Words for Pictures: Seven Papers on Renaissance Art and Criticism

By Campbell, Stephen J. | The Art Bulletin, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Words for Pictures: Seven Papers on Renaissance Art and Criticism


Campbell, Stephen J., The Art Bulletin


MICHAEL BAXANDALL Words for Pictures: Seven Papers on Renaissance Art and Criticism New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. 169 pp.; 25 color ills. $35.

Four of the seven papers that make up Michael Baxandall's latest book have been published elsewhere, and at first glance Words for Pictures appears to be a compilation of pieces written over a career of some forty years. Yet with an introduction entitled "Prolegomena: Values, Arguments, System," and with small but decisive revisions to some essays, this asks to be read as a "real" (that is, a coherent) book.1 Words for Pictures thus also has to be taken as corresponding to the author's present state of thinking about a recurrent theme in his work: the relation between works of art and the language used to describe them. Further, in revisiting material addressed as long as four decades ago, Baxandall might be seen as not only presenting a general retrospective of his thought but also adding to or modifying some of his own more recent propositions (in books from the 1980s and 1990s). Not a reprint then, nor a stitching together: more of a rewriting of the relation between the Baxandall of the 1960s-the Warburgian humanist scholar and pioneer of the social history of art-and the figure who emerged in the following decades as, among other things, a historian of Enlightenment science, an analyst of pictorial perception, and a Popperian critic of art historical method who perhaps alone could move deftly within the rigorous limits he prescribed.

A question necessarily raised by such a book is Baxandall's reaction to the reception of his own work. The earlier (pre-1985) books and articles exercise an influence on scholarship characteristic of few other texts in art history, while his more recent publications have been more often the starting point for methodological debate and polemic rather than art historical practice. Reviews of Baxandall's work often struggle to place him within a discipline seen as in a state of flux, even crisis. In particular, his critics have taken him to task for a lack of clear alignment with tendencies and positions within an increasingly politicized field from the 1970s onward: Marxist social history and historical anthropology in the 1970s, psychoanalysis and the "linguistic turn" in the 1980s, visual culture studies in the 1980s and 1990s. Contributors to the 1999 collection About Michael Baxandall sought to represent him either as a somewhat anachronistic and melancholy relic of an empirical scholarly tradition whose limits he self-consciously performed or as a postmodernist manqué, who constantly and deliberately registered the inadequacy of language to represent the experience of seeing and the ever-fleeting possibility of historical interpretation.2 Quietly and without polemic (perhaps not even consciously), Wards for Pictures raises questions about the adequacy of such descriptions. While it is marked by his by now formulaic pronouncements on "incommensurability" (of verbal with visual systems, of pictorial with social structures), it is also a cautiously affirmative view of the possibilities of language in any historical and critical address to the work of art, emphasizing what is achieved rather than what is dispersed or made to vanish in analysis.

It also shows Baxandall practicing as an art historian, pointing beyond a dilemma that has haunted his work since the 1980s. Following the publication of The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany in 1980, Baxandall found himself aligned with a social history of art, in which paintings and sculptures were examined in terms of culturally mediated negotiations between individuals or groups, and in accordance with culturally ingrained modes of visual discrimination. At the same time, Baxandall possessed the conviction that certain exceptional works of art presented extraordinary demands of their own, and could be accounted for only inadequately by the approaches he had outlined in his influential earlier book Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (1972). …

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