Thursday, July 26, 2012


Iconography is the subdiscipline of the history of art that seeks to discern the visual conventions the artist deploys to convey meaning and the strategies that the interpreter marshals to decode that meaning. Ultimately this endeavor goes back to the religious art of early cultures where ascertainment of subject matter in art enjoyed a kinship to the hermeneutics that studies holy texts.

Iconography as it is now understood is of more recent vintage. The Italian Renaissance generated a series of "recipe books"--such as the manuals of Vincenzo Cartari (ca. 1520-ca. 1570) and Cesare Ripa (ca. 1560-before 1625)--specify­ing the way in which major themes and ideas were to be repre­sented.i  These compilations were a godsend to artists, and it has not been difficult for modern scholars to show that they offered the key to the interpretation of many otherwise puzzling features.  In short these manuals distilled the iconography of representation.  

The word iconogra­phy is currently used in two senses: (1) the standard way of representing a particular subject--so that we speak of the iconography of the Descent from the Cross or the iconography of the Choice of Hercules; and (2) the modern discipline which considers the whole body of such representations.

For scholars who turned to iconography, it was clear that such study was an essential complement to the formal preoccupations that had dominated late-nineteenth-century art history.  One might almost say that style + iconography made a whole, and that whole was all of art history.  (Today many would insist that social, economic, and psychological considerations are also vital.)

During the seventeenth century classical scholars had used the word "iconography" in a narrow sense to refer to the understanding of portraiture, so that "the iconography of Trajan" would be the product of the collection and analysis of all extant portraits of that emperor. 
In the mid-nineteenth century, Catholic scholars achieved a fundamental transformation. This activity belonged to the context of the Catholic revival with its return to scholastic philosophy and such great enterprises as the resumption (in 1837) of the Acta Sanctorum, the monumental critical publication of the lives of the saints begun by Belgian Jesuits in the seventeenth century, and Jacques-Paul Migne's vast sets of the Latin and Greek fathers, the Patrologia Latina (217 vols., 1844-55) and the Patrologia Graeca (162 vols., 1857-66). For medieval art the French scholar Adolphe Napoléon Didron attempted an ambitious synthesis of Christian Iconography, first published in French in 1843.ii  This work is arranged not alphabetically or historically, but hi­erarchically, beginning with the imagery of divinity itself (the Trinity) and then descending the ladder of being.  (This plan persisted a hundred years later in Louis Réau's Iconographie de l'art chrétien.iii) The greatest examplar of this school of iconography was, however, Emile Mâle (1862-1954), whose major works may still be profitably consulted.iv  

Most iconographers assume that their remit is primarily to address material from the classical world and from Christianity, especially in relation to the Bible and the lives of the saints.   Yet the concept may be fruitfully applied to other civilizations  Central to the iconography of Indian religions, for example, are mudra (gestures endowed with specific meanings). the aureole (or glory) and the halo. Other features are the symbolic use of color, as well as letters and syllables from sacred alphabetic scripts. Under the influence of tantra art developed esoteric meanings, accessible only to initiates; this mode is an especially important aspect of Tibetan art.

The discipline can also be applied to secular imagery, as in the symbols of the American republics, such as the Great Seal, the bald eagle, the figure of Uncle Sam, and so forth. In the former Soviet Union the regime insisted on scholars linking art and its symbols to socio-economic reality.While studies of this kind are not fashionable nowadays, they may open vistas that should not be neglected.

A few words need to be said about symbolism and semiotics.
--> In ordinary art-historical usage symbolism denotes the evocation of something, usually sacred or conceptual, by adducing a material object, e.g. a lamb for Christ or an anchor for the idea of hope. Given their conventional status, such symbols lend themselves to fairly easy decoding, provided that the viewer is acquainted with the semiotic system employed. Today there exist several dictionaries of symbols, aiding in this task.

In the nineteenth century, however, a new concept of symbolism--Symbolism with a capital S-- emerged in which the associations are broader, being suggestive rather than precise. Things in the real world do indeed point to something else. Yet what that something else is one cannot be certain. It might be a host of things--or nothing definite.  Symbolism therefore came to stand for fluidity, slippage, indeterminacy, and uncertainty. In this context, peripheral perceptions could become central and vice versa.  While this concept of Symbolism is important for the study of nineteenth-century literature and art, it is not relevant to the purposes of this chapter

Semiotics is the discipline that studies the use of signs across the entire spectrum of human behavior, including gestures and language. Modern semiotics derives from two major thinkers, the Swiss Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and the American Charles Saunders Peirce (1839-1914). Saussure's theories, which focus on the relation between the signified and the signifier, derive from the study of language and are applicable to visual phenomena only in a general way. Peirce was more concerned with things seen.

Semiotics embraces many modes of communication, ranging from simple systems like Morse code to the complex genres of theater and opera. This breadth of scope lends the approach its appeal.  By the same token, however, it has proven less useful in the analysis of the visual arts than at one time had appeared to be the case.

When all is said and done, our best path to understanding the field of iconography is the work of two major figures, Aby Warburg and Erwin Panofsky.

Hamburg and Aby Warburg.

With Didron and other nineteenth-century scholars, serious information gathering had been the keynote. After the turn of the century these problems began to be engaged on a more profound level.  There was a new awareness that meaning entered more pervasively into art works.  

The insights of comparative religion were integrated into the study of images by two scholars working at Hamburg, Ernst Cassirer and Aby Warburg.  Cassirer (1875-1945), who was a philosopher, knew that the problem of form and content was a major concern of contemporary philosop­hy; in grappling with problems of logic, thought must needs address the possibilities of meaning.  Investigating how we say things means investigating what we say.  These concerns joined with a revival of the Hegelian idea of the interaction of the arts. 

More than a century has passed since Aby Warburg (1866-1929) submitted his doctoral dissertation at the University of Strasbourg, but he remains topical. In their introduction to the handbook of essays commissioned to accompany the New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition, "High and Low," Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik commend Warburg's project as the harbinger of a larger vista of art history. This new conception would take advantage of Warburg's capacity to trace symbols as they migrate "from social place to place, from antique sarcophagi to Renaissance portraits to modern advertisements."v Ironically, one of the earlier "defects" of Warburg's method, that it places modest craft products on the same level as masterpieces, while in masterpieces themselves he tends  to emphasize what he called "secondary substance," now turns into a strength. An interactive model of the democracy of images becomes possible.

Most scholars know Warburg from the many publications of the Institute he founded and from the circle of scholars who extended his work, and fought to preserve his memory. Behind the Warburg Institute he founded in Hamburg and which continues in London lies a

Aby Warburg's decision to depart from his Hamburg family tradition of banking to become a private scholar is well known. Reputedly, in addition to a modest income, he required of his brothers only that they agree to purchase for him all the books he might require, a stipulation that quickly amounted to a tidy sum. Anyone who has fallen victim to the bookbuying mania knows how time-consuming this can become, not only in the immediate present--the act of purchase--but in terms of the countless "promissory notes" issued to absorb the gist of the texts that have been bought. Perhaps the very weight of tasks awaiting him contributed to Warburg's periodic bouts of mental illness.

Private income or no, Warburg recognized the need to meet the highest standards of the German university system of his day. Following the advice of one of his teachers, August Schmarsow, the young Warburg settled for a time in Florence to hone his skills through immersion in the world of Renaissance masterpieces. At first engaged in stylistic studies of the artists of the early quattrocento, he shifted his attention to its second half of sthe century, in the person of the beguiling Sandro Botticelli.

As noted in an earlier chapter, Botticelli is one of those artists, like Vermeer and El Greco, who had been neglected earlier, but were revived in the nineteenth century. Although the documentary material for his life had been presented by Crowe and Cavalcasselle in 1864, it was not until Walter Pater's rapturous essay of 1870 that the real Botticelli vogue began. The cause was taken up by John Ruskin, and then by the pre-Raphaelites. It was not long before the aesthetic expatriates of Florence-—many of them, like Pater (and Botticelli himself), homosexual-—took up the cult.

Evidently, Warburg, who was not homosexual, recoiled from this "aesthetic" interpretation of the Florentine master. Disregarding the religious paintings he turned his attention to the two great works of classical inspiration: the Birth of Venus and the Primavera. They were the subject of his doctoral dissertation, presented in 1891 and published two years later.vii (This gem appeared after Wölfflin's first publications, but before those of Riegl and Wickhoff became known; Warburg is nonetheless a younger member of this pathfinding company.)

To the standard problem of the uses of classical antiquity, which varied from one epoch to the next, Warburg added a personal concern with a visual motif: the theme of agitated motion conveyed by swirling drapery and long locks of hair. Though it stemmed from classical antiquity, this "dynamogram" (as he was later to term it)  came increasingly to the fore as the fifteenth century advanced.

Moving with remarkable deftness from literary sources to images and back again, Warburg posited that the preoccupation with movement in relation to classical themes had been staked out, so to speak, by the writer and philologist Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494). Like Botticelli, this fellow Florentine was also homosexual (Warburg did not know this or if he did, chose to ignore it). In his poetry Poliziano purloined the theme of the birth of Venus from the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, garnishing it with motifs drawn from Ovid, Claudian, and other ancient Latin writers. The parallels are so strong that one must conclude that, either directly or indirectly, Poliziano served as the adviser for these two Botticelli masterworks. In addition to establishing this fundamental point, Warburg  further contextualized the paintings by linking them to the premature death of Simonetta Vespucci, Giuliano de' Medici's beloved.

In the conclusion to his dissertation, Warburg modestly disavowed making any contribution to the understanding of the "primary substance" of Botticelli's art. His dissertation offered a first sketch, however, of his later method of studying the symptomatology of cultural motifs. In terms of art historical methodology such "symptoms" have an intermediate status between pure iconography and pure style. We may not be able to assign a specific meaning to the dynamogram that invests Botticelli's nymphs, but it is not a personal or school trait either. Later, Warburg came to view these motifs collectively as the social memory of humankind, showing human evolution from a primitive fascination with numinous phenomena (which he had occasion to observe on his visit to the Pueblo Indians of Arizona) towards the refinement of the symbol and of abstract thought.

In due course, Warburg took note of the role of astrology in the image-making of the Renaissance. The learned work of Franz Boll in particular had advanced knowledge of the subject, and in Boll Warburg found the key to the interpretation of the early Renaissance frescoes of the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara.viii Fitting this knowledge into the framework of liberal history reshaped by evolutionary Darwinism that constituted his personal philosophy proved difficult. He tended to equate such themes with primitive survivals--and even with the demons he was fighting in his own mind. After 1500 Italian art ostensibly overcame astrology in its glorious flight to the High Renaissance. As Janet Cox-Rearick has recently shown, however, this was not so, for Medici art of the later sixteenth century remained strongly astrological.ix More generally, it was left to Warburg's successors Fritz Saxl and Frances Yates to fill in the gaps in his picture of astrology and art.

Warburg never seems to have felt the drive that Wölfflin and Riegl had experienced to show the art work as responding to a single vision. Rather he tended to split it up into individual motifs, the better to show the relation to other spheres of life. For Warburg the art work is a kind of transformer through which various currents flow.

In his concentration on particular observations, Warburg belongs to the micro-art-historical trend noted in the previous chapter. Yet he experienced a longing for something more. Both fragmentary and synthetic (the latter at least in aspiration), Warburg's method seemed to open a path leading to a universal understanding of human visual culture, yet this result has not been attained. Why not?  Perhaps Warburg's model was too closely tailored to the Renaissance and to the classical element within it. In all likelihood, this limitation was inevitable, given the classical bias of the German "gymnasium" system in which Warburg and his associates had been trained. Today the Warburg Institute of London devotes itself to the history of the classical tradition.

The Heritage of Iconography.

The contribution of the Hamburg scholars and their allies was to fuse the narrow classical concept of iconography with the broader Christian one, using the insights of comparative religion as well.  Using similar premises others have studied Buddhist and pre-Columbian iconography. Because of its history, the discipline of iconography has tended to be closely linked with religion.  Yet other scholars have studied secular iconography.  Percy Ernst Schramm devoted most of his life to the examination of tokens of state power: regalia, ruler images, coronation rites and their representation. Democratic states have engendered their own symbols.  So too for such domestic accoutrements as still lifes, for they have an iconography stemming in part from the vanitas tradition and the idea of the five senses.

Erwin Panofsky.

The preeminent representative of twentieth-century art history is Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968).x With excessive modesty, Panofsky described himself in later years as an eclectic. Rather, he was a master synthesizer, integrating the interests of the Wölfflin-Viennese group, a flair for connoisseurship, Warburg's quest for meaning, and a Burckhardtian appetite for cultural history. Equally at home in medieval and Renaissance studies, he contributed an astonishing range of work: essays on the theoretical foundations of art history, studies of particular iconographic themes (such as Danaë and Arcadia), assessments of periods (German Romanesque sculpture, early Netherlandish painting), tracing of the history of particular artistic problems (perspective, proportion, funerary sculpture), monographic studies (Dürer, Titian), and delineations of aspects of the history of art history.xi He commanded a dazzling erudition derived from wide reading in seven languages. Coming to the United States in mid-life, he nonetheless forged a supple, English style that gives his writings a corruscating brilliance, a personal stamp found in no other art historian. 

Panofsky grew up in comfort in a well-to-do Jewish family of Berlin, where he attended the Joachimsthalsches Gymnasium, a leading classical preparatory school staffed by dedicated scholars.  He early revealed himself an intellectual prodigy, with a great range of interests and a phenomenal memory.  Reputedly, at the age of sixteen he learned Dante's Divine Comedy by heart in Italian. 
Originally intending to become a lawyer, Panofsky was converted to art history by attending the brilliant lectures of the medievalist Wilhelm Vöge at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau.xii Later he studied in Berlin with Adolph Goldschmidt, another distinguished medievalist. His first studies on Albrecht Dürer bridged the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and in later life he tended to specialize more in the latter era (in part because, as he said, other scholars at Princeton had "staked out" the Middle Ages and he did not want to seem too much to encroach on their turf).  Significantly, his greatest single work, the magisterial Early Netherlandish Painting stands at the boundary of the two great epochs of Western culture.xiii

In one of Panofsky's earliest papers (1915) he dared to cross swords with no less a paladin than Heinrich Wölfflin, then at the height of his powers.xiv The twenty-three year old tyro had heard a lecture given by the senior scholar before the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, in which Wölfflin set forth the basic ideas of his magnum opus, the Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Panofsky took exception to the concept of modes of seeing, holding that this emphasis needed to be supplemented by a sense of expressiveness and by the idea that changes in the appearance of works of art are part of the spiritual evolution of mankind. Turning to another art-historical colossus, Panofsky grappled with Riegl's idea of the Kunstwollen, which he sought to make less volitional and more objective. 
Many of the young German's tyro papers are theoretical and abstract, giving the impression that he pursued theory for its own sake. In the overall balance of Panofsky's oeuvre, however, theoretical pursuits are a means to an end: he sought to put his ideas in order the better to interpret art works. In this quest, as Jan Bialostocki remarks, "[he] succeeded in creating a system which is perhaps the most coherent art-historical method put together in our times."xv In practice, however, he felt free to depart from the system, and discouraged efforts by some of his followers to convert it into a mere recipe for churning out scholarship. 
Panofsky had originally intended to be a private scholar, but the inflation rampant in Germany in the early 1920s drained away his family's money, forcing him to take a job. Fortunately, he found a teaching post at the new University of Hamburg. There he came into fruitful contact with the philosopher Ernst Cassirer, his colleague at the university, and with Aby Warburg and his circle.xvi Sharing a common Kantian background, Panofsky and Cassirer  hit it off immediately. From Cassirer Panofsky borrowed the talismanic (if not altogether clear) concept of "symbolic form." His relations with Warburg were more complex; in addition to the riches of the library, perhaps the most important lesson he learned from that volcanic genius was the importance of emotion in art and in cultural expression generally.

During the 1920s Panofsky continued his theory-laden writing, encouraged by the theoretical ferment of contemporary art history, itself an academic counterpart to the political ferment of the Weimar years in Germany.  Probably the outstanding product of this period is his long article "Die Perspective als symbolische Form" (1927).xvii  The use of the expression "symbolic form" signals Cassierer's influence.  The underlying premise of this paper is that the perspective introduced by Italian artists at the beginning of the fifteenth century was not simply a "natural" scientific discovery, waiting to be introduced so that it could carry all before it. The perspective of Renaissance paintings is but one of a number of ways of ordering depicted elements on a two-dimensional surface.  Panofsky pointed out that the surface of the eye is curved, not flat, and that the normal human being sees with two eyes.  Thus Western perspec­tive does not correspond exactly to the way the eye sees.  Other cultures have used other systems. In this line of argument Panofsky affirmed a trend towards the interpretation of "natural" systems as culturally deter­mined.  A well-known parallel at the time was the critique of musical tonality advanced by the twelve-­tone composers, who held that historically there had been many "musics," including non-Western systems that did not honor our diachronic system of tonality.  However, Panofsky and most of his associates shrank from drawing the ultimate conclusion that Western civiliz­ation was but one of many.  Their Enlightenment convictions stood in the way of this final relativism. In their defense it may be said that, given their training, it was right to pursue the tradition in which they were working for it offered a fertile field for discovery. 

From his base at Hamburg, Panofsky essayed teaching visits to the United States, beginning in September 1931.  Under the auspices of the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University (soon to become the premier center of art history in America), he gave lectures in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was to the museum's Studies that he consigned his first American publication, "Classical Mythology in Mediaeval Art"; in this paper the Warburgian preoccupation with the afterlife of paganism made its entry into the world of American scholarship.xviii Panofsky noted a key separation: classical themes were expressed through medieval form, while classical forms were used to interpret medieval themes. Only in the Italian Renaissance were classical forms and classical themes convincingly fused. This perception, which future research was to refine, formed the basis for his subsequent distinction between medieval renascences and the Renaissance.xix

When, in 1933, Hitler's Nuremberg laws required the dismissal of all Jewish officials and professors in Germany, Panofsky was able to assume a position at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, a research facility that had been originally founded for Albert Einstein and other scientists; now its mission also included the humanities. He quickly became fond of his new home with its comprehensive libraries, generous areas of green landscaping, and tranquil atmosphere; looking back on the experience he remarked that he had been "expelled into paradise." On familiar terms with the distinguished scientists in residence, Panofsky also arranged over the years to bring foreign scholars to Princeton for limited stays. In this way he created a kind of clan of like-minded friends and disciples who spread his ideas and methods throughout the Western world. During the 1930s he was also able to help refugees to escape from the Hitler tyranny to a haven in America. Apart from these activities, at Princeton Panofsky was able to devote himself mainly to research, though he gave a number of lecture series at New York University, Harvard, and elsewhere. He did not improvise at the platform; his superb lectures were almost always written out, and thus lent themselves readily to subsequent publication.

In 1939, on the eve of the war in Europe, Panofsky published his Studies in Iconology, which is mainly concerned with a series of problems in Renaissance art.xx  In the introducto­ry, theoretical chapter he outlined a system of levels of art-historical interpretation, modifying an earlier scheme he had advanced in a 1931 lecture at Kiel.xxi Although the term iconology appears in the title of the book, it played a limited role in the text. The word iconology had been used by Warburg, but he employed it essentially as a synonym for "iconography."xxii
The final version of the system appeared in Panofsky's collection of representative essays, Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955).xxiii His model assumes three levels of interpretation, beginning with the most basic types of identification and ultimately rising to a vision of totality.  Panofsky starts by defining iconography as "that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form." For the purposes of exposition he subscribed, though only provisionally, to the truism that art history consists of two elements only--subject matter + form--to the exclusion of other factor, such as socioeconomic or psychological determinants. 

In Panofsky's view, the meaning of meaning is a complex affair. He illustrates this complexity with the charming, though now somewhat quaint instance of a gentleman raising his hat. The first level of meaning is the straightforward one: the observer notes that a man coming towards him is raising his headpiece. This is "factual meaning," which is "apprehended by simply identifying certain visible forms with certain objects known ... from practical experience." Registering this perception, the observer experiences a certain reaction to it--is the hat tipper in a good or bad humor?--yielding another aspect of meaning, termed "expressional." Closely linked as they are, factual and expressional meaning "constitute the class of primary or natural meanings." Further reflection, however, leads the observer to conclude that the gesture, a residue of medieval chivalry, is a unit feature of the etiquette of modern Western society--as distinct from other cultures where it may be unknown. This further meaning, a new level, is termed "secondary or conventional." Finally, the gestural event of the hat raising communicates something of the personality of the doer in the broad sense of a twentieth-century person, with all the conditioning and cultural assumptions that that status brings with it. This ultimate level is called "intrinsic meaning or content." Transferring these observations to a Renaissance painting of The Last Supper one might begin by observing certain configurations of line and color, and then advance to note that the painting shows thirteen men seated around a table. These asseverations, reflecting factual and expressional meaning, constitute the first level of interpretation. Then, based on one's comparative knowledge of Christian imagery, the viewer could go on to to identify the scene as an instance of the theme of the Last Supper. This is the level of secondary or conventional subject matter. Finally, we approach the work by "ascertaining those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion." This last is the level of intrinsic meaning or content. If the second level had taken us into the realm of iconography, the final one enlarges the purview to that of iconology.xxiv  
Panofsky had issued a formidable challenge to those who would follow in his footsteps.  A huge fund of knowledge was required; and at its core lay disciplines (Greek and Latin, for example) that American education tends to neglect.  Concededly, the method works best with learned works the meaning of which had been obscured by the passage of time. It offers little that is helpful for, say, the interpretation of contemporary abstract works.

 Panofsky's system is not without parallels. On the one hand, the German scholar had predecessors in medieval scriptural hermeneutics. The pioneer in this field, the Alexandrian church father Origen (ca. 185-ca. 254), distinguished three senses of interpretation: literal, moral, and allegorical. The approach of building on a foundation of that which is more evident, the literal sense, and moving to higher levels is the same. On the other hand, with his attention to the interpreting observer, Panofsky looks forward to "reception aesthetics," a current trend in literary study that stresses the role of the reader (and when transferred to art history, the role of the viewer). In the first monograph on Panofsky in English, Michael Ann Holly has explored affinities with semiotics.xxv  Indisputably, works of art are signs, and Panofsky's sophisticated system, with its three levels of interpretation, shows some (distant) similarity to those so influentially set forth by Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Saunders Peirce. 
These comparisons help us to understand the nature of Panofsky's system of analysis. In the end, however, his endeavor is best taken on its own terms and not "modernized"--even though this effort might help to shield him from the barrage of criticism to which he has been subjected as the greatest exponent of "traditional" art history.

Criticism of Panofsky.

Conditioned by the general climate of relativism enveloping the last years of the twentieth century, some younger art historians concluded that Panofsky was overconfident of his powers of historical reconstruction. The spirit of the age is not so unified or easily recuperable as his deft account of the third level (iconology proper) assumes--in fact some deny that it is even possible to attain such knowledge. Then there is the issue of reconstructing the artist's intention. In the wake of the purported "death of the author," intention has become suspect.xxvi If the cultural artifact is ultimately not the product of a single mind, then the project of locating the meaning of such a work in the mind of the executant is a mistaken one. Or the creator may have had an intention, but it may not be possible for us to recover it with any certainty. Moreover, even if we admit that, for some works at least, an objective reconstruction of the meaning can be formulated that corresponds to the artist's intention, what about the meanings attributed to the work by later observers? Panofsky sometimes reviews these interpretations, only to reject them when they conflict with his understanding of the original meaning.

Some practitioners of the so-called New Art History, swayed by Deconstruction and multiculturalism, charge Panofsky with an elitist exaltation of art works, so that he makes them into transcendental objects. The newer, ostensibly more "democratic" view holds that we need instead to look upon them simply as products of human labor which are not intrinsically different from other artifacts.

Related to this elite status accorded the art work is Panofsky's derivation of the content of art works from texts of theology or philosophy. In his book on Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism he proposes a perfect accord between the methodology of scholastic disputation and the articulation of Gothic church interiors.xxvii However, some of the architectural principles that he attributes to this partnership can be traced back to Early Christian times, long before the rise of scholasticism. Taken as a whole the argument has a circular quality, for Panofsky selects points of similarity and then makes the philosophy and the architecture fit. Examined carefully, this book turns out to be a misfire, what Panofsky himself castigated elsewhere as the "boa constructor" at work. In view of this circularity of reasoning, the claim that literary evidence can serve to verify the correctness of artistic interpretation and thus assure its objectivity fails--at least in this instance.xxviii

In another medievalist contribution, his of Abbot Suger and the invention of Gothic architecture, Panofsky attributes Suger's pioneering role to his knowledge of the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, to whom legend ascribed the foundation of the abbey of Saint-Denis.xxix In a sharp critique of this claim, the English art historian Peter Kidson has observed that Suger's writings never mention Of course it is still possible that he was acquainted with these ideas, but it is no longer certain. Moreover, if the Dionysian influence were established it would be an example of historical discordance, since Dionysius lived 600 years before Suger.

One of the conceptual innovations of Panofsky that had seemed most secure has also come under attack: his idea of "disguised symbolism." He developed this concept in studying early Netherlandish art--those works of an almost magical realism produced in the Low Countries during the fifteenth century. Disguised symbolism has the following rationale. In the early fifteenth century, painting moved inexorably towards rendering real space, so that medieval symbolic thinking, if it was to retain a place in art, had to accommodate itself to the laws of the new realism. In order to preserve the practice of conveying meaning through symbols, these had to take the form of real objects coexisting with figures in real space. In this way a dog is both a real animal and a symbol of fidelity.  
The dog occurs in the Arnolfini portrait, a small but potent panel painting by Jan van Eyck in the National Gallery in London. In a much cited article of 1934--in which he introduced the concept of disguised symbolism--Panofsky interpreted this painting, which is actually a double portrait of the merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and his consort Jeanne Cenami in a room, as an attestation of the marriage of the couple.xxxi Panofsky confirmed the earlier surmise that the panel represented a marriage, and subsequently the title Arnolfini Wedding has been generally accepted. Marshaling an array of learned references from classical antiquity and canon law, Panofsky drew the reader's attention to some seemingly minor details. For example, even though brilliant light streams from the open window, the chandelier bears one lighted candle. A candle figured in wedding processions, and could also be used to mark the fixing of a contract, which is what a marriage is, among other things. Then the tiny sculpture of St. Margaret carved onto the armrest of the chair represented a saint noted for her protection of women in childbirth. To return to the feature already mentioned, the little dog at Jeanne's feet stands for fides, both in the sense of fidelity to the marriage contract and the couple's later faithfulness to each other. The way in which these symbols are "smuggled in" is part of an ingenious strategy on the part of Jan van Eyck and his colleagues to retain the enrichment of the symbolic dimension, a procedure that had come to fruition in the non-mimetic art of the Middle Ages, and carry it forward into the new era of naturalism. In this fashion the painters found a way to eat their cake and have it too. The subtle way in which the symbols are introduced as everyday items, which we might well expect to find in a private room of the period, enhances the attractiveness of the painting, for their meaning does not obtrude aggressively, but only gradually discloses itself to us.

Such an intepretation is seductive and certainly possible-- but is it true? After Panofsky's death, a number of revisionist scholars began to question his interpretation of the Arnolfini Wedding and, by implication, the whole theory of disguised symbolism. In a spirited attack Jan-Baptist Bedaux applied Occam's razor to Panofsky's subtelties.xxxii He sought to demonstrate that all the gestures and objects that Panofsky interpreted as being introduced in order to enhance the symbolic weightiness of the painting can be explained as part of the marriage act itself. In other words, the painting is simply a realistic depiction of fifteenth-century marriage customs in which all the representations find their explanation in real life. Harshly, Bedaux concludes that "Panofsky's theory gives carte blanche to the building of iconological castles in Spain." Bedaux's gambit has been succeeded by others in a similar vein. In a striking example of the social approach, Linda Seidel employs the painting to explore further aspects of social and gender relations in Europe at the time.xxxiii Lacking any strong Marxian content, the new approaches may nonetheless be termed materialistic in contrast to Panofsky's spiritualistic interpretation; they seek to anchor the painting in actual life, with its settled economic and social patterns. One may question whether it is so starkly a matter of either-or. In the view of the present writer much of the substance of Panofsky's original insights has survived, with some of the observations of later scholars offering useful supplements.

              Why have these attacks proliferated a generation after Panofsky's death?  Some of the new writing seems to reflect simple revisionism--a kind of Oedipal desire to prove one's mettle by slaying the art-historical father.  Some who are inclined to social history and "historical materialism" regard Panofsky's interpretations are too "idealist" and uplifting.  Some are also uneasy about his facility in solving iconographical puzzles--­they prefer ambiguity. More broadly, the concept of humanism, which Panofsky and his associates wore as a proud badge, has become suspect as the projection of bourgeois complacency into the past.  Yet Panofsky, steeped in languages and old texts, was as aware as anyone of the dangers of anachronism.  Sometimes, perhaps, he played to the expectations of his audiences who were the art-loving bourgeoisie--yet what else could they be?

Despite his dazzling competence in a vast range of subjects from ancient Egypt through the eighteenth century, Panofsky seems to have disregarded modern art almost completely. To his credit, however, he usually remained circumspect, refraining from attacking that which he did not appreciate. He made a few curious exceptions, as when he extravagantly compared (privately) Modigliani with Michelangelo. Initiating a series of letters in the monthly Art News (April-September 1961), Panofsky disclosed his lack of connectedness with the contemporary avant-garde scene-- --"I find it increasingly hard to keep up with contemporary art"-- though not necessarily hostility to it. In the ensuing exchange Barnett Newman, nettled by Panofsky's questioning of the title of one of his abstract paintings, mordantly reproved the art historian, far more than the occasion warranted.xxxiv
Panofsky's 1936 essay "Style and Medium in the Motion Picture," written to mark the refounding of the Film Library of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and often reprinted, sometimes figures as evidence of response to twentieth-century visual culture.xxxv Rather, this is the exception to the rule, for the dominance of the narrative principle in movies of the first half of the twentieth century offers fare for the iconologist in a way that abstract art does not. In fact, film scholars have shown that the works of D.W. Griffiths' and other pioneers are saturated with images derived from the academic history paintings of the previous century.xxxvi
While this assumption must remain speculative, Panofsky's indifference, perhaps aversion to modern art may reflect his reaction to the Expressionism and Dada of the 1920s, which one might associate with an irrational climate that opened the way for the Nazi triumph. 
The lack of response to modern art may have worked synergetically with a further quality: a lack of interest in the dynamics of artistic change. To be sure, he did distinguish the renascences of the Middle Ages from the full-fledged Renaissance that came to fruition in Italy after 1300. Yet as approached by Panofsky, the objects from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque have much in common. They share a learned quality, with complex meanings that can only be deciphered by mobilizing textual sources. This feature almost suggests that they dwell in a timeless realm of humanism, cordoned off from change and decay. In addition, Panofsky was almost totally indifferent to non-Western cultures, including those of the great civilizations of China, Japan, and India. For those who hold that Eurocentrism represents a limitation, he will be found wanting.

Finally, Panofsky's bravura literary style has found detractors as well as admirers. The detractors point out that he was too found of antitheses, of presenting things in terms of contrast with something else. He also tended to digress, sometimes, it seems, simply to show off his erudition.

Each reader must make up his or her mind about whether these criticisms are valid. They need to be balanced by a renewed appreciation of Panofsky's positive achievement. He wrote about works that we feel instinctively are important when we behold them, but remain uncertain as to why. Panofsky gives reasons, and in many instances they have stood the test of time. Rightly, he recognized that an overall methodology was needed. Soaring over everything else is the pleasure we receive from seeing a first-class mind tackle difficult and important subjects.


Different as they are, the themes discussed in this chapter share a common sense of purpose that transcended national boundaries. Residing for some years in Italy, Warburg founded an institute that attained its greatest influence after its transfer to London. The internationalization of Central European art history by Panofsky, Gombrich, and their peers provided enrichment through a deeper concern with subject matter and, in Ernst Gombrich's case, a more up-to-date interaction with the field of perceptual psychology. 
Conceived in these ways, the discipline was both broad and deep. By mid-century the various elements of this tradition had united to form an accepted common discourse, the "normal science" of art history in Europe and North America. 
During the 1960s, however, new entrants to the field became increasingly uncomfortable with the state of the discipline. Art history was concerned, almost exclusively it seemed, with high-culture objects produced by the European tradition, with modern art being largely excluded. The distinct art traditions of Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas counted for little. Moreover, the traditional concept of art, as an archive of revered cultural icons, no longer seemed adequate. Newcomers sought a less Olympian approach that would connect art with life and with social change. Research that incorporates these interests will figure in succeeding chapters of this book.

i Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art, trans. by Barbara F. Sessions, New York: Bollingen, 1953.
ii See the English translation by E. J. Millington, Christian Iconography: The History of Christian Art in the Middle Ages, completed with additions and appendices by Margaret Stokes, 2 vols., London, 1851 (reprinted New York: Unger, 1965).
iii Louis Réau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 6 vols., Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1955-59. However, the standard reference work for Christian iconography is now Engelbert Kirschbaum, ed., Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie, 8 vols., Freiburg: Herder, 1968-76.
iv See the annotated English-language versions, edited by Harry Bober: Religious Art in France, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978- .
v Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik, eds., Modern Art and Popular Culture: Readings in High & Low, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990, p. 16.
vi Ernst Hans Gombrich, Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography, London: The Warburg Institute, 1970. For an English-language version of Warburg's corpus of writings, see Aby Warburg, The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity, translated by David Britt, Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 1999.  See also Dieter Wuttke, ed., Aby Warburg: Ausgewählte Schriften und Würdigung, 2nd ed., Baden-Baden: Koerner, 1980; and Horst Bredekamp, Michael Diers, and Charlotte Schoell-Glass, eds., Aby Warburg: Akten des internationalen Symposions Hamburg 1990, Weinheim: VCH Verlagsgesellschaft, 1991. For the scholar's formative years, see Bernd Roeck, Florence 1900: The Quest for Arcadia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.  For the family, see Ron Chernow, The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family, New York: Random House, 1993.
vii Aby Warburg, Sandro Botticelli's 'Geburt der Venus' und 'Frühling': Eine Untersuchung über de Vorstellungen von der Antike in der italienischen Frührenaissance, Hamburg; Leopold Voss, 1893; the text was reprinted in his Gesammelte Schriften, 2 vols., Leipzig: Teubner, 1932; and in Wuttke, ed., Aby Warburg).  English-language version in The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity,  pp. 89-156,
viii An English version (trans. by Peter Worstman) of this text appears as "Italian Art and International Astrology in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara," in Gert Schiff, ed., German Essays on Art History, New York: Continuum, 1988, pp. 234-54.
ix Janet Cox-Rearick, Dynasty and Destiny in Medici Art: Pontormo, Leo X, and the Two Cosimos, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
x Panofsky has not yet received a full biography. Two book-length accounts concentrate on theoretical aspects of this work, neglecting his working life as an art historian: Renate Heidt, Erwin Panofsky: Kunsttheorie und Einzelwerk, Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 1977; and Michael Ann Holly, Panofsky and the Foundations of Art History, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984. There are also essay collections: Jacques Bonnet, ed., Erwin Panofsky, Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1983; Bruno Reudenbach, ed., Erwin Panofsky: Beiträge des Symposions Hamburg 1992, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1994; and Irving Lavin, ed. Meaning in the Visual Arts: Views from the Outside: A Centennial Commemoration of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Of the personal accounts that appeared after his death, perhaps the two most valuable are Jan Bialostocki, "Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), Thinker, Historian, Human Being," Simiolus, 4 (1970), 68-89; and William S. Hekscher, "Erwin Panofsky: A Curriculum Vitae," Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, 28 (1969), 5-21.
xi See the bibliography of Panofsky's writings in Erwin Panofsky, Aufsätze su Grundfragen der Kunstwissenschaft, ed. Hariolf Oberer and Egon Verheyen, 2nd ed., Berlin: Verlag Bruno Hessling, 1974, pp. 1-17. This volume reprints the most important theoretical papers from Panofsky's German period. 
xii See Panofsky's fond recollections of his teacher in the "Vorwort" to Wilhelm Vöge, Bildhauer des Mittelalters: Gesammelte Studien von Wilhelm Vöge, Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1958, pp. ix-xxxii.  See also Kathryn Brush, The Shaping of Art History: Wilhelm Vöge, Adolph Goldschidt and the Study of Medieval Art, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

xiii Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, Its Origins and Character, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953.
xiv Erwin Panofsky, "Das Problem des Stils in der bildenden Kunst," Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, 37 (1915), 460-67.
xv Jan Bialostocki, "Erwin Panofsky," p. 71.
xvi On the triumvirate Warburg-Cassirer-Panofsky, see Martin Jesinghausen-Lauster, Die Suche nach der symbolischen Form: Der Kreis um die kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, Baden-Baden: Koerner, 1985; and Silvia Ferretti, Cassirer, Panofsky, and Warburg: Symbol, Art, and History, trans. by Richard Pierce, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
xvii See now the English version: Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, trans. by Christopher S. Wood, New York: Zone Books, 1991.
xviii Erwin Panofsky (with Fritz Saxl), "Classical Mythology in Mediaeval Art," Metropololitan Museum Studies, 4 (1933), 228-80.
xix Erwin Panofsky, "Renaissance and Renascences," Kenyon Review, 6 (1944), 201-36.
xx Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, New York: Oxford University Press, 1939.
xxi For the successive strata of the scheme, and its possible origin in an insight of Karl Mannheim, see Joan Hart, "Erwin Panofsky and Karl Mannheim: A Dialogue on Interpretation," Critical Inquiry 19 (1993), 534-66.
xxii Peter Schmidt [and Dieter Wuttke], Aby Warburg und die Ikonologie, Bamberg: Stefan Wendel Verlag, 1989.
xxiii Erwin Panofsky, "Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art," in his Meaning in the Visual Arts, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday (Anchor Books), 1955, pp. 26-54.
xxiv For iconology, see Jan Bialostocki, "Iconography and Iconology," Encyclopedia of World Art, 7 (1963), cols. 769-85; and Ekkehard Kaemmerling, ed., Ikonographie und Ikonologie: Theorien, Entwicklung, Probleme (Bildende Kunst als Zeichensystem, 1), Cologne: Dumont, 1979. As used by Panofsky, the term has Hegelian overtones, of which he may not have been fully aware. In his later years, however, he grew more uncertain of the concept of iconology, and seldom used the expression.
xxv Holly, Panofsky.
xxvi This suspicion stems from the iconoclastic writings of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault; for a survey of changing approaches to intention, see Annabelle Patterson, "Intention," in Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, Critical Terms for Literary Study, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, pp. 135-46. Panofsky's ideas about the matter, which are not easy to pin down, are discussed in David Summers, "Intentions in the History of Art," New Literary History, 17 (1986), 305-21, and comment by Steven Z. Levine (pp. 323-31) and reply by Summers (333-49).
xxvii Erwin Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, Latrobe, Penn.: Archabbey Press, 1951.
xxviii The parallel between medieval thought and architecture has been taken up from a different point of view in Charles M. Radding and William W. Clark, Medieval Architecture, Medieval Learning: Builders and Masters in the Age of Romanesque and Gothic, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
xxixErwin Panofsky, Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and Its Art Treasures, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946 (new ed. by Gerda Panofsky-Soergel, 1979).
xxx Peter Kidson, "Panofsky, Suger and St. Denis," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 50 (1987), 1-17. For a different view, see Conrad Rudolf, Artistic Change at St-Denis: Abbot Suger's Program and the Early Twelfth-Century Controversy Over Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.
xxxi Erwin Panofsky, "Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait," Burlington Magazine, 64 (1934), 117-27.
xxxii Jan Baptist Bedaux, "The Reality of Symbols: The Question of Disguised Symbolism in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, Simiolus, 16 (1986), 6-28; reprinted in Bedaux, The Reality of Symbols, Maarsen: Gary Schwartz, 1990, pp.  21-65
xxxiii Linda Seidel, "'Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait': Business as Usual?" Critical Inquiry, 16 (1989), 55-86. A different, less documentary approach is taken by Craig Harbison, "Sexuality and Social Standing in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Double Portrait," Renaissance Quarterly, 43 (1990), 249-91.
xxxiv On this episode, see Beat Wyss, "Ein Druckfehler," in Reudenbach, ed., Erwin Panofsky, pp. 191-200. On Panofsky and modern art, see Regine Prange, "Die erzwungene Unmittelbarkeit: Panofsky und der Expressionismus," Idea, 10 (1991), 221-54.
xxxv The first printed version of the essay ("Style and Medium in the Moving Pictures") appeared in Transition, 26 (1937), 121-33. See Renate Prange, "Stil und Medium: Panofsky 'On Movies'," in Reudenbach, ed., Erwin Panofsky, 172-90.
xxxvi In addition, one should note that films have appealed to individuals situated at all points of the political compass; Hitler and Stalin, not noted for their support of modern art, loved the movies.


The migration of scholars for political reasons is a fascinating topic in comparative intellectual history. During the late eighth and ninth centuries, English and Irish scholars, menaced by the Viking invasions, found shelter at the continental courts of Charlemagne and his successors. In the aftermath of the Reformation, French Huguenot savants found it prudent to resettle in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. Even today, intellectuals continue to leave third-world countries, (as their criticisms of the regime all too often leads to dangerous retaliation), to take up academic posts in Western nations.

In art history a shift of this kind occurred in the 1920s and 1930s because of totalitarianism. A first indication was the departure of scholars from the Soviet Union in the early years of the Bolshevik regime. Thus - to name only two distinguished figures - André Grabar went to France, while Michael Rostovtsev settled in the United States.

During the interwar period the most important current of this kind was from Central Europe to North America occasioned by the establishment of National Socialism in Germany in January 1933. This “Transatlantic Migration” involved scholars in many fields. A much smaller number went to Great Britain, Australia, Mexico and other countries where there were fewer jobs.  1  The migrating scholars faced formidable obstacles: xenophobia, antisemitism, and the Depression.

Some émigrés crossed cultural barriers more easily than others. For example, Martin Weinberger had been to school in England and spoke the English language perfectly; while Edgar Wind had previously had practice in teaching in America. Others found the challenge as middle-aged adults of learning to speak in a foreign tongue daunting. But most persevered.

Some disciplines to which the émigrés belonged, such as philosophy and romance philology, were well developed in America. Others, such as social psychology, were less so, and thus invited strengthening . As a rule scholars were able to make the greatest impact in fields that had already achieved some maturity but had not reached their full growth.

The responses of the refugees towards their new environment varied. At one extreme, some threw themselves completely into Americanization, so much so that they downplayed their own strengths. Consequently, they were able to offer little that was new. At the other extreme stood those who remained aloof from the American intellectual community, preferring the society of their fellow refugees. Emigration didn’t “take” for these figures, and many of them returned to Europe after the war.

It was those who occupied the middle ground who were most successful. Determined to retain their own insights and methods, while making sufficient compromise with America, they were able to both communicate and interact.   2  Erwin Panofsky seems to have excelled in this last group, and accordingly his influence was considerable. Finally, there were differences in the personnel pools available: many art historians immigrated, but relatively few mainstream historians.   3   The impact felt in the latter field was accordingly ore modest.

Art history was not unknown in the United States prior to the Transatlantic Migration. The American artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872) had occasionally lectured on the history of art in New York. An 1826 set of lectures that has been preserved dealt with the affinity of painting with the other fine arts, especially literature, as a way of interesting the audience.   4   Influenced by John Ruskin, the Boston Brahmin Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908) offered lively lectures on the fine arts at Harvard University.   5   However, these were individual efforts: institutional commitment was needed if a firm tradition was to be established. In 1883 Allan Marquand founded the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton.   6   Yet art history did not begin to show genuine originality in America until the early years of the twentieth century.   7   Such Ivy League scholars as Harvard’s Arthur Kingsley Porter (1883-1933) and Princeton’s Charles Rufus Morey (1877-1955) produced distinguished bodies of academic work. Philanthropically (and possibly more importantly), they had begun to train a younger generation.   8   Such leadership sent a strong message to would-be critics. Simply, that the refugee art historians did not fall on stony ground. The art-historical refugee contingent, numbering ultimately more than 400 individuals, was a particularly impressive one.  9 Unfortunately, not all could secure academic posts.

The availability of so many distinguished European scholars (generally dismissed on racial grounds though a few were political opponents of the regime) coincided with the decision of Walter W. S. Cook (1888-1962) to form a new graduate department of art history at New York University. “Hitler is my best friend,” Cook remarked, “he shakes the tree and I collect the apples.” Panofsky, who had settled in Princeton, cooperated to assist many émigré scholars. Cook’s clout attracted such brilliant minds as Walter Friedlaender, Richard Krautheimer, and Karl Lehmann to his Institute of Fine Arts (IFA), located in the Paul Warburg mansion at 17 East 80th Street near The Metropolitan Museum of Art.   10

The 1930s contingent had a few exceptional precursors - namely Gisela Marie Augusta Richter (1882-1972). Of German parentage, though educated mainly in England, Gisela was one of the first women to breach the gender barrier at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.   11   In 1925 she rose to become curator of the Greek and Roman Department. Although Richter never held a regular teaching position, she exercised considerable influence through her standard monographs on Greek archaic sculpture, ancient portraiture, and furniture.  Also active in the museum field, Wilhelm (William) R. Valentiner became director first of the Detroit Institute of Arts and then of the North Carolina Museum of Art.   12

The massive migration in art history had broad effects. The first was institutional. Central European scholars introduced art history to many institutions, especially in the Midwest and Far West, where it was hitherto unknown. A parallel development occurred with the “creative” migration: Walter Gropius took charge of architectural instruction at Harvard, while Josef Albers made a decisive imprint on art education at the proto-countercultural Black Mountain College in North Carolina. More and more the Bauhaus, dissolved in Germany, loomed as a model for efforts to teach all the arts of design under a single roof, integrating them with the modern aesthetic. The Bauhaus model helped to determine today’s standard association, sometimes tense and uneasy, between practicing artists and art historians in the art departments of most American universities.

What changes were made, as a result of this massive transfer of human capital, to the aims and methods of art history itself? Prior to the migration, medieval art and Spanish had enjoyed privileged status; afterwards, less so. Such fields as mannerism and the baroque, which had been almost completely neglected on these shores, sprang vigorously to life. Italy emerged as by far the most favored country for art-historical research, in keeping with a longstanding predilection in the cultivated strata of Central Europe.

Despite the Bauhaus influence in the teaching of creative art, European art historians shared the disdain of their American colleagues for modern art; to all intents and purposes, the field was left to autodidacts. Standing apart from the mainstream of academia, it was the “little magazines” of the avant-garde, such as the Partisan Review (influential in left politics in the 1930s, and in promoting modern literature) and View (best known for introducing Surrealism to the American public), that were the vehicles for the discovery of advanced modernist painting.

An exception to academic aversion to modernism was the Italian Lionello Venturi, who had refused to sign Mussolini’s loyalty oath; he conducted his research on impressionism and Cézanne during his initial years of exile in France before he came to the United States. Venturi’s History of Art Criticism, first published in 1936, was really in large measure a history of art history, and still remains a useful outline. Although John Rewald, a major scholar in nineteenth-century art history working in America was German, he was educated in France. These two figures then are exceptions that prove the rule - an intentional neglect of modern art.

The newcomers’ approach to methodology showed subtle but significant differences. Gradually emphasis shifted from cataloging and dating to more complex issues of interpretation. As a rule the émigrés had a much more solid classical training than their American counterparts, comprising eight years of study of Latin and seven of Greek.  Most spoke German as their first languages and had acquired French and Italian. They were thus better equipped to read the original documents in which works of art were discussed in their own time and subsequently through the centuries. With these skills went an understanding of the inherent historicity of art writing. Thus, an art course given by an émigré would typically begin not with the objects, but with an account of the progress of research, showing how different generations had responded to the works in different ways. Finally, a key practical innovation in teaching was the use of two lantern projectors - instead of one, which was the custom with American art historians - so that the comparative method was always implicit in the juxtaposition and contrast of two images placed before the student. All these developments helped to enrich the subject and to set new, higher standards of accomplishment for the graduate students fortunate enough to benefit from this training.

Unfortunately, these German-born scholars of genius could not perform the miracle of transferring the rich academic humus of the gymnasium in which they themselves had been formed to the new setting and, try as they might, few of their American disciples were able to come up to the measure of their distinguished preceptors.

The impress of this art-historical immigration, reinforced by a few scholars who arrived after World War II, was to be of major significance until about 1975. Then structuralism, semiotics, and deconstruction began to dislodge the Central European paradigm from center stage.

Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich.

This account of the Transatlantic Migration in art history concludes with a scholar who does not quite fit the mold. In fact Sir Ernst Gombrich taught at a number of American universities - including Cornell from 1971 to 1977 - but he is mainly identified with London and the Warburg Institute in that city. While the precincts of the Institute are somewhat austere and generally attract only scholars, so that one could easily cloister oneself there, Gombrich made it a point to reach out to audiences at many levels. His avuncular, witty, and articulate manner became widely known.

Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich was born in Vienna in 1909 to a middle-class Jewish family. His father was a lawyer and his mother a piano teacher. Gombrich’s parents adhered to a humanistic culture centered on the writings of Goethe. In art this meant, above all, a reverence for the great masters of the Italian Renaissance and for classical antiquity. These attachments the schoolboy readily absorbed. At the same time he was aware that the increasing popularity of expressionism was calling older verities into question. This sense of an immanent, perhaps epochal change in art-historical orientation was, he has recorded, what most drew him to major in the field at the University of Vienna.  13

In his studies in art history at the University he was confronted with a choice between two teachers, Josef Strzygowski and Julius von Schlosser. Strzygowski, who today would gain points as a multiculturalist, rejected classical art and Eurocentrism, emphasizing the creative influence of inner Asia. Gombrich attended his lectures and rejected him as a demagogue, so that he gravitated to Schlosser instead, a choice that proved decisive. As for Schlosser, his retiring personality restricted his pupils to a small number, but so solid was the formation he received that the young Gombrich felt that he had made the right choice. The older scholar emphasized the critical study of sources, the direct examination of objects in the museum, and specific historical problems, such as the history of ornament.  14 

For one semester in 1932 Gombrich traveled to Berlin to attend a special series of lectures by Heinrich Wölfflin, which he found disappointingly simplistic. Much more gripping were the rather technical presentations of the Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler. This encounter stimulated Gombrich’s interest in psychology. A little later he learned much from the tutelage of the psychoanalyst-cum-art historian Ernst Kris at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.  15  Interestingly, he was not so much impressed by Kris’s devotion to Sigmund Freud (about whom Gombrich has remained critical) as in his interest in academic psychology, and the way it can cast light on physiognomics, caricature, and perception. Here, as he has acknowledged, the key influence was Kurt Bühler, holder of the chair in psychology at the University of Vienna and author of monographs on speech and what would now be termed semiotics.  16

Somewhat in this vein Gombrich chose to write his dissertation on Giulio Romano, whose mannerist effects in architecture and painting at the Palazzo del Te at Mantua he found disturbing but oddly captivating. This choice is perhaps partly rooted in his puzzlement with regard to certain developments in modern art, which he analogized with the Italian master’s work. Like many of the Transatlantic Migrators, Gombrich remained cool to the more advanced aspects of modern art, seeing them as somehow entangled with the spirit of irrationalism that had ravaged Central Europe in his youth. At any event he rejected the then-fashionable interpretation of mannerism as a tortured by-product of tension and angst. Similarly (though much interested in classical music), he felt no attraction to the twelve-tone precepts of Arnold Schönberg. A positive influence, subsequently reinforced in London, was the philosopher of science, Karl Popper. According to Gombrich, Popper’s 1935 book Die Logik der Forschung “established the priority of the scientific hypothesis over the recording of sense data.”  17

As conditions in Austria deteriorated, Gombrich was fortunate in the fact that Kris found him a job (in 1936) at the Warburg Institute, which had just moved to London from its original home in Hamburg. (Since Aby Warburg had died in 1929, Gombrich, who was later to write a fine book on him, never met him.) This move decisively altered his destiny through two encounters: first, with the Warburg Institute under its gifted director, Fritz Saxl; and secondly, with the English language, of which he became a master. Most of the émigrés managed to write at least passable English, but two, Gombrich and Panofsky, excelled in their adopted tongue. Their linguistic feats were very different. Panofsky had a gift for acrobatic displays of irony and wordplay, salted with prodigious amounts of erudition. These verbal pyrotechnics were so brilliant that they sometimes distracted from the point that the scholar was making.

By contrast Gombrich’s talent lay in clarity of exposition - so that the reader is carried along almost effortlessly by the perfect choice of words, and the mellifluous sequence of ideas. Yet let me make a personal observation.  This agreeable effect sometimes lulls one into accepting a conclusion that on reflection one does not share. Gombrich’s expository powers realize his commitment to the ideals of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment with its focus on the Common Reader. His seeking of the center in this way means that the reader often does concur, but perhaps not as often as the writer might have hoped.

Gombrich’s skills were honed by his accepting several jobs in England that involved teaching at a rather basic level. These successes (and an earlier children’s book on world history that he had written in Vienna) induced the Phaidon Press to commission The Story of Art. First published in 1950 and many times reprinted and enlarged, this book offered a genial text that served to introduce many on both sides of the Atlantic to the subject.

At the same time he continued to frequent the Warburg Institute, where his closest associates were the learned Otto Kurz, his old friend from Vienna, and Frances Yates, who almost single-handedly revived knowledge of the hermetic tradition. In 1959 Gombrich became the Institute’s director, serving also as Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition. At the same time he used his position to enlarge his interdisciplinary interests in the natural sciences. In the field of perception he avidly absorbed new discoveries in the physiology and functioning of the eye. He also cemented his alliance with his philosophical mentor, Sir Karl Popper, then teaching at the London School of Economics. In addition to their commitment to scientific method, Popper and Gombrich shared an aversion to Hegel, whom they blamed for laying the foundations for totalitarianism, in both its Nazi and Marxist versions. Later, however, Gombrich’s attitude to the philosopher was to mellow, leading him to accept the Hegel Prize of the city of Stuttgart in 1977.  18

The pivotal event in Gombrich’s scholarly life occurred in his forty-sixth year. In 1956 he traveled to Washington, D.C., to give the Mellon Lectures, the most prestigious in the field. The result was the 1960 book Art and Illusion, which combined grace and accessibility, with erudition and innovation, making him for a time the hottest art historian going. This period was one in which art history had considerable appeal for the general public - witness the tremendous success of The Voices of Silence by André Malraux - that seems to have faded. Of course Gombrich has retained the esteem of art history professionals in a way that Malraux has not. If the research program that seems implicit in Art and Illusion, namely visual perception as the key to progress, failed completely to convince, Gombrich’s reputation as the “thinking art historian” has held. A revealing tribute came from a critic, Norman Bryson, who remarked in 1983, “The gap between philosophy and art history is now so wide that in practical terms it is filled almost by a single work; Gombrich’s Art and Illusion.”  19   While this claim of uniqueness is overstated, Art and Illusion remains a milestone in the development of art history.

Ranging with great panache over wide provinces of the ancient Mediterranean and Western Europe, these lectures seek to explain the changing appearance of works of art.  20  Indeed, perhaps the most challenging question Gombrich poses is “Why does art have a history?” That is to say, why is it that different periods have represented nature differently? Though simple to pose, this problem’s solution is by no means ready to hand. In order to address the issue more closely, Gombrich adopts the psychological concept of the “mental set” as a way of addressing the distinction between nature as an object of perception and nature as an object of representation. Of course, vision as such is a biological given, a physiological substrate which must always be factored in as the parameter-giving force - hence Gombrich’s interest in laboratory experiments concerning human perception. On this biological foundation are imposed ways of seeing. But here a dilemma appears. Are these ways of seeing simply modes of inflecting a basically unitary process (universalism) or are they something that differs fundamentally from culture to culture (culturism)? Strong arguments ca be marshaled for either assumption. Without solving this problem, Gombrich helpfully suggests that our expectations of what we will see play an important role; we see what we have been conditioned to see. In keeping with this premise Gombrich strongly denies that there can be such a thing as the “innocent eye,” a straightforward way of seeing, uncontaminated by preconceptions. Rather, “(a)ll culture and all communication depend on the interplay between expectation and observation.” In addition to perceiving products of our own culture with the mental set that has been given us, we are capable of adjusting our mental set so as to perceive a highly stylized medieval work, such as the Bayeux Tapestry, in terms of the mental set of the era that produced it.

In any event once we realize the need to adjust our mental set to accommodate works with different strategies of representation the need for periodization in art history becomes evident. A madonna by Cimabue requires one approach, a madonna by Raphael another, and a madonna by Tiepolo yet a third. We normally call the ruling conventions that characterize these works period style - in these instances Italo-Byzantine, Renaissance, and Baroque.

Many who have approached this problem have done so from the point of view of the observer, the “consumer” as it were of the art work. Gombrich of course does this as well, in his concept of the “beholder’s share.” However, he also addresses the question in terms of the producer - as did Wölfflin - bringing in the idea of a constant interplay between making and matching. Thus the artist makes marks on the surface, then he or she checks the marks - or “matches” them against the motif. This leads to a modification of the marks, a new making, and this in turn requires a new matching - and so forth. Put differently, there is a close relation between schema and correction. Successful negotiation of this process requires attention to the nature of the medium, so that in Constable’s landscapes, for example, the ability of oil paint to hold colors is crucial.

It is evident that Gombrich has tackled a task of enormous proportions. It is the invitation to the artist extended, so to speak, by Renaissance illusionism “to paint everything.”  21  Grandiose as this ambition of embracing the perceived world is, one must ask: is it all? What about symbolic contents that are not clearly coded in what we see? And what about the inherent interest of patterns, whether they are found in nature or not? The focus of Gombrich’s investigation accords well - some would say all too well - with his positive valorization of the Renaissance and of Greek art and his dismissal of medieval art (“pictographs”) and much modern art.

Historians of science speak of internalist and externalist accounts. The former treats a discipline as problems which are solved, leading to new problems and so forth. The externalist approach emphasizes societal and personal factors.

With his dislike of holistic, Hegelian interpretations, Gombrich approaches the problem of why art has a history in terms of a unilinear internalism. This means that in his narrative the only significant factor is the variable of illusion. This monism contrasts, for example, with Vasari’s “market basket” of qualities, including disegno, invenzione, and grazia. Gombrich’s internalist singlemindedness leaves out effects that reflect the demands of society as seen through such content-driven elements as iconography, symbolic portraiture, and the like. Although elsewhere Gombrich tackles the symbolism of the Renaissance, in Art and Illusion he does not treat this fundamental theme. Another way of approaching the matter would be to say that medieval “pictographs” are poor in details but rich in intensive significance (the play of analogies through symbolic association).

Recognizing the need for a complementary approach, Gombrich sought to deal massively with the “rest of art history” in his 1979 book on ornament, The Sense of Order, but these observations remain a foreign body with respect to the theory that made him famous. One is compelled to say that after his great breakthrough at the end of the fifties and its concretization in Art and Illusion in 1960 he largely consolidated his observations, but without carrying the underlying theory further.  22

Many scholars have taken exception to this or that aspect of Gombrich’s theory. The semiotician Norman Bryson, mentioned above, has attempted a comprehensive critique. In Vision and Painting Bryson posits that Gombrich’s concept of the painting as a notation of perception recorded and dialectically modified is inadequate: it does not sufficiently recognize that perception is a complex undertaking, involving many factors and creating a dialogue between beholder and painting. Moreover, strategies of the gaze (as Bryson terms it) have changed over time. This criticism is cogent, for it acknowledges once more the paradox that the history of art is an amalgam of histories of art: the history not only of illusion, but of the gaze, subject matter, uses of works of art, and many other factors.

1.  Karen Michels, Transplantierte Kunstwissenschaft: Deutschsprachige Kunstgeschichte im amerikanischen Exil, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1999; Ulrike Wendland, Biographisches Handbuch deutschsprachiger Kunsthistoriker im Exil: Leben und Werk der unter dem Nationalsozialismus verfolgten und vertriebenen Wissenschaftler, Munich: Saur, 1999.
2.  This threefold scheme stems from Franz Neumann, as interpreted by Lewis A. Coser, Refugee Scholars in America: Their Impact and Their Experiences, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984, p. 12.
3.  Hartmut Lehmann and James J. Sheehan, eds., An Interrupted Past: German-Speaking Refugee Historians in the United States after 1933, Washington, D.C.: German Historical Institute, 1991. German academic “streaming” had kept most Jews from appointments in history departments. In addition, these departments tended to be conservative, and their members were less likely to rebel against Nazi tutelage.
4.  Samuel F. B. Morse, Lectures on the Affinity of Painting with the Other Fine Arts, edited by Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983.
5.  Kermit Vanderbilt, Charles Eliot Norton:  Apostle of Culture in a Democracy, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959.
6.  Marilyn Arenberg Lavin, The Eye of the Tiger, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.
7.  Erwin Panofsky, “Three Decades of Art History in the United States: Impressions of a Transplanted European,” in his Meaning in the Visual Arts, pp. 321-46 (reprinted from W. R. Crawford, ed., The European Scholar in America, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953, pp. 82-111).
8.  On Porter, see Linda Seidel, “The Scholar and the Studio: A. Kingsley Porter and the Study of Medieval Architecture in the Decade Before the War,” in Elizabeth Blair MacDougall, ed., The Architectural Historian in America (Studies in the History of Art, 35), Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1990, 145-58.
9.  For an insightful first account, see Colin Eisler, “Kunstgeschichte American Style: A Study in Migration,” in Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn, eds., The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America, 1930-1960, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969, 544-629.
10.  For a brief conspectus, see Alex Prud’homme, “The Biggest and the Best?” Art News, February 1990, 124-129.
11.  Ingrid E. M. Edlund, Anna Marguerite McCann, and Claire Richter Sherman, “Gisela Marie Augusta Richter (1882-1972): Scholar of Classical Art and Museum Archaeologist,” in Claire Richter Sherman and Adele M. Holcomb, eds., Women as Interpreters of the Visual Arts, 1820-1979, Westport, Conn,: Greenwood Press, 1981, pp. 275-300.
12.  Margaret Sterne, The Passionate Eye: The Life of William R. Valentiner, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1980.
13.  See the autobiographical reminiscences: Ernst H. Gombrich, “’Wenn’s euch Ernst ist, was zu sagen . . .’--Wandlungen in der Kunstgeschichtsbetrachtung, in Martina Sitt, ed. Kunsthistoriker in eigener Sache: Zehn autobiographiche Skizzen, Berlin: Dietrich Riemer Verlag, 1990, 0pp. 63-100. The art historian reflects more generally on his leading ideas in Ernst Gombrich and Didier Eribon, Looking For Answers: Conversations on Art and Science, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993. See also Richard Woodfield,  Gombrich on Art and Psychology, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.
14.  This interest, founded partly on the work of Alois Riegl, was to resurface fifty years later in a probing account, The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979.
15.  “The Study of Art and the Study of Man: Reminiscences of Collaboration with Ernst Kris (1900-1957),” in Gombrich, Tributes: Interpreters of Our Cultural Tradition, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984, pp. 221-33.
16.  Gombrich, “Art History and Psychology in Vienna Fifty Years Ago,” Art Journal, 44:2 (Summer 1984), 162-64.
17.  Ernst Hans Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, New York: Pantheon Books, 1960, p. 12. Popper has prepared a translation of his book: The Logic of Scientific Discovery, New York: Basic Books, 1959.
18.  “’The Father of Art History’: A Reading of the Lectures on Aesthetics of G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831),” Tributes, pp. 51-69.
19.  Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze, London: MacMillan, 1983, p. xii.
20.  In the following paragraphs I have made grateful use of some observations made by my student David Buncel in his Hunter College M.A. thesis, “A Study of E. H. Gombrich’s Theory of Representation” (1992).
21.  Bryson, Vision, pp. 5-6.
22.  Other papers in the track of Art and Illusion are collected in Ernst Hans Gombrich, The Image and the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.

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