Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 29, 2012
Paul Barolsky A Brief History of the Artist from God to Picasso University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011. 168 pp. Cloth $24.95 (9780271036762)
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If “the history of the modern artist is, in short, the story of artistic obsession,” as Paul Barolsky writes in A Brief History of the Artist from God to Picasso, then the author, whose long and distinguished scholarly career has focused on the artist and the early texts in which he has been represented, reveals a similar, and understandable, tendency. As Barolsky acknowledges, the book represents “a synthesis of a lifetime of thinking about the idea of the artist.” Here the idea of the artist retains its Eurocentric flavor, the expected result of the very historiography upon which Barolsky relies. The major outlines of Barolsky’s historiographical obsession reveal themselves in the titles of some of the earlier books written by him throughout the course of the last three decades: Michelangelo and the Finger of God (Athens: Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 2003); Why Mona Lisa Smiles and Other Tales by Vasari (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991); Michelangelo’s Nose: A Myth and Its Maker (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990); and Giotto’s Father and the Family of Vasari’s Lives (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992). For good, historical reasons two artists, Michelangelo Buonarrotti and Leonardo da Vinci, and one artist-historian, Giorgio Vasari, figure large in Barolsky’s earlier work and here. The order of A Brief History of the Artist from God to Picasso may be judged as roughly chronological, but themes and insights reliant on these sources weave throughout. God, Barolsky’s first artist, may be known only through his representation in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (ca. 1511) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Picasso, the concluding artist in Barolsky’s chronology, may be compared to Vasari’s conception of Michelangelo “as the pinnacle of the history of art” and likened as well to many other artists as represented in Vasari’s Lives. Faithful to the obsession with the individual artist found in the history of European art from the generation before Vasari to the present, Barolsky’s book insists on the significance of the artist-creator through the repetition of proper names of mythical, fictional, and actual artists. In one short paragraph of the preface I counted fourteen names, with three repeated twice or more.

The artists Michelangelo and Leonardo provide the historiographer of the artist much to work with: a plethora of early biographies and well-documented works of art in the case of the first, and an abundance of original writings on art and life by both of them. In turn, these artists and their artistic and literary works have served as exemplars and source material for the concerns not only of the history of art, but also for philosophy, in its investigations of the concepts and meaning of art, as well as psychology, in its need to understand the creative personality. The third character in Barolsky’s historiographical triumvirate, the early modern biographer and artist Vasari, remains fundamental to any investigation of the idea of the artist because of the sheer magnitude of his project to document the lives of all of the artists of his own “modern” period, and because he chose the genre of the literary biography in and with which to write this history.

In his new book, Barolsky borrows topics and arguments from his earlier and more scholarly studies that reiterate a point by now well explored by himself and others, including this writer, that “the history of the artist is inseparable from historical fiction about the artist” (xv). A Brief History of the Artist from God to Picasso appeals to the more general reader in that it lacks the scholarly apparatus and structured argumentation required by specialists in the discipline of art history. A short and idiosyncratic bibliographical essay follows the book’s conclusion. However, it should be noted that Barolsky addresses the art historian throughout. Indeed, given his repetition of the familiar sources, it would be difficult not to, as Vasari himself wrote for an educated audience of collectors, theorists, and artists, and both Michelangelo and Leonardo aspired through their art and writings to the same class as that of their princely patrons. To his credit, Barolsky overtly, even ostentatiously, rejects the scholarly approach as just so much “over-interpretation,” claiming to go “against the grain of verbosity and reductiveness” (1) presumably present in most scholarly art history. Instead, a sense of familiarity, gained over years of focused concentration on the historiography of the artist—on the documentary, literary, and historical texts that represent the artists discussed—pervades Barolsky’s prose. Artists are written about as old friends might be; they return over and over again to the story, as a long-tolerated relative might to the dinner table. The overall tone is jovial, albeit containing morsels of self-mockery.

The scholarly approach to the idea of the artist originated in Vienna and in the joining together of approaches to the creator and to the biographical literature on art found in the relatively youthful disciplines of psychoanalysis and art history by a student of Sigmund Freud, Ernst Kris, and a student of what was just then being characterized as the Vienna School of Art History, Otto Kurz. All studies of the artist since then, particularly Barolsky’s here, owe much to the conclusions drawn by Kris and Kurz in their well-known study of 1934, published later in English as Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979). Barolsky’s interests draw directly upon Kris and Kurz in two major ways: first, in terms of the entailment of the artist with the work of art, Kris and Kurz argued that the image of the artist remains “bounded up with the work of art and the mystery of its origin in the mind of the creator,” thereby determining “the image of the artist as it has passed into the historical record” (114); second, in terms of the individual artists and texts Barolsky uses, particularly the significance of Dante and biographies of him for the later history of the artist that developed in Tuscany. As Kris and Kurz demonstrated so succinctly, biographical literature beginning in the Renaissance established the direct link between the artist and the work of art, just as Boccaccio’s Life of Dante, as I have argued (Catherine M. Soussloff, “Lives of Poets and Painters in the Renaissance,” Word & Image 6 (April–June 1991): 154–62), established the necessary link between the poet-creator and The Divine Comedy. Kris and Kurz found that the anecdote, a major narrative structure in or mode of early biographical writing, constitutes the essential place for the elaboration of topics about the artist and the work of art. As the lingua franca of the representation of the artist in both historical and fictional writing, the anecdote serves in every way Barolsky’s major point that “the history of the artist is inseparable from historical fiction about the artist.”

When Kris and Kurz wrote their short study of the artist they called it “ein historischer Versuch,” translated in E. H. Gombrich’s 1979 edition as “a historical experiment.” In German, the phrase can have two meanings, the alternate being “a historical essay.” In 1934, when Kris and Kurz sought both to combine approaches taken from art history and psychoanalysis and to write about the concept of the individual artist—a topic not previously explored—the characterization as experiment was apt. Some eighty years later, following his own contributions and those of many others to the subject, Barolsky’s initial sentence to the coda of A Brief History of the Artist from God to Picasso jars: “This book has been a kind of experiment, an essay in which I have attempted to suggest or flesh out just some of the basic patterns in the history of the artist in the Western tradition” (135). The reviewer—even the informed reader—may therefore speculate on this now false, or anachronistic, claim of experimentalism and, if one accepts virtually all of the earlier historiographical contributions to the study of the artist from Kris and Kurz to the present, on whether it would indeed be possible to find “different narratives of the artist,” or different patterns, as Barolsky goes on to suggest.

If Barolsky’s attempt at the disambiguation of the history of the artist fails as a result of the accuracy of the views concerning the representation of the artist since Kris and Kurz, which he himself accepts, his claims to “superficiality” notwithstanding, then the historiographer’s own intentions emerge as significant. These may be seen as parodic or even satiric, as when in the chapter on the art of God Barolsky cites Voltaire with a telling self-commentary to follow: “Besides, as Voltaire once said, ‘The best way to bore people is to tell everything.’ Perish the thought!” (1) Scholarship requires an explanatory mode that attempts to exhaust, or at least to acknowledge, the possibilities of the interpretation of the subject under investigation. In this understanding of the scholarly approach, the definition of the subject determines the interpretation and the methods used to achieve it. It has been said in many different ways that art-historical scholarship demands an even more exhaustive approach, given the materiality of its object of interpretation and the amplitude of the category of art to which this object belongs. Where does the artist fit in this scheme of interpretation? What can the historiographer “do” with this object of interpretation, entailed as it is with the materiality of art and with a body of literature in which the representation of the individual creator defaults to formulaic modes of narration? Should we remain silent, as the dervish in Candide advises, or should we cultivate our garden, the choice of the protagonist Candide? Does “doing” art history mean to obsessively repeat the same actions according to the cycle of the seasons, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Barolsky would have it? Silence assumes that scholarship should not exist. Cultivation assumes repetition, and therefore goes against the presumption of originality required of the historical explanation and the specificity required of history. Clearly, a position outside this Voltairian opposition must exist in our contemporary world if we are to make anything of history, or if art history would bring insight to art and artists.

“The history of the modern artist is, in short, the story of artistic obsession,” writes Barolsky, “the unending pursuit of what is unattainable, and the various stories of obsessive artists all undermine the idea of art history as progress toward an idea or goal, since that goal is ultimately beyond reach” (xv). While this sentiment expresses well the problem with an Idealist version of art history, it does not do justice to the critical methods and theories that have followed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Should art history be consigned to a sort of rubbish heap of repetition and neurosis if it cannot define a singular goal or if it must reject the perfectibility of art? Already near expiration by more advanced modes of cultural thinking when Kris and Kurz wrote in 1934, and of which they were a part, these views of art history are indicators of an earlier time and a younger disciplinary foundation. In regards to the history of the artist, what matters today, and what has mattered for much of the last eighty years, is to situate the persistence of cultural types, such as the creator, and literary texts, such as the biography of the artist, in a larger context that responds to the current human condition—its social, political, and historical dimensions. In 2012, when art and the artist appear to be more pervasive—both temporally and globally—than ever before in history, that might well be a project worth aiming for. The choices of the Enlightenment are no longer ours to make.

Catherine M. Soussloff
Professor, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, University of British Columbia

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.