Joachim Pissarro’s Radical Art History

Image of Joachim Pissarro.

Joachim Pissarro, image courtesy Hunter College.

What is the relationship between philosophy and art history? In its origin, in Hegel’s 1820s lectures on aesthetics, art history was a philosophically informed discipline. Nowadays, however, the concerns of academic philosophers are usually distant from those of art historians. In his book Cézanne/Pissarro, Johns/Rauschenberg. Comparative Studies on Intersubjectivity in Modern Art (2006) the art historian Joachim Pissarro argues that this is a mistake. Drawing on his studies of philosophy in Paris and art history in London, he begins with a great question: “What happens when artists work together?” Then with reference to Kant, Fichte and Habermas he answers that question. An important artist is someone who develops a radically original way of thinking. Initially, so experience shows, such real originality is often difficult to understand. But then with familiarity, the public comes by stages to grasp the value of novel ways of thinking. Pissarro’s book looks in close detail at pairs of paintings by four artists, Cézanne, Pissarro, Johns and Rauschenberg, comparing their recorded ideas and contrasting their artworks.

At this point, in a modest way I come into this story. Like most writers, in late middle life I was settled in my intellectual life. I had ongoing writing projects, which I looked forward to completing. One important but typically thankless academic tasks, an interruption of this research, is reading manuscripts for publishers. Usually these would-be books are too long, too pedantic and too unoriginal to be published without severe editing. But who wants to reject the products of younger scholars, who are in the process of learning their trade? (I recalled how painful I found the many rejections of my early writings.) And so my reading of Pissarro’s proposed book was a bolt from the blue. Here coming from a professor I had never heard of was an exciting, deeply original manuscript. I wrote pages of enthusiastic comments. And so Cézanne/Pissarro, Johns/Rauschenberg was published.

Some years later, thanks to a gifted mutual friend, Cathleen Chaffee, who was a curator at MoMA (she now is chief curator at Buffalo AKG Art Museum), Pissarro and I met. And then an unexpected change in my intellectual life that I never had anticipated took place. After we talked I didn’t just treat his account as a challenging bookish analysis, but was inspired to change my own writing. And I was very lucky, for Pissarro responded sympathetically to my discussion. Looking back, it’s clear that this discussion of his Comparative Studies on Intersubjectivity involved internalizing the concerns of that analysis, in a way that was deeply philosophical. Our practice of intersubjectivity was inspired by this reading of his book. Here, I should note the contrast between my training at Columbia in analytic philosophy and his very different Parisian background was important. For him, Tzvetan Todorov was perhaps the most important mentor; for me it was Arthur Danto. Pissarro and I shared enough interests to be able to talk to one another- and we had certainly enough differences to inspire productive argumentation. Obviously we were not going to start making paintings, like the four artists discussed in his book. We, rather, were going to write an art historical analysis together.

As his title indicates, Joachim Pissarro’s book considers two artist pairs: Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro (his great grandfather), and Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Pissarro’s analysis deals with two unusual artist-pairs, major figures whose collaboration is well documented.In 2005, when a MoMA curator, he organized a major exhibition, Pioneering Modern Painting: Paul Cézanne and Camilla Pissarro, 1865-1885, which developed these comparisons. Painting, he showed, can be a conversation, a collective process involving two artists in close personal contact. A shared sensibility arises from that emotional intimacy. But such cases are exceptional. Many major artists develop without having any such relationship. And so it’s worthwhile asking how his account might be extended to consider such cases. Perhaps, insofar as almost all major artists employ and modify an inherited tradition, the concept of intersubjectivity can be extended to include such inheritances. I have written extensively about Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Sean Scully (1945- ), two very different painters whose theorizing attracted my attention. And so it was inevitable that I would rethink my prior accounts of their art, in light of our discussions.

Here the last part of our story needs here to be told just briefly. Once I met Pissarro, it was unexpected that, inspired by my reading of his book, and the discussions that resulted, that we would ourselves collaborate. My sense was that, insofar as his ways of thinking about art history involve serious philosophical argumentation, that art historians would be reluctant, and maybe even unable, to develop his concerns. But we, as two philosophers, were in the right place to extend his analysis. And this obviously, at least for me, was unavoidably a self-conscious process in which I kept his account of intersubjectivity firmly in mind. Such intimate intellectual relationships are unavoidably occasionally contentious. (Look at the conflicts between Camille Pissarro and Cézanne or Johns and Rauschenberg!) Responding honesty to disagreement is essential if the collaborators are to preserve their identities. But sometimes great good will is needed to keep going. In fact, Pissarro and I did two books together, accounts which have a real but tangential relationship to his earlier publication. We were interested in what we dubbed ‘wild art’, art that is outside of the art world system. Graffiti and tattoos, are just two important examples. And we offered an explanation of why such an exclusionary system matters, and how it functions. But this discussion of wild art and its relationship to intersubjectivity should be the topic for another occasion. And in any event, our collaboration is not by any means completed. We are still talking, so stay tuned to see what comes next!


Our joint publications are Wild Art (2013) and Aesthetics of the Margins / The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (2018). On Pissarro’s claims, see my “An Art History Made for and by Artists,” The Routledge Companion to the Philosophies of Painting and Sculpture, eds. N. Carroll and J. Gilmore (2023), Ch. 12.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.