Meyer Schapiro is one of those critics whose idea of criticism is to use it to weave a story of his own out of the story or visual experience he is examining, this principle applying just as much in art criticism as it does in literary criticism where, for example, Lionel Trilling wove his own story of the nature of morals out of the story he found in Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park”, however contrary that interpretation might be to an accurate one. Schapiro does so, moreover, in the discursive prose style of the typical scholarly essay, where observations are made to elaborate on an early announced theme, rather than in what might be considered the more artistic story like process of suspense and release that can be found in, for example, Erich Auerbach’s classic essay “Odysseus’ Scar”, where the author uses the recognition scene in “the Odyssey” to tell a story about the difference between Greek and Hebrew culture, something it would not have occured to Homer to consider even if it is a story very much on Auerbach’s mind. (What are produced in these essays are stories because they are full of the unfolding drama of the particular in conflict with the general, Auerbach telling us of ways to distinguish the Greek from the Hebrew, there being many more that are not referred to. That is different from most scholarship which makes no bones about subsuming limited evidence to a particular thesis).
Schapiro, who was no stranger to writing theory about art, also practiced the most routine forms of art criticism, performing what Dr. Johnson would have thought of as the essential job of the critic, which was to provide information about the biographical background of the creator of the work, the most distinctive features of the work, and what was problematic about it, all so as to enhance the pleasure of an audience in appreciating the work. And so Schapiro provides that sort of introductory essay for a coffee table book on Vincent Van Gogh, the book mostly consisting of plates of some of Van Gogh’s best known work. Yet Schapiro cannot inhibit himself from announcing a theme to go along with his brief summary of the stages of Van Gogh’s life and a penetrating description of the way Van Gogh, over the course of his life, changed the way he used color. He says early on in his essay that “...van Gogh converted all this aspiration and anguish [in his life] into his art, which thus became the first example of a truly personal art, art as a deeply lived means of spiritual deliverance or transformation of the self; and he did this by a most radical handling of the substance of his art.” Now this certainly seems out of left field, something not warranted by the colors and shapes and representations or non-representations of a painting. How does Schapiro reach this conclusion?
Schapiro picks up his strands from here and there and he is persuasive because there is no denying that each of these strands is significant. He argues that Van Gogh, who had been liberated into his mature art by, among other things, Japanese art, then very popular in France, became focussed on portraiture, which allowed him to present ordinary people rather than posed patrons, in their full humanity because of his use of bright fields of distinctive colors rather than the drab colors and darkened backgrounds common in previous portraiture. This made him a respecter of the distinctiveness of people, and so served the same interest that had led him to work with the poor in his earlier days. Moreover, the brightness of the color planes, even including the impact of his brushstrokes, made of every painting an illumination of the sacredness of the individual, a kind of Christ portrait, even though, in fact, Van Gogh did not do portraits of Christ.
This religious, humanistic dimension is fully achieved in “Pavement Cafe at Night” because there is observed a connection between the immediate and the heavens, the bright yellow awning the center of the painting and serving both as religious canopy and itself a piece of religious splendor for a person who no longer has orthodox religious impulses but does have a sense of the disembodied numinous experience. After that high point, there is a descent, Van Gogh’s final picture of crows showing a break down or, if one prefers, a unification of subjectivity and objectivity, of foreground and background, of subject and setting. So Van Gogh has in his career been on a religious quest to understand the place of people in the universe and at the center of his vision is a deeply Christian humanism.
The importance of Schapiro’s point is that a viewer should not treat a Van Gogh painting as simply a matter of visual splendor, even if that is what brings in the big audiences, the current fame, and the big bucks. Rather, to Schapiro’s mind, Van Gogh is something of a philosopher in that he probes the deepest of questions and comes up with resolutions for them. That is in line with Schapiro’s general approach, which is to find meaning rather than just beauty in painting. And Schapiro has done this partly by looking at some paintings in an odd enough way so that they reveal such meaning and partly by selecting which paintings to highlight as the central strands of the artist’s work.
Here is a point that is not just about painting but about intellectual history, which is the topic to which Shapiro often moves his observations. Van Gogh was a painter who, according to Schapiro, moved along the history of consciousness by making the way a painter engages with the world more important than the “mere” transformation he brought about in the art of painting. So, in another example, “The Bedroom at Arles”, Van Gogh doesn’t simply present a brightly lit and cheerful portrait of his bedroom. He infuses it, transforms, this bedroom, into a resplendent residence of the painter’s spirit. The most significant feature of the painting is not the overfilled table in one of the shades of orange that tie the picture together. It is, rather, the flat back board of the bed that dominates the picture, taking up an enormous space with its flatness. This not only points forward to the walls of color of the Abstract Expressionists. It conjures up the security a child would feel at the solidity of his bed, and so is a projection of what Van Gogh feels about his room, so different from earlier paintings by other artists who think of a bed as a darkened cot hidden in a corner and so testifying to the isolation of the person who sleeps there. As Schapiro puts it, “...his feeling of repose in paintings so full of movement is also the outcome of a kind of cathetic process; by projecting movement into nature, he is relieved of tensions and wins a real peace.” Too rhetorical or right on the mark?
So how and what Schapiro looks at, what is selected, is what offers this story of spiritual progress and spiritual depth, which is very different from what most people would take away from the paintings, but which might, all in all, be true, though here, as elsewhere, Schapiro seems to be making perhaps too strong of a case for his point of view, not just relating the facts so that they can speak for themselves, as if they ever could. That is what makes Schapiro a great art critic: it is what he has to say that remains with the reader after completing the essay, not just a primer on the painter under discussion. Whether that is what art critics should do is up for debate, but that is what Schapiro did.