BORN LONDON, MARCH 13, 1931. DIED LONDON, MARCH 28, 2008, AGED 77.
ART HISTORIAN and philosopher Professor Michael Podro took the academic study of art out of its “cobwebbed” corner of catalogue and attribution, and opened it up to mainstream intellectual debate.
His Russian-born parents, originally surnamed Podroznik, brought him up with his older sister and brother in an atmosphere of Yiddish cultural ferment. His aunt was the artist Clara Klinghoffer.
His father, Joshua, ran a press-cuttings business but was at heart a Jewish scholar, specialising in the history of antisemitism and the Jewish background of the New Testament.
When the family was evacuated to Devon during the Second World War, Joshua Podro chanced upon the poet and author of historical novels, Robert Graves, and collaborated with him on The Nazarene Gospel Restored (1953).
In 1989, Michael donated his father’s 5,000-volume library to a grateful Leo Baeck College. The rare volumes included a Hebrew version of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
After national service in the RAF, Michael Podro read English at Cambridge and always retained an articulate and literary approach to art. To gain hands-on experience, he studied drawing at the Slade School of Art, and earned his doctorate with a thesis on art theory under the supervision of the Warburg Institute, the distinguished German-Jewish-founded art library.
In 1961 he became the first director of the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. In 1964 he was a contributor, along with Jonathan Miller, to the ground-breaking live arts programme, Monitor, on BBC2.
From 1967-79 he lectured in the philosophy of art at the Warburg Institute before going as reader to Essex University, where he built up its department of art history and philosophy. He became professor in 1973 and retired as emeritus professor in 1997.
He brought exuberance to a previously genteel field. His learned books were attractively written and appealed to a wide audience.
He conducted s e mi n a r s o n the London-Colchester train. He showed students how to look critically at artists’ work. He mixed with contemporary artists and was painted by Frank Auerbach and RB Kitaj. The Auerbach portrait elicited the terms “swirling pigment” and “emotional tension” from the JC critic in 1983.
His reputation and influence led to his appointment as trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1987-96, fellow of the British Academy in 1992, CBE in 2001, and an honorary doctorate from the University of the Arts, London, in 2006.
He is survived by his wife, Charlotte, whom he married in 1961; and two daughters, Sarah and Natasha.