Irving Lavin: In Memoriam
Practicing Art History
Oscar Wilde said "life imitates art." George Bernard Shaw observed: “You use a glass mirror to see your face. You use works of art to see your soul." So what is art history? Nothing less than a humanistic branch of biology, the study of life, and of philosophy or theology, the study of the transcendental. Necessarily subjective, it yet demands scientific rigor in analysis and utmost precision in its translation into words. No one better exemplified these qualities than Irving Lavin, who for me established the application of Occam's Razor to art history: reduce the visual evidence to the clearest explanation. At a time when obscurity was valued over clarity, complexity over simplicity, I concluded that, before Irving, my most valuable preparation for art history was freshman physics, which taught that the proof of scientific theorems, their claim to truth, lies in the beauty of economy: explaining the most data in the least complicated way. Mies got it right: “Less is more.” Or as Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
My first foray into art history happened a year before I took a course in it. I was writing a paper for freshman English analyzing a poem, “In Santa Maria del Popolo” by Thom Gunn, Princeton’s poet in residence. As I wrote, my father suddenly appeared with an art book: “Maybe you’d like to see the painting the poem is about.” It became my all-time favorite, Caravaggio’s Conversion of Paul. The figure lies prostrate, eyes closed: everything happens within, as Saul is converted into the apostle Paul. His gesture is the sole sign of his state of soul, the poet’s “large gesture of solitary man / Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.”
If in this instance a timely illustration illuminated a poem, the relationship between text and image was soon reversed. More often the very act of writing leads to questions and, if I’m lucky, answers I am unaware of before putting pen to paper. It’s what my father called “the heuristic power of writing.” He explained that “ideas are like suitcases—hard to pick up unless one uses the handle. It is the writer’s task to provide that handle for the reader.”
Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Irving never settled for the bug. I recently had to revise my Bernini book after Irving’s authentication of Bernini’s rediscovered Salvator Mundi in Rome. As I struggled to find the right words a question popped up: What is the primary, simplest meaning of Christ’s puzzling gesture?
The playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote, “Die Tiefe muß man verstecken. Wo? An der Oberfläche.” Depth must be concealed. Where? On the surface. Bernini’s surface always makes dramatic sense. His son Domenico, who was present at the creation, described the gesture “as if in the act of blessing.” If we take him at his word, then–in the spirit of Occam’s Razor--the answer is obvious: Bernini captured in stone the act of blessing. He left as his parting tour de force the Savior caught at the moment he is about to complete the horizontal sweep of the cruciform blessing, a gesture familiar to any Catholic. In the end, it’s all about movement, Bernini’s hallmark.
My final heuristic moment came while composing a long-postponed (for 40 years!) article on Bernini’s Cristo Vivo crucifix. Once again, in the midst of writing, I asked myself: Why did he make it? Why, after three quarters of the crucifixes for St Peter’s were cast—all representing the Cristo Morto, the Dead Christ—did he decide to design a second version, the Living Christ?
As I was describing the dynamic S-curve in the related sculpture of Daniel, the piece fell into place: Daniel in the lions’ den was a traditional prefiguration of the Resurrected Christ, triumphant over death just as the prophet had survived the lions. Bernini’s revised crucifix expresses not only the expiring figure on the cross, but also—proleptically (a term I owe to Irving)—the Resurrected Christ. He wanted to conclude his sequence of twenty-five altar crucifixes not in b-minor, but B-Major.
The practice of art history, I submit, owes as much to the discipline of writing as of looking. The written word is itself a medium of chiaroscuro—drawing shadows into light.
--For video of full session of scholars' discussion, click link: https://youtu.be/pMQH_syAyTE
When I returned to Princeton in the fall of 1973 as a grad student, I met Irving Lavin, who had himself just arrived here from New York with Marilyn, Amelia and Sylvia. That encounter was to pay the richest of dividends over the next four and a half decades. Irving was quite simply the most brilliant scholar I’ve been blessed to know “This Side of Paradise.” He modeled concepts, insights, and language as miraculously as Bernini shaped marble.
The highlight of that first term back was Irving’s packed lecture on “Divine Illumination in Caravaggio’s Two St Matthews,” followed by his colloquium for our group of starry-eyed grad students; in my eyes Irving embodied Divine Illumination, as he mentored, challenged, encouraged, probed, chastised, and utterly engaged me on the road to Emmaus, the subject of my article that emerged from it.
His first book, Bernini and the Crossing of St Peters, transfigured my vision of art history. His dazzling methodology was matched by linguistic magic. I’ll never forget his description of Bernini’s Baldacchino as “topographic transfusion”—Jerusalem to Rome.
Years later he inspired me to lobby Abrams to add the first book on a sculptor to their Masters of Art series—you can guess the identity of the sculptor. Fast forward to a new millennium and the discovery of Bernini’s last and long-lost sculpture, the Salvator Mundi, in Rome. I called Irving and asked whether it had been painful to revise his earlier attribution in favor of this new bust. His response? “That's the way the cookie crumbles!”
I cannot think of a more treasured collection of writings on a great artist than Irving’s three-volume magnum opus on Bernini, Visible Spirit. The title equally describes its author of prose so spirited, engaging, persuasive—and “more durable than bronze.”
On Bernini’s 400th anniversary, Irving called his scholarly devotion to him a “long love affair.” But it was surpassed by a more visible one, for together--and that's how I shall always see them--Marilyn and Irving represented the Lunts--or the Curies--of art history. Luminaries and luminous.
A few years ago I finally met my favorite living artist, Frank Stella. What did he want to talk about? His dear friends Marilyn and Irving! Irving then emailed me his encomium entitled “Frank Stella Talks Too Much.” OK, I’m taking my cue: when I look back and all around at the department chairs, professors, curators, and scholars Irving has inspired and modeled—like Bernini terra cottas—I’m reminded of what Henry Adams said about a teacher never knowing where his influence ends. “A teacher,”Adams wrote, “affects eternity.”
Charles Scribner III
The Institute for Advanced Study
For video of full session of remembrances, click link: https://youtu.be/-4hl75qRpuc