Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 15, 2021
Carl Einstein A Mythology of Forms: Selected Writings on Art Trans. Charles W. Haxthausen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019. 408 pp.; 78 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780226464138)

This new selection of Carl Einstein’s critical and art historical writing, edited and translated by Charles W. Haxthausen, greatly expands the ability of anglophone scholars to grapple with one of the most consequential chroniclers of the avant-garde’s heroic years. Of the fourteen texts Haxthausen has selected for this volume, eleven are translated into English for the first time. They represent Einstein’s published books through successive revisions; reviews and topical articles on art, artists, museums, and purely conceptual matters; personal correspondence, where it bears upon such matters; and posthumously published manuscript material. Einstein is an intensely ruminative, ferociously critical writer whose prose is self-referential and often opaque. Haxthausen’s careful selection and sequencing of these texts, which span the 1910s–30s, make the development and revision of Einstein’s idiosyncratic criteria more comprehensible than ever before. This alone is cause for celebration among readers who have struggled with the smattering of Einstein’s texts available in English. It will make A Mythology of Forms an essential companion to the studies of Einstein on which we currently rely.

By most measures, Einstein lived an extraordinary life. He attended lectures by Georg Simmel and Heinrich Wölfflin; serialized his experimental novel, Bebuquin, in Die Aktion before the onset of World War I; became an intimate of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and, more importantly, a number of artistic luminaries in Cubist and Dada circles; delivered a graveside oration for Rosa Luxemburg; published the first art historical surveys of African and twentieth-century European art; helped launch the dissident surrealist journal Documents in Paris with Georges Bataille; and fought in the Spanish Civil War alongside Buenaventura Durruti before committing suicide in 1940, hemmed in by fascism. The large and various body of work that Einstein left behind was slowly and, in the case of his unfinished sequel to Bebuquin, disastrously reassembled beginning in the 1960s.

Haxthausen’s claim in A Mythology of Forms is that Einstein’s approach to art should matter more to contemporary art historians than his illustrious résumé or tragic end. Despite the similarity of Einstein’s life and posthumous reception to Walter Benjamin’s, a comparable glut of translations into English has yet to occur. Those that we have are mostly from Haxthausen’s pen and were published in two issues of the journal October in 2003 and 2004. Two of them, the 1914–16 essay “Totality” and the 1915 book Negro Sculpture, are included in the present collection (the latter in a revised version). They are buttressed by the entirety of Einstein’s 1922 book African Sculpture and significant excerpts from his major works, The Art of the 20th Century (first edition, 1926; third edition, 1931), Georges Braque (1934), and The Fabrication of Fictions, a lengthy unfinished treatise that Haxthausen dates to 1935.

Haxthausen’s translations preserve much of the character of Einstein’s prose, for better or for worse. The constant recourse to the impersonal pronoun, the brittle philosophical and psychological jargon, the perilous stacks of sentences and fragments amid semicolons: all are faithfully rendered. But Haxthausen’s fidelity to the German makes it far easier to salvage the odd moment of brilliance from Einstein’s repetitive and uncertain probing. Consider this methodological intervention, in the fourth and fifth clauses of a ninety-five-word sentence in Negro Sculpture, as translated by Patrick Healy in 2016:

One must abstain from interpolating neat theories of evolution and make the process of thinking and artistic creation equivalent. One has to slough off the prejudice that supposes the psychic processes can be seen as the same situation under reverse signs, and that reflection on art is in opposition to artistic creation. (November Editions, 2016, 14)

Healy’s translation makes Einstein’s German more manageable by breaking it into shorter sentences, but it also understates the alterity of the created object. This point is forcefully underlined by Einstein’s repeated use of the word einfach (simply), whose subtly derisive effect Haxthausen maintains:

One must refrain from interpolating comforting evolutionary schemes and must not equate one’s thought process with the act of creation; one must rid oneself of the prejudice that psychic processes could simply be reversed, and that reflecting on art is simply the opposite of creating art. (45)

Like Alois Riegl before him, Einstein argues that the presumed identity of views between beholder and artist is a historical artifact of “pictorial” sculpture. For him, African sculpture becomes significant as a truly “sculptural” alternative, lying outside of the Eurocentric tradition and, at the limit, beyond the experience of visibility tout court. This irreducible discontinuity in the sculptural, which is experienced by the beholder as immeasurable distance from the god, serves as a leitmotif of his art criticism.

Einstein’s enduring conviction that art shapes human vision depends on the open and discontinuous nature of perception, which, following Friedrich Nietzsche, he sees as trapped in an all-too-human tendency to find coherence where none exists. Haxthausen’s commentaries track this concern from Einstein’s early theoretical essay “Totality” through his correspondence with Kahnweiler and into his account, in the first edition of Art of the 20th Century, of Cubist fragmentation as a comprehensive substitute for finite experience. By the time he revised his survey of twentieth-century art, Einstein’s view of history as a dialectic of rupture and repetition had been retrofitted with notions of direct, hallucinatory experience and its inevitable stabilization in “tectonic” signs. Haxthausen includes three examples of this mature framework in action: Einstein’s energetic critique of Surrealism, his apology for Pablo Picasso’s stylistic multiplicity, and his highly original view of Paul Klee as a protean creator of new realities.

The results of Haxthausen’s philological intelligence are salutary, but there are limits to his approach. In his brief introductory essay, as in his commentaries on each text, Haxthausen connects key terms to other writings by Einstein and his contemporaries. In treating questions of meaning primarily through textual minutiae, Haxthausen makes readers aware of subtle shifts and continuities in Einstein’s critical lexicon more often than he engages them in substantial discussion of why these changes are meaningful. Of course, this type of close reading is appropriate for an author who repeatedly expressed his frustration with language, and Haxthausen is right to frame Einstein’s early skepticism about the veracity of words as a rejection of Kantian certainties. Still, most readers would benefit from a sketch of the field in which Einstein positioned himself. In the dazzling 1923 letter to Kahnweiler included in this volume, Einstein confesses that his approach to vision is closest to that of Ernst Mach, whose positivist critique of the ego receives less than a page of discussion from Haxthausen. How this perspective meshes with psychological presuppositions of the art historians with whom Einstein engages—Wölfflin, Konrad Fiedler, and Adolf von Hildebrand—or with his own borrowings from Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, is never brought into focus. The absence of a robust account of Einstein’s project from a bird’s-eye view is all the more keenly felt when we realize that one of every three pages of A Mythology of Forms (not including back matter) is devoted to commentary. In the aggregate, this amounts to quite a lot of paper—about a hundred pages, when Haxthausen’s introduction is included—yet many readers will lose the forest for the trees.

Haxthausen’s decision to include capsule summaries in each commentary rather than provide a longer introductory essay betrays only his editorial priorities, since his summaries display an extensive knowledge of the many different subject literatures such an essay would draw upon. In the matter of African art, however, Haxthausen is not an expert. Given the tortuous historiography of African art and its significant methodological differences from other art historical subfields, engaging a collaborating editor on Einstein’s Negro Sculpture and African Sculpture would undoubtedly have improved A Mythology of Forms. In light of the trend toward decolonial approaches in the past decade, Haxthausen’s tendency to congratulate Einstein for being first to the post is bound to ring hollow to many readers, who will rightly expect a more circumspect and critical review of Einstein’s positions, regardless of their priority. This is especially true of African Sculpture, a previously untranslated text in which Einstein attempts to redress the lack of object-based analysis in Negro Sculpture and affirms the need for more collaboration between art historians and ethnologists.

A Mythology of Forms is certain to become an important reference in studies of modernism, critical theory, and the historiography of art history in the years to come. The book provides an excellent sample of Einstein’s larger corpus of writing on art, as well as a detailed road map to the literature of Einstein studies in English, French, and German. The audience for the book will inevitably return to that literature in search of the synthetic overviews of Einstein’s project that do not appear in A Mythology of Forms. Haxthausen’s translations and commentaries all but guarantee that these searches will be more fruitful than before.

Samuel Johnson
Assistant Professor and Carole & Alvin I. Schragis Faculty Fellow, Department of Art and Music Histories, Syracuse University