IN MEMORIAM: Michael Baxandall (1933-2008)

by Travis Jeppesen on August 20, 2008

Michael Baxandall has died. As an art historian, he was responsible for engineering the idea of the “period eye,” in which one must take into consideration the social, cultural, and economic realities surrounding the creation of a work of art in order to “see” it in its original authorial and cultural context.

At the same time, Baxandall broke with a tradition of social art history by largely omitting politics from his analysis. This made his work the subject of criticism by Marxist social historians of art, whose interpretation is naturally rooted in a class bias.

In a work like Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, however, it becomes clear that, despite the complains of the Marxists, Baxandall was indeed concerned with the power structures inherent in Renaissance Italy. He just didn’t take sides, is all. Let the past be the past, he seemed to be saying; I’m just here to show you what I’ve found. Are we then to blame him for his rigid air of objectivity, his heavy reliance on source documents surrounding the commissioning and creation of particular works? If anything, Baxandall is generous in letting us form our own conclusions based on the gathered evidence.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Baxandall’s method, as it came to fruition in such landmark works as The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, was its ambiguity. His work continues to buck against academic standards of writing in refusing to reach a summarizable conclusion. In this respect, Baxandall is all pure method; he shows us the possibilities inherent in historical research as process, the joy in unearthing buried connections otherwise destined to remain external to our understanding of beloved paintings and sculptures.

Eventually, Baxandall came to admit that he was actually a historian of culture, rather than art proper. The distinction had to be made, as his focus was not on the purely formal aspects of art, but on the ways in which life has constantly intervened to mold and shape those mysterious images and objects that are the products of endless delight, honor, and speculation for the living, and often come to be seen as relics once the original creator and possessor are no more.

In this sense, Michael Baxandall was a writer for whom art and life truly were inseparable. For this reason alone, his legacy will continue to resonate, even while his work continues to perplex and bemuse.

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