Michael Baxandall

At the conference on Leonardo last week Jules Lubbock reminded me that he had written an essay on Michael Baxandall, my Ph.D supervisor and still an intellectual hero to me.   It’s called ‘To Do a Leavis on Visual Art:  The Place of F.R. Leavis in Michael Baxandall’s Intellectual Formation’ and is published in a volume of essays about Baxandall called Michael Baxandall, Vision and the Work of Words, based on a conference I wasn’t able to go to at the Warburg in May 2012.   What the essay demonstates very clearly is Baxandall’s debt to Leavis who taught Baxandall as an undergraduate at Downing in the early 1950s and was presumably the reason why he went to Downing in the first place.   Leavis gave Baxandall his deep attentiveness to the language of criticism and the modes of engagement in works of art and his ambiguous relationship to what he described as ‘Courtauld stuff’;  also, his moral high mindedness and contempt for the more belle lettriste tradition of writing about art.   Lubbock’s essay brought back to me the occasional supervisions I had with Baxandall which were nearly silent, puntuated by occasional disdainful comments about much writing about the eighteenth century, until he produced a thimbleful of whisky.   What he did convey in all that he didn’t say was the importance and essential complexity of the task of criticism and the need, as Lubbock demonstrates, for tact and restraint (not Leavis-ite characteristics) and for critical enquiry through encounter as opposed to laboured systems of art historical interpretation.

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