Obituary - Richard Wollheim.
The philosopher Richard Wollheim, who has died aged 80, belonged in the top
echelon of thinkers who redefined the practice of his subject in Britain and the
United States after the second world war. In terms both of the clarity of his
writing and the acuity and ingenuity of his arguments, he embodied the
intellectual virtues of analytical philosophy. But in terms of what engaged him
as a philosopher, he stood far closer than any of his peers to continental
Wollheim had little interest in donnish preoccupations with linguistic usage, or
with the endlessly agonising issues of how language relates to reality. But he
freely adapted some of the strategies worked out in addressing these issues to
the problems that did engross him, which typically derived less from what other
philosophers said than from what was central in his life.
As a philosopher, he was, for example, deeply engaged with issues that were
central to the visual arts. But art - and especially painting - was of the
greatest importance to him as a person, and his relationship to it was far wider
and more immediate than was typical of those relatively rare philosophers of his
stature who bothered with aesthetics and the philosophy of art. The philosophy
of mind, which also engaged him, was a far more mainstream subject than
aesthetics, and indeed has all but defined mainstream philosophy in recent
Wollheim's focus, however, was on psychoanalysis, which has largely been
marginal to philosophical psychology, and at best a target of critical hostility
by philosophers of science. He regarded it as exactly the right kind of theory
through which to understand human nature.He wrote with authority on Freud, and on Freudianism in general; and in his own philosophy of mind, in such books as On The Emotions (1999) and The Mind And Its Depths (1993), as well as in some of the deeply original studies collected in On Art And The Mind (1973), it is the mind as charted by Freud - and especially by Freud's follower, Melanie Klein - that underwrites his basic premises. Psychoanalysis was crucial to his personal outlook, and played a fundamental role in defining his outlook on art. His thought, in brief, was systematic, but the system itself derived from what defined him as a man. Wollheim published two major works in the philosophy of art: Art And Its Objects (1968) and Painting As An Art (1987), the latter based on his series of Andrew W Mellon lectures at the US national gallery in Washington, DC - events normally presented by art historians, for whom it is the crowning achievement of their careers.
Art And Its Objects contains what is widely regarded as Wollheim's major
philosophical contribution, which he designated "seeing in". We see an object in
the paint with which a surface is marked, rather than simply seeing the marks.
This he regarded as a primitive human ability; it is exercised when we see faces
in clouds, for example, or, as Leonardo noticed, landscapes in the stains on a
wall. But pictorial perception is a more complex achievement, since what we see in a painting was intended by the artist, who organised the surface in order
that viewers should grasp what was meant in putting it there.
In Painting As An Art, Wollheim cautions against taking the idea of intention in
too narrow or limited a way. "At least in the context of art," he writes,
"intention must be taken to include desires, beliefs, emotions, commitments,
wishes." The viewer will infer the intention from the way the painting looks,
and this, Wollheim believed, "presupposes a universal human nature in which
artist and audience share". This notwithstanding, paintings do not instantly disclose their meanings; and Wollheim has left us an amusing description of his own method of looking at paintings: "I evolved a way of looking at paintings which was massively time consuming and deeply rewarding. For I came to recognise that it often took the first hour or so in front of a painting for stray associations or motivated misperceptions to settle down, and it was only then, with the same amount of time or more to spend looking at it, that the picture could be relied upon to disclose itself as it was. I noticed that I became an object of suspicion to passers-by, and so did the picture that I was looking at."
Though he disclaimed any intention of psychoanalysing works of art, many of the remarkable interpretations in Painting As An Art seem to presuppose
psychoanalytical ideas. In a virtuoso reading of a painting by Willem de
Kooning, for example, he wrote: "The sensations that de Kooning cultivates are
the most fundamental in our repertoire. They are those sensations which give us
our first access to the external world, and they also, as they repeat
themselves, bind us for ever to the elementary forms of pleasure into which they
initiated us - sucking, touching, biting, excreting, retaining, smearing,
sniffing, swallowing, gurgling, stroking, wetting."
The three threads of Wollheim's life and thought unite in this description:
painting, philosophy and psychoanalysis. He argued that if painting presupposes
a universal human nature, then "it must be absurd to bring to the understanding
of art a conception of human nature less rich than what is required elsewhere."
And he nails this thought down with the profound observation that "many art
historians, in their scholarly work, make do with a psychology that, if they
tried to live their lives by it, would leave them at the end of an ordinary day
without lovers, friends, or any insight into how this came about."
But this would be as true of philosophers or psychologists as of art historians,
and whatever one may think of the detail in Wollheim's analyses and
interpretations of art, he took a brave stand against the reductionisms that
impoverish the way so many intellectuals have approached what are, in effect,
the highest achievements of the human spirit. We should relate to art as we
relate to one another. He felt that the views on human nature that emerged in
Painting As An Art made explicit "the common ground in which the two deepest commitments of my life - the love of painting and devotion to the cause of socialism - are rooted". The way in which painting and socialism are, in his
words, "locked together" was never entirely explained.
It is a striking feature of Wollheim's life that he was engaged in the life of
art as a critic and an enthusiast, as well as through being a philosopher. He
wrote widely and brilliantly about the artists he admired, such as Poussin and
Ingres, Manet and Bellini, as well as those artists whose work best fitted the
conception of painting that he evolved in Painting As An Art - painters in whose
work the universal human nature, in which he believed, was palpably present.
Wollheim coined the term "minimalism" in the celebrated essay Minimal Art
(1965), in which he addressed monochrome painting and the "readymades" of Marcel Duchamp, seeking examples that met the minimal criteria a work of art must meet. This was, however, more a philosophical inquiry than a critical investigation into an art to which he was particularly devoted. The acceptance of these objects as works of art "gives rise to certain doubts and anxieties, which a robust respect for fashion may suppress but cannot effectively resolve".
In the end, Wollheim was prepared to admire some contemporary artists whose work differed sharply from that in which he deeply believed. But he suspected that history would "not forgive an age whose record cannot be set straight without an excess of footnotes over text". He was too cosmopolitan a figure to express the outrage of many conservative critics, but he was convinced that "the scene is too overcrowded with figures who tried to get into history without contributing to the art".
Born in London, Wollheim was educated at Westminster school and Balliol College, Oxford. From 1942 to 1945, he served as an infantry officer in France, a period interrupted in 1944, when he was briefly a prisoner-of-war in Germany before escaping to rejoin his unit.
From 1949, he taught philosophy at University College London, becoming Grote professor of mind and logic in 1963, a post from which he retired in 1982. From then on, most of his teaching was in the United States: as professor of philosophy at Columbia University, from 1982 to 1985, and at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1985 until his death. He also held a chair in
philosophy and humanities at the University of California, Davis.
Wollheim delivered the William James lectures at Harvard in 1982; they were
published as The Thread Of Life (1984), a study of personal identity. Similarly,
his 1991 Cassirer lectures at Yale were developed as On The Emotions. He was president of the Aristotelian Society (1967-68), the British Society for
Aesthetics (from 1993) and the Pacific division of the American Philosophical
Association (2002-03). He was an honorary affiliate of the British
Psychoanalytical Society (1982), and an honorary member of the San Francisco Psychoanalytical Institute (1994). In 1991, he was given an award for distinguished services to psychoanalysis by the International Society for
Psychoanalysis. Wollheim's cosmopolitan personality enabled him to take an interest in things that did not entirely live up to his philosophical demands, and it guaranteed that he never needed to fear being left "at the end of an ordinary day without friends or lovers". He was a profoundly engaging man, and wonderful company. An animated conversationalist and a vivid raconteur, his default state was one of amused detachment, though he sometimes took positions on issues that others, to his amazement, found outrageous. He tended to side with the underdog - to support rioting blacks in Detroit, or Palestinians in the Middle East conflict, despite the fact that he was Jewish through his father's side.
He was raised as a Christian, though he was entirely indifferent to religious
ideas. Since he often lightened his writing with personal reminiscence, it is
difficult to read him without getting a precise picture of his character and
personality. Nor is it difficult to recognise that he is by no means identical
with the narrator in his 1969 novel, A Family Romance, which is far more a
literary creation than a self-portrait. It is the diary of a man who is reading
Michel Butor's L'emploi du temps, and commits a crime - poisoning his wife -
rather than, as in Butor's book, discovers one.
As with Wollheim's philosophy, there is no doubt that certain aspects of life
were carried over into his fiction - the narrator, for example, confesses to a
love of painting - and though it was widely rumoured that the book was, in some degree, a roman à clef , it was, if that, also an experimental narrative which questioned the extent to which even the most intimate form of writing can
capture the reality of life as lived. A far better place than his novel to get a sense of what Wollheim was really like is his essay, Fifty Years, in which he recalls his life as a soldier, and particularly how he managed to escape after being taken prisoner by the Germans. With a companion, he went to pee against a hedge, leapt through to the road below, and ran away in freezing rain. The companion knew no French, so Wollheim explained to an official that he was his idiot brother. "I knew that my French might deceive an SS officer, but it required only one Frenchman around us to denounce me."
He saw little in their conduct to give him a higher opinion of his comrades than
of his enemies, and concludes the memoir sardonically: "Stretch the corpses I
had seen since the Normandy beaches end to end, and what would make the whole haphazard killing worthwhile? The fall of tyrannies, perhaps. But it would have been better if there had been some change of heart."
The heart was really the focus of his thought, in life and in philosophy, and it
was the heart, above all, that he sought in the painting about which he was so
passionate. The heart has not been the favoured organ of philosophical interest
since perhaps Pascal, and it is this that set Wollheim apart from his peers in a
discipline to which he brought originality and distinction.
He was twice married, first to Anne Powell in 1950, with whom he had twin sons, Bruno and Rupert; after that marriage was dissolved in 1967, he married Mary Day Lanier, a potter, with whom he had a daughter, Emilia.
· Richard Arthur Wollheim, philosopher, born May 5 1923; died November 4 2003
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