For myself, Oberhuber will always be associated with Poussin because it was during my doctorate that I got to know his books and ideas. I never met the man, mores the pity, but my first inkling of his, shall we say, eccentric persona, was when my supervisor growled, “Everybody ignores Oberhuber.” I was sufficiently intrigued to seek out his catalogue of controversial exhibition of the artist that he curated at Fort Worth, Texas in 1988. This show was contentious because it contained a lot of drawings that were not by Poussin, but errors of attribution were not the only reason for the opprobrium that was showered on Oberhuber's head. Far more damning in the eyes of some scholars was the fact that Oberhuber had used the ideas of the Theosophist Rudolph Steiner as a way of working out Poussin’s development. I now understood the reason for my supervisor’s warning remark and why he had glared at me when he chanced upon me with my head in Poussin: The Early Years in Rome. One simply didn’t work out problems of stylistic development on the basis of a spiritualist philosophy forged in the crucible of German romanticism and idealism. It was non-rational; it was uncritical; it was downright bizarre.
As Oberhuber said in his catalogue, it was Steiner’s implication that we “rhythmically pass through various attitudes towards space in the course of our lives.” Although it’s too loose a concept to apply to artistic development, I did find the idea of a reaction towards space during a phase of the artist’s life thought provoking. In his preface to his volume Oberhuber identifies developmental phases in the life of an artist, so for Poussin, his work before 1622 was determined by outline, the period between 1622-29 (the Venetian period) an enlivenment of line and surface, and from 1629 by a preoccupation with structures in space. These ideas on spatial progression also influenced his work on Raphael, probably leading to some strange attributions and theories about that artist’s growth. The problem with Oberhuber’s connoisseurship is that it transcended the normal parameters of the practice. Where Poussin was concerned, he believed each work to show the artist’s personality at a specific moment in time; extreme stylistic differences could be explained by influences inspiring him at that particular moment. Yet just a casual trawl through the illustrations in the 1988 catalogue should alert the reader to the fact that no one single artist could be so stylistically diverse. However, a whole raft of drawings were attributed on the grounds that he assimilated various influences in his early years in Rome.
Although Oberhuber quietly left the field of Poussin studies after the Fort Worth exhibition in 1988, his presence can still be felt. Last month while attending the Poussin exhibition in Bilbao I was dismayed- though not entirely surprised- to find landscape drawings by other hands that had appeared in Fort Worth in 1988, re-appear as autograph in the Spanish show. The same problem persists in the connoisseurship of Raphael drawings, where as Matthias Wivel points out, many sheets that had been attributed to the master’s workshop were attributed to Raphael himself. The implications of that exaggerated oeuvre have since become apparent.
Until now the last I heard of Oberhuber was a few years ago at a conference where I was told he was doing the rounds of the print rooms in the U.S.A. after having retired from the Albertina in Vienna in 2000. Although I disagreed with many of his conclusions, especially concerning Poussin, I’m sorry to hear about his death. He was gifted with high intelligence, and whatever you thought about his ideas, you certainly couldn’t say they weren’t stimulating. Art history has lost yet another great spirit.