Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 21, 1999
Michael Podro Depiction New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 208 pp.; 44 color ills.; 88 b/w ills. Cloth $30.00 (0300069146)

Erwin Panofsky is said to have been particularly pleased with the fact that he possessed one near-sighted and one-far sighted eye. Using his optical inheritance as a model for how one should write the history of art—paying attention to detail and description, while never neglecting the panoramic view—he provided successive generations of art historians with a powerful challenge to disciplinary blindspots. Michael Podro, one of Panofsky’s most insightful readers (as witnessed in his much reprinted The Critical Historians of Art [Yale University Press, 1982]) has put this visual lesson to stunning work in his recent writing. Nevertheless, Podro’s lavish and lovingly illustrated new book, Depiction, comes as a bit of surprise to readers familiar with his style of argumentation, one clearly grounded in the rigors of analytic philosophy. Neither The Critical Historians nor the earlier The Manifold in Perception: From Kant to Hildebrand (Clarendon Press, 1972), two highly influential books about the historiography of the discipline, prepares us for this essentially poetic, phenomenological, and psychoanalytic paean to what transpires in the two-sightedness and two-sidedness of painterly and sculptural perception.

It’s not that this text, in its devotion to the “constant transition between the near and the far” (p. 42) in both depiction and perception, is not related in all sorts of distinctive ways to Podro’s longstanding preoccupations with what it means to attend to works of art. The focus here, rather, is on the artists, their art, and especially their viewers (us—their contemporary audience), not the intellectual history of the learned historians and philosophers who have attempted to come to terms with them. How a work comes to matter, how and why it reaches out through its own “visual cadences” (p. 61) and arrests our attention, is the perplexing issue with which Podro is here concerned. Although he does not directly employ concepts from reception aesthetics (such as those found in the work of Wolfgang Iser), his is a project directly consonant with this Constance school of thought: “Paintings address us, and they do so in part through creating uncertainty; our engagement with them involves a continuous adjustment as we scan them for suggestions on how to proceed and for confirmation or disconfirmation of our response”" (p. vii). Perhaps more revealingly, it is also undeniably the case that in his fascination with artistic “depiction” and the subsequent “recognition” on the part of beholders that the artistic process entails, Podro is showing us for almost the first time what a Warburgian he has always been. Like Ernst Gombrich in Art and Illusion (Pantheon, 1960) or Michael Baxandall in Patterns of Intention (Yale University Press, 1985), Podro here addresses the lure of the visible. This short book is indeed magisterial enough to complete that Warburg Institute triptych.

I make that claim not only because I consider myself both a grateful student and an admirer of what Podro has contributed to the discipline of art history, but principally because he really makes us look at works of art afresh in this series of striking essays. Using the word “depiction” to name the mysterious something that lies between “the actuality of the medium and the represented subject” (p. 16), Podro calls attention to that which holds represented subject and material surface together, the quality that is neither near nor far from our own engagement with the works, but which is, nevertheless, very difficult to name and identify. And because it is neither one nor the other (neither rabbit nor duck, but the moment of elision between?), its presence has often escaped recognition. It is the momentary place, he claims, where vision is utilized in the work of the imagination. “Depiction” refers to that phenomenological plane where the fictive and the imaginary meld, although it can never be a pictorial quality fixed in either time or space: “There is no one mode of attention to the representation which is exhaustive,” for the surface is always “both substantiating the figures” and is “transparent to the space behind”; “this mobility is essential to how we relate to the subject” (pp. 58, 42-43). Depiction has “its own sense of purpose” that transcends “literal vision” (pp. 16-17). It’s not about seeing-in or seeing-as (as Richard Wollheim might put it), but the very activity of seeing itself: “. . . the central thesis is that the recognition of the subject is extended and elaborated by the way its conditions of representation, the medium and the psychological adjustments the painting invites become absorbed into its content” (p. 2). Podro’s first chapter, “Sustaining Recognition” lays out a theory of depiction by showing how recognition, our most primal way of connecting to the world around us, sustains itself in works of art, as “imaginary” as they may be. And it is precisely the work of depiction to make vision serve the work of the imagination. “Our pursuit of the fiction” (p. 16), he argues, turns everything to its own advantage in the perception of works of art. “Such imagining is not restricted by the requirement of consistency or conformity with our beliefs about the world; rather, it is restricted by how recognitions can sustain and expand themselves to take on an internal architecture of correspondences, allowing the mind to occupy and move about within them, attentive to its elements and gestures and analogizing and connecting them for itself” (p. 28). In subsequent chapters, Podro’s aptly selected visual examples certainly ease such philosophical abstractions into compelling tangibility. In the second chapter, for example, the shallow reliefs of Donatello, such as the exquisite Donation of the Keys and Ascension of Christ of 1435, pictured on the cover, are invoked for their “consistent preoccupation with reworking the boundaries between the material of his medium and the fictions of his subject matter” (p. 30). The interchange of looks between viewer and sitter—both direct and avoided—in the portraits of Rembrandt is the subject of the third chapter, a thesis resonant not only with that of Alois Riegl in Dutch Group Portraiture (1902), but also with that of Michael Fried in Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (University of Chicago, 1980). The fourth chapter presents another take on the magic of depiction as it generically scrutinizes the “painting procedure” (p. 89) in particular of self-portraiture, a strategy Podro evocatively compares to acting. “Viewer and viewed have distinct roles and are re-related in a way that is brought about through the painting; the procedure of painting seems caught up in a conversation” (p. 96).

The last two chapters, which together constitute the second part of the book, one devoted to Hogarth and the ways in which his engravings are a model of social behavior and one devoted to the intimate reflections of Chardin, bring us closest to Podro’s psychoanalytic argument. Admiring Hogarth for the way he refused to isolate “painting from the world of issues beyond itself—of morality, money, sexuality and religion” (p. 110), he praises the artist for the way in which he depicted his subjects “as if from the inside”: “. . . to draw convincingly is not to map surfaces nor simulate appearances, it is also to imagine being situated mentally within the object” (p. 116). For Hogarth, the “visual/conceptual divide does not mark the border of his art but lies within it” (p. 124). Making art, depicting the power of subjects through the manipulations of charged forms, becomes expressive of some of the deepest and earliest urges of the artist as creator. To characterize this “archaic urgency within us and its corresponding satisfaction” (p. 149) in creating works of art, Podro concludes his book by reference to the still lifes of Chardin, the object relations theory of D. W. Winnicott, and the insights of Proust, an unusual and startling alliance to be sure, but nevertheless one that presses the poetry of Podro’s insights home. The thesis is very difficult to articulate in a sentence or two because it manifests through innuendo, allusiveness, and indirection—in this case, for the most part, rhetorical qualities to be admired. Suffice it to say, the premise is that certain kinds of depiction that depend on the interplay between the work and the viewer mobilize an “underlying mental structure” (p. 165), which has been formed in infancy. The fact that we do not simply encounter works of art, but “occupy them with our thought” (p. 178) is testimony—as Proust’s writing on Chardin persuasively conveys—to their ability to retrieve for our “awareness the resonance of ordinary things and the life lived among them” (p. 165). What Podro himself sees as the stunning characteristic of Chardin’s painting is the “combination of substantiality and elusiveness: aspects of the subject, the bloom on fruit, the surface of silver, of a joint of meat, of glazed or unglazed pottery, seem to arise in the matière of the paint” (p. 152) itself. To convey this effect through a traditional art-historical vocabulary of either form or content is to miss the magic of depiction and “the capacity of painting to elicit a sense of intimate reflection on the part of the viewer” (p. 2). His reader is enriched as well. “The visual attention that . . . painting sustains” (p. 176) is provocatively and eloquently addressed anew in Podro’s latest text.

Michael Ann Holly
Director Emeritus, Academic and Research Program, Clark Art Institute