PRINT Summer 1996


Meyer Shapiro

MEYER SCHAPIRO, WHO DIED on March 3 at the age of 91, enjoyed an adulation that may in his later decades have been as taxing as it was rewarding. Intent younger art historians asked him time and again to recount the genesis of the extraordinary publications with which he began his career in the ’30s; to rehearse his simultaneous commitments and interventions (in such journals as New Masses, Art Front, and Marxist Quarterly) in the politics of the Left during the Great Depression, Popular Front, and anti-Stalinist schisms; to recall his warm and abundant friendships with giants (and peers) in the realms of art, philosophy, social science, and literature. With his death, we are grateful now for these eager acolytes, who elicited from him precious additions to the public record of his career. For the wonder of Schapiro’s reputation, given his achievements and experiences, is that he was not still more widely acclaimed—that the admiration he so unfailingly commanded was largely confined to the art world. I suspect that had he been a full-time literary critic, political pundit, or philosopher, there would already be a shelf of biographical and interpretative books devoted to him. As it is, he appears to merit only a walk-on part in the numerous studies of the New York intellectuals, while only a handful of scattered articles and reviews in scholarly publications begin to take the measure of what he contributed to the intellectual life of this century.

American intellectuals are famously obsessed and anxious about their links to the great figures of continental thought. With that in mind, it is all the more astonishing that Schapiro’s activities at the close of the ’30s have not become the stuff of legend across the humanities. Theodore W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, having transferred their Institute for Social Research from Frankfurt to New York, took a great interest in the young professor of art history, and he in them. (Adorno once asked him along to monitor radio broadcasts by Hitler, and Schapiro made some incisive drawings of the Institute’s fellows as they gravely attended to the voice of the enemy.) As proponents of an independent Marxism, they had no doubt been impressed by the courageous objectivity he had shown in assessing the growing evidence of Stalin’s murderous purges and show trials. In 1939, Schapiro was embarking on an extended research trip to Europe, and these expatriate intellectuals marked their respect for him with the most profound trust: could he succeed, where they had failed, in persuading Walter Benjamin to leave Paris for safety with them in New York?

When Schapiro and his wife, the physician Lillian Milgram, arrived in Europe, they saw ominous signs of preparation for war everywhere they looked; the news of the nonaggression pact between Hitler and Stalin seemed to remove the last restraint on Germany’s aggressive designs. Schapiro telephoned Benjamin, and they agreed to meet at the café Deux Magots. Benjamin dismissed any concern about their recognizing one another; as Schapiro recalled the encounter,

Lillian and I were sitting in the café waiting to hear from him, when I saw a man walking up and down the sidewalk, looking at all the people and holding up a little copy of the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, the social research volume. So I called out to him . . . “Benjamin’?,” and he said, “Schapiro.” He came down and sat with us, and we talked about everything under the sun. He decided that it would be too hard for him to live in New York, even though so many of his good friends that he had been very close to were there.1

One suspects that if the captivating, erudite, and multilingual art historian could not make life in New York seem inviting to Benjamin, then there was truly no hope of diverting him from the fatal course he chose to follow. Schapiro himself, keeping a promise made to his wife, cut off his sabbatical at the outbreak of war a few weeks later and joined her on a liner setting out from Belgium. The news soon came that its sister ship had been sunk.

On his return to New York that autumn, Schapiro found himself at another turning point, this time in the sheltered world of art-historical research. He published two articles on Romanesque art that year, “From Mozarabic to Romanesque in Silos” and “The Sculptures of Souillac.” Together these represented the scholarly and philosophical culmination of fifteen years of research on the artistic flowering of southwest France and northern Spain at the end of the 11th century.

The fraught events of the ’30s had divided Schapiro’s early development as an art historian into two distinct stages; the first, centered on the monastic sculpture at Moissac, began in a fearlessly zealous devotion to gathering primary evidence. His campaign of research in 1926–27 took him beyond France to Spain, Italy, Greece, with a leap to Egypt, Palestine, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. In refusing to rely on received knowledge for any detail of his research, he was already pushing past the existing limits of his chosen field, limits that were as much social as they were intellectual. The leading American medievalists at Harvard and Princeton saw it as their duty to erect a barrier against the tide of materialist mass society and the large immigrant population that, they felt, threatened to swamp the old cultivated classes of the eastern seaboard. In their minds, to contemplate and comprehend the art of the Middle Ages was imaginatively to reenter a society of order, rank, and deference. To imagine an art history with different aims than this, Schapiro, as a son of Jewish immigrant parents, had to imagine a different Middle Ages. And by the time he submitted his Moissac dissertation to Columbia, in 1929, he was losing his confidence that he had succeeded. In particular, time spent living among the monks of Silos, one of the great Romanesque monasteries of northern Spain, convinced him that art history was hobbled by its failure to theorize the relations between visual form and the complex of social interests within which it was embedded.2

Schapiro’s immersion in theory accompanied his immersion in the politics of the American Left at its peak of influence and centrality to intellectual culture. It also demanded that he speak to pressing questions of commitment and responsibility on the part of artists, and this he did with unremitting force and eloquence. Only in recent decades has it become clear how effectively he demolished the then-reigning notion that art possessed an independent, transhistorical essence that modern abstraction had extracted from the functional pretexts of the past. The freedom of the Modern artist was, he made plain, as qualified by circumstances as that of the medieval artist had been. And that perception proved to be double-edged, in that to speak at all of degrees of freedom had just as transforming an effect on the blinkered assumptions then reigning in medieval art history.

The prevailing account of Romanesque style had assumed a social order that held the individual in a position determined by birth and prescribed by divine ordinance; the medieval sculptor was assumed to be bound by the requirements of a dogmatic theology handed down from above, from which no deviation was permitted. But this account was one that a single powerful exception would falsify, and Schapiro found two in Souillac and Silos. The innovative moments in the art of both complexes were bound up with rendering sin and disbelief in the most compelling possible form: here dogma was no guide, so artists, whether monks or lay artisans, had to accommodate emerging secular interests, even dissent against ecclesiastical authority. Far from being obedient to rigidly symmetrical formats, Romanesque artists could create “discoordinate” compositions of fiendish complexity, achieving visual order of a higher level out of intimations of pervasive flux and instability in human existence.

The pressure of forming arguments about Modernist art helped refine Schapiro’s written style into the multivocal instrument required for conveying these qualities to the reader. In one brief example, a passage from his lengthy dissection of a Silos manuscript page depicting the torments of Hell, he finds the logic of the whole in its most marginal components:

Even the small filler spots, the floating islands in a cartographic space, sustain the effect of a dynamic, accelerating whole not only in their plasmic, mobile forms, but in their progressively varied axes which seem to respond to the churning movement of the whole—a liquid field with swarming infusorial elements. The rotation, the lambent and liquid shapes—even in the flamelike hair and the feet of the demons—evoke in their purely dynamic aspect, abstracted from the content, the qualities of Hell described by medieval ascetics in their most gruesome visions which sometimes include, characteristically enough, the spectacle of a great wheel of torment, as well as alternations of fire and water.

To clothe such visions, the medieval artist had to draw on half-buried folk and pagan legacies, and the range of Schapiro’s learning was such that he could follow these lines to their sources. In 1941, a parallel procedure brought him to an essay that would resonate as much if not more in the subsequent study of 19th-century art, “Courbet and Popular Imagery.” And the success of that study reinforced his earlier recognition that the optical naturalism of the Impressionists depended, for its framing and inner logic, upon “the objective forms of bourgeois recreation in the 1860’s and 1870’s.”

Schapiro’s extraordinary series of publications from 1937 to 1941 would by themselves have constituted a luminous career, though he was only 36 at the latter date. (“From Mozarabic to Romanesque in Silos” is a prototype for the article-that-is-a-book.) In a sense they brought one career to a close, one comparable in stature to that of Benjamin, tragically ended by death in the same year. But that achievement, deposited for so long in learned journals and Festschriften, has never achieved comparable recognition within the humanities as a whole. Even among Schapiro’s fellow art historians of the Middle Ages, the full force of his example was largely to remain, in the words of one recent commentator, “praised but ignored.” Columbia, to which he devoted his entire teaching career, waited more than twenty years before making him a full professor. His effective invention of the social history of the French avant-garde lay undeveloped until entirely new generations of scholars took up his texts in the ’60s and ’70s: Linda Nochlin found her way to Courbet and Realism through the 1941 article; Robert Herbert prefaced Impressionism, the summa of his research, with a simple dedication “To Meyer Schapiro”; T. J. Clark began The Painting of Modern Life with the remark that his study “had its beginnings, as far as I can tell, in some paragraphs by Meyer Schapiro, published first in January 1937 [and] still the best thing on the subject.”

None of these scholars studied with Schapiro. Those who did, and the growing army of New Yorkers who sat in on his lectures, speak of their mesmerizing quality, of his ability to perform the process of visual discovery and the startling recognition of pattern before their eyes. That testimony points to the next of his several careers. Perhaps, for all the precision and resonance he distilled into his prose, he despaired of his written words’ ability to convey the intelligence of visual form to a larger educated audience for whom art remained a matter of casual delectation or illustration to history. To initiate such an audience required the entirely different skills of verbal persuasion and exciting improvisation. These he also possessed in abundance; and, though his steady output of exacting scholarly articles and notes continued, he diverted much of his intensity into the spoken word.

In 1952, Schapiro began giving evening lectures at the New School for Social Research. His intention was in part to reach the artistic community, for many of whose members the Ivy League confines of Columbia were remote and forbidding. Schapiro’s need for the company and conversation of those who would immediately comprehend his frame of reference led him to cultivate friendships with artists. Fluency in French had helped him forge a close relationship with André Breton (whose habitual misuse of the term “dialectical materialism” Schapiro felt obliged to correct) and with other exiled Surrealists during the early ’40s. His enduring alliances were of course with painters who came to prominence with the New York School. He and Lillian Milgram were their neighbors in downtown Manhattan, and his activities as artists’ confidante, exhibition organizer, and general advocate of contemporary art are rightly legendary.

Such influence within a local sphere (however grand that locality might be) could only come at the expense of his insights and ideas being disseminated through the broad channels of publication. But here any shortcoming is surely more that of the art history profession, which largely failed to act on the challenge laid down in his early work and thereby hid its importance from the wider world of humanistic learning. Schapiro’s thinking displays a fascination with opposites, in that no quality or trait in art exists without its contrary; and the same can be said of his career, which was both a shadow and a light over his chosen discipline. He was a shadow in that his example made much of art history seem a dimmed landscape of limited ambition and missed opportunities. But he was a light for having almost single-handedly laid the foundations for the modes of advanced interpretation of visual art that we know today; for having forged a bond joining scholarship to the working lives of artists and to the cause of advanced art in America when its success was far from a foregone conclusion; and for maintaining, by word and example over the whole of a long career, the truth that a deep understanding of art is an ethical commitment as well as an intellectual one.


1. From an interview with James Thompson and Susan Raines, “A Vermont Visit with Meyer Schapiro (August 1991),” Oxford Art Journal 17, no. 1 (1994).

2. I owe this information to the insightful unpublished thesis of Hadley Soutter, “Intellectual Development in Meyer Schapiro’s Writing, 1929–1939,” which draws on her interview with Schapiro in 1986.