I’ve only just now been made aware that the great Renaissance scholar Konrad Oberhuber passed away on September 12, aged 72. I never had the pleasure of meeting the by all accounts charismatic and gregarious scholar, but have found great inspiration — and also at times frustration — in his work. It’s sad to see him go so relatively early, and — paranthetically as well as selfishly — to know that now I’ll never get the chance to discuss Venetian drawings with him.
Born in Linz, Austria, Oberhuber studied the history of art, archaeology, psychology and philosophy at the University of Vienna, earning his doctorate in 1959. He worked for a decade at the Albertina after which he spent a number of years as a curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. In 1975, he became curator of prints and drawings and professor of fine arts at Harvard. He left in 1987 to return to the Albertina as its director, a post he held until his retirement in 2000. The last years of his life were spent in California. He was by all accounts an inspiring teacher and has clearly been a great influence to the considerable number of his former students now in top positions in the art world.
His greatest, and concomitantly most problematic scholarly contribution to his field is surely his large body of work on Raphael, especially on his drawings. His long list of publications on the master from Urbino of the 60s and 70s, culminating in the 1983 monograph Raphael — Die Zeichnungen, which he co-authored and clearly dominated, has been seminal; an invaluable expansion upon the foundational work by Pouncey and Gere of the early 60s. This work however led him to a considerable muddying of the waters in subsequent publications, giving to Raphael a large number of drawings previously attributed to his assistants, eventually bloating the oeuvre into the vastly expanded corpus of the 1999 exhibition catalogue Roma e lo stilo classico di Raffaello.
This radical revision of previously-held opinions is also characteristic of Oberhuber’s scholarship on Venetian drawings. His 1976 exhibition catalogue Disegni di Tiziano e della sua cerchia provided a sense of order to the perennially confused field of drawings by Titian and contemporaries such as Giulio and Domenico Campagnola. Though it has its failings (as all publications on the subject do), the text demonstrates his keen eye and strong intuition and remains a paragon of scholarship. When Oberhuber revisited the subject in his contribution to the massive 1990 Paris exhibition Le Siècle de Titien, however, a similar confusion as the one he was at the time causing in the study of Raphael drawings was effected. Suddenly, all the drawings previously accepted as being by the early 16th-Century painter and printmaker Giulio Campagnola were given to that most elusive of great artists, Giorgione. Characteristically for Oberhuber, this radical reattribution, which expanded the known ouevre of the master from Castelfranco manifold, was passionately argued but ultimately rested on flimsy, bordering on non-existent evidence (and the fact that his colleague, Alessandro Ballarin, in the same exhibition doubled Giorgione’s painted ouevre on similarly elusive grounds didn’t help matters).
Not having known the man, I can only speculate as to the reasons for these developments in his scholarship, but it seems to me a natural consequence of his always provocative and unorthodox thinking. He was clearly a scholar possessed of ideas, non-stop. Some better than others, to be sure, but invariably original. That he got carried away should, in light of this, perhaps rather be seen as testament to his fine mind, than as a failing that obscures his earlier, and vital contributions to his fields of study.
Go here, for a touching testimony from a former student and friend, and here for an obituary describing Oberhuber in his retirement years in California. Also, this article in which I evaluate one of Oberhuber’s Raphael attributions might be of interest. Photo of Oberhuber in the early 1980s, taken from the Harvard Gazette.