The form and the intelligible

Image: Kazimir Malevich


Commentary on Robert Klein's Book

The set of articles and essays by Robert Klein, gathered by André Chastel under the title The form and the intelligible, expresses the general character of the diversity of historical and theoretical interests dealt with in them, as they address Renaissance authors or themes, conceptual questions about the nature of the work of art, an appreciation of the birth of modern art – it is worth remembering, in the sense of abandoning the scheme renaissance of pictorial representation – and, albeit brief, a foray into ethical themes. The passage from the form to the intelligible, or even a kind of game between the intelligible and the form, is the hallmark of his work, both historical and theoretical. Continuing, to outline Robert Klein's way of attacking the themes he proposes, it should be remembered that these two sides, the historical and the theoretical, are worked on in constant reference to one another.

The work's organizer establishes a parallel that is not only very attractive but also indicative of an intellectual destiny: he compares Robert Klein with Walter Benjamin. Undoubtedly, we have here a very suggestive approximation, since it recognizes a similarity of posture and attitude between the two authors towards intellectual life. However, Klein approached Edmund Husserl to establish his theoretical horizon, while Benjamin found it in Karl Marx. The latter directed his interest towards literary themes and the then affirmation of cinema as an art, while the former turned his gaze mainly to the culture and artistic production of the Renaissance.

In fact, of the 25 texts that make up the book, including articles, notes, essays and reviews – distributed in four parts –, 14 deal with Renaissance authors or themes, including the work that gives the work its title. The remaining texts address in a punctual manner – which in fact characterizes Robert Klein's style and interventions – theoretical aspects, whether in terms of doctrine or history, such as the question of the foundation of iconography or the discussion about taste or the evaluation of the loss of reference in modern painting. By the way, the “Note on the end of the image”, a brief six-page text, is mandatory reading.

In this “Note”, Klein observes that the abandonment of an exterior or interior “model”, the similarity of the pictorial representation with something or as an expression of a feeling, made it no longer possible to evaluate the work of art. As Chastel observes, summarizing Klein's thesis, “what suddenly distinguishes so-called modern art from all previous art is, therefore, the concentration of attention on the very act of painting or sculpting, that is, a displacement of interest which removes all reference – to the object or to the personality – to insist on something else. As if the means had suddenly acquired more importance than the end or ends, the work is considered above all as the mysterium fascinating to explore”. Only the “art” intention remains. Now the work can only be measured by itself. Criticism loses its place.

On the other hand, with regard to studies related to the Renaissance, one of the themes that Klein worked on in an exemplary manner was that of perspective, which incidentally caused admiration and later persuaded Erwin Panofsky himself. Such was the case when he scrutinized perspective constructions within the scientific concerns of the Renaissance. This theme occupies the entire second part of the work. Recognizing a certain independence between the work of artists in their studios and humanist treatises, of a Neoplatonic nature, Robert Klein examined the various uses of the system in perspective that took place in the Renaissance and that historically consolidated as a new “vision of the World”. Now, the analyzes he undertook showed that perspective concerns, first of all, problems of composition and only secondarily to the understanding – or intelligibility, or reading – of space. It is more about a construction of space than its vision.

In addition to the question about perspective, other subjects occupied him in relation to the culture of the Renaissance: great importance is reserved for the question of the symbol, the way in which science was “situated” and, within the scope of ethical problems, the notions of responsibility stand out. and alienation.

The approximation with Husserl – regarding the implications and methodological consequences of his essays – resulted in an “analytical” of hermeneutic inspiration. The spectator constitutes his reading of the work of art, making use of all the information he has, of an entire culture already internalized. Thus, when confronted with the work of art, the spectator projects his culture onto the work. Consequently, the attempt to establish an iconography runs the risk of falling into artificiality or arbitrariness. One cannot aspire to a pure iconography. To the extent that hermeneutics seeks to understand the work, avoiding the schemes of a science of iconography, the explanations that psychology intends to provide must also be viewed with reservations.

Thus, Klein's methodological attitude, in general, consists of operating, through analysis, an arrangement between interpretation and description, combining or even promoting an alliance between diachrony and synchrony. Klein invests in the diachronic consideration of the theme he has on the agenda, interested in the nexus of succession and, at the same time, seeks to account for a synchronic ambition by trying to order the analyzes in the form of a system.

From an early age, he collaborated with the periodical Humanism and Renaissance, writing reviews in which he attributed to the authors acute observations that the reader would not later find in the referred book. However, this is not the case with the magisterial review he dedicated to the book art and illusion, by Ernst Gombrich, and which André Chastel included in the third part of the book. Having good eyes for Gombrich, Klein tackles the issue of the psychological in explaining the work of art and its historical evolution.

Despite the somewhat turbulent existence he led and contrary to what happens to many intellectuals – which does not necessarily apply to writers and artists – Klein developed an active and uninterrupted intellectual life. The genre he chose was the essay, which provided the treatment of a subject punctuated in a vertical way. Such is the trait of the texts gathered here. And the collection of these texts resembles a mosaic. Perhaps this is a pertinent image to qualify the set of articles and essays that we have here. For, from the assembly of “pieces” or “fragments”, duly ordered, we come across a coherent whole.

The original destination of these texts was not to constitute a book, but, once compiled in this way, they preserve the heterogeneity of the themes and authors treated and keep the cohesion from the methodological point of view and from the theoretical horizon that it seeks to clarify: the passages to and fro return from form to intelligibility. Klein's treatment of the foundations of Renaissance aesthetics is a paradigmatic example, as he recognizes, in the Pythagorean principle – via Neoplatonism – of harmony between reason and nature, the possibility of an agreement between the sensible and the idea. The idea as image. The form becomes intelligible. The intelligible inhabits the sensible.

*Victor Knoll (1936-2021) was a professor at the Department of Philosophy at USP. Author, among other books by Harlequin patient: a reading of the poetic work of Mario de Andrade (Hucitec).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews, No. 46, January 1999 [].


Robert Klein. The form and the intelligible: writings on the Renaissance and Modern Art. Organization: André Chastel. Translation: Cely Arena. São Paulo: Edusp, 1998, 488 pages.


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