sustained drama and pyrotechnics that they reference. By understanding “what was documentary and what was fabulation” (136), students arrive at a “period eye” for the eighteenth century.

In “Pattern and Individual: Limewood Sculptors and A Grasp of Kaspar,” Peter Mack reflects on rhetorical strategies common to both Baxandall’s great history and his novel. Both share a concern for balancing the schematic and the individual, and both are sustained through description. The problem of German sculptural influences is mirrored by the regional stereotypes of Northern Italy, where Kaspar is set. Mack sees much overlap in Baxandall’s dual pursuits, with fiction providing an outlet for “fine description” (150) and humor.

Elizabeth Cook considers “Michael Baxandall’s ‘Stationing,’” a metaphorical practice that John Keats noted in John Milton’s poetry: he was not content to merely describe his poetic terms but wanted to ground them, as in Satan “disfigured—on the Assyrian Mount” (Paradise Lost, bk. 4, line 120). Cook finds stationing in both Episodes and A Grasp of Kaspar, which is to say that Baxandall was extremely sensitive to language.

Cook’s chapter on Baxandall’s style, metaphors, and analogies offers an enticing opportunity for reflecting on this volume: Was language opaque for Baxandall or did he reach through it to experience? What is primary, world or language? Where does our art historian stand: Courtauld or Warburg, British amateur or Germanic professional, Ernst Gombrich adept or apostate? Many of the authors note Baxandall’s own reticence to register strong opinions, as well as his enjoyment in eluding those who would pin down his full theoretical commitments.

In squaring Baxandall’s relatively incompatible interests in Leavis and Gramsci, I think Lubbock passes over our author’s tenure with Hans Sedlmayr too quickly. The story of Baxandall finding a happy home in Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich’s seminar overlooks the fact that he spent an entire autumn in Sedlmayr’s seminar. The commitment to what can be called “big,” interpretive history is not perfectly coherent with Wittgenstein (Williams) but is consistent, in different ways, with Leavis and Sedlmayr, both of whom Baxandall nevertheless regarded as flawed. Baxandall’s commitment to Gramsci can be read in this way, insofar as Frigo stresses over and over how society and the mind of the artist settle into coherent patterns of “organicity.”

It seems these persistent commitments of Baxandall challenge strongly his debt to Gombrich, who supervised his incomplete PhD studies and oversaw his appointment to teaching at the Warburg. Both Baxandall and his friend Michael Podro resisted aspects of Gombrich’s accounts of perception and representation, choosing instead to follow the approach of Richard Wollheim. Given this critique, Baxandall’s positions appear remarkably like the art history proposed by the Vienna dissident Otto Pächt (the former collaborator of Sedlmayr) at Oxford, in his celebrated critiques of Panofsky and Gombrich (in 1956 and 1963, respectively, in the Burlington Magazine). Of course, true to Baxandall’s oblique manner, Pächt is not even mentioned in his writings. Organically unified institutions, the insignificant detail, “big” history, perceptual psychology—all suggest a practice much closer to Pächt than to Gombrich. Beyond such speculation, the book is a palpable record of a powerful mind. 

Ian Verstegen
University of Pennsylvania