When Attitudes Became Form: Christopher S. Wood on Michael Baxandall (1933-2008)

Article excerpt

"MONEY IS VERY IMPORTANT in the history of art." Everyone was struck in 1972 by this placid assertion, so lucid and disillusioned, on the very first page of a slim, learned tract on Renaissance painting. That study, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, immediately installed itself on every university curriculum and in every museum bookshop. It is still the first book that many people read about Renaissance art. The author, Michael Baxandall, a philologically inclined scholar trained at Cambridge University, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Warburg Institute, was throwing open the gates of that prestigious field, so it seemed, to the barbarians. "It is an important fact of art history," he offered in his cultivated deadpan, "that commodities have come regularly in standard-sized containers only since the nineteenth century: previously a container--the barrel, sack or bale--was unique, and calculating its volume quickly and accurately was a condition of business." Of course, until that moment it had not occurred to anyone that the packaging of commodities might be an important fact of art history.

Baxandall, who died on August 12, 2008, at the age of seventy-four, was one of the most refined and original art-historical minds of the second half of the twentieth century. A reserved and elusive person, and an oblique, ironic teacher, he had a considerable presence in the United States, not only through his books but also through his teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1986 to 1996.

Baxandall's Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (1980) is a fully realized, full-dress exercise in a contextual history of art. In this work, as in the earlier and more concise book on Italian painting, Baxandall invited readers to adopt the cognitive skills and ways of seeing of historical beholders. German sculptors of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, he argued, could count on their audience's intimate knowledge of the properties of wood and on their eye for fancy calligraphy. The artists expected viewers to hold strong notions on the function and doctrinal appropriateness of decorated altarpieces. Baxandall mollified traditional art historians, alert to the possibility that heavy-handed contextualism could flatten works of art to mere tokens of worldview or ideology, with his attentive, self-conscious prose, a linguistic instrument of extreme sensitivity and tact. Limewood Sculptors seemed at the time to do everything that good art history ought to do.

His next volume, Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (1985), a series of fiercely antimethodical lectures on the method of art history, has been little understood. The book is a cat's cradle of reflection and meta-reflection, so original and unassimilable to ordinary art history that it may take decades to grasp it. Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence (1994), written with Svetlana Alpers, is an exercise in almost pure criticism, a discriminating celebration of the internal ironies and equilibriums of this most sumptuous and elusive of artists, the last painter of the Renaissance.

But the real marvel remains Painting and Experience. Here Baxandall asked the reader, in effect, to occupy the body of the fifteenth-century Florentine patron of altarpieces and frescoes, typically a "church-going business man, with a taste for dancing." That businessman, forced to gauge by inspection and rapid calculation the capacities of large barrels, had a keen eye for the robust bodies, composed of elemental geometric units, of Piero della Francesca. Attuned by sermons and devotional treatises that psychologically parsed the encounter between the Virgin Mary and the annunciating angel Gabriel, that same beholder savored in Fra Angelico's paintings nuances lost to the modern secular admirer of art. Botticelli, finally, when arranging his graceful figure groups, addressed an audience adept at dance. …