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A respected art historian branches out in two final books

Posted: December 8, 2010

By Filip Šenk - For the Post | Comments (0) | Post comment

Personal supplements

Walter Novak

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Introducing Michael Baxandall briefly is no easy task.

The British-born intellectual is generally considered one of the most influential art historians of the 20th century, "an independent mind who left an indelible mark on art history and beyond," as noted historian Carlo Ginzburg has written. But Baxandall's thinking goes so far beyond the field of art history that one might say he doubted the discipline itself and therefore felt drawn to cross its limits.

Baxandall had two books in the final stages of publication when he died in 2008; not an uncommon situation for this prolific intellectual whose most famous books include Giotto and the Orators, Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany and Pattern of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures, all of which share Baxandall's method of "the period eye." In other words, the author always tried to understand art through its original historic language and meaning. 

But the two books Baxandall was on the verge of publishing when he died are exceptional in that they are absolutely nonscholarly. Episodes: A Memorybook is an autobiographical project, but not merely a sentimental pining for gone good times. Baxandall's fundamental project in writing the book was to answer the deceptively simple question: "Who is Michael Baxandall?"

Episodes: A Memorybook
144 pages
A Grasp of Kaspar
236 pages
Frances Lincoln Press

"It cannot be unusual to find one's self incoherent, at some point, in the sense of finding one's self difficult to see as something distinct, articulated and whole," Baxandall writes in the book's first line. Throughout Episodes, Baxandall looks back on different moments in his life and different acquaintances he had, continually asking himself whether he is the same person he once was, while at the same time inquiring about the definition of "self."

The closing sections of the book are the most enjoyable, as the author describes his academic beginnings and the people he knew earlier in life. The following scene takes place with British art historian and Baxandall's colleague, John Pope-Hennessy.

"Perhaps four yards away he looked at me and opened his peculiar mouth as if preparing to speak about something. ... I slowed and, I suppose with a yard or two to go, halted to receive his communication, and without breaking step or losing speed he swerved slightly round me and went on his way without a word. I was left standing, foolish. I found the incident interesting because it displayed in such a pure and innocent form an impulse behind much of his behaviour," Baxandall writes.

Episodes provides significant insight into Baxandall's critical mind. Throughout the book, Baxandall makes an effort to show that the simplest details of life are actually not at all simple. Describing his childhood and adolescence in the United Kingdom before, during and after World War II, Baxandall manages to capture timeless details that make personal incidents accessible to all readers.

The second book Baxandall was preparing to publish when he died is equally uncharacteristic of his previous work as a scholar and art historian. A Grasp of Kaspar is in many ways a classic thriller novel, but not entirely.

The story is situated in Switzerland and Italy during the 1950s, when both cultures were still heavy with World War II-era memories and suspicions. A young British historian named William Briggs is hired by an American investor to investigate a case of possible tax fraud by a textile company. Briggs soon quits the job but not the case, as he gets involved with the wife of Kaspar Leinberger, a former German lieutenant who has connections to Nazi gold and seems to be the key to the mystery.

A Grasp of Kaspar is symptomatically mysterious. With an art historian's eye for detail, Baxandall seems to enjoy writing quaint descriptions of mist and fog in Swiss valleys, floating above Alpine lakes or lying in the Tuscan countryside. The following description captures the haze above a morning lake.

"Now at mid-morning the sun shone strongly through the haze, a reddish disk that seemed only a few metres overhead. It was extraordinarily warm, a steamy shadowless world of scattered light," Baxandall writes.  

A light tone of irony pervades the book, yet one forgets this when the tension of the story culminates. It seems Baxandall set out to write an enjoyable story that would not present itself as utterly seriously. Regardless of the author's intention, however, the result is a solid thriller offering mystery mixed with ingenious remarks on history and language.  

Above all, Michael Baxandall will be remembered for his admirable scholarly achievements in art history, and his last two books are not likely to alter this reputation. Episodes and A Grasp of Kaspar will remain modest and personal supplements to Baxandall's major works.

Filip Šenk can be reached at

Tags: books, book review, new books, literature, culture, michael baxandall, intellectual.

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