Professor Richard Wollheim

Philosopher preoccupied with aesthetics and psychoanalysis

Monday 17 November 2003 01:00

Richard Arthur Wollheim, philosopher: born London 5 May 1923; Assistant Lecturer in Philosophy, University College London 1949-51, Lecturer 1951-60, Reader 1960-63, Honorary Fellow 1994; Grote Professor of Philosophy of Mind and Logic, London University 1963-82 (Emeritus); Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University 1982-85; Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley 1985-2003; Professor of Philosophy and the Humanities, University of California, Davis 1989-96; married 1950 Anne Powell (two sons; marriage dissolved 1967), 1969 Mary Day Lanier (one daughter); died London 4 November 2003.

Richard Wollheim was one of the most original and courageous philosophers of his time. At a period when most of his colleagues considered aesthetics and psychoanalysis marginal or suspect, he made them central to his analytical investigations.

He was also charming, helpful, funny and kind. Although far cleverer than most of his friends, he never seemed aware of it and unwittingly elevated us to his level. When I saw him, a few days before his death, he said he had had to fight everyone to get out of hospital, "but I have a very strong will". True, and at the same time he had great sensibility and a remarkably sweet disposition.

Wollheim's cosmopolitan personality had its roots in his cosmopolitan family. All the Wollheims descend from one or other of four prosperous brothers who lived in Breslau (Wroclaw) at the beginning of the 19th century; they produced an impressive number of scholars, linguists, journalists, bibliophiles, dramaturges and diplomats. Wollheim's most colourful forebear was his great-great-uncle Anton Edmund, a doctor of philosophy, poet and soldier of fortune on whom Don Pedro of Portugal bestowed the name of "Da Fonseca", and who worked with Wagner on the scenario of The Flying Dutchman; a cousin, Gert, was a painter friend of Otto Dix and a Communist Party member.

Richard's father, Eric Wollheim, had been a theatrical impresario. After living in France - at one moment with the courtesan "La Belle Otéro" - he had moved to London, where he became the leading importer of such stars as Sarah Bernhardt and Réjane, as well as music-hall acts. In 1918 he had taken on Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, which the First World War had reduced to a very low ebb, and had arranged for them to appear on a mixed bill at the Coliseum, which was then a music hall. For rescuing the company from disaster, Diaghilev made Eric Wollheim his London agent. Wollheim was proud of his father's achievements: proud, too, of his childhood memories of Diaghilev and his dancers.

When I first met Richard Wollheim - my closest friend for the next 60 years or so - at Oxford in 1941, some of the glamour of the Ballets Russes still adhered to him. He even looked like the young Massine. However, this resemblance was deceptive. By the time he arrived at Balliol, Wollheim was already a passionate socialist and pacifist; he had also developed an extraordinarily responsive and tactile eye for works of art. He was a wonderful companion, a beguiling conversationalist - never a show-off like his Oxford contemporary Kenneth Tynan - and he had a great heart.

As his former colleague Arthur Danto has written, "The heart was really the focus of [Wollheim's] thought, in life and in philosophy, and it was the heart, above all, that he sought in the painting about which he was so passionate." He would always be in love - at Oxford with a Catholic girl, who almost nudged him into the Church. After the traumatic break-up of this relationship, he turned increasingly to Freud, who would be the subject of one of his most illuminating and accessible texts, Freud (1971).

In 1950, Wollheim married the enchanting Anne Powell, who had formerly been married to Philip Toynbee. They had twin sons, Bruno and Rupert. Some of the most stimulating evenings of my life were spent at Anne and Richard's Pelham Crescent house in London; evenings which would be enlivened by the presence of the art historians Benedict Nicolson, the Pope- Hennessy brothers, John Golding and Douglas Cooper, as well as Richard's colleagues Stuart Hampshire, David Pears, James Joll and Patrick Gardiner.

The German invasion of Russia in 1941 put paid to Wollheim's pacifism. After a year at Oxford, he joined the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards and saw a lot of action, ending up as a captain. During August 1944 he was captured by the Germans but soon managed to escape. Fifty years later, he wrote a moving article in the London Review of Books about his exploits, which ended as follows:

Stretch the corpses I had seen since the Normandy beaches end to end, and what could make the whole haphazard killing worthwhile? The fall of tyrannies, perhaps. But it would have been better if there had been some change of heart.

As Wollheim lay dying, his last act was to correct the galleys of an article about what happened after the Liberation.

After the Second World War, Wollheim returned to Oxford, where he became one of the brilliant young scholars who regarded Isaiah Berlin as their mentor. In 1949, he received his MA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and was appointed Lecturer at University College London, by his illustrious friend A.J. Ayer, whose chair as Grote Professor of Philosophy of Mind and Logic Wollheim would occupy from 1963; he also became head of the Philosophy Department. Besides being the soul of intellectual generosity, he was amazingly tolerant. When he accepted a niece of mine as a pupil, he called to say how right he had been: "The girl shows enterprise; she has tried to get rid of me."

In 1962 Richard and Anne separated: a development that inspired a self-deprecating roman à clef, entitled A Family Romance (1969). He subsequently married a beautiful young American painter and potter, Mary Day Lanier, who shared his views on art and politics, as behoved the stepdaughter of the left-wing intellectual Dwight Macdonald. Their daughter, Emilia, is named after the Dark Lady of the Sonnets and Richard's favourite Italian province.

In 1982 the Wollheims left London for America, where Richard spent two years as Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. One of the pleasures of New York was a long-lasting friendship with Robert Silvers, Editor of The New York Review of Books, to which he made major contributions. In 1985, he moved to California, where he became Mills Professor at Berkeley and chairman of the Philosophy Department - a great honour for an Englishman - as well as Professor of Philosophy and the Humanities at Davis from 1989 to 1996. On his retirement from Berkeley this year, he returned to his beloved London and took great pride in his spacious Bermondsey loft.

Wollheim was enormously productive. His first book was a study of the philosopher F.H. Bradley, (F.H. Bradley, 1959), followed by Socialism and Culture (1961). Later he turned to the philosophy of art: On Drawing an Object (1965) and, his breakthrough book, Art and its Objects (1968), with its emphasis on "seeing in" to a work of art, much as one might "see into a lover."

This preoccupation with aesthetics and the philosophy rather than the history of art, as well as with psychoanalysis, had been fostered by his friend and mentor the great aesthete, writer and painter Adrian Stokes. Their friendship had its roots in the fact that some time in the early 1920s, Stokes - a great balletomane and a covert philanthropist - had gone to Wollheim's father with an offer to transfer his entire fortune to Diaghilev for the support of the Ballets Russes. Eric Wollheim dissuaded Stokes: "Diaghilev would blow it all on a single production."

Stokes would exert a major effect on Wollheim's life by introducing him to the work of the Freudian psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. This resulted in his embarking on a lengthy Kleinian analysis in the 1950s. Klein's focus on a child's earliest perceptions is reflected in much of Wollheim's writing on art: for instance, in his evocation of such infantile forms of sensation as "sucking, touching, biting, excreting, retaining, smearing, sniffing, swallowing, gurgling, stroking, wetting" in his visually provocative interpretation of a painting by Willem de Kooning.

This quote, which comes from the greatest of all Wollheim's works on aesthetics, Painting as an Art (1987), could hardly be more Kleinian. Much the same could be said of the recent and as yet unpublished memoir of his early days ("Germs," a title that one hopes will be changed). Wollheim regarded this as "the best piece of work" he had "ever done". The book, which recalls Michel Leiris's 1939 masterpiece, L'Age d'homme, portrays the Thames Valley life of his affluent parents - the distant, dandified father he revered; the beautiful, mindless "Gaiety Girl" mother he came to regret loathing - in dazzling detail.

However, the dark heart of the book is a merciless, microscopic examination of the development of Wollheim's psyche, not least of his realisation that the price of love is fear. So long as Richard was alive, I found the sheer density of this book painful. Since his death, I am able to read it with delight. It must not be allowed to become a chef d'oeuvre inconnu. The same goes for his oral history. For the last 10 years or so, he made a point of interviewing most of his friends about their lives and ideas. A potential goldmine. Richard Wollheim brought out the best in all of us.

John Richardson

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