Essay / Art

Leo Steinberg Looked at Art

Leo Steinberg (1920-2011) died earlier this week (NYT obit), leaving behind a rich legacy of writing on art, both criticism and history. There are some great art historians out there, but it’s hard to imagine who can fill the void left by a Steinberg.

Steinberg is probably most famous for his critical revolt against mere formalism in art criticism, or, if that’s too rarefied a discussion to hang a reputation on, for his book about why Renaissance artists painted baby Jesus so conspicuously naked. It’s the kind of detail that you wonder why you’ve never noticed before, and that you can’t un-see once you’ve seen it. Steinberg’s compelling answer was that Renaissance artists weren’t just weird about infant genitalia, but had definite theological reasons for displaying Jesus as fully human and specifically male.

But my favorite of Steinberg’s critical performances was his interpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, or, as he called it in the title of a late book, Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper.

Steinberg started by asking, “is there anything left to see or to say” about so famous an image? It was kind of a rhetorical question, because he then went on to see “Seven Functions of the Hands of Christ” in Leonardo’s Last Supper, and to say what he saw those hands doing:

1. Surrender. “Christ lowers his arms in resignation; done with the ministry, he is about to submit to the Passion.”

2. Trinity. “Strangely enough, it is this shrinking of shoulders that also serves to triangulate the body’s shape. Christ’s arms, aligned with his falling hair, form a nearly regular, three-sided figure… the sign of the Trinity. Leonardo, it seems, would have the incarnation of godhead reign at the table…under the aspect of an equilateral triangle.”

3. Pointing out the guilty: “Christ’s right hand stays the recoiling left hand of Judas –the two, in the symmetry of their mutual approach, suddenly similar, almost identical.”

4. Communion. Christ’s right hand also reaches for the grail, “fingers splayed for the widest span, like a pianist’s striking an octave.” And his left hand extends toward the bread.

5. Judgment. Right hand up, left hand down. That is the traditional posture for judgment day. Ah! But this is complicated by the fact that Leonardo’s Christ has reversed his gestures of blessing and cursing. Furthermore, the left side of the Last Supper is the cross side (John, Peter, Judas, and the wine; the wall on that side is shadowed) while the right side is the resurrection side (the evidential finger of Thomas, the bread; the wall behind is illuminated).

6. Welcome. Christ’s left hand, palm up and extending a welcome, reaches out toward the original entrance of the refectory whose wall it is painted on. “Whatever meaning the visitor took from the gesture, he would have seen the open hand put forth in his direction.”

7. Lordship. Christ’s arms reach forward across the table, and “give the figure a projective ground plan;” they ” fan out, obliquely foreshortened, and with far-reaching consequence.” Steinberg says that “Choreographically, the motive force in the picture is the flare of Christ’s arms, and it is to their action that the whole picture responds.” The disciples make room for them, the walls obey linear perspective only because they obey the arms.

Steinberg had a reputation for seeing more in a painting than others saw, and he was often enough accused of seeing amazing things that weren’t actually there to be seen at all. In other words, he was so creative that he ran the risk of projecting his own ideas onto an image. Are there really seven functions of Christ’s hands in this one fresco? He admitted that readers were likely to find it implausible: “Each observation alone may be sound. It’s the septemfluity that appalls.” Yes, septemfluity is a word, meaning “having the character of flowing sevenfold.”

Knowing that he was always struggling against his audience’s hesitation to follow him in his critical performances, Steinberg’s characteristic style was to venture a few steps, pause to see who was still with him, then take a few more. Throughout the seven functions essay, he seems to delight in flirting with the reader’s growing sense that he must surely be going too far. But he was counting on the art to be good enough to bear his scrutiny. “It is the wonder of great art to be so richly dowered that it satisfies even under restricting assumptions.” And for his part, Steinberg worked quite intentionally toward the opposite of restricting assumptions:

Overloading Christ’s gesture with interpretations, we may well be reading in more than the painter intended. Conversely, resistance to multiple meanings may be projecting our preference for simplicity upon Leonardo. The risk of projecting attends both alternatives, and, judged by the historical record, the Last Supper has been more grossly wronged by simplistic underinterpretation than by surfeit of subtlety.

Anything left to see or say? With Steinberg as a guide, yes and yes, and even when he was done he had imparted the sense that there was still more. He once insulted another art historian by saying “His glimpse of a Michelangelo picture is as from a speeding car bound for the library.” Steinberg wasn’t speeding by, and though he sometimes seemed to have read absolutely everything, he wasn’t heading for the library. He was staying with the pictures, seeing what was in them, and patiently, creatively, all but incessantly, saying what he saw.

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