Pre-democratic past, Democratic Present, Return of the Past with New Accents

One day in 1932, when Leo Steinberg was 12 years old, he went with his parents to a bookshop in Berlin. While his parents talked to the owner, Steinberg began looking at Richard Hamann’s book “The Early Renaissance of Italian Painting”. It had about 200 reproductions “by artists with sonorous names – Pollaiuolo, Ghirlandaio, Piero di Cosimo” (Steinberg). He was “enchanted, and couldn’t stop looking”. When his parents were leaving, he asked his mother if she would buy the book. His mother, glancing at the price, shook her head. “And then the bookseller turned to my father and said. ‘Look, any day now Hitler will be coming to power [as indeed Hitler did five weeks later] and the first thing the Nazis will do is close this shop. So why don’t you just take the book for your boy.’” Steinberg still has the book.

“A student once asked me, ‘Do you mind me picking your brain?’ I said, ‘No need to; it runs a natural leak.’ When I get a thought I can’t wait to tell somebody about it.” He wrote: “Modern art is always born in anxiety, at least since Cezanne. And Picasso once said that what is more important to us in Cezanne, more than his pictures, is his anxiety. It seems to me a function of the look of modern art to transmit this anxiety to the spectator, so that his encounter with the work is… a genuine existential predicament. “
“ARTnews”, May 2011, p. 52 – 53

In a period of mass escape from existential frame of reference in art analysis by many scholars occupied with search for a new semantic space (free from the existential predicaments), to make careers without risk of being accused in promoting historical change, Leo Steinberg in his work always paid attention to the existential concerns of art. In times when the “form” of a work of art was considered as independent from social comment and rather expressing artist’s probes into the nature of the medium, Leo Steinberg was interpreting “form” in its human perspective.