Richard Wollheim is among the most important writers in philosophical aesthetics since World War II. Influenced by the contextualist position of the 20th-Century Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wollheim claimed in an earlier book, "Art and Its Objects," that the comprehensibility and beauty of paintings can only be understood against the context of our form of life as a whole: that is against the web of styles of cultivation, and modes of community, of beliefs, history, emotional dispositions, physical and psychic needs that is us.
In "Painting as an Art," an expanded version of Wollheim's Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts given in 1984, Wollheim develops this theme through extended readings of the paintings of Manet, Ingres, Picasso, Titian, Bellini and De Kooning--but with a twist. Wollheim's twist is his aim, the central aim of the book, to provide a psychological account of pictorial meaning. Specifically he attempts to ground pictorial meaning in the experience of paintings and this experience in perceptual capacities, emotional dispositions and deep psychic needs and desires shared by artist and viewer. That is to say, the explanation of representation, expression and metaphor in paintings will rest in facts about our psychic lives and how the marks on canvas that are painting stimulate, force or otherwise engender the things we see, feel and fathom in paintings.
Wollheim's appeal to psychology as a form of explanation for the art in painting does not leave out entirely the important roles of social and cultural ambiance in the construction and construal of artwork. That would be hopeless, and Wollheim often refers to facts of social style, religious ideology and the like in interpreting the paintings he discusses. (In this regard, Chapter IV contains a long and interesting discussion of artistic borrowing, and of the role of texts in artworks.) What Wollheim does rule out through his psychological account is the centrality of appeals to things outside of psychology--to rules of some purported pictorial language or to social conventions and political ideologies--in explaining the pictorial meaning of paintings. He firmly believes that paintings, unlike languages, are not crucially rule-governed; that social codes and formal structures are not central to pictorial meaning. Woll- heim then opposes most current trends in semiotics, structuralism, and hermeneutics, which claim that artworks have a hidden pictorial language or which claim they must be understood as cogs in vast social or political codes tacitly grasped by the competent viewer.
This view really has two dimensions. One is the deep idea, echoed from the philosopher Immanuel Kant, that artworks are articles of genius in the sense that they (like metaphors, jokes and marriages) are fashioned in their own unique terms in spite of being fashioned in the context of style and society. This goes against the grain of a tendency in art history to think of artworks purely in terms of larger art historical styles. The other is the searching idea that the most subtle and profound things about paintings can be explained psychologically. Wollheim wishes to show how far psychology can go in accounting for the subtlest aspects of paintings.
Such ideas are articulated in Chapters I and II and tested through those close readings of paintings that occupy the rest of the book. It is in his readings of actual artists that the full power of the book emerges. Following Freud's discussion of Leonardo, Wollheim always brings in psychology to explain hitherto unnoticed or unaccounted-for features of paintings.
In his discussion of Ingres, for example, Wollheim notes Ingres' icily distant yet potentially seductive figures, Ingres' lopsided use of pictorial space (classicist yet irregular), and his tendency to repeat paintings. These, he suggests, reveal Ingres' paintings as obsessive attempts to fulfill a wish for reorganizing the family drama that defines him, a drama involving idealized figures who remain too distant. It is crucial to point out here that Wollheim is not relying on psychology to reduce paintings to psychological symptoms. Rather, he is using it to show us the meaning and power in the pictorial gesture. Thus, the payoff of this invocation of theory in the discussion of Ingres is that his works now make deeper sense, especially the paintings of women, in which, according to Wollheim, sexuality is itself viewed by Ingres as idealized and remote in its severe beauty.