Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 28, 2018
Sebastian Zeidler Form as Revolt: Carl Einstein and the Ground of Modern Art Signale: Modern German Letters, Cultures, and Thought. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016. 320 pp.; 25 color ills.; 41 b/w ills.; 66 ills. Paperback $35.00 (9780801479847)
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Can there be a more enigmatic corpus in art writing than that of the German critic Carl Einstein (1885–1940)? In Form as Revolt: Carl Einstein and the Ground of Modern Art, Sebastian Zeidler presents not only a detailed, rigorous analysis of Einstein’s fragmentary, gnomic writings, but a provocative extrapolation of their potentials. Einstein—the book’s acknowledged “hero”—imparted to his criticism an idiosyncratic, urgent density, by turns profound and obscure, informed by a heterogeneous array of readings in art history, ethnology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. His was a discourse animated by “complicated complexity” (122), to quote one of the many unpublished manuscripts Zeidler cites in support of his argument. To unravel such complications demands considerable linguistic and theoretical resources, not to mention interpretive commitment—all of which this eloquent study brings to its subject. Among other things, Form as Revolt is an impressive exercise in intellectual history, ranging with ease from Novalis and Hegel to Rosa Luxemburg, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and beyond. The extensive, polemical footnotes alone are worth the price of admission.

Einstein, Zeidler writes, led “not a happy but an exemplary life” (26). Born the son of a Jewish cantor, he knew tragedy early, when his father died in 1899, probably by his own hand, in a mental asylum. In 1904, Einstein enrolled at a university in Berlin, where he took classes with Aloïs Riegl, Georg Simmel, and Heinrich Wölfflin, and read Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. He did not graduate, but pursued a career as a writer, publishing in 1907 the modernist novella, Bebuquin, or The Dilettantes of the Marvelous, which brought him instant literary celebrity. In the early 1910s, Einstein began a career as a political militant that would lead to the Spartacist Revolt (he spoke at Luxemburg’s funeral) and the Spanish Civil War. He also met Cubism’s great dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who became a lifelong friend. While serving in World War I, Einstein published Negro Sculpture (1915), a landmark in formalist primitivism, which he followed with African Sculpture in 1921. A postwar burst of revolutionary activity gave way in the early 1920s to the labors that resulted in The Art of the Twentieth Century (1926), a critical survey of modernism that went through two revised editions in 1928 and 1931. In 1928 he moved to Paris, where he cofounded Documents magazine (1929–31) with the dissident surrealists Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris. After his 1934 monograph on Georges Braque, further projects for a world art history and an experimental autobiography went unfinished. In 1936, indigent and lonely, he left Paris for Spain, where he fought with the anarchist Durruti Column. Repeatedly wounded between 1937 and 1939, he returned to France after the fall of the Spanish Republic. In 1940, on the run in the foothills of the Pyrenees, he gave up hope of escape, and drowned himself in a river.

“How,” Zeidler asks, “to make sense of it all?” (8). His answer is the motif of groundlessness. Einstein “was enacting as his life a modern ontological condition to which he was giving form in his work” (9), making it a matter of principle to embrace “groundlessness as ground” (10), rejecting stable foundations, singular origins, and linear causalities. Such groundlessness constituted the specificity of Einstein’s era and its modernism. Against the evolutionist gradualism espoused by the historical materialists of the Second International, Einstein cut his political teeth in an insurrectionary milieu that prioritized spontaneous revolt. From this context Einstein emerged with a “full-blown ontology of time” (13), a true anarchism that “resolved to create a new world without an arché, without an origin to anchor it or a ground to prop it up” (14). Teetering between negativity and affirmation, Einstein sought out such “original events” in modernist practice, not least in Cubist painting circa 1911.

For Zeidler, Einstein’s textuality performs groundlessness at the level of grammatical structure, or a “style of nonessence” (42). The early writings mobilize an authorial character or poetology legible in the title of an abortive book project, “The Lost Wanderer.” In dialogue with German romantic philosophy and Hegel’s Lectures on the Aesthetic, Einstein “split himself up into so many personas of himself: so many victims and cowriters of a restlessly dialectical prose” (37). As he turned in the 1910s from literature to art criticism, he sought out groundlessness in the visual structure of artworks. With precision and authority, Zeidler tracks this project through Einstein’s writings on African sculpture and Cubism, the Documents texts, and Einstein’s reading of Picasso’s late-1920s production, to Paul Klee, who became the focus of an ambitious attempt to theorize “the real.” The latter incomplete project, Zeidler wistfully remarks, had it come to fruition, “might have amounted to a Thousand Plateaus for the 1930s: a root-and-branch attack on instrumental reason that yet avoided the apocalypticism of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment” (25). The reference to Deleuze and Guattari indicates Zeidler’s philosophical loyalties. When it comes to Cubism, he declares himself to be “an Einsteinian Nietzschean” (278, n. 41), as opposed, in this case, to the “Kahnweilerian Saussurean,” Yve-Alain Bois. But fundamentally (anti-fundamentally?), Einstein-Zeidler’s Nietzsche is Deleuze’s, and the same goes for Bergson.

There is much close, lucid argumentation in this study, to which I cannot do justice here. Art-historically, perhaps the book’s boldest claims concern Braque and Picasso in 1911–12. “Today,” Zeidler writes, “after the joint demise of social art history and semiology, it is time for a full-scale reassessment” of high Cubist painting. This is bracing, and there is an undoubted affinity between classic Cubism and Einstein’s overall project, which always posed meaning as “double, antagonistic, and reversible,” in a prose style whose “generative principle” was a “fundamental ambiguity.” In Einstein’s estimation, the Cubist painting was an autonomous “image-object” that instantiated an unstable “foundational contrast” between volume and surface, subject and object. While Einstein’s reading list was sui generis (Ernst Mach, the Nietzsche of The Will to Power), such formulations find points of comparison elsewhere in the Cubist literature, for example in the negative dialectic that Clement Greenberg (as Lisa Florman has shown) discerned between surface and depth in the papiers collés.1

In order to develop a “wholly new” redescription of high Cubism, Zeidler supplements Einstein with his own, independent exegesis. The great historians of Cubist painting have had their privileged devices. Leo Steinberg had his arris, Yve-Alain Bois (via Malevich) his sickle, T. J. Clark his reversible cube. Zeidler proposes his own. With Braque, the “open cylinder” mediates the opposition between surface and volume. With Picasso, the “hinge” (a recognizably deconstructive motif) juxtaposes those terms absolutely. More boldly, taking his cue from one of Einstein’s remarks, Zeidler advances an anthropomorphic account of the “image-body” in Cubism. Braque’s so-called Still Life with Harp and Violin (1911) “is actually a Man with a Violin,” a portrait of a musician with a violin on his lap. Detecting a hand holding an angular plectrum to the instrument (an odd way to play a violin, it must be said), Zeidler takes this “hand” to “prove the musician’s presence” (105).

Where other viewers have discerned a trajectory of decorporealization in Cubist painting, Zeidler locates the sexual body. In Braque’s evanescent Man with a Violin (1912), something is “not quite right” with the instrument, which seems to acquire an extraneous sound-hole. Linking this with a pair of circle-segments where the musician’s crotch would be (a semicircular doubling that admittedly occurs all over the picture), Zeidler makes a startling “discovery”: “Let me spell it out. . . : the two circle segments at bottom are his testicles, and the parallel lines form the shaft of an open cylinder that ascends upwards and terminates at the sound-hole, which doubles as the cylinder’s rim. The reason the violin has a sound-hole is that its body is being penetrated through its full length by an erection below. . . .  The musical instrument is a metaphorical female body” (108).

Resolving into a heteronormative paradigm of “male” and “female” identifications, this project to sex the Cubist image employs a constative, etiological register that might seem at odds with the strategy of groundlessness advocated elsewhere in the book. No doubt, what T. J. Clark has called a “ghastly sensuality” is at play in classic Cubist painting.2 Were one to be Deleuzean about it, however, one might query whether the veridical restrictions Zeidler imposes on Cubist polysemy come to Oedipalize a Body-without-Organs, or subordinate a simulacrum to the order of being and the Idea. Stepping back, Zeidler allows that what is at issue is “a threshold beyond which a peripheral blur in our field of vision will suddenly acquire the distinctness of a hallucination” (115). Either way, he has made an important, original case with which future spectators of classic Cubism will have to contend.

Form as Revolt is a far-reaching, learned, and ambitious volume whose implications exceed the scope of this brief review. Of the many other highlights, I would like to mention in particular the brilliant analysis of Picasso’s practice in the late 1920s as split between “formal animism” and Hegelian negativity. In this book, over and above the vital contribution he makes to the reception of his hero, Carl Einstein, Sebastian Zeidler takes his own place among the leading critical historians of modernist art.

1. See Lisa Florman, “The Flattening of ‘Collage,’” October 102, 2002, 59–86.

2. T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 187.

Charlie F. B. Miller
Lecturer in Art History and Theory, University of Manchester

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