Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 8, 2000
Christopher S. Wood, ed. The Vienna School Reader: Politics and Art Historical Method in the 1930s Brooklyn, N.Y.: Zone Books, 2000. 472 pp.; 39 b/w ills. Cloth $32.00 (1890951145)

Christopher S. Wood has done a great service in editing an anthology of previously untranslated works from the second “Viennese School.” In theoretical essays and case studies published in the nineteen twenties and thirties, these art historians tried to breathe new life into formal analysis, self-consciously combining analyses of spatial coherence with interpretations drawn from contemporary psychology and artistic practice. Wood has revisited, reconsidered, and made available to the English-speaking public, in readable translations, the work of these almost forgotten scholars, including Hans Sedlmayr, Otto Pächt, Guido Kaschnitz von Weinberg, and Fritz Novotny, along with responses to their work by Walter Benjamin and Meyer Schapiro. The publication of these once highly visible writings, together with Kathryn Brush’s work on the medievalists Adolph Goldschmidt and Wilhelm Vöge, paints an art historiographical picture beyond the few canonical figures known to English readers (in German, vide the work of Heinrich Dilly). The result illuminates the history of the discipline and its importation of the insights and ideals of other disciplines, such as science.

The stage is set by two essays of Alois Riegl (1858-1905), a canonical art historical figure who was an important precursor of the group. One is the conclusion of his 1901 Spätrömische Kunstindustrie, in which Riegl connects formal strategies of the late Romans with philosophical, scientific and religious principles of his own time and places them within a teleological framework extending to the present day. The other is a curious essay of 1900 on Mycenaean art, which Sedlmayr selected for his own anthology of Riegl’s writings. It was a telling choice, for Sedlmayr and for Wood; its unsettling racial ideas could provide a genealogy for the role of Nazi ideology in Sedlmayr’s career.

Riegl’s essay is the only chapter written for a projected book on “anachronisms.” The project stems from a question about the course of history that puzzled and disturbed him. Why did history stray from the consistently upward course it ostensibly should have taken? Significantly, Riegl did not publish this essay. He abandoned the project, along with the posthumously published Historische Grammatik der bildenden Künste, and moved on to a very different book on seventeenth-century Dutch group portraits (1902) and several important essays on monuments.

The case studies for which the school made its mark show Riegl’s influence in their structural aspirations and sharp observations, of a kind rarely seen in current art history. Kaschnitz’s essay argues that Egyptian art metaphorically used mass and volume relations as a way to overcome depth. We may reject his essay for inaccuracies and racial innuendoes, but it gives us access to metaphorical ways of conceiving structure in relation to material that informed art historical thinking and art-making in the 1920s. When Kaschnitz speaks of turning the conflict between gravity and form into a symbol of organic vitality (207), he expresses poetic insights in academic form. Pächt is closest to Riegl. His interpretation of Northern Renaissance painting follows Riegl’s analysis of Dutch group portraits in its attention to internal and external unity, as well as in its allusions to the superficiality of French art, and the balance of surface flatness against pictorial space. But Pächt, unlike Riegl, indulges in few intellectual historical explanations; his parallel between Descartes and artistic composition suggests the morass into which he might have fallen had he gone farther in that vein. Sedlmayr, however, eagerly proffers cultural historical explanations for formal devices. If one discounts Novotny’s study of Cézanne, he is the only one of the group to confront modern art directly, explaining Breugel by comparing him to contemporary artists whose disintegrated compositions express, according to Sedlmayr, the chaos of modern life.

Walter Benjamin appreciated their interest in theory and their tendency to self-critique. Schapiro was critical of their specious facade of scientific form and the lack of a social(ist) perspective. But he, too, admired “their taste for theoretical discussion, their concern with the formation of adequate concepts even in the seemingly empirical work of pure description, their constant search for new formal aspects of art, and their readiness to absorb the findings of contemporary scientific philosophy and psychology” (462). American scholars, he wrote, could learn from them. By the time he wrote, however, self-examination had been squelched. The group split; some supported the Nazis; some were forced into exile. Do we still have much to learn from these thinkers? If so, what?

Wood’s often brilliant introduction reexamines formal, structural analysis, both in its utility at the present moment, and in its time, relating the their “small worlds” to benjamin’s notion of allegory, and modernism’s avant-garde painting. he could also have pointed to Kandinsky’s series of Small Worlds in the early 1920s. Wood also probes the relation between Nazi ideology, formal methodology and modernism, referring to Sedlmayr provocatively as Erwin Panofsky’s “evil twin” (47). The comparison either discredits Panofsky or gives Sedlmayr the credit of which his unfortunate political affiliations deprived him. “Strukturanalyse,” Woods writes, “was thus not only a permanent diagnosis of modernism: it was itself a modernist way of seeing” (52).

Sedlmayr’s programmatic essay, however, grapples mainly with two interconnected issues that Wood does not stress. One is how art history can become “scientific,” avoiding degeneration into literature. Pächt, similarly, calls for the development of a description that is “not an arbitrarily attached label” (aiming at poetic evocation), “but a true conceptual symbol that serves as a base of operations for any future research” (189). The case studies, accordingly, make heavy use of the dry formulas of science and bend their prose over backwards to avoid the appearance of literature. This question, however, is no longer compelling. These essays, reprinted now, will stand or fall as literature, not science. Not their ponderous prose, but the poetry concealed within, will gain them adherents.

Sedlmayr’s second issue is how art history can make use of the insights of other fields without losing its independence. This issue is as pertinent today as it was when Schapiro picked out interdisciplinarity as the primary contribution of the Vienna school. To examine this issue would demand a different selection. Rather than Riegl, it might set its stage with a scientist who inspired the young art historians, perhaps Kurt Koffka.

But the most provocative aspect of this anthology is its treatment of the group as a “school,” a term that suggests a genealogy. The group known as the 2nd Viennese school was preceded by a first one represented here only by Riegl. Far from teaching the members of the second school, he died when the oldest was only nine. In fact the notion of a Viennese school comes from Schlosser, who chronicled its history in 1934. Schlosser’s chronicle records not only Riegl, but also Rudolf Eitelberger, Moriz Thausing, Franz Wickhoff, and Max Dvorák, making connections between all of them. Pächt and Sedlmayr studied with Schlosser and Dvorák, while Kaschnitz studied archaeology. Their choice of a long-dead precursor as model served a double purpose: it grounded them in the history of their own school without risking well-deserved accusations of misunderstanding their model’s work. Since Schlosser distanced himself from Riegl, whose theories he regarded as dogmatic, the younger generation was also, in time-honored form, passing over the father’s generation to seek a model in that of the grandfather.

The Vienna School Reader accepts this genealogy at face value in its selections, although not, thankfully, in the introduction, which discusses most of the omitted figures. But it misses an opportunity to delve beyond their own rhetoric into the motivations of these scholars, and their debt to Wickhoff, Dvorák, and even Schlosser himself. The influence of Schlosser and his hero, Benedetto Croce, is evident in several essays. Other influences are also revealing. Kaschnitz’s notion of a struggle over form develops as much out of Wilhelm Worringer’s expressionist criticism as it does from any Viennese source (Worringer was not Riegl’s student, as the introduction suggests). Sedlmayr’s essay on Breugel echoes Dvorák. More interestingly, Koffka’s dictum that observation changes phenomena, repeatedly evoked, suggests that this group could have taken the impetus of Gestalt psychology in a different direction, that of dialogue with the past, than that followed by its best known exponent, Rudolf Arnheim. Finally, and most tantalizing, Novotny, as Wood admits, was not a member of the core group, and did not engage in their theoretical pursuits. Indeed, he was a student of Riegl’s rival and the bane of Schlosser’s existence, the outspoken Nazi Josef Strzygowski. Beyond the fact that he was a formalist living in Vienna, it is not obvious why he was included, and not, say, Emil Kaufmann. If, however, Novotny and other students of Strzygowski could be brought closer to Sedlmayr and the students of Schlosser (I think they could), the questions raised about the relation between politics and formal art history could give us pause.

Margaret Olin
Department Art History, Theory and Criticism School of the Art Institute of Chicago