The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2010

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APR 2010 Issue


I should like to publish some afterthoughts to the lively and often even charming article which Sasha Suda has written about a rather casual conversation the two of us had in October 2009 in my studio at Munich, and which has now been published in the Brooklyn Rail. The reader of the article may have the impression that he is faced with the text of a formal interview authorized by me. The text of the article was, however, never submitted to me for correction or clarification. There are a number of misprinted names. Above all: Sasha and I had a very casual conversation. The encounter and the exchange with a younger American colleague was very refreshing for me and reminded me of all the vitalizing inspirations and experiences in the intellectual and human exchanges with many American friends, colleagues, and above all, students. So I was in good spirits, did not always guard my tongue cautiously enough, and there are, in Sasha’s article, a number of slips of tongue which I would never have permitted to be printed if the text would have been submitted to me. On the other side Sasha was confronted with a very old scholar of European, German extraction telling stories from far ago and not always coherent and lucid. She did a marvelous job but misunderstandings and distortions were unavoidable. So I am very thankful that Phong Bui and the Brooklyn Rail gave me the occasion not so much for corrections and rejoinders as for clarification.

Sasha asked me about the situation and the intellectual climate in German Art History after 1945 as I experienced it at the university at Munich since 1946. Her description of my rather futile answer is very convenient but I should add a few details. The members of the art historical academic community who were forced to leave Germany in 1933 and Austria in 1938 were, in postwar Germany, not only physically absent, but their intellectual legacy was exposed to a kind of silent “Damnatio Memoriae.” This Damnatio concerned the whole Warburgian tradition. Panofksy’s Studies in Iconology, which had been published in 1939, were never heard of in my student’s days in Munich. I read them only in Paris in 1956. The name of Panofsky was well known regarding his early work in Germany up to 1932. But he was denounced as a rationalist intellectual with no true feeling for art. The anti-semitic undertones of this judgment were only too sensible. Another example: The psychological approach to Art History as it had been developed by the younger school of Vienna before 1938 by Ernst Kris and the young Gombrich was also obliterated. It was even regarded as destructive because it undermined the holistic veneration of the work of art which was the creed and the confession of a more or less anti-intellectual conception of Art History. Totally forgotten was the leftist approach to Art History as it had been developed by some outsiders during the years of the Weimar Republic. The names of Raphael, Einstein, and Klingender were unknown and Benjamin was not rediscovered before 1955. So that was the situation in the years between 1945 and 1950. Art History had become a sort of romantic religion and the dream of medieval art an escape from the guilt, the shame, and the ruins which were the bitter reality of post-war Germany.

I should also like to add a word on the case of Sedlmayr. Having been expulsed from his chair in Vienna in 1945, Sedlmayr was called to the chair in Munich in Spring 1951. His appointment is to be understood in the specific climate of Catholic restoration because after the publication of his book Verlust der Mitte, a vile attack on the art in the age of atheism, he was regarded as a leading mind of anti-Enlightenment re-negation and anti-modernism. But he was of an undeniable intellectual caliber and even in his hatred against modern art had a kind of furious clearsightedness as no one less than Adorno has recognized. We protested as students against the appointment of Sedlmayr because we found it scandalous that someone who had declared himself an enthusiastic Nazi and Anti-Semite would become the teacher of students in a finally liberated and awakening country.

Now let me come to my French experiences in the 50s on which Sasha has also written in great detail but with some unavoidable errors and mystifications. I came to Paris with the intention to study Gothic architecture and above all sculpture. This was a topic in the heart of German Art Historians since the middle of the 19th century. But the German and the French approach to the study of the great Gothic cathedrals in Northern France was profoundly different. The German approach remained romantic, always romantic, a dream of Gothic light, of Gothic space as a symbol of transcendental space, as the image of the heavenly paradise. In post-revolutionary France the cathedrals were either seen as great achievements of civic engineering—Viollet-le-Duc, or as Charters in stone—that was the approach at the “École des Chartes” (not Chartres as Sasha writes), or as a scholastic speculum as described by Émile Mâle. I came to Paris as a young German scholar full of all the romantic German ideas but also uneasy about them. For a certain period I was happy to share the efforts of the French archeological approach. This was dry positivism, but this positivism seemed to me then the only escape towards a more enlightened study of medieval monuments. For me it was at that time a liberation, but it was also a shortsightedness for which I was much accused by my German colleagues.

But the experience of five years in Paris coming from provincial postwar Germany transcended the horizon of medieval studies. I worked on Poussin, I planned to write a book on the sublime and I had the good luck to mingle into certain intellectual circles which gathered around the great libraries in Paris. Here the name of Robert Klein must first be mentioned. He opened for my wife and me the door to the world of the German speaking Jewish world in Eastern Europe. He was a friend of Paul Celan. Then he came to our apartment in the evenings; he phoned to his friends in Romanian and Hungarian. With us he spoke German, but his pen was French. He was a philosopher with strong side interests in Art History. But he had really nothing in common with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This error in Sasha’s text must be corrected. As many East European thinkers he was strongly influenced by the philosophy of Edmund Husserl and—alas—even Heidegger. He was also the first person who gave us a detailed description of the sinister inside of East-European communism. He remained a convinced leftist-liberal but he was repulsed by the cynicism of the official communist regimes. Hearing him speak on these experiences was sometimes like listening to Arthur Koestler. For someone coming from Adenauer's Germany with its dull post-Nazi anti-communism, this was a rare illumination.

Robert Klein worked as a sort of assistant for André Chastel, who was the rising star and would soon be the prince of French Art History. Over the years he became a close friend. Intellectually he had nothing to do with the narrow positivism of the “École des Chartes.” He had been the student of Henri Forcillon who was a kind of Bergson in French Art History. Already in 1933 he encountered Panofsky in Focillon’s house and he was deeply aware of the activities of the Warburg Institute. He was extremely cultivated, knew all the Western languages, was widely read beyond Art History and every conversation with him was an illuminating pleasure. In the sixties he began, supported by André Malraux, who was the De Gaulles minister, the reorganization of French Art History. He founded the Inventaire Monumental, the Revue de l’art, saw to it that chairs of Art History were created in the provincial universities, and introduced Art History into the program of the Académie de France at Rome. He was like a “superintendant” of French Art History. So he needed to be a member of the important institutions such as the Académie des Inscriptons et Belles Lettres and I regret my casual remarks in the text of Sasha concerning this point. Chastel’s voice is missing until this day in France. Chastel was the only French Art Historian who could speak on equal terms with ministers, writers, and philosophers. He was also a brilliant journalist; a true public figure.

I must also add some words to Sasha’s report on my American experiences. My first experience was at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1961/62, the next one my teaching experience serving three terms at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York University in 1964/65. These early American sojourns were for us dominated by the encounter, the conversations, and also the friendship of the great Art Historical exiles from Germany. It was like listening and coming home to a Pre-Nazi Germany in which post-war Germany, where all memories, words were spoiled, empoisoned, guilty, no longer existed. Listening to Walter Friedlaender, Richard Krautheimer, Erwin Panofsky or Hanns Swarzenski was for us as hearing fairytales from a bygone age; Panofsky was enourmously generous to us and enriched us with all the spiritual gifts, the sparkling erudite wit which he developed in every conversation. So I regret that I used the inconvenient term “disaster” about his Titian-Lectures of 1965 and would certainly have corrected it if I would have seen the proofs of Sasha’s text. But I should like to explain the reason of this tasteless slip of the tongue. The fascinating achievement of the young Panofsky in Germany was an eclectical connection between modern Viennese Art History, Riegl's and Warburg's Iconology, and the Philosophy of symbolic forms of his Hamburg colleague Ernst Cassirer. Charged with this heavy baggage he arrived in 1933 in America and understood immediately that faced with American pragmatism he had to change his practice as a scholar and above all as a teacher. He explained himself: “One no longer discusses methods, one applies them.” So he separated the study of iconology from its German philosophical and hermeneutical roots and reduced iconology to a sophisticated technique for dissolving the riddles of allegorical or emblematical images. It became an ingenious game. The “symbolic forms” of Cassirer were transformed into the “disguised symbolism” of his “Early Netherlandish Painting.” Panofsky himself liked to make fun of the iconological tricks he had invented: “Now,” he used to joke, “it remains for me only to write an article on the iconology of a nonexistent work of art.” His late Titian lectures, which were his art historic swan song, had something tragic; Panofsky had a deep and genuine love for Titian as a painter, but when he finally decided to lecture on Titian, he started again with iconology and became the victim of his own method. Iconology was not the path to reveal the achievement of the greatest and most sensuous of all painters. Old Walter Friedlander, once Panofsky’s teacher and his friend since 1913, commented ironically: “Pan should deal with Bronzino and those Tuscan intellectual painters; Titian is not his business.” Now you have the explanation for my tactless remark about the “disaster” of the Titian lectures.

I have less to add to our conversation about my perception of contemporary art in America and in Germany. In Germany modern art had been whipped about by the Nazis to the great profit of collections outside and also of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. So we looked in the late forties at the paintings of Kandisnsky or the Cubists, which had been created before 1914, as an innovative revelation. The second wave of abstract art in Germany and France after 1945 was rather sterile and unimaginative. American Abstract Expressionism came to Germany not before the late fifties. In this situation the sudden appearance of Pop Art, which I discovered for myself in the 60s, was a kind of liberation. Suddenly reality seemed to return to art. It was a moment of despiritualization which opened our eyes even for many aspects of old art which had been hidden behind all too artificial and symbolic interpretations. The rise of German art to a worldwide renown since 1970 came as a surprise. I have nothing to add to my words on Beuys but I am a little bit unhappy about my description of the reaction of the American public in the Kiefer Exhibition in MoMA. Not that I have changed my skeptical opinion about the art of Kiefer. He represents the dark, the Wagnerian side of German theatricality and when I watched the enthusiasm of the American visitors I asked myself: is this the message that we send to the civilized world? But I should have chosen other words and I should have added one other name: Gerhard Richter. He is the most intelligent living German artist and he is certainly not a dark visionary. He centered his astonishing achievement around the ambivalence, the multiplicity, the disappearance of perception and he is the painter from which art historians can learn how images function.

A final word on New Art History and looking. New Art History is an American term. In Germany we would rather like to speak of Critical Art History. It began in the 60s under the influence of the Frankfurt School of philosophy and sociology. Martin Warnke analyzed the obscurantist language of traditional Art History as mystical much as the “Jargon der Eigentlichkeit” which Adorno had described as the language of the late Heidegger. Klaus Herding developed a new socio-psychological approach to the understanding of paintings and caricatures which was truly the discovery of a new meaning of art; less lofty and more human. The younger Horst Bredekamp struggled to demonstrate the enchanting power of art and images in the fields of the sciences and of political theory. These younger colleagues have reintellectualized German Art History and given the discipline a new dignity, which it had lost after 1933. I was of an older generation and had no share in the revival. But I am glad to say that all of these younger colleagues became my close friends and that the exchange with their ideas and their work was an immense enrichment of my own efforts.

To come to the end of this endless afterthought: I dislike the phrase New Art History. It is evident that under the present conditions of globalization, and media-culture digitization, the approach to images and to Art Historical must be broadened and the process is going on since already quite a time. But it would be stupid and dangerous if we would change this broadening into a kind of “Querelle des Anciens et Modernes.” The old methods of Art History connoisseurship, the careful reading of documents, the no less careful examination of monuments, objects and materials remain as necessary as ever. Looking, the patient, slow, breathing looking at paintings, sculptures and buildings has in the time of the media, of the events, of the optical noise which surrounds us day for day become more difficult than ever before but also more urgent. Much is destroyed in the present world. Many monuments are in decay. Commercialism turns them into objects of show business and tourism. We, the Art Historians, we must be guards, custodians of one of humanity’s most precious legacies.


Willibald Sauerländer


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2010

All Issues