Steinberg and Art Criticism: Bringing the Focus Back to the Image

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In his lecture “Oh Say, Can You See” eminent art historian and critic Leo Steinberg addressed the problem of writings about art, rather than the art itself, forming the basis by which images are interpreted. His lecture was both wide ranging – covering ancient Greek sculpture to Matisse – and very focused – the second half of the lecture consisted of an extended analysis of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.

diana-of-the-ephesians.jpgDiana of Esephus is here portrayed with a ritual bundle of bull testicles which early Christian interpreters misidentified as breasts. Image from here.

Steinberg began his lecture with an appraisal of images of the goddess Diana as she was depicted in Esephus with many large sphere-like objects on her chest. Starting with early Christian commentators these were identified with breasts and connected with Diana’s status as a goddess of fertility. This textual assertion became largely accepted throughout the rest of history and these breasts, or, as Steinberg called them, Unidentified Protruding Objects (UPOs) became more numerous and more obviously associated with breasts by acquiring nipples in later depictions of Diana. All of this flies in the face of the actual depictions of the goddess in the ancient Greek and Roman world where they were obviously not breasts: they lacked nipples and in some images were portrayed as being below actual breasts and on the outside of garments that she wore. It wasn’t until about 30 years ago that they were correctly identified to represent the testicles of bulls that had been sacrificed to her. The theory was advanced and a sculpture of Diana was made using real bull testicles, showing that these exactly replicated what was found on statues in antiquity. This story provided the frame for the entire lecture: that a group of interpreters writing about art could change how a visual image was appreciated for many years since people are often more likely to trust the written interpretation of a respected opinion rather than go to the image itself and see what is really there.

r_rauschenberg_bed_1955.jpgRauschenberg’s “Bed” was often misinterpreted as depicting a violent rape. Image from here.

The rest of the first half of Steinberg’s lecture gave additional examples of this phenomenon. Rauschenberg’s “Bed,” an abstract painting using an actual bed for the medium was originally described as depicting a scene of violence and rape. This idea proliferated, Steinberg said, without regard to the fact that red is a much less featured color than white or blue and that the painting was obviously painted with the bed standing vertical, in which orientation a rape could not take place.

ernst-virgin-chastising.jpgDespite its title, the three people at the window of this painting are not watching the action, putting the focus of the painting on the viewers. Image from here.

In Max Ernst’s surliest painting “The Virgin Chastising the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter” the three witness at the window are often assumed to be looking at the astonishing act. Steinberg noted that in fact the two poets can’t possibly see the spanking from their position and that the Painter isn’t looking at the act but instead at the viewer. This radically changes the meaning of the painting, taking the focus away from the Virgin spanking the Christ Child to the fact that the viewer is being observed looking at the act and is therefore asked to examine the nature of his fascination with the violence.

h0501portrait-of-mme-matisse-posters.jpgDespite his much quoted statements to the contrary, Matisse’s paintings often weren’t calm. Image from here.

One of Matisse’s most famous statements about art was one he gave to a French newspaper reporter where he described art to be to above all be calming. This statement by him was then used to interpret his own art, when in reality his own art often conflicted with his “abstract aspiration” of what art should ideally be. His paintings were far from calming. Steinberg showed several slides to show them to be often beautiful but violent, using harsh, bright colors or depicting figures, such as his divorced wife, with such unflattering severity that she is said to have cried when she saw his last portrait of her.

These are all examples of how interpretations can be transmitted, often in written form, to such an extent that people often refer to them rather than to the original image. Often these accepted interpretations differ markedly with the facts in the original work, which means that the work is often seen to “mean” something that it in fact does not. For the second half of his lecture Steinberg shifted gears to Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel to show how misinterpretations of art can distort not only its emotional content but theological assumptions that underpin a work of religious art.

Steinberg referred extensively to the writings of Vasari who was one of the earliest writers to give a complete description and interpretation of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel. Vasari generally described the fresco The Last Judgment as emphasizing sin and punishment and the gravity of the situation. Most interpreters have thereafter associated this fresco more with punishment and the wrath of God and Jesus rather than with the forgiveness of God and the ascent into heaven that is also depicted. Steinberg addressed several specific aspects of the fresco to show how Vasari and many latter commentators misinterpreted the meanings of specific aspects that obviously contradicted what was actually painted. These specific misinterpretations thereafter led to an overall erroneous appraisal of the theological meaning of the work as a whole.

jesus_and_mother.jpgA detail from Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment.” Jesus is both standing and sitting, despite Vasari’s assertions to the contrary. Image from here.

Vasari originally described Christ as sitting as if a judge casting judgment with a severe face. In actuality Christ is neither standing nor sitting, but a mixture of both. This posture is in fact how the Second Coming was depicted in literature at the time. Additionally, Christ doesn’t in fact look severe. Mary is not cowering in fear alongside Christ, as is often said, but rather leaning against him for support and, said Steinberg, “to me she seems rather serene.”

Additionally a lot has been made of the elements of the Crucifixion in the top of the painting: the cross and the column he was whipped on arevery heavy and that the angels clustered about them are exerting a great force to lift them up. Looking closely at the angels around the objects they are not actually exerting any effort to keep them up; they are instead neutrally buoyant in the painting and the angels are instead clustering about them to be near the objects of salvation of the world. This is confirmed when one sees that the angels are trying to ritually reenact the crucifixion: one of the angels is hanging on the cross, several others are casting dice like the Roman soldiers did for Jesus’ clothes.

Sinners are also depicted in a much less harsh light than would be traditionally thought if one centered on the horribleness of the punishment that sinners justly receive. There is one instance where several sinners are trying to prevent one from being pulled down to hell; an act of compassion one wouldn’t expect from a sinner. Additionally there is a figure in hell that represents Death wearing a cape and having a skull for a head, but in hell he is in fact giving birth, not something that would be expected with Death. This fact, combined with many other visual motifs in the fresco – such as one of the Angels of the Apocalypse blowing the Last Trumpet not making any effort to blow his trumpet at all – leads Steinberg to assert that Michelangelo was focused more on Jesus as saving rather than Jesus as condemning humanity. Even those who are damned are not as terrible as are often thought and aren’t damned for eternity but after a time of punishment will gain entry into heaven.

The theological content of the fresco is plainly evident to be different from what is usually assumed to be true and this can be ascertained solely on the basis of examining the images. Steinberg concluded his lecture by directing everyone to not trust written explanations of visual artwork but to instead use the work itself as the primary guide to its interpretation.