No pedagogic considerations are necessary to make us do justice to the great men who led the classic movement. The furious strife between Realism and Classicism is at an end. We have dropped our battle-cries and have learnt to see something more in these people than impersonal professors. They were above all guardians of culture, who worked a kind of cure upon neglected aesthetic instincts. They not only took over an ancient form, renewing and transforming it in a highly original manner; they received and renewed the sense of form itself.

—Julius Meier-Graefe, Modern Art

Kermit S. Champa, the Andrea V. Rosenthal Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University, died on July 22, 2004, age 64. An early contributor to The New Criterion, Champa specialized in the history of modernism and nineteenth-century French painting. Believing in the Gesamtkunstwerk, or the “absolute aesthetic fullness of art” (in his words), he considered classical music to be intimately tied to modernist form. Lighted water fountains and mysticism found their way into his mix. At Brown, where had been a full professor since 1974, he challenged many students—myself included—with these theories. He also provided a beacon for art historians in the post-formalist flood and a tonic for the trends of the day. All the while, through serious scholarship, he illuminated new ways of looking at great works of art.

Champa himself, intensely private, was often a mystery to others. Champa’s wife, Judith Tolnick, and father, Valentino Anthony, have helped me in reconstructing some of his formative development.

In his youth in rural Pennsylvania, Champa made a fateful decision. He sold a beloved collection of Lionel trains and bought a trombone. This trombone found him a place in the high-school band and orchestra of Lancaster. It also earned him a spot as a student conductor. Always a lover of music, Champa became a performer. But he continued to match his performances with listening. He was an early audiophile and kept an interest in audio technology: He delighted in his first record player; he built up a sizable classical music collection; he designed a listening system for a family friend. In high school, he pursued photography, Latin, advanced German, physics, and calculus. Outside of class, he ran his own recording-studio experiments.

At the end of high school, Champa’s abilities in math and science earned him acceptance to MIT. He turned down this offer and chose Yale and its Directed Studies program, where he was awarded a scholarship and work-study. It was here, under the influence of Vincent Scully, that Champa determined to study art with the intention of teaching it. He graduated in three years. He traveled to Europe his Freshman year by playing his trombone in the Yale Marching Band.

Visual art became Champa’s profession. Music remained his obsession. In the history of art department at Harvard University, where he earned his doctorate in 1965, Champa encountered the personalities that have dominated the field of art history up to the present day: Kenworth Moffett, Rosalind Krauss, and Michael Fried among them. His close mentors included Frederick Deknatel and Clement Greenberg—under their guidance, his doctoral dissertation, “The Genesis of Impressionism,” became Studies in Early Impressionism (1973; 1985), one of his first major books.

From his earliest published work, Champa set about to understand the history of modernism through the influence of classical music. He focused on France in the second half of the nineteenth century. In an essay for The New Criterion titled “Renoir in Boston,” (December 1985), Champa demonstrated how illuminating this mode of investigation could be—he gave Courbet a similar treatment in The Rise of Landscape Painting in France (1991).

In that essay for New Criterion, Champa located Renoir within the context of French Wagnerism. He plotted Renoir’s itinerary through Wagnerist circles, documenting Renoir’s early friendship with the arch-Wagnerist painter Fantin-Latour, his meeting with Wagner in Italy in 1882 (Renoir’s subsequent portrait of Wagner illustrated Adolphe Jullien’s 1886 study of the composer), and Renoir’s plans to attend Bayreuth in 1896. Champa wrote that Renoir’s intimate interest in music led him to paint on two levels, “leaving the form serious and the literal content as loose or sentimental as it wants to be.” Champa concluded:

Whether one is convinced of the absolute force of Wagner’s example on Renoir’s painting, the issue of a musical model in interpreting Renoir’s particular achievement seems pressing nonetheless. Certainly no artist before or after made such musical pictures, which is to say pictures that achieve their finish so routinely with a graphic, coloristic cadence and nothing more. In a landscape like Wargemont of 1879 (Toledo and shown in Boston) or a figure piece like the Clown of 1909 (Paris and shown in Boston), there is an aesthetically consistent ambition to suspend colored form in a confidently abstract, self-sufficient (hence musical) way. The calls of Gautier, Baudelaire, and, finally, Pater for all arts to pursue the expressively free conditions of music fell on no ears more willing to listen than Renoir’s—and on no talent better equipped to respond. In Boston, there is, then, much to “hear” as well as to see.

Champa’s theories were rooted in form. He also cared about how art was received by a rarified audience. In his article on Renoir, for example, Champa wrote that “for the less cultured viewer, the subject seems sensuously enriched by its luxurious, coloristic ambience. For the cultured viewer, the subject simply names the typology of formal arrangement that the painting begins from, or perhaps ends with.”

Such statements set Champa against the grain in the new art history—a discipline that changed radically in the 1970s. Champa was saddened by the turn of events. In “Masterpiece” Studies (1994), his most personal book, he wrote: “Sociological, political, and psychological analyses, because of their presumed basis in solid written documentation, have increasingly come to dominate the study of what is arguably the most art-full of all moments in the history of Western painting: the period from the mid-1870s to the mid-1890s in France.” For someone who was dedicated to understanding painting on its own terms, Champa could not envision operating without the native tools of his discipline. “With the firm belief that great works of art constitute a very special category of work … the present author risks being seen as a politically incorrect intellectual elitist. So be it.” In the prologue to “Masterpiece” Studies, Champa further explained:

My truly trendy colleagues … find my Rise [of Landscape Painting] text, and the present one, insufficiently in step, a judgment, I suspect, colored in no small way by my having written for The New Criterion, and perhaps even worse, continuing to read it publicly.
Champa bore such burdens with style. The rewards of his studies were found throughout his life and work. His lectures, written out longhand on legal pads (due to a malformed hand, he could not type), became some of the more inspiring talks on art one could imagine. At the lectern, this band leader from Lancaster became Courbet in his Studio and Wagner at Bayreuth. In 1975, Esquire magazine voted Champa one of the ten “sexiest professors in America.” He routinely packed the lecture hall at the Philip Johnson bunker, Brown’s art building, with students spilling into the aisles. He did not deny the mysteries and essential characteristics of the great works of art. He encouraged many undergraduates to pursue graduate work in art history. When the studies of one of his more promising undergraduates, Andrea V. Rosenthal, were cut short by terrorists in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, Andrea’s parents endowed a chair in the department. Champa, her advisor, became its recipient.

For his graduate students, Champa was the éminence grise, himself that great work of art: intimidating and private and connective at once. His relationships with students transcended the usual chit-chat (sometimes awkwardly so) and went right to the heart of the matter. Everything you needed to know could be found in Courbet, Meier-Graefe, Baudelaire, and Wagner. Meeting adjourned.

For years Champa disregarded pressures from Brown to develop a more politically correct, identity-based department. Instead, he created an oasis for art history based on a love for form and an abiding interest in the key documents of the discipline. The xerox machine was not the principal tool of scholarship, nor were the latest dispatches from the Art Bulletin bound into “course-packs.” Rather than Marx, Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, Champa’s primary insights came out of Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Wagner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss. His seminars often began by depositing a number of foxed, multi-volumed hardcovers on the seminar table in a cloud of musty soot: Meier-Graefe, Richard Muther, Théodore Duret, Camille Mauclair, André Fontainas, and Louis Vauxcelles. On another day it might be Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Willard Huntington Wright, Albert Barnes, and Clement Greenberg. His instructions: read, discuss. Exit Champa. Certainly, the task was daunting. Graduate students quivered. A stray student typically transferred to another, more sensible class like “Race, Religion and Identity in the Arts of Spain and the Americas.” To his own students, however, this was art history that knew no comparison. Champa knew it, too. He began “Masterpiece” Studies with this telling quote from Heinrich Wölfflin:

There is a conception of art history which sees nothing more in art than a “translation of life” (Taine) into pictorial terms, and which attempts to interpret every style as an expression of the prevailing mood of the age. Who would wish to deny that this is a fruitful way of looking at the matter? Yet it takes us only so far—as far, one might say, as the point at which art begins.

For many, art began with Kermit Champa. A Champa Festschrift has been prepared by David Ogawa and Deborah Johnson, former students, for a November release by Peter Lang. A fund exclusively for graduate travel has also been established in Champa’s name (for information, contact Gift Accounting, Brown University, Box 1877, Providence, Rhode Island, 02912).

In the months before his death, Champa was re-reading Mme. Blavatsky, Annie Besant, William James, and revising his manuscript on the color music—lights and sounds produced by keyboard—of the English painter and teacher A. Wallace Rimington. I wish he could have lived to publish it, just as I wish I could have seen through my own graduate study with him. I envied those students who were present for his famed seminars. During the course of one, for example, he arranged a séance. For these rich interests, freely shared, everyone adored him.

A memorial service for Kermit Champa will be held at 3:00 p.m. on October 2, 2004, in Sayles Hall, Brown University.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 1, on page 78
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