PRINT May 2001


Leo Steinberg

EVERY LEONARDO NEEDS A LEO STEINBERG. Every critic of expansive vision and intellect, every Leo Steinberg, needs a Leonardo—or a Michelangelo, Borromini, Velázquez, or Picasso (Steinberg’s choices): an artist sufficiently profound to repay a lifetime of looking and sustain the critical response. Steinberg’s writing explores human emotion, retrieves arcane cultural signs. finds humor and wisdom intertwined, gathers up the fullness of experience. All inclusive, it suits Leonardo’s immensity.

Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper, which reworks and extends an essay Steinberg published in Art Quarterly in 1973, attributes inclusiveness to each and every constructed element of the painting, from the central figure of Christ down to reconstructed details of the architectural setting. How many turns of meaning does it take to convert simplicity into inclusive complexity, as opposed to mere complication? One of Steinberg’s chapters demonstrates that the hands of Leonardo’s Christ perform no less than seven functions; among their multiple pictorial achievements, they cause the surrounding walls to align, or rather emanate, in proper perspective. Yet, Steinberg implies, the inclusiveness that really counts involves but one function or meaning and its alternative. In the hands of a master of representation, doubleness is complexity enough.

Ever precise, Steinberg will call it “duplexity.” The word is unusual, but the concept is so fundamental that one wonders why this lexical choice finds no everyday application. Is it because “duplicity,” with its connotation of deception, has been serving our culture better, putting doubleness under suspicion for the single-minded? To wonder at “duplexity” versus “duplicity” is already to approach Steinbergian analysis, which illuminates the unseen and probes what passes unremarked. But not just any unseen: What separates Steinberg from the crowd of revisionist historians is the cultural force of his choices, which remain remarkably independent of academic fashion. Strangely, despite Steinberg’s renown and younger art historians’ embrace of multiplicity, it’s never been, nor has it become, fashionable to be Steinbergian. Is his method too risky, too difficult, too personal? His discoveries tend to angle off the professional grid. He doesn’t merely reverse or invert, nor select interpretation B only because others have already chosen A. “Cautious colleagues,” he predicts, won’t disprove his details, but will instead disapprove of the intricate whole, never having imagined its possibility, even negatively.

Specifics: Throughout the long history of Leonardo interpretation, critics have sought the meaning or story line that would reduce the Last Supper’s complex form to a single accounting of its observed contradictions. To no good purpose, Steinberg implies, for the painting “has been more grossly wronged by simplistic underinterpretation than by surfeit of subtlety.” The coexistence of meanings—or better, Leonardo’s systemic principle of coexistence, his duplexity—has remained inapparent to artists and intellectuals alike. Against their reductiveness, Steinberg argues that Leonardo’s creation “converts either-or into both. . . . Where something in the picture seems disarmingly obvious, look for its opposite. The rewards are immense.” To think and see in duplexity—this is what Leonardo’s art demands. Reading Steinberg requires it of us.

During the time he was composing the first version of his Leonardo study, Steinberg was arguing a series of radical propositions in disparate realms of art-historical research, all based on long bouts of looking. Rather than identifying modern pictorialism with a shift from “Renaissance” three-dimensional illusion to the literal, two-dimensional flatness favored by formalists, he offered an angled alternative. He contrasted the naturalistic pictorialism that one would project onto facade, wall, or canvas-bearing easel, to the cultural collage that one might assemble on floor, worktable, or flatbed (Rauschenberg was his central example). Think of this as a conceptual rotation through 90 degrees, a right-angle turn as opposed to a 180 degree reversal. At the same moment, Steinberg was arguing that many of Picasso’s “standing” figures might actually be reclining or recumbent; they appeared upright only because of the verticality of their pictorial format. Here, another instance of critical reorientation by 90 degrees. While formalists were converting to social history and iconographers were absorbing gender theory, Steinberg didn’t just switch methods—he saw things afresh.

In the case of Leonardo, his interpretation (initiated during the ’60s) created still another 90-degree performative revolution, this one a bit harder to grasp. Generations of Last Supper critics, he perceived, had insisted on disambiguation; generally, they had privileged the theme of Christ’s betrayal, to the diminishment or even exclusion of the equally evident theme of the institution of the Eucharist. Steinberg realized that the betrayal theme unfolds along the transversal plane of the picture—scanning along the supper table, a viewer observes the disciples’ array of emotional response to Christ’s “one of you shall betray me.” Simultaneously, the eucharistic theme projects outward, with Christ, by extended arms and enveloping perspective, addressing you to partake of the bread and wine. Here Leonardo was “thinking in two and in three dimensions at once, across the field and right through.” Along the transversal plane, in flatness, one reads the proleptic narrative of Christ’s betrayal; this is history, and it happens only once. Along the orthogonal projection into space, the figure of Christ institutes the eucharistic sacrament; this is ritual, to be repeated as long as human time lasts. In flatness, a story is told as planar sequence. In perspective, a viewer is set before the presence of Christ, who occupies both picture plane and worldly domain. These are two fundamentally different senses of space, two fundamentally different senses of time, captured in a single pictorial event by means of a right-angle turn. The key to interpreting Leonardo becomes inclusiveness: Christ’s “two-natured hand in its congruent godhood [instituting the Eucharist] and frailty [announcing betrayal] is the profoundest pun in all art.” Puns, of course, are duplex.

Steinberg’s final chapter makes a different claim to Leonardesque punning, concerning form as opposed to narrative content. How should we regard the prominent coffered ceiling in the Last Supper—is it a trapezoid, or a rectangle in dramatic perspective? See it in duplex “co-presence,” suggests Steinberg, for “to doubt the rectangle is unreasonable; to deny the trapezoid, unseeing.” As if it were a story being told, we attribute to the rectangle a rational structure. The trapezoid, to the contrary, presents itself in immediacy; we see it as it appears, whether illusory or real. This distinction affords Steinberg his conclusion: “the trapezoid is, daedally speaking, the ineluctable modality of the visible.” What? He’s just said what? The trapezoid, an ideal rectangle in “real” one-point perspective, constitutes the sign of visibility itself, as it conjoins momentary sight with timeless (divine) reason. By Steinberg’s understanding of Leonardo, the trapezoid, a shape assumed also by the Christ figure, is a “gift” from God. Easy enough to see; hard to explain or describe.

Why, nevertheless, has Steinberg phrased his thought so weirdly? Why “the ineluctable modality”? He’s playing with another’s words; reading him, you have to play along. Will millennia1 readers recognize his specific reference? It isn’t obscure, but . . . Steinberg has created the kind of elaborate literary pun for which a writer might think it worthwhile to construct a whole book, just to reach the point where the pun becomes literal. This is why his “quotation” requires no quotation marks. “The ineluctable modality” happens to open the “Proteus” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is the book that long ago taught Steinberg, not a native, how to write in deep English. There Joyce’s character Stephen Dedalus muses over what we perceive spatially (the immediately visual) and what temporally (the sequentially audible). Stephen’s thoughts approach the protean, multisensed morphing that Steinberg attributes to Leonardo’s forms. “Daedally” is the intentional giveaway. Literally, it refers to intricate, ingenious invention, like that of mythological Daedalus (and Leonardo, too); figuratively, it alludes to Stephen Dedalus, who speaks daedally.

What is Steinberg doing? He’s performing. Read Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper extra slowly, savoring the sounds, from the inaugural title page with its assonant vowels and repetitions of “I” and “s,” to the acknowledgments at the end. There we find “deft Sheila, daedal Don and I colluding”—editor, designer, and author. Now “d” and “I” predominate, as in the key word “daedal” itself, which appears unexpectedly in this supplement to the text proper; the word literalizes Steinberg’s theme of intricate invention, through to the book’s outermost margins. As Steinberg thinks, he senses and plays on the vehicle of his thought (rather like Joyce’s Dedalus). Known as a brilliant lecturer, he uses sounds as Leonardo used colors—as the ineluctable modality of his medium of communication. Even when set to writing, sounds underlie sentences. They matter to this scholar as they did to novelists like Joyce or Vladimir Nabokov, another Steinberg favorite: “the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth” (Nabokov on the name Lolita); “aits of original pigment afloat in flat washes” (Steinberg on the microscopic fragments of Leonardo’s paint matter, now suspended within layers of conservators’ potions—“aits” is deep English for tiny islands). Steinberg’s description is graphically accurate, succinctly indicates his opinion of the painting’s present condition, and despite its ominous implications, is beautiful to hear as one reads it.

Yes, Leonardo’s Last Supper is “incessant,” echoing through Western culture, copied and commented upon. Yet physically, there’s little left to see. We recover its daedal intricacy only through critical writing that attains Steinberg’s heights of discernment and sensitivity. In ancient times, Daedalus invented human flight—wax wings with famously mixed results. Leonardo reinvented flying for the Renaissance, a sort of helicopter. Now human flight is as commonplace as reproductions of the Last Supper, but Leonardo’s creative ingenuity and humanistic insight are lost. So Leo Steinberg has had to reinvent Leonardo. Through his example, he’s also reinvigorated the practice of art history. He makes his written art history a sensory art. Daedally speaking (no quotation marks), few others are likely to fly as successfully as he has.

Richard Shiff is Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art and director of the Center for the Study of Modernism at the University of Texas, Austin.