PRINT May 2004


Svetlana Alpers on Richard Wollheim

Richard Wollheim, London, ca. 1980. Photo: Rupert Wollheim.

RICHARD WOLLHEIM, who died on November 4, 2003, at the age of eighty, was one of the leading philosophers writing on art and on the mind in the twentieth century. Art and Its Objects (1968, expanded 1980), On Art and the Mind (1974), Painting as an Art (1987), The Thread of Life (1984), and On the Emotions (1999) were among the compelling books he wrote. But listing titles hardly does justice to the man or to his work. Wollheim’s friends were at a loss: How does one go on with one’s own work when his sustaining passion for painting and his endless vitality in pursuit of it are gone? His life, like his writing, was a remarkable bid, not without its distress, to pursue matters of the mind while acknowledging that one is also at the mercy of one’s emotions.

Art and Its Objects, in which Wollheim set forth his general aesthetic, is dazzling. Easy to read, it is difficult to take in. Addressing questions fundamental to the philosophy of art, Wollheim argues, among other things, that we possess an innate human capacity for representational seeing, which he famously called “seeing-in.” We see an object in the paint that marks a surface rather than alternatively seeing marks or seeing an object. In looking at a painting, this primitive human ability (which likewise enables us to see, say, figures in clouds) is constrained by the fact that what we are seeing is intended by an artist. If, as Wollheim argued, criticism is retrieval—that is, a reconstruction of the creative process by means of which a given artwork came into being—it follows that a retrieval of the artist’s intentions, broadly speaking, would be a central ambition of the critic.

Wollheim realized philosophy could be forbidding in its “uncorrupt form.” “Like paint”—there is amusement in the voice—“it requires that we find ourselves in it before it gives us anything.” Those not finding themselves in philosophy may turn to Painting as an Art, which grew out of his 1984 Mellon Lectures (an honor normally reserved for art historians). Here he set out a system of thought about painting (the art for him) and went on to example this in the viewing of works close to his heart—by Bellini, Titian, Poussin, Ingres, Manet, Picasso, and de Kooning, among others. The more philosophical sections of the book entertain basic questions that are rarely so boldly addressed. Wollheim considers how it is that the materials of painting can be transformed into a medium which can be manipulated so as to give rise to meaning. It is the internalizing of this possibility into the painter’s activity and its repeated renewal over time that has made for the history of the art of painting.

Unlike the luminous exhibition reviews Wollheim wrote in his last years for the English art journal Modern Painters, the critical writing in Painting as an Art is exceedingly complex—in part because it is used to tease out elements of a general system. Take, for example, the fine evocation of the mental state—momentary, preoccupied, troubled—of the subjects in Manet’s single-figure compositions. Wollheim’s account rests on positing an (invisible) internal spectator within the pictures whose role is, roughly put, to embody a sense of the inaccessibility of the depicted figure. This internal spectator functions as a protagonist for the imagination (“central imagining”) of both artist and viewer. The positing of the internal spectator, for me at least, does not work in pictorial terms. Despite that, one remains persuaded by Wollheim’s characterization of Manet’s paintings, as by the thought that painting can have meaning in excess of what “seeing-in” alone can account for.

Wollheim had many art historians (and many artists) as friends. But he was out of sympathy with much art-historical writing of his time. He was whimsical about the matter: “Many art-historians, in their scholarly work, make do with a psychology that, if they tried to live their lives by it, would leave them at the end of an ordinary day without lovers, friends, or any insight into how this had come about.” He sustained an interest in traditional connoisseurship because of its potential (as yet unrealized) to offer a theory of the individual artist’s style. But he had no use for the distractions from art offered by the new social history of art. And in a number of papers, he challenged the confusion between pictures and language in semiotic and structuralist theories, with special reference to its debilitating effect on an account of pictorial meaning.

Wollheim, in turn, was of little interest to art historians more engaged with institutions or ideologies or codes than with artists making art. And his unwavering confidence in a universal human nature (which must have been tested when he came under enemy fire in World War II), informed by psychoanalytic theory, was out of favor.

After retirement from University College, London, in 1982, Wollheim taught at Columbia before taking up a position at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985. I became a friend of Richard’s then. There was a captivating sociability about him—new restaurants to try, new people he wanted one to meet. He preferred to do his writing on a pad at a café table. The preface to one book thanks cafés in four cities.

He was a nomad, always boarding an airplane to go somewhere to lecture or to look at paintings. He much regretted that (for a project left unfinished) he had not seen a particular Ruisdael landscape in the Hermitage and another in Cape Town. His wry observation of a passing scene in which he was at the same time so invested seemed out of Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay, published in 1923, the year of Wollheim’s birth.

He saw his work as coming out of a life lived. He traced his taste for Poussin back to childhood. “I can recall,” he wrote in the preface to On Art and the Mind, “being driven home, one chill afternoon, in high excitement after first setting eyes on the sumptuously austere canvases of Poussin, still my ideal of art.” And his writings defend an aestheticism formed in adolescence: “an impatience . . . with any form of culture that turns its back on history, or complexity, or melancholy.”

Svetlana Alpers is professor emerita of the history of art, University of California, Berkeley. Her Vexations of Art is forthcoming from Yale University Press.