Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 19, 2005
Aloïs Riegl Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts New York: Zone Books, 2004. 474 pp.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $36.95 (1890951455)

For the best part of the twentieth century, the work of Aloïs Riegl (1858–1905) was not accessible to the Anglophone reader. We have particular reason to welcome this highly readable translation of his Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts because this particular book was recommended by its original editors, Otto Pächt and Karl Maria Swoboda, as the best introduction to Riegl’s thought. They would have had good cause to know, as they were intimately involved in his first renaissance in Vienna in the 1920s.

Earlier translations of Riegl’s writings—Das holländische Gruppenporträt (The Group Portraiture of Holland [Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 1999]) and Stilfragen (Problems of Style [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992])—were accompanied by substantial commentary. Wolfgang Kemp demonstrated how a modern historian could apply lessons from Riegl’s critical practice, and David Castriota informed the reader of subsequent developments in the scholarship related to the evolution of ornament. Rolf Winckes’s earlier translation of Spätrömische Kunst-Industrie (Late Roman Art Industry [Rome: Bretschneider, 1985]) demonstrated the difficulties in arriving at a readable Riegl, but it also had a useful scholarly apparatus.

This book, by contrast, has only short introductions and no critical apparatus. The reader is invited to get quickly into the text on the grounds that it has continued relevance to contemporary art-historical debates. In his foreword, Benjamin Binstock finds Riegl’s racial explanations of stylistic shifts amusing and feels they can be disregarded in favor of “specific readings of particular formal elements of artworks in relation to these distinctions” (23). Although Jacqueline Jung points out in her translator’s preface that Riegl’s prose was “difficult” (37) with “dense and complicated syntax” (38), a readable translation creates problems of its own.

While Kemp was persuasive on the topic of Riegl’s continued relevance, Binstock does not succeed in removing doubts about Riegl’s sweeping categorizations, whether they be in terms of race, religion, or position in historical evolution. I strongly sympathize with Kemp’s dismissal of Riegl’s categories as “claptrapparatus (Begriffsklappatismus),” and I would have to be persuaded that they could be redeemed by his descriptions of the “nuance of formal elements” (quoted in Binstock, 34). As Bernard Berenson observed in The Arch of Constantine (London: Chapman and Hall, 1954): “If we agree that the plastic monuments of late Antiquity were painted and gilded, the talk of the Riegls and Wickhoffs about deliberately thought-out preference for the play of light and shade and emancipation from background with the consequent abstraction of space, attributed by the first to the artists of late Antiquity and for the ‘impressionism’ and ‘illusionism,’ ascribed to them by the other, would turn out to be ill-founded” (Berenson, 19). Indeed. Many contemporary texts refer to the luxuriousness of decorative ambiences. So much for the Begriffsklappatismus of Nahsicht, Normalsicht, and Fernsicht as well: all were based on the invalid assumption that Egyptian and late-antique artists set out to paint what they literally saw.

Translation poses its problems as well. Riegl’s first English translator, Stephen Kayser, wrote, “… too-great clarification entails the danger that the interpretation would have moved too far from the original. On the other hand, the accumulated verbiage of Riegl’s mammoth sentences sometime blocked the road so completely that detours had to be taken and the monsters dismembered” (in W. Eugene Kleinbauer, Modern Perspectives in Western Art History New York: Holt, Rinehard, and Winston, 1971], 125). A test case could be Margaret Olin’s observation that in the original source for this translation, Pächt and Swoboda’s Historische Grammatik der Bildenden Künste (Graz: privately printed, 1966), they mistranscribed a sentence from Riegl’s original handwritten text (Olin, Forms of Representation in Alois Riegl’s Theory of Art [University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992], 217, n. 18). I asked Matthew Rampley for his expert opinion on the difference between Jung’s and Olin’s versions of the same sentence. The faulty text is “Der Maler schafft, um Harmonie zu geben, wie die naturgesetzliche kausale Beeinflussung der Dinge im Bilde widerzugeben ist.” Jung translates this as “To create harmony, the painter portrays the impact of naturalistic causal interactions on the objects in his picture. The causal relationship is the purpose of art” (339). Olin’s corrected reading is “Es schafft uns Harmonie zu sehen, wie die wechselseitige kausale Beeinflussung der Dinge im Bilde wiedergegeben ist.” Her translation is “It provides us with harmony to see how the mutual causal influences between objects in the picture are reproduced” (Olin, 121). Rampley’s opinion is that Olin’s translation is much better than Jung’s. The difference between the two translations concerns harmony’s location. Although Olin’s translation is more convoluted than Jung’s, it demonstrates that the sentence is not about a harmoniously constructed painting but a painting that causes harmony in the viewer. In Historical Grammar, Riegl called late antique art “ugly” (75). Nevertheless, ugliness could represent a value for its spectator: “Ugly nature as a vehicle of spiritual beauty” (75). Spectators were supposed to feel in harmony with its ugliness. Indeed, in Late Roman Art Industry, Riegl contends that the late Romans and early Christians chose names redolent of disgrace and atrocity rather than victory and conquest: “… harmony is sought in forms which in previous generations of antiquity evoked disharmony” (Winckes, 13). They found ugliness harmonious with their natures.

It’s interesting to discover that Riegl’s work struck a chord with a number of significant theorists in the 1920s—Erwin Panofsky, Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukács, P. N. Medvedev, Mikhail Bakhtin—though each would have had their different reasons. In Vienna, Pächt and Sedlmayr undertook their reeditions of Riegl’s writing in the midst of a contest between the two chairs of art history, Julius von Schlosser and Josef Strzygowski. Schlosser carried the flag for the work of the original Vienna School against Strzygowski’s attacks on its methods and its subjects. Sedlmayr and Pächt were seeking employment at the university and took Schlosser’s side, partly because they felt that there was something in Riegl’s thought that could be brought up to date and partly for pragmatic reasons. Sedlmayr, in his “Die Quintessenz der Lehren Riegls,” criticized Panofsky’s understanding of Kunstwollen as the “immanent, objective meaning of artistic phenomena” (“The Quintessence of Riegl’s Thought,” trans. Matthew Rampley, in Framing Formalism: Riegl’s Work, ed. Richard Woodfield [Amsterdam: G + B Arts International, 2001], 15). Sedlmayr also argued against races or spirits of the age as bearers of Kunstwollen. Instead, he favored modern sociology’s theories of “objective spirit” and “objective collective will,” dependent on structural principles: changes in “stylistic principles become anchored in fundamental changes in the cognitive structure of a group of individuals, changes in their ‘ideal,’ in a revaluation of values and thereby a change of goals in all possible areas” (Woodfield, 17–18). To account for the structure of Borromini’s architecture, or rather the structure of Borromini’s architectural thought, Riegl appealed to gestalt psychology and the characterological theories of E. Kretschmer, classifying it as schizothemic art. Pächt was similarly impressed by gestalt psychology, though his update of Riegl was turned to a different kind of account in his own work. Meyer Schapiro, writing in The Art Bulletin in 1936, said that while the new members of the Vienna School were undoubtedly clever, “The strength of the group lies in the intensity and intelligence with which they examine formal arrangements and invent new terms for describing them” (reprinted in The Vienna School Reader, ed. Christopher Wood [New York: Zone Books, 2000], 453). Their problem, according to Schapiro, was that “they lose sight of the structure of the historical object … and deal with absolute general categories that seem to produce history by their own internal logic” (Wood, 460).

In 1963, Otto Demus and Pächt repeated history by becoming successors to Strzygowski and Schlosser, following the retirement of Karl Maria Swoboda. In the same year, Pächt published the essay “Alois Riegl” in the series “Art Historians and Art Critics” in the Burlington Magazine. In 1966, Pächt and Swoboda published Historical Grammar. It’s interesting that the book’s second part, the lecture notes, opens with Riegl’s declaration of his attachment to aesthetics: “Whereas the old aesthetics wanted to give instruction to the discipline of art history, her heiress—modern aesthetics, if you will—eagerly lets art history teach her. She recognizes that her very right to exist lies rooted in the history of art” (288). This is Schapiro’s ahistorical aestheticism again. Gombrich gave Hermann Bauer’s publication Kunstgeschichte und Kunsttheorie im 19. Jahrhundert [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1963]), in honor of Sedlmayr’s sixty-fifth birthday, a scornful review in The Art Bulletin in 1964 in much the same terms as Schapiro’s.

Returning to Historical Grammar, Riegl tells his students, “Let me warn you from the outset of a possible misunderstanding: in no way is this meant to be an introduction to the history of art. So far is this from the case, in fact, that I would sincerely urge any novices among you to make themselves scarce. Only advanced students who already possess knowledge of all artistic periods, and who at least have the most significant monuments of each period firmly in mind, will be able to gain something from attending these lectures” (293). At this point, one remembers Sedlmayr’s “first” and “second” studies of art, the first using documentary evidence “can only make statements and draw conclusions about properties that can be ascertained without understanding the product as an artistic product.” (“Toward a Rigorous Study of Art,” in Wood, 135) The second “has the capacity to understand artistic products” (Wood, 139). We learn from the “Quintessenz” essay that there is no need for reading texts, as “it is possible, in principle, to reconstruct different aspects of a culture on the basis of a specific area of the same culture. Thus, if the art exists, it is possible to determine the corresponding religion, philosophy, or science, at least in certain of their outline traits” (Woodfield, 21). This is Begriffsklappatismus as well.

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