RA Magazine Spring 2013
Issue Number: 118
Review & Comment: Art historians on parade
A volume of essays on the books that shaped art history today is a pageant of influential art historians of the twentieth century. But why were they marching to so many different tunes, asks Edmund Fawcett
Rosalind Krauss in the early 1980s. Courtesy Rosalind Krauss. If you are keen on art history and like parades, you will love this book. Each of its 16 essays by experts in the field describes a book that influenced how people thought about art in the 20th century. In fine array and beautifully presented, arthistorical writers of the past 100 years or so file past us clasping their principal work, from Emile Mâle with Religious Art in 13th-Century France (1898) to Hans Belting with Likeness and Presence (1990). In between come most of the best-known scholars of the field, including Nikolaus Pevsner, Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Gombrich and T.J. Clark, not to forget influential art critics like Clement Greenberg and Rosalind Krauss. Each is cleverly chosen to represent a particular approach to art history. Each essay describes the claims of its subject’s signature book and assesses the book’s influence. To keep track of who’s who in this parade of essays, a handy appendix provides mini-bios, publication histories and bibliographies. It is an instructive and diverting spectacle.
After Mâle, Bernard Berenson marches for the Connoisseurs and Heinrich Wölfflin for the Style Historians. Then, each with their placard, come Roger Fry proclaiming ‘Significant Form: Go Cézanne’; Nikolaus Pevsner (‘Trad in New Build: Just say No’) and Alfred H. Barr of New York (‘Art History is Now: Think Matisse’). Next are Erwin Panofsky for the Iconographers, Kenneth Clark for the Erudite Popularisers and Ernst Gombrich for the Erudite Popular Polymaths. Clement Greenberg, critical champion of the mid-century avant-garde, is at safe distance from its 1980s challenger, Rosalind Krauss. In between comes T.J. Clark (‘Art Depicts Class’).
Clement Greenberg in London in 1953. Leonard Mccombe/time life pictures/Getty images. This is a serious book and to describe it as a parade is not to mock. Far from sloganish, the essays, which appeared originally in the Burlington Magazine, are models of intelligent compression and lively instruction. There is no difficulty as such with presenting the material in the fashion of a parade, and the editors are up front about what they have done. Still, it leaves an intriguing question. Why were these writers and scholars marching to such different tunes?
One of the editors, John-Paul Stonard, touches on the question in the introduction, where he riffs on an epigram of Gombrich’s. The editor suggests that there may be no such thing as art history, only art historians. What Gombrich said was: ‘There is really no such thing as Art. There are only artists.’ Like most good epigrams, this one contained just enough truth to disguise its overall falsehood, which may be why Gombrich slyly capitalised ‘Art’ to give himself some wriggle room. Gombrich of course believed there was art in abundance. He was objecting rather to packaging art in great stylistic categories tied to prevailing mentalities or social forces that then marched in sequence through history. That was the kind of art history that Wölfflin in particular had encouraged and which Gombrich reacted against. Gombrich worked from artists out, not from ‘Art’ in. Nor was Gombrich denying that art had a history. Far from it, he asked why art changed. Why did artists not all do the same kind of thing? His answer was that art changed as artists tested different ways to meet challenges of depiction and technique. Gombrich’s account of why art changed met criticism in its turn on several grounds, as the essay in this collection on his Art and Illusion (1960) duly notes.
Ernst Gombrich, c.1962. Leonie Gombrich/Warburg Institute. This fascinating collection is worth reading for many reasons, but one is to focus on the puzzle that Stonard hints at. Together, these essays prompt a question for art history that Gombrich asked about art. Why does art history change? Why do art historians not all do the same kind of thing? In what way, for example, is Hans Belting, who effectively denies that Christian art was truly art, pursuing the same discipline as Gombrich, who could accept no such claim? Or how are we to square two such opposed accounts of the mid-century avant-garde as those of Greenberg and Krauss?
Pat answers would be silly, as the editors recognise. Stonard, though, does suggest that one thing that held art history together in the 20th century was looking at photographs. Certainly photographs help hold this book together. Fronting each essay is a tellingly chosen photo of the art historian under study. Emile Mâle stands on the steps of the French Academy in ceremonial cloak, surrounded by colleagues in similarly formal clothes, listening to what appears from the pages in Mâle’s hands to be a very long speech. Ernest Gombrich relaxes on a sunny bench far from Bloomsbury, evidently on holiday but not slacking, to judge from the thickish guidebook at his side. Greenberg punctuates a papal judgement with his cigarette. Krauss, with chin on typewriter, looks up and out of frame, ready for dialectical combat. That sequence, from sage to guide and thence to arbiter and controversialist, is suggestive. A mini-history of 20th-century art history? In this thoughtprovoking collection, perhaps those photographs also tell a story.
- The Books That Shaped Art History: From Gombrich and Greenberg to Alpers and Krauss Richard Shone, John-Paul Stonard (Eds), £24.95, Thames & Hudson
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