Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 29, 2003
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)

See Margaret Olin’s review of this book.

The Anglophone public owes a great debt to Christopher Wood and his colleagues for their various translations of classic German art-historical texts. This latest volume is centered on the work of the so-called Second School of Vienna Art Historians, active in the 1920s and 1930s. Writings by its key members, Hans Sedlmayr and Otto Pächt, are prefaced by two pieces from Alois Riegl, supplemented by texts from Guido Kaschnitz von Weinberg and Fritz Novotny, and concluded by reviews from Walter Benjamin and Meyer Schapiro. The volume gathers material relevant to the school’s emergence, theorization and practice, and subsequent reception. Three pieces, written by Sedlmayr, Pächt, and von Weinberg, were originally published in Kunstwissenschaftliche Forschungen, which was reviewed by Benjamin and Schapiro, and one article first appeared in Kritische Berichte, a review journal edited by Pächt’s friend Bruno Fürst. Benjamin and Schapiro were divided in their opinions of the value of the school’s work, and The Vienna School Reader: Politics and Art Historical Method in the 1930s enables us to find out what was involved in the debate.

It would, however, be useful to add a further word to Wood’s introduction to set the scene. In Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s, the study of art history was polarized into two factions that were at constant loggerheads: the First Institute of Art History, chaired by Josef Strzygowski, Novotny’s teacher; and the Second Institute of Art History, led by Julius von Schlosser, professor to Sedlmayr and Pächt. It is the work of the Second Institute that is key to understanding the Second Vienna School, and Schlosser saw himself as the inheritor of the traditions established by Riegl, Franz Wickhoff, and their predecessors. Schlosser distanced himself from the work of his immediate precursor, Max Dvořák, and had nothing but contempt for Strzygowski. Von Weinberg came from an earlier generation (he graduated in 1913) and worked outside of Vienna in Rome in the Archaeological Institute and Vatican collections; he was not a graduate of the original Institute of Art History. Both Sedlmayr and Pächt had a vested interest in accommodating Schlosser’s views, as they could not afford to alienate him—thus their interest in matters to do with the relationship between Kunstsprache and aesthetics. The point at which they departed from Schlosser was in their attachment to gestalt psychology, which was Sedlmayr’s major enthusiasm. As a student in Vienna from 1928 to 1933, Ernst Gombrich was also drawn into an application of psychological approaches to the history of art, as revealed in his own two early contributions to Kritische Berichte. Another contributor to that journal was Schapiro, with a paper entitled “Über den Schematismus in der Romanischen Kunst” (1932–33). Gombrich followed Schapiro’s attack on Kunstwissenschaftliche Forschungen with a protest against Sedlmayr’s critical standpoint in the introduction to Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (New York: Pantheon Books, 1960) and, later, in a hostile review of Kunstgeschichte und Kunsttheorie im 19. Jahrundert (The Art Bulletin 46, no. 3 [September 1964]: 418–20, available at, a volume that was a 65th birthday tribute to Sedlmayr.

Although Novotny makes extremely interesting reading in the context of the literature on Paul Cézanne, he did not carry the same intellectual baggage as Sedlmayr and Pächt, and I would not count him as an exponent of Viennese Strukturanalyse. And although von Weinberg had, by Wood’s account, published “an important review” of Riegl’s Late Roman Art Industry (1901), his contribution to this volume is foggy, to say the least. It would have been good to use the space to publish a translation of Schlosser’s tortuous essay “ ‘Stilgeschichte’, und ‘Sprachgeschichte’ der bildenden Kunst: Ein Rückblick” (available in the Projects section at as well as Sedlmayr’s “Die Quintessenz der Lehren Riegls” (now available in my Framing Formalism: Riegl’s Work [Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 2001]). These two works, in combination with the others in the volume, would lead us to the heart of Strukturanalyse.

It was in “Die Quintessenz” that Sedlmayr brought Riegl’s analyses of works of art together with the new gestalt psychology:

Works of art are sensuous formations, the nature and character of whose parts are determined at any particular place in the whole, by a structural principle governing the entire object. Style is a variable, dependent on inner structural principles. (Woodfield 2001, 17)

This text notes Max Wertheimer’s Über Gestalttheorie (1921) as the source of the concept of “Strukturprinzip.” This psychological approach contrasts, of course, with Riegl’s use of old-fashioned associationist psychology connecting optic and tactile values. For Riegl, the primum mobile behind artistic transformation was a changed Weltanschauung that drove art through a shifting Kunstwollen. Invoking contemporary Volkpsychologie promoted by, among others, Wilhelm Wundt, Riegl used the “mentality” of race as an explanatory factor for the development of style. In “Quintessenz,” Sedlmayr had no time for either Weltanschauung or race:

…if style were a variable dependent on types of individual psychological make-up, then objects with the same style would have to be distributed quite differently from the way they are in reality. Objects of the same style would have to appear scattered evenly through all ages and regions. People, conceived in racial terms, figure just as little as the bearers of the Kunstwollen. The distribution of styles and their limits does not coincide with the distribution and boundaries of populations. Finally, it is also quite impossible to posit the “time” or “spirit of the age” as vehicles of the Kunstwollen. For if one took these vague expressions literally, all works of art of the same year, of the same era, would display the same style. (16)

Instead, Sedlmayr referred to the recent sociological discovery of an “objective collective will” (16), referring to Alfred Vierkandt’s Gesellschaftslehre (1925) and the “cognitive structure of a group of individuals” (18). Gombrich’s objection to the theses of “Quintessenz” in the context of referring to collectivist notions of “mankind,” “races,” or “ages” would appear to have been misplaced. A gestalt approach to sociology could certainly lead to the postulation of reified mental types, but it was that and not Nazism that stood behind Sedlmayr’s argument. Furthermore, the concept of a “cognitive structure of a group of individuals” (19) is not all that far from Michael Baxandall’s notion of the “cognitive style” of a “visual culture” (Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, 2nd ed. [New York: Oxford University Press, 1988], 38–39). Thus, as Wood observes, Sedlmayr’s views are quite close to some modern perceptions of the connection between style and visual culture. There would certainly be room in Sedlmayr’s approach for Marxism, which Gombrich thought of as left-wing Hegelianism. Is it any surprise that Sedlmayr was admired by Benjamin and acknowledged by Theodor Adorno? And while Schapiro attacked the Kunstwissenschaftliche Forschungen, he, nevertheless, contributed to the Kritische Berichte an exercise in formal analysis that sat quite comfortably in Viennese preoccupations with style.

Sedlmayr’s distinction between the “first” and “second” studies of art in “Toward a Rigorous Study of Art” (1931) and his declaration that “the aims of the second study of art have been too much those of art history, and its practice has become too much the history of style” (Wood 2000, 154) responded both to synchronic gestalt analysis and to Schlosser’s preoccupation with Benedetto Croce. In Croce’s aesthetics there is no history of art: works of art were the unique expressions of an individual artist. The work of art was an expression from within an artistic language, Schlosser’s Kunstsprache, and the best tactic of the art historian was to write monographic works. Instead of drawing parallels between art and literature, or between art and philosophy, it was more appropriate to adopt the “correct attitude” before a work—to approach the work with the right mental set, as Gombrich would later call it. “If we do not understand the works, then we also do not understand how the course of events has changed, and then we do not understand the events themselves” (156). The paradox of the history of art, especially that of its early practitioners who rediscovered “lost” artists and periods, is that, as T. S. Eliot pointed out, the creation of every new genuine work of art transforms the “order” of the old. The difficulty of the second history of art consisted, precisely, in knowing when one had the “correct attitude,” and a central point of criticism about Sedlmayr is that he did not share this belief (see Paul Frankl’s review of Sedlmayr’s views on gothic architecture in The Gothic: Literary Sources and Interpretation through Eight Centuries [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960]). The “gestalt” discovery of continuity between art forms in a specific community, as also practiced by Erwin Panofsky in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (New York: Meridian Books, 1957), is, as Gombrich observed in The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), a metaphysical postulate impossible of disconfirmation. Gombrich’s review of E. Garger in Kritische Berichte (1937) was a not-so-veiled attack on Sedlmayr’s physiognomic perception of works of art.

Pächt’s musings on “The End of the Image Theory” in Kritische Berichte (1931/2) were very much in tune with Panofsky’s speculations in his essay “Zum Problem der Beschreibung und Inhaltsdeutung von Werken der Bildendenkunst” (1932) and Gombrich’s review of Bodonyi in Kritische Berichte (1932/3). The problem of description raised fundamental questions concerning the appropriate perception of works of art: how does language become a useful tool for mediating works of art? Is there such a thing as a scientific or truly objective description of the work of art? Sedlmayr thought that there could be in his “first study” of art, but then he was not treating the work of art as such but instead as a material object. The problem is still there, and part of Gombrich’s career consisted in a deconstructive analysis of the practices of art criticism, not that he would have liked the label.

Richard Woodfield
Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham; Editor of The Essential Gombrich