Michael Podro (1931-2008)
Art historians usually feel no need to look back at the history of art history. Michael Podro took a different view. He believed that a way to understand visual art was to look critically at the history of art history. His first book The Manifold in Perception: Theories of Art from Kant to Hildebrand (1972) provides a concise clear reading of the founding text of aesthetics, Kant’s Critique of Judgement. Historians typically relate this treatise to that German philosopher’s system. Podro takes a very different approach, explaining the visual implications of Kant’s abstract theorizing in its development during the nineteenth-century. In a characteristically brilliant demonstration, he applies this speculative tradition to the paint handing in a Monet seascape in the National Gallery, London. “An aggressive and abrupt use of the brush stroke . . . interferes with our grasp of the form of the seated woman,” he notes, “in order to catch the vivid effect of sunlight.”
The Critical Historians of Art (1982) then takes this story further, tracing the influence of Hegel’s aesthetics on nineteenth and early twentieth-century German art history. How is it, Podro asks, that that these writers both understood visual art in relation to its own time and in their own different, contemporary terms? Viewing Rembrandt’s Deposition (1633), for example, we need to both understand how the artist drew upon a visual tradition going back to Rubens’ Deposition (1614), and also that he worked within a Protestant milieu, while Rubens painted this altarpiece for a Catholic cathedral. Then Podro’s third book Depiction (1998) discusses a subject dealt with by his friends and peers, Michael Baxandall, Ernst Gombrich and Richard Wollheim, the nature of visual representation. After working through the philosophical materials, he makes suggestive comments about how Duchamp took from earlier depiction “deferral itself: the insertion of confusing screens . . . between the viewer and the consummation of his interest.” Any painting’s subject matter, Podro argues, is “inherently expressive.” Chardin’s Cat with Ray, Oysters and Terrine, for example, shows a cat reaching for an oyster below the dangling ray-fish, “in dialogue with its subject, its suggestiveness the product of tact not repression.” Visual representations of aggression fascinated Podro.
Recently a number of art historians have dealt with “art theory.” These very academic writers are excited by French-style semiotics and poststructuralism. Podro would have none of that. After reviewing a once trendy book he told me, “that was a waste of an entire month.” The reason to study the history of art history, he always believed, was to help us to see more. Podro was a very distinguished literary stylist. Paintings, he wrote, “address us, and they do so in part through creating uncertainty.” The spectator, he explained in a typical commentary, is drawn into Rembrandt’s group portraits because these paintings “surround the present objects with a sense of atmosphere, so that the spaces between objects are felt as part of a homogenous optical effect,” making us “aware of an interplay between those objects and our own mental life.” Few writers employ words economically to such good effect as he consistently did.
I met Michael in the 1970s, when I spent my summers in London. He was a friend of my teacher, Wollheim and of Gombrich. And so we quickly found that we had many shared concerns. I brought him to lecture one winter in Pittsburgh, where I was teaching. He loved to look, not only at art. I remember his passionate description of a neighborhood park, which until then had seemed to me absolutely boring. Every time I walk there, I think of him. You learned to pay close attention to everything Michael said. We lunched together once in the National Gallery, London, and then went to look at the Titians. How I envied him when he described walking through these galleries with Gombrich. The last time I saw him, we ate soup sitting under his portrait by Frank Auerbach. That subtle painting was the perfect foil for the author of Depiction. Michael had a gentle generous sense of humor. In that way, his writing was a perfect expression of his personality. I had so many questions to ask him. How sad that now it’s too late. But his books will live. In the near future they will inspire visually sensitive art writers.