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The Birth of Late Antiquity. Riegl and Strzygowski in 1901

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The Birth of Late Antiquity. Riegl and Strzygowski in 1901
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TheBirthofLateAntiquity:RieglandStrzygowskiin1901Jas ElsnerIntroduction1901sawthepublicationof twoground-breakingbooks whichbetweenthemestablishedthehistoryoflateantiqueartasanacademicdiscipline. TheywereAlois Riegl's fundamental contribution to art history, Spa tro mische Kunst-industrie,orLateRomanArtIndustry(perhapsbettertranslatedasLateRomanArts and Crafts) and Josef Strzygowski's Orient oder Rom. Together, these bookssetupthecategoriesandmethodsbywhichthedevelopmentofRomanartandthe rise of medieval art would be studied for almost the rest of the century. Indeed,RieglhasbeencreditedashavingintroducedthetermSpa tantike(`lateantique')intoarchaeological studies.1Thetwobooks together andthefiercepolemicbetweentheirauthorsintheyearsthat followedwereeffectivelythespring-boardfor the moderndiscipline of late-antique art history.2One might say,however,thatdespiteitsinfluence, Riegl'sbookespeciallyresemblesChekhov'splayThe Cherry Orchard. This was the first great masterpiece of twentieth-centurytheatre,butitisreallytheworkofanineteenth-centurythinker,whosemostimportantbookforourpurposeshappenstohavestrayedacrossthelinepast1900.2001 sawthe death of Ernst Gombrich (b. 1909), the greatest survivingrepresentative of pre-World WarII Austro-German Kunstgeschichte, a man who(like Riegl) really belonged to the century before that in which he died. GombrichwasbornafterRiegl'sdeathin1905,buthis workwasprofoundlyinformedbytheneedtonegotiatetheaftermathoftheart-historicalcontributionsof1901not just the specific importance of late-antique art,3but also the methodologicalproblems of Riegl's theoretical concept of Kunstwollen.4Indeed, one ofGombrich's first seminars as a student inVienna turnedinto an attack onRiegl's first book, Stilfragen,5whilesomeof his first publishedworkcut hiscritical teeth against Spa tro mische Kunstindustrie and its followers inauguratingwhat wouldbealife-longandyet partlyaffectionatebattlewiththelegacy ofRiegl.6LikeotherswithwhomIshallbeconcerned(notably ErnstKitzinger),Gombrichhimself,RieglandStrzygowskiwereallnativesofViennaor practised their art history there. If this paper is a genuflection to a significantArtHistory ISSN0141-6790 Vol.25 No.3 June2002 pp.358379358 AssociationofArtHistorians2002.PublishedbyBlackwellPublishers,108CowleyRoad,OxfordOX41JF,UKand350MainStreet,Malden,MA02148,USA.centenaryfor lateantiquity, it is equallyasalutetothepassingof themostmagisterial, indeeddominant, art-historical voice of the thirdquarter of thetwentiethcentury.In weighing down my introduction with so venerable a series of anniversariesandGreatNames,Iwanttoemphasizesomethingaboutarthistoryasawholewhich this cluster of Viennese still has to offer. Theirs is, in every case, acommittedempiricismacutelycentredonthediscussionof objects, but alwaysdirectedbeyondthe small questions. The minor issues of specific patronage,execution, significanceorinterpretationinanyoneobject orgroupof objects,whilenot neglectedorignored, arealways(rightlyinmyview) subordinatetomuchlargerproblemsaboutthecultural meaningofartitself, groundedinanddirectedbya(moreorless)rigorouslyworked-outphilosophicalthesis.Itistheidealism but also the dangers in the conviction that the analysis of objects canlead us to large-scale cultural understandings of a non-trivial kind that is a qualitywellworthrememberingtoday.RieglandStrzygowskiComparingRieglandStrzygowskiisdifficult,notleastbecausetheformer(nowmuch studied in his own right) is in every sense an art-historical hero,7while thelatterhasbeencondemnedbeyondsimplyajudgementofhisscholarshiptothat grim circle of the Inferno inhabited by outspoken adherents of the 1000 YearReich. Riegl's hero status in art history rests on several foundations.8First he was(and remains) an early and magisterial champion of the decorative arts as a majorhistoricalfieldwithinarthistory.9HisworksonOrientalcarpets10(ofwhichhewas for twelve years the curator in the Austrian Museum of Art and Industry, theHapsburgequivalentoftheV&A)engagedwiththeArtsandCraftsMovementandwiththeseminalcontributions(bothinGermanyandbrieflyinEngland)ofGottfried Semper, with whom Riegl regularly disagreed in print.11Thesepublicationsattemptedtotietheornamentation oftextilestoagreatcontinuoustraditiondescended fromGraeco-Roman antiquity.12His Stilfragen, orProblemsofStyle, publishedin1893,wasafundamental developmentandrestatementofthisthemedemonstratingthecontinuityoftraditionsofornamentthroughoutantiquityandthemiddleages(goingbacktoAncientEgyptianlotusmotifs)andprovidingamodelfordiachronicornamentaltransformation.Secondly, in addition to his championship of late-antique and early medievalart against thegeneral viewof decline(towhichweshall comelater), Rieglformulated initially in Stilfragen but most maturely and influentially inSpa tro mische Kunstindustrie13 what would become one of the most importantand controversial concepts in twentieth-century German art history, namely theidea of Kunstwollen. This termhas been frequently translated, frequentlydiscussedandfrequentlycriticized. OttoPacht, inanacuteandsympatheticdiscussion of Riegl (who was, with Franz Wickhoff, one of the twin founders ofthe great Vienna School of stylistic art history,14from which Pacht was himselfbanished by the Nazis in 1933 and to which he returned from England a rareemigre reinstated, in 1963) tries the following: `Shall we say artistic will, form-RIEGLANDSTRZYGOWSKIIN1901AssociationofArtHistorians2002 359will,orasGombrichsuggests``will-to-form''?'Hehimselfprefers`thatwhichwillsart' andcallsit `thecipherforthegeneratingandcontrollingfactorinartistic creation . . . applied by Riegl equally to an individual work of art, to anindividualartist, toanhistoricalperiod, toanethnicgrouportoanation'.15Otto Brendel, another (though non-Jewish) mid-century exile from German arthistory,16in his Prolegomena to the Study of Roman Art, which constitutes themajor critical discussioninEnglishof Riegl's specific contributiontolate-antique art history, rejected`the literal translation, ``artistic volition'' ' andpreferred`stylisticintent'.17EdgarWind, athirdrefugeeof thesameperiod,offered`autonomousformalimpulse'.18Indeed,bythe1920stherewereNeo-Kantian and Neo-Hegelian interpretations of Kunstwollen. The former(espoused, for instance, by Panofsky and Wind) sawit as an immanentmeaningwherebyeachworkof art invokesthewholeculturefromwhichitcomesthroughitsstyle;thelatter(expressed,forinstance,byHansSedlmayr)believed it to be a central and informing principle of creativity, a kind of `deepstructure'.19Astheseattemptsshow,Riegl'sarthistoryhasalwaysbeenbothdifficult and controversial. It certainly stood at the determinist end of historicalevolutionism, and was implicated in what later became called Geistesgeschichteuniversalhistoryofthehumanspirit.Itispreciselytothisandtothefactthat no one could provide an adequate (non-mystical ) account of Kunstwollenthat GombrichobjectedwhenheattackedRiegl andhislegacyinArt andIllusion.20The explicit teleology of Riegl's historicism has caused problems, particularlyfor thoseweddedtoaGombrichianmaking-and-matchingkindof art history(itself indebtedtoPopper's philosophyof scientific experimentation).21At thesametimeRiegl'sconsistentdevotiontoacultural(ratherthanasocial)contextfor the production of art, as opposed to notions of artistic genius or incompetence,seemsstrikinglymodern. Riegl arguedthat: `Sincetheworkofartisnotmadewithourtasteinmind, wecanextractitstruecontentonlybyreferencetothepremisesonwhichitwasmade.'22He was effectively a pioneer not only of the study of the viewing of art,23butalso in the relativismof reception in different periods and in the specificdifferentiation of our own responses as art historians and viewers from those of anobject'sintendedorlikelyaudience.InitsVienneseculturalcontext,thiswasanattempt to write an objective art history which could nonetheless incorporate theproblemofsubjectivityascientificapproachparallelwithcontemporaryworkinthesamecitybythelikesofHusserlandFreud.24Thirdly, in his roles as editor of the journal of the Central Commission for theResearch and Preservation of Austrian Monuments (from 1902) and asConservator General of Austrian Monuments (from1903),25Riegl became apioneerinissuesofconservationandthepreservationofcondemnedbuildings.26Moreover, all this activity (in which he was in the vanguard for his time) was tiedto a genuinely multicultural politics in the context of late Hapsburg imperialism,whichset himfirmly apart fromthe pan-Germannationalismandethnicallypurist art history which developed rapidly at precisely this time and would so soondescendintoNazism.27He was, ineffect, onall fronts agenuine intellectualhero,28whoseattitudesaresodangerouslyclosetothekindswemightwishtoRIEGLANDSTRZYGOWSKIIN1901360 AssociationofArtHistorians2002emulateastomakehimworryinglyappropriableas`ourcontemporary' (touseJanKott'sfamousphraseaboutShakespeare).29Thismakeshisworkdifficulttoassessforpreciselytheoppositereasonstothose that give us problems with Strzygowski (18621941). The latter's art historyispatentlyracistandtaintedbyhissympathywithwhatwewouldnowseeasadespicable regime. It might be said, however, that nothing in Strzygowski'sexperience, up to his death in 1941, would remotely have given him the hint thathewasonwhatissoobviouslytousthewrongsideofeveryethical debatetoaffectthehumanities.Strzygowski'scareer,asanoutsidertotraditionalAustro-German academic life both on account of his origins on the outer reaches of theAustrianempire inmainlyPolishSilesiaandas aclothmanufacturer's sonisaclassic case ofmaking one's name by assaultingthe establishment.30Possessed inadditiontohisflairfor`knockingcopy'withwhatSuzanneMarchanddescribesas an `odious personality',31nonetheless in part on account of his wide travels intheeast,remarkablefirst-handknowledgeofobjectsandextraordinarilyprolificpublications Strzygowski made it, first to the Chair at Graz and finally, in 1909,to Wickhoff's Chair at the centre of the establishm

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