Art History and the Diaspora: Ernst Gombrich and the problem of being a Viennese art historian in London



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Art History and the Diaspora: Ernst Gombrich and the problem of being a Viennese art historian in London

Notes and sources

Richard Woodfield

Presentational style:
When the Secretary kindly invited me to give this year’s annual lecture, I replied that I could only accept this honour if I was not expected to give a formal address, but rather discuss certain problems in an informal way. It was not only laziness which prompted me here. I have become increasingly sceptical of the value of that survival of epideictic oratory called “the formal lecture”. I was all the more happy to see, that this scepticism is shared by the supreme master of the genre, Lord Clark, who really said all there is to be said on this topic in his splendid self-portrait. “Historical truth,” he says, “is usually complex and fre­quently dull, and anyone with a sense of style or a love of language is tempted to take short-cuts and omit the qualifications that would make a statement less telling”. “The lecture form” he remarks, “encouraged all the evasions and half-truths that I had learned to practice in my weekly essays at Oxford”. With this damning accusation in mind I suggest that this Society should spawn a Society for the Reform of Lecturing with a radical wing agitating for its total abolition. I would at least plead for the abolition of lectures which are subsequently to be published. I believe that what is most suitable for discussion in front of an audience are precisely those half baked ideas and arguments which are not yet ripe to be printed. Which at last brings me to the ideas or worries I should like to air here tonight.
Source: Ernst Gombrich,’Topos and Topicality’, Annual Lecture of the Society for Renaissance Studies, delivered at University College, London, 10 January, 1975. Gombrich Archive.
The paradox:

The paradox was well-expressed by Willibald Sauerländer, who said that his friend’s ‘position in the field of “official” art history was at once dominant and peripheral.’
Source: E. H. Gombrich: A Commemoration, London: Warburg Institute, 2002, p. 18.
Eisler’s American perspective on Gombrich (1969):
Although far fewer jobs were available in England than America, with fierce competition for the minuscule number of appointments in a country which still scarcely recognizes art history in its oldest universities, those German and Austrian refugees who succeeded in establishing themselves in the face of almost insuperable odds have, it must be said, had more impact on the intellectual climate of Britain than have their, on the average, far more affluent émigré colleagues in America.

One cannot point to an art historian-refugee or native American whose influential role in the country in the teaching of his subject parallels the creative, authoritative position of Ernst Gombrich in England. This may well be due to a purely individual breadth of interest and sympathy and to Gombrich's concern with psychoanalysis and philosophy (reflecting his Austrian origins and the Wiener Schule), going far beyond the bounds of conventional art history and netting a rich catch. Odd as it may sound, speculation is decidedly not in style on the American campus, and Gombrich's brilliance, his modest audacity, his almost limitless scope would not, thank goodness, have "fitted in" with the makeup of any Fine Arts Department in this country. Significantly, few adherents of the Wiener Schule came to America, where their complex approach, combining knowledge of art history, psychology, and often the decorative arts would have been far less at home in the campuses or museums than even the Warburgians. Those who did come, Berliner, Kris, Schwarz, the Tietzes, De Tolnay—excepting the latter—were primarily involved in museum work. Prior to their arrival and that of Rudolf Arnheim, some interest in psychoanalysis had been evinced by American art historians such as Meyer Schapiro, and the subject had received wide attention through such publications as Herbert Read's Art and Society (1937). That unclassifiable masterpiece, Adams' Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres, already showed receptivity to psychology.

Such psychologists and psychiatrists as Viktor Lowenfeld and Kurt Eissler have given extensive consideration to art history and creativity, but these have not been integrated in academic art history. America has shown far less interest in this area than did Germany almost forty years ago, when Pinder was extremely receptive to the new psychological research of the late Kurt Lewin, who like Lowenfeld and Eissler came to the United States.

The analytical, symbolically oriented studies initiated by Aby Warburg and entitled iconology sprang from many of the same sources as those of Freudian thought. Warburg's omnivorous interests were often allied to those encompassed by anthropology and sociology, but he never succumbed to Scientism in the expression of his insights and discoveries in the role of ritual and the occult. In America, the impact of European psychoanalytical thought in the realm of art history has been about as silly as that of Freud on the movies. Years ago Hollywood was entranced with schizophrenia and related maladies in the Three Faces of Eve and The Dark Mirror, now more vigorously and originally represented in Warhol's split screen. As far as art history is concerned, apart from Rudolf Arnheim's and Ernst Kris's insights, the Freudian approach has not yet led to valuable American explorations; such studies as the relationship between Cézanne's masturbation and his art do not do much to illuminate either. Freud's own reliability as an interpreter of art has been called into question by Meyer Schapiro in "Two Slips of Leonardo and a Slip of Freud."57

One of the most brilliant Austrian art historians, Ernst Kris, turned completely to psychoanalytical practice and research in America. In his late twenties Kris completed catalogs for objects in precious metals and stone in the Kunsthistorisches Museum that suggested the culmination of a lifetime of advanced, intense, and specialized scholarship. His work on the Rustic Style, published in the Wiener Jahrbuch, remains among the outstanding studies of the century. Some of his concern with art continued in his later American studies, but these are clinical and not historical.

A dynamic scholar, from Germany, who became a giant in English art history before repeating that achievement in America, is Rudolf Wittkower, now chairman of the Department of Art and Archaeology at Columbia University. As acknowledged on the B.B.C., Wittkower's innumerable publications did so much "to elucidate British art and architecture to the British."58

57. Psychoanalysis: Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychology, IV (1955-1956), 3-8; "Leonardo and Freud: an Art-Historical Study," Journal of the History of Ideas, 17 (1956), 147-148.

58. Pevsner, "An Un-English Activity?" 716. [The Listener, October 30, 1952, 715-6.]

Source: Colin Eisler, ‘Kunstgeschichte American Style’, 608-9, in David Fleming and Bernard Bailyn, The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America, 1930-1960, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1969.
Kenneth Clark’s English perspective on Gombrich (1977):

Sir Ernst Gombrich has been for many years the head of the Warburg Institute, now fortunately located in London, and most people interested in the subject would agree that he is the most intelligent, the most learned, and the wittiest of English art historians. He is also one of the most prolific. Eight of his volumes stand on my shelves. I have read them all, but owing to my pitiful inability to follow philosophical arguments, I cannot claim that I have always understood them. Fortunately I do not need to write about this aspect of his work since this has been done already by the philosopher Richard Wollheim. ...

I hope I have made clear my enormous admiration for Sir Ernst Gombrich's writings, and that I may be allowed to end this review with one criticism, not so much of Gombrich himself as of all Warburgian critics. It seems to me that the chief aim of the art historian is to give the reader some idea of why great artists are great. I know that in the eighteenth century, when various critics allocated marks to painters as if they were examiners, Giulio Romano often came out top of the class. But we all know that, compared to Titian, the industrious Giulio Romano was a second-rate artist. The first duty of criticism is to try to describe why Titian was superior to Giulio Romano. This may be almost impossible, but Berenson, and even Wölfflin (who takes a beating in Norm and Form), tried to do so.

Perhaps I am only saying that criticism should be more concerned with values than with symbols, and Gombrich is well aware of that; but sometimes the Warburgian approach seems to obsess him, and is worked out in such great detail that we begin to grow a little impatient.

Source: Kenneth Clark, ‘Stories of Art’, New York Review of Books, 24 (19), November 24, 1977.
Cecil Gould’s English perspective on Gombrich (1987):
Throughout the middle years of the present century two art-historians, the late Lord Clark and Sir Ernst Gombrich, have had the greatest success in interpreting the visual arts. The work of both displays extraordinary insight and has proved lastingly popular. Yet, as a purely personal judgment, I have always found Clark's work easier to read than Gombrich's. This is admittedly partly due to style. Clark was a natural stylist and was writing in his native language, whereas Gombrich has been at a linguistic disadvantage. But I think the distinction, or rather my reaction, goes deeper. In looking at works of art Kenneth Clark, a Scotsman brought up in England, started with the visual aspect - the relation of form and colour which appealed, or failed to appeal, to his eye - and then allowed his mind to consider it. Gombrich, on the other hand, who grew up in the heady intellectual atmosphere of Vienna of the 1920s, appears to do the opposite. With him the cerebral element seems to predominate over the visual.

... Immensely well-read and with a very lively and original intelligence, Sir Ernst is able to follow his ideas without violating known facts. In addition- and this is by no means common among very erudite scholars – he shows a lot of common sense. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, his conclusions remain, for the most part, speculative. Has he ever actually established anything that was not known before? I ask the question honestly and perhaps in ignorance.

Source: Cecil Gould, review of E. H. Gombrich New Light on Old Masters: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance IV, Apollo, January 1987, 75.

Francis Haskell’s English perspective on Gombrich (1992):

Dear Mr. Woodfield,

Thank you very much for your letter. It has, I am afraid, presented me with an insuperable problem. For more than thirty-five years I have benefited from Ernst Gombrich's help, advice, encouragement, criticism and friendship, and my debt to him both personally and intellectually (for I have also read everything that he has written, as far as I am aware) is enormous. I would always be happy to acknowledge that debt. But I would simply be incapable of writing about his work, as you ask me to do. My own mind does not work at all in that way: indeed, now I think about it, I realise that one of the reasons that I have learnt so much from him is just the fact that although his approach is so totally different from mine I can understand what he is saying, whereas usually in such cases I am baffled: but, alas, this does not mean that I am capable of discussing it adequately, and any contribution I made would be utterly fatuous.

I do hope that you will appreciate (and, incidentally, that Ernst also will appreciate if, as you say, he knows about your project, but is surprised by my non-appearance in it) that my declining to accept your invitation in no way implies a reluctance to honour him: on the contrary. One of the lessons I have learnt from him - and it is not quite so simple as one might think - is not to cover up one's ignorance and inability to argue seriously under a protective camouflage of clichés. And that is what I would be forced to do should I take part. I need hardly say that if you are also seeking brief tributes, to indicate the respect and admiration in which he is held, as well as serious pieces, I would be more than happy to participate.

Perhaps this letter could serve that very purpose ...

Yours sincerely,
Francis Haskell
Source: personal communication 11 February 1992.

Cambridge University Press’s response to a festschrift proposal (1994):

Dear Dr Woodfield

After some delay, for which I apologize, I am now able to give you Rose Shawe-Taylor's response to the Gombrich project proposal.

I'm sorry to report that for several reasons Rose does not feel that this project is really right for us. At 130,000 words plus bibliography and index it is rather long, but the more important objection is that its inter-disciplinary nature tells against it in marketing terms -- the range in Gombrich's work has been extremely important for later scholarship, but reflecting this range does not make for a coherent volume which we can direct towards a particular reading public. We would not wish, in any case, to make a commitment on the basis of anything less than the complete typescript in its final form, and I know that the project has not yet reached that stage; there is, therefore, room for some rethinking on this, but I rather fear that the kind of project which you would consider most appropriate for your purposes is not one that we could accommodate in our list. I am sorry to have to disappoint you.

Yours sincerely

Dr Hilary Gaskin
Source: personal communication 28 February 1994.

Gombrich’s description of himself (2000):


I don’t feel I am English; I feel precisely what I am – a Central European working in England. Thanks to my work with the BBC I learned English thoroughly.
Source: Adi Wimmer (ed.), Strangers at Home and Abroad: Recollections of Austrian Jews Who Escaped Hitler, Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company 2000, 135.
Gombrich on personal identity:

BURKE: In your lecture, you were most preoccupied with one kind of cultural history: as context or background to great books, great works of art. And I would want to say, though I doubt if you'd disagree with this, that there's another kind of cultural history which is also enormously important: the cultural history which deals with popular culture, which deals with what the French call the history of mentalities, with what ordinary people are thinking at a particular period, if this can be recovered. In this area there's rather more value in quantitative methods than if one's trying to work out the iconography of Botticelli.

GOMBRICH: I suppose that as far as such mentalities are recoverable or can even be described, you are entirely right, but I never quite know how this should be done. I couldn't really describe the mentality of the people in the street in which I live: this seems to me a very elusive thing. I myself have had to change cultures, as it were, and languages. I have a certain feel for the difference between the atmosphere of the Vienna in which I grew up and the atmosphere of the London in which I live, but when it comes to describing this feel, or pointing to particular instances, I find I'm rather at a loss. The only thing I can say is that what I read about pre-war Vienna always strikes me as wildly wrong, I just don't recognise the city in which I lived. It is a very difficult thing to pin down this atmosphere. These are features one takes for granted. They are part of the background. What methods one should use to bring them into the foreground, and how far one may falsify them by doing so, is one of the problems we are confronting.

BURKE: But still, when one reads texts written several centuries ago, one feels a need for some concept like mentality.

GOMBRICH: I would not deny that mentality is a useful term, but I think it is also true that people change their mentalities. I'm rather attracted by the sociological concept of role-playing in this respect. If you get into another group, you may feel that your mentality is changing: let us say, as an extreme example, the Army, or another group where everybody seems to act and to think and to speak in a different way, and this reacts back on your own responses to a rather surprising degree. Language is the best guide to mentality in this way. I don't know if you know the very interesting results of Liam Hudson with schoolboys. In his book Frames of Mind he has shown that boys who consider themselves to be on the science side give dry matter-of-fact answers, which seem to prove that they are quite unimaginative. But if you tell them, 'Imagine that you are a poet and now answer,' they suddenly become very imaginative. The role is not the person, and we are all many persons. Years ago I took part in experiments about the interpretation of facial expressions in news photographs. This turned out to be almost impossible unless you were also given the context: but there was an exception. You easily recognised the expression which was 'put on' to proclaim a public role - as when a Nazi storm-trooper modelled his bearing on his Führer. Membership of such a movement stamps a man much more than, say, membership of a ping-pong club.


Source: (with Peter Burke) ‘Ernst Gombrich discusses the concept of cultural history with Peter Burke, The Listener, 27th December, Vol. 90, 1973, pp.881-883. The Gombrich Archive.

Panofsky’s perceptions of England and America (1933-4):


[396 Letter to Margaret Barr, New York, Sep 8th 1933]

I felt a kind of horror at the thought of living in America for ever, because life is pretty hard over there and somewhat sterile as far as "art and culture" is concerned. Now, thanks to you, I am almost convinced that, in a way, a "déraciné" could find a new home (which means: a feeling of being wanted) in America more easily than in Europe. The other European countries are "adult countries", that is to say they have developed a culture and a scientific method and also (what is most important) a general human attitude which is mature, finished and somehow "closed". They would receive a foreigner with hospitality and even kindness (cf. Focillon), but would not meet him half-way, so to speak: he would have to adapt himself completely to the indigenous culture "encombrée par une tradition" (and I am certainly too old, and probably too "german" for that, in spite of my much-maligned race), unless he would remain an isolated outsider for all his life. America however, is still in a state of mouldable plasticity, not only willing to give but also to take, and I could imagine that a person like me could be more useful to the American students than to the English or the French, and could establish a kind of dynamic relation to other human beings more easily. Maybe I am mistaken because you, dearest Lady Margaret, are no "American" in the normal sense, but rather an exceptional and "optimal" case thanks to your Irish- Italian extraction, to your European-American education and interests and, last not least to your personal and individual qualities. But the very fact that a person like you is possible in America and, in addition the fact that even Alfred seems to think that I could be useful "over there", has impressed me more than I can say.


[467 Letter to Margaret Barr, New York, 10.7.1934]

... with all those courses (N.Y.U. having put in a "seminar course", so that I shall have to lecture 8 hours a week), examinations and "consultations with the students". "Extremum hunc, Arethusa, mihi concede laborem"! Still I am really quite glad to go to America instead of to London. The facilities of the Warburg Library, now splendidly installed in the Thames House — all books on one floor and all the shelves accessible to every reader — are, of course, quite magnificent; but the whole thing is filled with what I should like to call an Emigrant's or Refugiée's atmosphere (the readers consisting almost exclusively of German and Hungarian jews), and I don't think that a man like myself could ever become an integral part of the English system of education, as is the case in America. There are two intelligent art=historians in London (both young assistant-keepers at the Brit. Mus.), but they have, of course, not much time to work with the Warburg people, and the general attitude of the English towards art is absolutely different from, if not hostile to, the continental one. They consider a work of art either as an object of aesthetic appreciation (collecting, attributing, poetical paraphrasis or ecphrasis) or as a purely historical document (hence the splendid catalogues of manuscripts, f. i., which are traced back to St. Patrick and then followed up through the libraries of 18 - 20 different monasteries), but not as an object of "interpretation". It is a kind of gentlemanly attitude and I have a feeling that they regard our means of approach as an almost obscene thing: you can love a woman or you can establish her family-history, but you can not analyse her mental and physical qualities in public.' Maybe they are right. But I feel, personally, that I have done the right thing in coming to America — even if I should remain tied up with N.Y.U. all my life. After all, my "best friend" lives in New York!

The Courtauld Institute is, in point of fact, extremely bad, partly boring, partly dilettante, and Lord Lee one of the most unpleasant characters I ever met. I had an actual row with him, when he looked down upon America as a semi barbarian country, and rather lectured him, I am afraid. He has also a doubtful Raffael to say the least of it. He did not give the money for the Warburg Institute, but only leads the Board of Trustees an(d) raised the money. The greater part came from Courtauld himself, as far as I know.


[471 Letter to Charles Rufus Morey, July 20th 1934]

Dear Morey,



I can hardly express my gratitude for the indefatigable kindness and patience with which you take care of our future life in Princeton, including books, office and even wall-papers. It means a good deal to me to feel received with so much good will, and I don't regret the failure of the London plans. True, the facilities of the Warburg Institute are quite splendid (Saxl and myself have just finished the new edition of our book on Dürer's Melencolia which has turned out to be an actual Burton redivivus), and I am sure that my life in London would have been more leisurely and perhaps more fertile with respect to research, yet I feel that English civilization, and especially the English attitude towards art, has something impermeable about it, so that a foreign scholar would always remain an emigrant instead of becoming an immigrant. The English attitude towards a work of art is a "gentlemanly" one, so to speak. They either conceive it as an object of enjoyment and collecting (including connaisseurship), or as a mere historical monument which must be traced through monasteries down to St. Patrick, but they almost object to scientific analysis and interpretation, as they would object to a man who would analyze the mental and physical qualities of his wife in public, instead of making love to her in private or perhaps writing her family-history. Thus I do feel that the development or rather resurrection of continental methods will take place in America rather than here, and I should be more than happy if I could participate, however modestly, in this process.

Source: Erwin Panofsky: Korrepondenz 1910 bis 1968. Eine kommentierte Auswahl in fünf Bänden. Herausgegeben von Dieter Wuttke, Band 1, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2001, 638, 737, 742.


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