Art historian who was a leading figure in the field of aesthetics
Michael Podro was one of Britain's leading art theorists, a critic and philosopher who developed a highly independent position as a teacher and person of influence in the field of aesthetics at Essex University, where he helped build up the Department of Art History and Theory. With the unruly hair of a quintessential Professor (he was depicted in a 1985 painting by Ron Kitaj as "The Jewish Rider", appropriately hunched in a railway seat), he helped generations of students and fellow art historians to think widely and deeply about the subject of art, provoking them with frequently opaque, but often quixotically inspirational ideas about the practice of art.
Born in 1931, Podro was educated privately at Berkhamsted School in the outer suburbs of London, and, following national service in the RAF, read English at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he was much influenced by the ideas of F.R. Leavis and the traditional interest of the Cambridge English tripos in the history of ideas. Indeed, when he came to reflect on the nature of art history as it was to be taught at Essex, he continued to regard it as a version of literary criticism - "giving emphasis to the critical dialogue rather than the critical catalogue". Much to his disappointment, he only got a 2.2 in both parts of the tripos.
On graduating, he took himself off to the Slade to learn to draw, but after a year transferred to University College's philosophy department, inspired by his reading of Cassirer's Platonic Renaissance in England. Given his intellectual interests and the fact that he chose to write his dissertation on "Konrad Fiedler's Theory of the Visual Arts", he was inevitably drawn into the orbit of the Warburg Institute, where he had a slightly love-hate relationship with Ernst Gombrich, its Director, who, alongside Richard Wollheim, was the co-supervisor of his thesis (he wrote both their obituaries for the British Academy), but who never appointed him to the permanent staff of the Institute, which remained his spiritual home.
From 1961 to 1967, he was Head of the Department of Art History at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, where he was a friend of Frank Auerbach and other painters. Indeed, one of his great strengths as an intellectual was that he had an unusual understanding of the practice of art, particularly drawing, an affinity for artists as individuals with their own quirks of psychological motivation, and a genuine and deep engagement with the physical experience of works of art, continuing to believe in the relevance of practical criticism in front of the works themselves. Right at the end of his life, Podro was made an Honorary Doctor of the University of the Arts and he used the occasion to deliver an unexpected (and fortunately largely inaudible) diatribe against what he regarded as the bureaucratisation of the traditional London art schools.
After a brief period back at the Warburg Institute as a Lecturer, Podro moved to Essex University in 1969, appointed by Joseph Rykwert, who shared Podro's interests in the history of ideas, but with whom he rapidly fell out. It was said that the origins of the feud lay in the differences of their Polish ancestry. From this point onwards, Essex University became Podro's second home and he loved the long corridor on which the offices of the department lay, his weekly graduate seminar in which he was able to expound the relationship between art and ideas, and the first-year teaching on 18th-century art, which has long been a compulsory requirement for students at Essex. …