Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 24, 2016
Richard Shone and John-Paul Stonard, eds. The Books That Shaped Art History: From Gombrich and Greenberg to Alpers and Krauss London: Thames and Hudson, 2013. 268 pp.; 54 b/w ills. Cloth $34.95 (9780500238950)

The title under review is about the long lives of books—their authors and content, influential readers and reception. There is something highly satisfying about the structure of the book, for our experience of the changing shape of art history is primarily through the reading of books and measuring their impact from the ensuing debates. Despite the choice of books (rather than the theories, methodologies, or figures that usually structure surveys of modern art historiography), most of the chosen works did articulate a position in the discipline, and most of the essays in The Books That Shaped Art History demonstrate just such ambitions.

Of the sixteen essays by academic art historians, curators, and writers on art, all but one (that on Svetlana Alpers) appeared previously in a series entitled “Art History Reviewed” in the British journal The Burlington Magazine. In addition, readers will find a summary introduction by co-editor John-Paul Stonard, biographical sketches, selected bibliographies, and publication histories of the books, including inexplicably incomplete lists of translations. Spanning the years 1898 to 1990, the titles thicken in the 1950s and stop at 1990, which in this reviewer’s opinion is too early. Books were selected according to two criteria: works that significantly shaped the discipline of art history or that influenced a “wider appreciation of works of art” (5). While the collection is organized chronologically, and there are various subthemes, most books cluster around connoisseurship, iconography, formalism, and the social history of art.

As a work of connoisseurship, Bernard Berenson’s The Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1903), which catalogued over 3,500 drawings, is methodologically the most remote from today’s practices of art history, and Carmen C. Bambach was challenged to justify its ongoing relevance. This work was chosen over Berenson’s publication on painting (tainted by his conflict of interest as a dealer), because one could discuss a disinterested Berenson as a systematizer who developed a “unified method of critical inquiry” (33). Because connoisseurship not only persisted but dominated the study of drawings until just twenty years ago, Bambach argues that Berenson long remained relevant in this subfield. Anyone who uses Berenson’s catalogue in the future would be advised to consult Bambach’s essay, an essential guide to the three editions of the book and the attributions that remain standing.

Berenson would stand out as heirless in this collection were it not for the questionable follower he found in Kenneth Clark, whose popular book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1956) is admiringly discussed by Stonard. There is a Clark renaissance going on in England these days (see Chris Stephens and John-Paul Stonard, Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, London: Tate Publishing, 2014), but in this collection Stonard’s essay stands out as an apologia for The Nude as a courageous effort to valorize figurative art at a time when it was embattled. Stonard admires Clark’s “freely stated admiration of the female form, not untouched by gallantry and expressed unguardedly,” commenting that he was “unburdened by the politics of vision” (106). His curt dismissal of criticism of a book that set off a firestorm among feminists as misreadings of Clark’s distinction between nude and naked, and as too easy in retrospect, makes it plain that a feminist (not to mention a postcolonial) perspective is unwelcome among the books that shaped art history.

Emile Mâle is positioned in the collection as the founder of iconology because he was the first systematizer. His L’art religieux du XIII siècle en France (1898) is considered essentially still valid in its conclusions according to an intelligent essay by Alexandra Gajewski. Mâle actualized Victor Hugo’s evocation of the medieval cathedral as a book by using Vincent of Beauvais’s thirteenth-century The Great Mirror as a key to the cathedral imagery. While revealing the Catholic and French point of view that troubled L’art religieux’s reception, Gajewski sees them as the book’s strength. Mâle, she sustains, was working in the same history of ideas of Aby Warburg and Erwin Panofsky.

The latter’s Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origin and Character (1953), the subject of Susie Nash’s excellent essay, was considered by Panofsky himself as his “opus maius” (90). Unlike Mâle’s exclusively iconographic study, Panofsky also mapped out schools and styles in what Nash considers a work that comes “closest to a fusion of Wölfflinian formal analysis with Warburgian iconography” (99). The larger-than-life figure of Panofsky reinforced the overwhelming size and scope of Early Netherlandish Painting, both of which implied its “unimpeachable authority.” While Nash does not follow the narrative of the triumph of Panofskian iconography in the United States, she does note the palpable evidence of emigration in “Pan’s” acknowledgment of the impact of the distance from Europe on his work as well as the metaphors of “conquest, invasion, war and liberation” (91) directed to a U.S. postwar audience. One of the principal ideas Panofsky developed in Early Netherlandish Painting, the seductive and much-disputed “disguised symbolism” of Netherlandish art, hastened iconography’s demise as it devolved into a decoding activity. In Nash’s account, Panofsky’s massive erudition also encouraged the less imaginative to forage in his footnotes for the next problem. If Panofsky hit the arteries of his subjects, his epigones were content to work in the capillaries. Iconography started to look at best mechanical, at worst trite.

For all its problems, Early Netherlandish Painting nonetheless gave Panofsky’s subject a powerful presence, and the point is proven in Mariët Westermann’s essay about Alpers’s The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (1983) where the debate resumes. As Westermann describes it, the intellectual landscape in which Alpers was working in the late 1960s was dominated by Dutch scholars developing a social iconography of a wide range of texts and of open rather than disguised symbolism. The Art of Describing constituted Alpers’s manifesto against the Italocentrism implicit in Panofsky’s iconography and the didacticism presumed by the Dutch social iconography. Insisting that the iconographic register could not explain why the pictures looked the way they did, she detailed an expanded visual culture of description.

Heinrich Wölfflin’s Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Das Problem der Stilentwicklung in der neueren Kunst (1915; translated in 1932 and 2015 as Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art) needs little explanation for its inclusion as one of the foundational texts of formalism. David Summers chose to dig into the principal and most-knotted concepts of the book, chief among them Wölfflin’s notion of a history of artistic vision, often misunderstood as a history of unmediated seeing. As Summers notes, the implications of the idea were taken up by Panofsky in Perspective as Symbolic Form (1924–25); but at the same time, Panofsky’s early critique of Wölfflin—that vision was too dominant over contextual-historical interpretation—aided in the iconographic swing that was palpable in Anglophone art history between the 1930s and 1960s.

Richard Verdi’s choice of Roger Fry’s Cézanne: A Study of His Development (1927) was based on the artist’s importance to modern painting and, implicitly, Fry’s role in bringing continental modernism to England. In terms of method, Verdi characterizes Fry rather weakly as “breaking new ground” insofar as the reader experiences Fry “peering over the artist’s shoulder to recreate his works, as though witnessing their very inception” (55). Fry’s considerable debt to Wölfflin is passed over lightly; formalism is mentioned just once; and about the reception of the book readers encounter only the criticism that Fry neglected Cézanne’s subject matter.

A similar reticence about situating works as formalist is conspicuous in John Elderfield’s essay on Alfred Barr’s Matisse: His Art and His Public (1951). The link to European art history and to Wölfflin in particular is so downplayed that formalism is only mentioned at the end of the penultimate paragraph, and even then is put in quotation marks. Elderfield, like Barr a former curator of paintings at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), isolates three key achievements of the book: an accounting of Matisse as artist and man, and the critical reception of his work across his entire career; the cataloguing of many new works and a mountain of archival material; and, especially, the transformation of art criticism into art history through documentation (using questionnaires circulated to Matisse family members). What made Barr’s monograph “legendary” was its sheer bulk, governed by a new idea of what a monograph could include. The book’s reception emphasized this documentation as characteristic of a fact-based American positivism, though Elderfield has a more military image in mind. Barr’s publication, he writes, “brought the big guns of North American institutional scholarship”—a virtual army of researchers—“to a deeply unsettling effect that continues to reverberate more than half a century later” (82). Apparently America came to art history’s rescue too.

If Barr is distanced from his formalism, in Boris Groys’s excellent essay Clement Greenberg is also cast against his formalist type. Focusing on Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939), reprinted as the lead essay in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (1961), Groys emphasizes just how strange and counterintuitive Greenberg’s defense of the avant-garde as a continuation of tradition rather than its overthrow must have seemed. For Greenberg, the avant-garde abstracts and comments upon the formal, technical, and material processes of past art rather than simply discarding it as traditional. This radical stance was directed at identifying the socioeconomic basis for the consumption of art. (Who has the leisure for a self-reflexive activity?) In the process, he opposed the avant-garde not to past art but to a new, mass-produced low art or kitsch, the theorization of which Groys argues was Greenberg’s most important contribution.

Key aspects of Greenberg the formalist bypassed by Groys are brought into view (by way of their rejection) in Anna Lovatt’s essay on Rosalind Krauss’s The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (1985). Situating Krauss and Michael Fried among critics and art historians of the 1960s who aligned with the formalist criticism of Art and Culture, Lovatt argues that Greenberg provided a model for Krauss’s book which nonetheless had a radically different intent. Having mastered Greenberg’s method in the 1960s, Krauss turned in the 1970s to emerging methodologies around postmodernism, and then structuralism, to mark the demise of modernism and the need for a constantly reassessed method rather than Greenberg’s judgments. Krauss called for an emphasis on how things mean, art as a structural object, rather than what they mean (taking aim at the illusion of definitive interpretations perpetuated by iconographic studies).

Another strand of Books That Shaped Art History might start out with the patronage studies of Francis Haskell and continue, after a left turn, through the social art histories of Michael Baxandall and T. J. Clark. In her essay on Haskell’s Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations Between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque (1963), Louise Rice sets the stage for Haskell’s refreshing infusion of cultural history into the art history of the seventeenth century after a long period during which patrons seemed peripheral. (An important precedent not mentioned is Ludwig von Pastor’s The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages [1891–1953], where the artistic patronage of popes and cardinals was first mapped out.) Rice aptly describes Haskell’s book as a kind of group biography, the author being fascinated by personalities and human relationships. In terms of method, Rice asserts unapologetically that there was none: Haskell was “manifestly uninterested in theory and wary of generalizations of any kind” (144). With his “pragmatic” use of archival materials, Haskell “offered a clear alternative to the deterministic ideologically-driven approaches” (144) of the Marxist social historians Frederick Antal and Arnold Hauser. This would not always prove salubrious for the study of early modern art, which has in many quarters resisted theoretical and methodological renewal.

Baxandall very politely noted in an interview Paul Hills cites in his essay that Haskell’s patronage studies were not of interest to him. In Hills’s assessment, Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (1972) announced an anthropological turn signaled by his use of the word “experience”; it reinserted religion into the study of the Italian Renaissance dominated by Hans Baron’s characterization of the quattrocento as an age of civic humanism; and it developed the idea of the “period eye,” the most pervasively adopted concept in the book. As Hills points out, Painting and Experience was willfully misread by Marxist art historians; the study of style had become so banal that the extent to which Baxandall marshaled “the social deposit” in order to explain style was conveniently looked past. Baxandall’s preoccupation with style has been as ignored as has the substrate of social and political thought in Wölfflin, which may in part explain Baxandall’s attraction to Wölfflin’s Die klassische Kunst: Eine Einführung in die italienische Renaissance (1899), his work with the most overt social subtext (see Evonne Levy, Baroque and the Political Language of Formalism (1845–1945): Burckhardt, Wölfflin, Gurlitt, Brinckmann, Sedlmayr, Basel: Schwabe, 2015).

Alastair Wright also sees T. J. Clark’s Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (1973) as a book that was at once a founding text of a social history of art and much misread. In his view, art historians were susceptible to falling back on the Marxist notion Clark insisted on correcting: namely, that the work of art reflected a social context. For Clark art is not a passive reflection of ideology but engages with it and gives it a new form. Perhaps more troublingly, Wright argues, Image of the People was instrumentalized by a social history that rejected theory, effectively an updated formalism.

E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1960) fits into no single genealogy but touches upon all of the major strands. Christopher S. Wood’s brilliant assessment of Gombrich’s most read book (after The Story of Art from 1950) is organized around the phrase that distilled his project: “making precedes matching.” What Gombrich meant by this is that the artist does not match what he sees to pictures but makes imaginatively conceived things as conditioned by pictorial conventions. Rather than stressing Gombrich’s originality, Wood refreshingly shows him mulling over the same foundational problems as Konrad Fiedler, Wölfflin, and Aloïs Riegl while finding that Gombrich brought the poststructuralist misreading of his ideas (as a theory of mimetic naturalism, as technologically determinist) upon himself. For after World War II, having lost faith in reason, and in an attempt to remove art history from the Hegelian plot of history, Gombrich concerned himself with the image rather than art, and with technology and problem solving. While Gombrich’s point of departure was the burning question of Wölfflin’s generation, he proposed a theory of the image that, according to Wood, “prophesied” the turn to Bildwissenschaft a generation or two later. Indeed, as Hills shows, Art and Illusion was important to Baxandall, though Gombrich was critical of Painting and Experience as yet another version of the zeitgeist.

Both Wood on Gombrich and Jeffrey Hamburger on Hans Belting’s Bild und Kult: Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst (1990; translated in 1993 as Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art) situate their works in relation to contemporary art. In the case of Gombrich it was the triumph of abstraction that turned him away from art to the image. And Belting’s study of the icon between Byzantine East and the West opened up for discussion an alternative genealogy of modernity: one that aligned the medieval icon with the quintessential work of modernity, the easel painting. In emphasizing function and reception over production (not just in this book but in subsequent publications that Hamburger argues are inextricable from the project of Bild und Kult), he resituated medieval art more broadly with postmodern body art, installation, and performance.

Architectural history has a marginal presence in The Books That Shaped Art History, represented only by Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement: From William Morris to Walter Gropius (1936) whose importance, according to Colin Amery, lay in its legitimizing narrative of modernism’s historical genealogy, with a particular message about England’s role. But Amery cleaves too close to a British readership—emphasizing the impact of David Watkin’s critique in his reactionary Morality and Architecture (1977), while missing the opportunity to compare Pioneers of the Modern Movement and its reception to the books that competed with it as accounts of modern design by Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Philip Johnson, and Sigfried Giedion (See Alina Payne’s reassessment of Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement, in Harvard Design Magazine 16 [Spring 2002]: 66–70). A more thorough review of Pevsner’s own revisions would have been illuminating, for embedded in the second edition (with a notable change of title from Pioneers of the Modern Movement to Pioneers of Modern Design) is a compelling story of collaboration between Pevsner and curators at MoMA, publisher of the second edition (See Irene Sunwoo, “Whose Design? MoMA and Pevsner’s Pioneers,” Getty Research Journal 2 (2010): 69–82). I would also have liked to see acknowledged different perspectives on Pevsner’s politics: Amery implies the book shows Pevsner’s (buried) Nazi sympathies, but the issue, over which much ink has been spilled, is more complex than Amery is able to convey in his short essay (see Susie Harries, Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life, London: Chatto and Windus, 2011, esp. ch. 48)

If there is one major criticism to be leveled at this book, it is its Anglophone angle on the discipline and its completely Western view. Whose art history does this book account for if not that of The Burlington Magazine? What would an art historian in Germany or France, China, Brazil, or even just a different London address make of The Burlington canon? The absence of such reflection becomes apparent in Hamburger’s discussion of the incommensurability of the German and U.S. versions of the “iconic turn” (as well as the equally incommensurable Germanophone variants). The implicit Anglophone and even British voice is not the only unspoken bias. The absence of a queer or feminist perspective sets this book apart from surveys and anthologies of twentieth-century art historiography as does the complete absence of non-Western art or a postcolonial perspective. And while the essays on Alpers, Gombrich, and Belting gesture to visual culture and Bildwissenschaft, there is no title to represent the all-important debates around the disciplinary enrichment and crisis of the past twenty years. The Books That Shaped Art History, with highly original and at times provocative essays, and its multiple plots and subplots, is a very valuable, stimulating, and also an eminently teachable anthology. I just wish that its purview had been more inclusive so that it could have justifiably been titled The Books That Have Shaped and Should Shape Art History.

Evonne Levy
Professor, Graduate Department of Art, University of Toronto