Mies van der Rohe: Machine Age Architecture in Stuttgart

The Weissenhof Experiment in Stuttgart

Neues Bauen in 1927

The Nazis, newly in power and early simmering with racist hatred for all things un-German, didn’t know what to make of the shining white city on the hill. So utterly alien to the fascists was the blinding bright geometry of the houses and apartment buildings that they could only cast about to find the most insulting comparison possible–something not European, something “primitive,” something like an “Arab village.” Driven by their overriding desire for Teutonic authenticity, the political party that left no occasion to ridicule modernism unmarked, distributed a postcard of the new architecture. Sponsored by the Deutscher Werkbund, the Weissenhof, a showcase for the efforts and talents of Europe’s most advanced builders was ridiculed in a deliberately misreading of the simplicity, characterizing clarity as ignorance. The project, headed by architect Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), was marked as undesirable and the Nazis would not forget the affront of the Weissenhof settlement. They had to wait only a few years for the pleasure of closing the Bauhaus, headed by Mies by 1933 and had plans for the Weissenhof which they purchased. Revenge was sweet but brief for the Nazis. Considered a significant landmark in Modernist architecture, the project in Stuttgart was subjected to numerous indignities under the regime of Adolf Hitler. Towards the end of the Second World War, the Weissenhof was partially destroyed during the Second World War. Today, the site is considered a World Heritage, its buildings are being slowly restored, the vision of their creators shining through and beyond the dark memories of Nazi projects. It is saying a great deal to note that the functionalist moment for Nazi architecture–its high point of innovation–was the concentration camp, the built environment that was an assembly line of industrial murder, while the Weissenhof was a more modest achievement, an experiment in building modern housing for middle and lower class people.

The Nazi incursion into the Weissenhof: Arabs photomontaged into the streets of Stuttgart

Mies van der Rohe had experienced enough architectural success to realize that in order to transcend his humble beginnings from a working class family, he had to change his name. His new appellation had to be more suited to his elevated status. His real name was Maria Ludwig Michael Mies, a perfectly sensible designation, but avant-garde artists, such as Le Corbusier, often changed their names or gave themselves specific designations, so the stonemason’s son began to reinvent himself. Taking his mother’s last name, Rohe as his last name, he switched his original last name to his first name, Mies, giving the “e” an umlaut: ë, so the word would be pronounced “mee-ess.” The “van” and the “der” was pure Dutch and suggested some kind of vague nobility, reminiscent of the German “von,” adding an air of international distinction. And thus “Mies,” as he was commonly known, was born, as new as the architecture he designed. By the Twenties, Mies was a chancer, a comer in architectural circles, well known in Europe and in Germany. He was part of every significant organization in modern architecture, from the Deutscher Werkbund to the group of ten Berlin architects, known as The Ring, all dedicated to the promotion of the tenets of New Objectivity to architecture. The program, such as it was, for Neues Bauen was relatively simple–functionalism and straightforward matter of fact forms, determined by construction methods and technological advances. Hovering behind the scenes, off stage, was Adolf Loos (1870-1933) of Vienna, whose book, Ornament and Crime (1910), provided the manifesto for New Architecture, which would be stripped of ornament and decoration, and emphasize the unadorned “surface” of a geometrically formed block-like structure. But the road to Modernism was not as straightforward as the design itself.

Aerial View of Weissenhof

After the Great War, architecture in Germany was highly politicized, torn between progressive socialist parties that dreamed of utopian cities in the service of the working class and the more traditional contingent that wanted to honor historical precedents, i.e., middle-class domestic needs. With hindsight, the conceptual link between socialism and modernism could be juxtaposed by the Nazis to years of post-war class unrest and demonstrations in the streets. To the nervous bourgeois, the idea that the built environment could structure society was an alarming one and that perception would ultimately derail modernism in Nazi Germany. Take for example the Dächerkrieg (or Roof War) discussed in January 2017 by Jeff Reuben of Atlas Obscura, who wrote,

Sharp observers will notice something strange about the attractive residences lining Am Fischtal, a bucolic street in the Zehlendorf section of Berlin. On one side, the buildings have flat roofs, while on the other they are pitched: a situation that is less architectural happenstance than the result of a so-called “roof war,” waged in the Weimar Republic and which embodied many of the deeper conflicts that roiled Germany in the years before the Nazis came to power..The two sides met on Am Fischtal, which today survives as a literal and figurative monument to the Weimar Republic’s increasing political divide. The flat roof residences came first, part of a housing development built by a leftist housing cooperative between 1926 and 1932 known as Onkel Toms Hütte, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an unlikely moniker borrowed from a nearby tavern which was named after the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel. Across the street, GAGFAH, a housing cooperative supported by conservative white collar unions, built their response in 1928: a community called Fischtalgrund, which consists of 30 buildings with 120 housing units. The roofs, of course, were pitched.

Roofs at War

The Roof War roiled Berlin for four years, from 1924 when architect Bruno Taut, part of The Ring group, was hired and designed flat roofs, to the completion of the dueling dwellings in 1928. Today the rows of contending houses face each other across the street, co-existing in the peace of history. At the time, however, feelings ran too high to attribute the emotions of the opponents to their attitudes towards roofs–the roof was politicized and its slant or lack thereof symbolized a power struggle between left and right. But in the mid-1920s, the forces of the pitched roofs seemed to be fighting a rear-guard battle. Modern architecture appeared to be not just the style of the present but the approach that would also mold the future. The financial situation of the Weimar Republic was at last on a firm footing, America had come through with some aid thanks to the Dawes Plan, and municipalities, convinced of the need to build new urban housing for a new world, now had to means and the will to follow through. Enter Neues Bauen. At last, the new Germany could be built and, in 1927, with the most famous of the inter-war experiments, the city of Stuttgart would be crowned by the “village” (siedlung) of white buildings (weissenhof). The Weissenhofsiedlung was more than a village, it was an exhibition, a showcase for new building techniques, new technological advances in structure, and a strong statement about how people could live in a modern world.

The Weissenhofsiedlung

Presiding over the Weissenhofsiedlung, Mies van der Rohe, who would later become the last head of the Bauhaus, was the vice-president of the sponsoring agent, the Deutscher Werkbund. Mies was the obvious choice to head the project. The proposed site was the top of a hill overlooking the city where a group of buildings would rise on a curved plateau according to the master plan configured by the director. Offending local architects of the somewhat provincial city, Mies appointed sixteen other architects, all modernists, true, but within that designation, he selected architects more or less purist about the rigors of modernism, with a span of generations. To his credit, Mies allowed each architect to design with freedom, stating, “In order to permit each one as much freedom as possible to execute his ideas, I have set neither guidelines nor given programmatic orientation,” as long as his rules of flat roofs and white as the color of all the buildings and, of course, no ornamentation, were followed. He also determined where each building would be sited, giving himself the place of pride–dead center and at the top of the hill–for his own apartment block. As a generous gesture, Mies gave the French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) first choice as to where his house would be placed. In his 2002 article, “Re-covering Mies van der Rohe’s Weissenhof: The Ultimate Surface,” Mark Stankard noted that the architect designed according to the the concept of “rationality” and standardization that led to typification. Like all modernist architects of the period, the artists of the Weissenhof thought in terms of mass housing, where personal statements and non-rational shapes would be inappropriate for prefabricated and predetermined building materials. As Stankard pointed out, while Mies posited the need for Typisierung (the formation of a repeatable type), he allowed for “freedom of usage.” As he said in 1926, “The exterior shell of things, the crystallization of life processes remains standing..and exerts its influence long after its kernel has been hollowed out.” The distinction between inside and outside, the domestic and private and the public and exterior facing aspect of a building was one that Loos had written about at some length. The public face of the modernist building was a series of sharp-edged blocks, free of decoration, painted while and undisturbed by errant roofs, but the interior of these shells, the space Loos considered to be “female,” could be personalized by the owner. In his apartment block, Mies adopted another practice of Loos: the notion of the back of the home as facing a private garden, contrasting nature–private, facing inward–to culture–the unrelenting white wall, rising as a barrier, protecting the owners from the eyes on the street.

Mies van der Rohe. Apartment Building (1927)

The inversion of the Weissenhof, in all its innovation, was, in its time, a prime example of the “shock of the new,” a term popularized by art critic, Robert Hughes. The Great War had interrupted the development of modern architecture, which had been well underway before 1914. The idea of Machine Age architecture, or functionalism, was a credo that can be dated from the practice of Peter Behrens (1886-1940) and his apprentices, which included Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier. In his book The Master Builders: Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, historian Peter Blake explained that with his famous AEG factory building, Behrens ushered the modern era of architecture as function. As Blake noted, “Corbu and the others were driven to utilitarianism in building, because the doors to polite architecture were closed to them..The important thing to these men was the development of a new aesthetic language, and specifically, a language that could be used to deal with the problems of today. In utilitarian buildings and products, they found the aesthetic vocabulary–cubes, spheres, cylinders, cones, and so forth.” But for the early years of the twentieth century, the architecture of the Machine was more of a dream than a reality. As Blake stated, there were only two modern buildings in Germany when the War broke out. The first and the one that is still extant is the Fagus Factory (1911) by Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and his partner, Walter Meyer, in Bonn. A factory with a curtain wall of glass, the shoe last factory, was an advance, in terms of modernity, upon Behrens’ Turbine Factory (1908). Sadly the curtain walled building Gropius designed for the Cologne exhibition of the Deutscher Werkbund was destroyed during the War, but its precedent loomed large in the architectural community.

Walter Gropius. Werkbund Model factory building, Cologne, 1914

The impact of Gropius upon the German architects was enormous, destroying the lingering of the influences of the exuberant modernism of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), who was far too fond of decoration. After the War, there was a pause in building as Germany recovered, gathered its collective soul and began to move forward. The German artists now had to permission and the financial opportunity to build Machine Age architecture. To the public, unaware of the architectural dialogue which had been thriving for a decade, the Weissenhof project would have been a revelation. The city of Stuttgart, ignoring its local traditionalists, decided to take a modern direction in its Die Wohnung (The Home) Exhibition of 1927. The apartment block of Mies loomed above the works of the other architects, presiding, as it were, over the “colony,” a group of buildings he regarded as “Medieval” in its clustering. The exterior of his horizontal building was uninterrupted, and Mies kept the horizontal ribbon of windows flat to the wall, denying the entryways any emphasis that might break the purity of the line of the flat white wall. In contrast to the unforgiving obdurate exterior, the interior of the building was free and undetermined. His “freedom of usage” could exist, because he used a steel frame for the first time to construct his apartment building, filling in the frame with masonry blocks, covering all these materials with white plaster.

Mies van der Rohe’s ribbon windows

Therefore, the steel structure carried the load, and there was no need for interior load bearing walls. Mies was able to open up the inside space and configure it as an open plan, free of obstructions. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the first to open up living spaces, eliminating the enclosed and specialized rooms beloved by Victorians. But Wright used fixed interior partitions, with placement decided by himself alone. Sensitive to the Art Nouveau concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, Wright designed the interior space, from stained glass windows to the furniture himself. Thinking of the blueprint as his blank canvas, Wright would often nail the chairs and tables to the floor. Mies gave up the total control of the private space and left decisions to the owners’ needs. Borrowing an idea from the Dutch Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964), he installed movable partitions, allowing the resident to shape rooms and spaces as he or she needed. “As you know,” he said, “I intend to try out the most varied plans in this apartment house. For the time being, I am building only the outside and common walls, and inside each apartment only the two piers that support the ceiling. All the rest is to be as free as it possibly can be.” Although much of this pre-war work was still in the experimental stages, Mies had expressed a philosophy of Neues Wohnen or New Living. Because of the plumbing and wiring demands, only the bathroom and kitchen and elevators shaft were fixed on site. Although the other architects in the Weissenhof were tasked with installing furniture in their homes, Mies designed only two areas in his free plan, once again suggesting to the viewer the endless possibilities for furnishings that were personal choices. As Carsten Krohn noted, the apartment building was deceptively fragile, writing in Mies van der Rohe – The Built Work that “Without maintenance and renovation, the building would today be a ruin.” Plaster, rather than stucco, would always be a problem, white walls in a city experiencing pollution would be rarely clean, and, as was pointed out in the discussion on the homes of the Masters at the Bauhaus, the glazed walls let in cold air and the heat of the summer.

Mies van der Rohe interior with furniture by the Brothers Rasch

As soon as the Nazis assumed power in Germany, the thirty-three houses and sixty-three apartments were under threat and the innovative and significant work architects from Germany, France, Holland, Belgium and Austria barely escaped Hitler’s wrath. Writing in 1984 on the occasion of the project’s renovation, James M. Markham said, “In 1933, the year of the Nazi seizure of power, a counterdemonstration project of wood houses with gabled roofs was built nearby. The Nazis announced plans to raze the Weissenhof settlement and its creators slipped into the safety of exile in America and elsewhere.” In 1939, the city of Stuttgart sold the complex to the Nazi who planned to raze the structures and replace them with army barracks. Markham continued, “..the Luftwaffe established an antiaircraft battery on the strategically located hill. A military hospital for infectious diseases was also installed in a four- story apartment block designed by Mies van der Rohe. Allied bombing raids in 1945 destroyed about 40 percent of the settlement.” And the roof wars continued, even after World War II. The architects had intended the flat roofs to be used as gardens, intensifying the experience of terracing that was so consequential to the Weissenhof. However, as Markham pointed out in The New York Times, the inhabitants continued to have problems with the roof lines: “In the hungry postwar years, roaming bands plundered the settlement, stripping its wiring and removing its doors for firewood. As Germany began to rebuild, Everyman did finally settle in Weissenhof. The young West German state placed railroad and customs employees in its apartments. But some of them rebelled against the clean simplicities of the Bauhaus creations, putting pitched roofs on buildings of Behrens, Ludwig Hilbersheimer, and Hans Poelzig. Roof apartments were stuck on top of the double-family house designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret.”

During the exhibition in 1927, half a million visitors streamed into Stuttgart to see the novel housing complex. Today there is a handful of surviving buildings which have been restored and pilgrims still come and pay homage to the Weissenhofsiedlung.

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Dada in New York: Artists in Exile, Part Two

Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp in New York

The Americanization of Dada, Part One

In an interview with Pierre Cabanne, decades after the Great War, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) explained how he became an artist and how it was that he came to be exempted from military service–and the two events were linked together. In pre-war France, a nation anticipating a war with Germany, there was a “three year law,” which allowed a young man to do one year instead of three, if he fell under certain exemptions. Feeling, as he put it, “neither militaristic nor soldierly,” Duchamp stumbled upon the fact that there were exemptions for doctors and lawyers and, surprisingly, “art workers.” For the military, “art worker” meant someone skilled in typography or printing of engravings and etchings. It is at this point that Duchamp shamelessly cheated: his grandfather had been an engraver and had left behind some copperplates with “extraordinary views of old Rouen.” The grandson worked with a printer and learned how to print his grandfather’s plates and impressed the jury in the same city and Duchamp was classified as an “art worker.” However that promising start to his military career ended under the withering disapproval of his commanding officer and he was discharged and forever exempted. And so it was that Marcel Duchamp, discouraged by the emptiness of a sad Paris during the Great War was able to come to New York and find Dada there.

It is during that brief period of time, from 1915 to 1918, that Duchamp concentrated on a theme he inherited from the Futurists: the machine. In his introduction to The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Michel Sanouillet explained,

Duchamp’s attempt to rethink the world rests on two supports, the machine, the image and incarnation of our epoch, and chance, which for our contemporaries has de facto replaced divinity. Towards 1910 he was in contact with futurist experiments and conceived the vision of a society where the automatic and artificial would regulate all our relationships. it was to better affirm his humanity that he integrated himself into this new world. He was going even beyond our own time, which still persists in wishing to adapt the machine to man. Duchamp was trying to imagine a state of affairs where man would humanize then machine to such as extend that the latter would truly come to life..What if the machine, stripped of all anthropomorphic attitudes, were to evolve in a world made in its image with no reference to the criteria governing man, its creator? What if, like Kafka’s monkey, it servilely imitated all human grimaces and gestures with the exclusive goal of freeing itself of its chains and of “leaving” them? Then, if the machine were to love, desire and marry, what would be its mental processes?..According to Duchamp, the machine is a supremely intelligent creature which evolves, in a world completely divorced from our own; it thinks; organizes this thought in coherent sentences, and following the technique describe above, uses words whose meaning is familiar to us. However, these words conspire to mystify us..On the other hand, what would happen if the machine admitted the possibility of accident, or non-repetition, exclusive attribute of man? Better yet, if having gotten ahead of us, it learned to use chance for utilitarian or aesthetic ends?

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Mechanical drawing of Bolts and Screws

This rather long speculation on the machine owes more the contemporary science fiction than to the mindset of 1915, but there is no question that Duchamp and his friend Francis Picabia (François Marie Martinez Picabia)) though long and hard about machines as humans and considered the possibility that humans were also machines or mechanical in their operating systems. When Picabia returned to New York, he paused in his career as a painter for almost a decade and embraced on an interesting series of “mechanomorphs,” or portraits of those in the New York art scene as corresponding machines. In other words, if his friends were machines, what kind of machine would he or she be? It was, at this stage of his career , for Picabia to give up painting for it was a medium too “fat” and shiny and sensuous for the machine and its mechanical nature.

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Francis Picabia. I See Again in Memory, My Dear Undine (1913)

Like the artists of New Objectivity who would emerge in a decade, Picabia turned to mechanical drawing, dry and circumspect, straightforward and pragmatic. The source material was plentiful and industrial designers and their drawings, artless and presentational, were available in catalogues and manuals. Mechanical drawing itself is an acquired skill, with the artist working at a drafting table with instruments such as compasses and straight edge rulers. It is an art or precision, designed to show and tell without introspection and without need of interpretation. Or course,
reading” these complex renderings is a skill in itself, but, for artists, the reading was less important than the emotionless rendering itself.

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Francis Picabia

When Picabia returned to New York in 1915, his sponsor and colleague, Alfred Stieglitz, was in a bit of a holding pattern. A successful photographer, art dealer, sponsor of avant-garde in America, publisher of a major art journal, Camera Work, Stieglitz had been the main conduit for contemporary art but the Great War had stymied the free international exchange of ideas and art. Middle aged and in an unhappy marriage, the photographer faced a crossroads, and, indeed, in 1916 he would close 291 and end that chapter in his life. But, as always the older man surrounded himself with young protégées, in this case, the poet Paul Haviland and the poet Agnes Ernst Meyer, who convinced him to start a new and innovative art magazine, 291, after the famous gallery. Picabia eagerly joined this new enterprise and filled the pages of 291 with a series of “object portraits,” or mechanical drawings of notable members of his artistic circle, pictured as machines. This idea of a person as a metaphor would be copied a decade later by Charles Demuth who painted the poet William Carlos Williams as one of his own poems, I Saw the Figure Five in Gold. But Picabia was far more rigorous in both is approach and his drawing of these “portraits.” No painting is involved, a renunciation similar to that of Duchamp, who was also moving towards a mechanistic form of rendering, as seen in his linear recreation of one of his earlier paintings of a chocolate grinder on the cover of The Blind Man. Picabia explained later that it was his time in America inspired his turn to the machine:

This visit to America has brought about a complete revolution in my methods of work..Almost immediately upon coming to America it flashed on me that the genius of the modern world is machinery, and that through machinery art ought to find a most vivid expression. I have been profoundly impressed by the vast mechanical developments in America. The machine has become more than a mere adjunct of human life–perhaps the very soul.

Picabia was in and out of America between 1915 and 1917, before declaring his farewell to Dada in 1918. During this time of restless traveling, he was in Barcelona where he published a European version of 291, called 391, in which a number of his machine drawings appeared. Using industrial catalogues as a resource, Picabia seems to have favored cars and their many parts as his main source of inspiration. For a man as fascinated with cars as he was, it would not be surprising that he would not only know of manuals of parts but would also be familiar with the actual experience of being a mechanic. Early cars were temperamental and the owners were expected to be able to do their own repairs at a basic level. As Mariea Caudill Dennison explained in her interesting article, “Automobile Parts and Accessories in Picabia’s Machinist Works of 1915-17,”

His American residency gave him ample opportunity to browse in contemporary American printed material, finding illustrations and diagrams of auto parts in magazines, advertisements, handbooks, manuals and even window dis- plays..By the summer of 1915, combination starting, lighting and ignition systems were becoming increasingly common in cars, both as standard equipment and add-on packages.

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Francis Picabia. Ici, c’est ici Stieglitz /foi et amour (1915)

In one of the finest of these “portraits,” Alfred Stieglitz was, predictably, a camera or his exact camera to be precise, a vest pocket Kodak model. But Picabia added additional “equipment,” so to speak, a gearshift, which gives the car instruction, and a brake lever that perversely put the camera/car in an immobile position. The brake on Stieglitz has been interpreted as the stalemate the photographer faced as he was a decade past his breakthrough as a “straight photographer.” Both William Innes Homer and William Camfield assert that the brake should be thought of as the photographer at a creative standstill. Appearing on the cover of the July-August 1915 issue of 291, this crisp drawing indicates the speed with which Picabia, who arrived in New York in June, found his métier. As William Rozaitis descried the drawing in “The Joke at the Heart of Things: Francis Picabia’s Machine Drawings and the Little Magazine 291:”

The viewer is confronted with a crisply rendered machine. Its parts are easily identifiable as those of a camera: a lever and a handle appear to the right; a bellows puffs out of a film box at the bottom; and connected to the box by a series of overlapping, riveted supports is a lens. The drawing bears the inscription and title, Ici, c’est ici Stieglitz /foi et amour (Here, this is Stieglitz / faith and love), an apt description of the master photographer (1864-1949) who selflessly worked, with “faith and love,” to raise the status of photography to an art form and to introduce modern painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography to the American public. The word “ideal” appears in Gothic script above the camera’s lens, while 291-the title of the magazine as well as the name of Stieglitz’s well-known gallery-appears to the left, suggesting that the contents of the magazine will champion the same “ideal” standards for modern art that led inspired artists and devotees to crowd Stieglitz’s small room.

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Francis Picabia. Le Saint des saints (1915)

The meanings of the suite of five “mechanomorphs” are as complex and personal as the drawings are simplified and impersonal. Picabia’s own self portrait, Le Saint des saints, is a braying automobile horn, also called a “canter,” by the artist, that is one who speaks “cant” or a local language. At the bottom, Picabia wrote “C’est de moi qu’il s’agin dans ce portrait,” which means: “The holy of the holies is to me that it is in this picture.” Le Saint des saints is a portrait of an artist as a conveyor of a message, but, as a prophet, he arrives in a fast car, a machine, the object of the future. If Picabia was a source of noise, then Paul Haviland was a portable electric lamp–a source of light. the poet was wealthy, representing Limoges china to American consumers, and was a financial backer of 291. The portrait, titled, La poésie est comme lui. Voilà Haviland, is a relative simple one, suggesting that Picabia was politely paying tribute to the man who was making his work possible.

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Francis Picabia. De Zayas! De Zayas! (1915)

If we overlook the curious fact that the cord for the lamp lacks a plug, in contrast, the rendering of Stieglitz was borderline insulting, if art historians are to be believed, and the portrait of the close associate of Stieglitz, Marius de Zayas (1880-1961), and their benefactor Agnes Ernst Meyer were also less than flattering. Much ink has been spilled on figuring out the many parts of De Zayas! De Zayas!, the portrait of De Zayas, the editor of 291. Indeed, it was De Zayas who had introduced the idea of Apollinaire’s petit revue to New York and published twelve issues of the magazine. He soon left the association with Stieglitz to open his own gallery, The Modern Gallery in 1915. Stieglitz, used to being the only game in town, objected to this sudden move towards independence and the two collaborators drifted apart. Perhaps as an acknowledgment of the estrangement, the gallery was renamed the De Zayas Gallery in 1919.

That said, in 1915, the object diagram of De Zayas is complex and undeciphered, part machine and part fashion illustration, complete with an old fashioned woman’s corset, with no woman in it. Homer noted that the inscriptions were equally strange: “J’ai vu/et c’est de toy qu’il s’agit,” or “I have seen you and it is you that this concerns.” Even more puzzling, the artist wrote, “Je suis venu sur les rivages/du Pont-Euxin,” or “I have come to the shores of Pont-Euxin.” As suggested by the presence of the empty corset, this portrait seems to have sexual content, from a male perspective. Indeed as Mariea Caudill Dennison remarked

Given Picabia’s inclination for linking women and sexuality with machines, it is no surprise to find a woman’s corset here..The female sphere in De Zayas! De Zayas! is clearly the black electrical schematic drawing. Picabia equated a female to a spark plug in Portrait of an American girl in a state of nudity (1915) and here the spark plug is linked by a diagonal line..This point of contact between the red and black systems in Picabia’s rendering suggests that the female creates a spark or surge of electricity that excites or activates the base of the connecting rod. In a car engine the connecting rod moves with the piston (not shown in Picabia’s work) up and down inside the cylinder. The plunging movement within the cylinder is analogous with sexual intercourse..Picabia has seen machinery and females as sources of art and has conquered them both.

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Francis Picabia. Portrait d’une jeune fille américane dans l’etat de nuditié (1915)

Next to the famous portrait of Stieglitz, it is the spark plug, perfectly copied in its simple entirety but titled Portrait d’une jeune fille américane dans l’etat de nuditié of 1915, that is the most well-known of the object portraits. Homer suggested, although others disagree, that the jeune fille was a portrait of Agnes Meyer, a married woman, with a wealthy husband. The money she was able to contribute to the “cause” of avant-garde made her a “spark plug” for the artists. As a patron, she made their engines go, sparking their progress. Engraved on the side of the spark plug was the word “Forever,” an ironic inscription, given that it was she who funded De Zayas’ gallery, considered a rival to Stieglitz. The “young girl” was copied from a very deluxe spark plug called a “red head,” but, viewing this homage from the vantage point of one hundred years later, the analogy between a mature married woman and a spark plug in the service of male artists is patronizing and condescending. However, the equation between women and machines and sex was one of the conceptual foundations of Picabia’s work of this interim period. In Picturing Science, Producing Art, Peter Galison noted,

Here we get to the heart of the matter, or rather, the sex of the machine. Surely the spark plug is a phallic woman (which is to say a metaphoric hermaphrodite). Yet she is rendered quite explicitly unthreatening by her very “nudity” and controllability–by our recognition that she stands naked of the larger apparatus that controls her sparking. .PIcabia’s vision of the plug’s erotic potential is suggested by is statement that he chose the spark plug for his girl because she was the “kindler of the flame.”

Sadly, shortly after this remarkable series of machine portraits or mechanomorphs, Picabia had a mental and physical breakdown and in 1916 left New York for Barcelona where he produced a new magazine, 391, nihilistic and alienated and aggressive. Reflective of the personality of Picabia himself, the issues also presented some of his ”portraits mécaniques.” In the third issue, Marie, a fan belt represented the artist Marie Laurencin, who was associated with Apollinaire. Then in 1917, Picabia returned to New York and continued his publication. Subsequent studies of the work of this artist during the years of the War have been somewhat sloppy in assuming his art was a critique of the New Woman or the Flapper, but these liberated women asserted themselves only after the war was over, and in America at peace, women were safely in their traditional places. There is no evidence to suggest that the Spanish-French artist was aware of the Suffragette movement, taking place in front of the White House in Washington D. C. Both Picabia and Duchamp had complex and varied experiences with many women and these events often found their way into their art in what David Hopkins called “male self-referentialty.” It seems more likely that, like Duchamp, Picabia’s interest was less in women and their social position and more in the mechanics of sex itself–Stieglitz is old and impotent and women, as sex machines, exist for the pleasure of the young male, also a sex machine.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Erwin Panofsky and Iconography, Part Three

ERWIN PANOFSKY AND ICONOGRAPHY

Part Three: Icon, Iconography and Iconology

As has often been pointed out, the exodus of Jewish scholars from Germany was one of the greatest brain drains of talent of the 20th or any other century. “Hitler shakes the trees, and I pick up the apples.” This famous quote is attributed to Walter Cook who founded the Fine Arts Department of New York University ( now the Institute of Fine Arts, also known as “The Institute) and moved his scholars to a brownstone next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to Harry Bober in “The Gothic Tower and the Stork Club,” Panofsky was “one of the more resplendent golden apples, joining the department in 1931. The ideas of Erwin Panofsky and how they were employed or not have depended upon trends in art history. When Panofsky became part of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University (called “The Institute” by those in the know) in 1933, his iconographical system found a permanent home . The discipline of art history in America was greatly enriched by his intellectual and philosophical approach and put what was still a relatively new field of study in his new country on a sounder footing.

Because many of its scholars were Jewish, art history was hunted from Europe by the Nazis. They fled to America, bringing with them concepts based upon European philosophy that were ill-understood by their new students. Traditionally, the American version of his signature idea: iconography, was greatly simplified into a clunky game of matching symbols (icon) to symbolism (iconography), while neglecting the cultural basis for the meanings (iconology). That said, when Panofsky arrived at Princeton with his Kantian-inspired system, he met with opposition from another branch of Kantian thought–formalist art history and yet another bastion of artistic thought, Marxism. For art historians, Marxist thought or the assertion of Karl Marx that the economy was the “secret engine” of society, was a fruitful way of examining a work of art, for a Marxist analysis would remove the “veil” of the “natural” and reveal the economic basis of the work itself. Formalist art historians, however, preferred to look directly at the work itself and not at the society that produced it. Rather than thinking of these two methods as complementing each other or as adding to a fuller picture of the art, the discipline tended to place Formalism and Marxism as polar (and political) opposites.

When Panofsky arrived in America, the formalism of Heinrich Wölfflin’s approach to “style” and the materialism of Marxism had become the leading modes of art historical and art critical thinking. The Marxist approach, exemplified by the writings of Meyer Schapiro (1914-1996), was on full view in Schapiro’s famous battle with Alfred Barr (1902-1981), the director of MoMA. Barr’s famous 1936 “Chart” of avant-garde movements in his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art removed art from any historical or cultural context and presented the movements as independent of social forces. In comparison to Barr’s art-for-art’s sake approach, Schapiro was a life-long Marxist who had more in common with Walter Benjamin than with the more orthodox Marxist art historian, Arnold Hauser. Before and after the Second World War, Formalism and Marxism, softened semantically to the “social” approach to art history, were the dominant modes of art history methodology, but, due to its political connections, Marxism waned and Panofsky’s iconography moved to the fore. But when Marxism made a comeback during the sixties and seventies, the symbolic meaning of art receded until the late 1980s and early 1990s with the books of Michael Podro’s The Critical Historians of Art and his student, Michael Ann Holly’s Panofsky’ and the Foundations of Art History. Panofsky’s methods were seen as part of The New Art History or a more modern way of looking at art in historical context, one of Panofsky’s basic tenets.

As Holly’s book outlines, Panofsky’s intellectual antecedents were complex. As an art historian, he felt that his primary task was to make sure that his studies of works of art rested on a firm foundation or to establish an epistemology of art history. In his opinion, the Formalist methodology of Heinrich Wölfflin was founded on a particular judgment or a personal interpretation of the stylistic elements of any given work of art, and that, therefore, the observations of Wölfflin or any other formalist art historian did not have the necessary epistemological depth. What Panosksy wanted to do was to provide art history with a Kantian a priori, to fix art historical methods in the realms of a universal or necessary judgment. It would take Panofsky two decades to work out his approach and he would deploy his intellectual heritage from pre-war Germany to do so.

For the early art historians, the most important fields of study, indeed the founding fields of the discipline, were the art of Antique, Medieval and Renaissance periods. It is this sweep of Western civilization, told as a series of recurrences of the classical culture and as the struggle to find and retain the powers of reason. Panofsky was the student of Aby Warburg who was fascinated with the recurrence of persistent motifs in art and literature, stretching from ancient times to the Renaissance. Panofsky’s early writings reflect Warburg’s interest in the motifs of Renaissance art, but, as Michael Podro pointed out, Warburg combined Georg Hegel’s dialectic of conflict: thesis and anti-thesis with Sigmund Freud’s belief that society was forced to repress primal instincts and desires of human beings in order to govern its members. Warburg noted the tensions (dialectic) in Renaissance art, the tensions of psychological repressions, and the struggle of the artists and writers to overcome the “superstitions” of the medieval Church.

Panofsky gently swerved away from his mentor’s Freudian or psychological method and turned to the more secure neo-Kantian approach of philosopher Ernst Cassirer and that of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. As Michael Podro pointed out,

What then could provide an absolute viewpoint form which we might elucidate a painting or a building? Panofsky takes as a model for the kind of interpretation he wants the Kantian conception of what makes a judgment scientific. What makes a judgment about the world a scientific judgment, as opposed to a merely personal report, is its causal character, and this causal character or structure is not, in Kant’s view, derived empirically but is injected into experience by the mind…What was important for Panofsky was that it was assumed to be a concept we did not derive from experience but one which we brought to experience in order to give it its intelligibility.

The central problem that faces any historian is that of anachronism—-of looking at history from the standpoint of the present and for Panofsky the way to solve this inherent difficulty was to remain firmly fixed in the culture of the work of art itself, not the culture of the present time. The problem of anachronism was also the problem of Formalism, i.e. that observation had to have a causal component beyond the thing observed and reported upon. It was not until 1939 that Panofsky published a series of articles/lectures that certainly stemmed from his work as a professor at the Institute, Studies in Iconology. To study “iconology” is to study the meaning of a work of art: the meaning that was embedded in the culture, the meaning that was in the mind of the artist, consciously or not as a kind of “collective unconscious.” In the introduction of this book, the art historian establishes his methodology: what he was opposed to and how he resolved the problems of meaning and interpretation of works of art. Panofsky began his Studies with this statement:

Iconography is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form. Let us, then, try to define the distinction between subject matter or meaning on the one hand and form on the other…The meaning thus discovered may be called intrinsic meaning or content; it is essential where the two other kinds of meaning, the primary or natural and the secondary or conventional, are phenomenal. It may defined as a unifying principle which underlies and explains both the visible event and its intelligible significance, and which determines even the form in which the visible event takes shape. This intrinsic meaning or content is, of course, as much above the sphere of conscious volitions as the expressional meaning is beneath this sphere.

Panofksy established a layered or step-by-step method that was slow and deliberate, requiring an extensive education on not just the work of art but also of its culture of origin. The tripartite iconographical method of layered meanings or strata, has its basis not just in the Warburgian notion of motif but also in the ideas of Saussure. If, for the linguist Saussure, words were signs that were signifiers for the thing signified, than for Panofsky, the work of art could be understood as a visual language in terms of the sign, signifier and the signified or icon, iconography, and iconology. Panofsky continued his opposition to formalism by stating that the “pre-iconographical description” was a “pseudo-formal analysis,” but that this first take was a “practical experience” that was “controlled” by the history of style. Moving up from the bottom to the next layer or level of meaning, Panofsky introduced the “secondary” or “iconographical analysis” that required “knowledge of literary sources that concerned historical themes or concepts.” It is with the last or highest level of interpretation that Panofsky acknowledged Ernst Cassirer: iconology is the “intrinsic meaning,” that is, the “iconological interpretation” is the history of “cultural symptoms” or the “essential tendencies of the human mind.”

Although subsequently in American art history, Panofsky’s Hegelian methods have often stalled at the iconographical level with few art historians being willing to look for the “symbolic forms” or “symptoms” in works of art. Part of the reason for the impoverished use of Panofsky is the inevitable loss of intellectual background when the art historian emigrated to America, and another reason for the loss of the philosophical background was the division of universities and colleges into distinct departments, dividing disciplines, like history, art history and philosophy, which were in actuality part of one another into artificially separated entities. As Holly pointed out,

Art historians not acquainted with the background of many of Panofsky’s ideas frequently see in his later work merely a practical program for the deciphering of specific and not-so-hidden symbols in visual images. Iconology, despite Panofsky’s emphasis on semantics, is still understood as only a slightly more refined and sophisticated version of iconography.

Just as the three layers of meaning combine Saussure and Cassirer, Panofsky’s famous concept of “disguised symbolism,” developed in his 1953 essay Early Netherlandish Painting, reveals his neo-Kantian insistence on finding the epistemology for a work of art and in establishing the epistemology for art history. Art is embedded in a épistémè that is clearly visible in Netherlandish painting of Jan van Eyck, but in Panofsky’s account of late Medieval art in Northern Europe, we find echoes of Warburg. Here is an artist, van Eyck, who is part of a “superstitious” spiritual culture but who is also living in a new world of reason and science. “A way had to be found to reconcile the new naturalism with a thousand years of Christian tradition,” Panofsky wrote and noted that “The more the painters rejoiced in the discovery and reproduction of the visible world, the more intensely did they feeel the need to saturate all its elements with meaning.” To miss this mind set, this struggle between faith and science is to miss, not just Panofsky’s epistemology of art history but also to miss the meaning of the work of art itself.

The first post in the series discussed Panofsky’s intellectual background with the second post explaining the idea of symbolic form.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Erwin Panofsky and Art History, Part Two

ERWIN PANOFSKY (1892-1968)

Part Two: The System of Meaning: Art History as Symbolic Form

Like the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Erwin Panofsky considered social acts to be not natural but linguistic forms, which are cultural, and thus subject to human interpretation. As a social act, any work of art is a cultural artifact, and, as such, must function as a means of communication with its public and act as an object of visual language. This language speaks, as it were, through symbolic codes or a system of writing through pictures, called “iconography.” “Iconography,” Panofsky stated, “is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form.” But the road to iconography was a long one, a journey through turn of the century attempts to put philosophy on the same certain basis as science.

Panofsky, as a student of Aby Warburg, was also the heir to late nineteenth-early twentieth century thinking that attempted to combine idealism and scientific thinking into a new absolute philosophy. In fact, Ernst Cassirer, one of the mentors for Panofsky, had begun his career in the philosophy of science. The copious writings of Panofsky can be situated squarely in this philosophical tradition and his philosophical take on art history was part of his effort to make of art history a solid “humanistic discipline” that was grounded in a solid epistemology. The art historian, as noted in the first part of the posts on Panofsky, staked out territory that separated his approach to art history from that of Heinrich Wölfflin, who stressed period styles, and from what art historian Christopher S. Wood in his preface to Panofksy’s 1927 Perspective as Symbolic Form, called the “homemade concept” crafted by Alois Rigel: Kunstwollen, or artistic will or volition.

Indeed in his famous 1940 essay, “Art History as a Humanistic Discipline,” Panofsky began by comparing the humanist to the scientist, but the comparison was challenged when it had to be acknowledge that unlike the scientist who confronted a static mindless object, the art historian worked with a work of art, a product of Kunstwollen. As Panofsky asked, “How, then, is it possible to built up art history as a respectable scholarly discipline, if its very objects come into being by an irrational and subjective process?” According to Wood, Panofsky attempted to salvage Riegl and to re-locate artistic creativity in Ernst Cassirer’s neo-Kantian idea of “symbolic form.” As Panofsky stated in “On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory: Towards the Possibility of a Fundamental System of Concepts for a Science of Art” (1925),

The ultimate task of a science of art, namely, the determination of Kunstwollen, can only be achieved in the interaction of the historical and theoretical modes of observation.

Previous art historians had followed either Kantian or Hegelian abstract structures and explained art in terms of formal categories. Alois Riegl, for example, worked in Hegelian dialectics by analyzing art within binary categories of internal-external, haptic-optic, and coordination-subordination, which he considered to be the deep structures of the work. Riegl considered the engine of this system to be Kunstwollen, which is a bracketing device that allows the study of art to be a study in form. Panofsky attempted to address the neglect of the meaning of art objects, by stating in his 1920 essay, “The Concept of Artistic Volition,” that, “Artistic products,” “are not statements by subjects, but formulations of material, not events, but results.”

To develop his concept of iconography, Panofsky drew together a number of philosophical ideas, replacing the notion of Kunstwollen with Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and used neo-Kantianism to analyze art through a priori categories. Ernst Cassirer’s symbolic forms are deeply spiritual, but their embedded meaning is attached to a concrete and material sign. Panofsky moved from the level of form to the level of structure by understanding that artistic perception was a special case of cognition. His most famous case study is his study of perception when he examined Renaissance perspective as symbolic form. Perspective as Symbolic Form, his most explicit revelation of the impact of Cassirer and neo-Kantian thought was a very impactful essay buttressed with extensive and erudite footnotes was a legend for those not fluent in high German until it was translated into English in 1991.

For Panofsky, perspective is an example of a “will to form” that was an unnatural invention of a particular period of time, the Renaissance. The symbolic form functioned at the structural level and the Renaissance version of perspective is comprehensible only for the modern sense of organized and structured space. Panofsky asserted that perspective is a form of thought and that thought is culturally bound to a place and time, a position of relativism that rested uncomfortably with the desired transcendence of symbolic form. The essay suggests that perspective is part of a change in world view, the shift in point of view from the infinity of religion where Earth is the center of the universe to a heliocentric world based on science. According to Panofsky, referring to perspective,

This formula also suggests that as soon as perspective ceased to be a technical and mathematical problem, it was bound to become al all that much more of an artistic problem. For perspective is by nature a two-edged sword: it creates room for bodies to expand plastically and move gesturally, and yet at the same time it enables light to spread out in space and in a painterly way to dissolve the bodies.

Experience or Welt is associated with Space as Experience and this experience is expressed in a linear fashion as a pictorial device in painting. For example, modern Western art based itself upon science, emulating the mindset of newly discovered humanistic values in the Fifteenth Century. Developed by architects to both measure and to map virtual space, “perspective” was an artistic language that was a sensuous and an intellectual (aesthetic) manifestation of a culture and its needs. Thus, following the thinking of his colleague, Ernst Cassirer who considered art to be a symbolic form, and perspective, for Panofsky, becomes symbolic form.

In 1951, Panofsky expanded upon this notion of symbolic form as a way of thinking that permeated an entire culture in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, which precisely compared the way in which cathedrals were conceived and the way in which ecclesiastical literature was organized. Pierre Bourdieu, the French theorist, profoundly influenced by Panofsky’s idea of symbolic form, wrote in 1967 “Postface to Erwin Panofsky Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, of the Gothic imagination as a specific form of thought that produced buildings whose designs concretized and expressed the form of thought symbolically. Bourdieu used his own term, “habitus,” or an affinity among supposed different objects, to explain the existence of a mindset “..though which the creator partakes of his community and time, and that guides and directs, unbeknownst to him, his apparently most creative acts.”

As a form that symbolized a society’s desire to master territory and to understand space, perspective is a formal system that exhibits a system of relationships or formal principles that underlie the mental structures of the Renaissance. A Marxist, therefore, would have insisted that perspective reflected the new world of commerce that required mathematical measurement of all things. But there is another way of interpreting perspective as a symbolic manifestation of cultural cognitive structures. These structures produce a certain way of seeing the world that depends upon deeper formal codes of knowledge. Perspective painting originates in the human intellect as an artificial convention of seeing. This Renaissance way of seeing is a canon of representation that is also the history of how a culture thinks and sees. Panofsky takes up a task elided by Saussure, the problem of the diachronic aspect of language as a particular culture that expressed itself in a certain fashion through art forms at particular times.

Although perspective was uniquely a Renaissance invention of necessity, five hundred years later, we are still convinced that we “see” in perspective and we still draw “realistically” in perspective, still using the devices invented by Brunelleschi and Alberti. But Panofsky undermines the apparent “naturalness” of perspective. The Renaissance invented an equilibrium between the subject and the object and linear perspective is simply a necessary abstraction for practical empiricism and solves the problem of how to reproduce three dimensions on a two dimensional plane. The abstraction of the system is manifested through the artificial construction that keeps the object within certain spatial limits. The system depends upon a single, stable, and immobilized eye and does not recognize infinity. The space is mathematical and produces an adequate reproduction of an optical image. Representation takes place within a closed interior space or a hollow body or box that increased in its scope with the invention of the vanishing point that expresses infinite space (without depicting infinity). Perspective is the mathematical realization of an image of space.

Symbolic forms may manifest themselves as the deep structure of works of art, as habits of cognition. Panofsky discussed perspective as “symbolic form” in that perspective is not natural but artificial and needs to be understood within a cultural system that is an expression of an era.The new symbolic form comes about as the result of a Hegelian agonistic resolution of conflicts. Historical change is a series of syntheses, but for Panofsky, art will move in a schema of advances and reversals, rather than thesis and antithesis. In other words, art will recoil and reverse direction and abandon previous achievements. Today, the work of Panofsky is still prevalent in art history but is usually employed clumsily and superficially, with most adherents to his methods limiting themselves to a simplistic reading of symbols without understanding the complex network of relations that allow the symbols to function and ignoring the cultural context that engendered these symbols. Nevertheless, art history can claim the distinction of being the first humanistic discipline that responded to the linguistic claims of structuralism.

Symbolic forms are the deep structures of thought, functioning as an épistémè. But works of art manifest aspects of for example how people in Medieval times, such as Panofsky’s 1934 essay on the Arnolofini Wedding as an example of “disguised symbolism,” and the art historian needed a method to interpret the (superficial) visual codes. Panofsky, impacted by the semiotic work of Charles Sanders Peirce, organized visual language into 1. The pre-iconographical analysis, or what he terms “practical experience,” which is the primary, natural or factual expression which, when seen, must be subjected to 2. An iconographical analysis, or “knowledge of literary sources,” which decodes the image into conventional meaning. But this conventional meaning is part of a vaster system, a world of symbolic values that must be investigated through 3. an iconological analysis, a “synthetic intuition,” which is a study of the culture that produced the initial sign. Unlike iconography, which requires the viewer to know literary sources, themes and concepts and the history of visual types, iconology requires to the spectator to be conversant with the history of cultural symptoms that are essential tendencies of the human mind–the prevailing Weltanschauung. As Panofsky stated,

…as our practical experience had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, objects and events were expressed by forms (history of style); and as our knowledge of literary sources had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, specific themes and concepts were expressed by objects and events (history of types); just so, or even more so, has our synthetic intuition to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, the general and essential tendencies of the human mind were expressed by specific themes and concepts. This means what may be called a history of cultural symptoms–or symbols in Ernst Cassirer’s sense…

Iconography is not merely a decoding of symbols, not only an identification of icons; iconography reveals the basic attitudes of a nation, of a period, of a class or of a religion. The icon developed by the society is qualified by the artist’s personality but the symbolic values expressed must ultimately be manifestations of an underlying principle or structure. Iconography as a method of interpretation is an act of synthesis, in the Kantian sense, a putting together of identification or analysis that leads to interpretation. The recognition of the icon presupposes familiarity with the themes and concepts of the culture and its historical conditions. This synthesis takes place at the iconological level or third level where the cultural symbols are also the intuitions of the human mind.

To state Panofsky’s approach to art in Kantian terms, he has put forward a new theoretical manifesto. There are a priori categories that are independent of experience and are purely intellectual and are transcendental. Time and Space are antithetical and must be balanced into a unity that is art. This unity (symbolic form) or sinn is the intrinsic meaning of the art of a period and this unity spans the usual distinction between form and content. Painting in perspective, in other words, is a desire to order the world in a certain way. Between form and content is a middle ground: symbolic form, a concept derived from Ernst Cassirer, which is the sole object of Panofsky’s study.

The first part of the series discusses European philosophical ideas while third and final post on Erwin Panofsky will describe his system of iconography.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Erwin Panofsky: Art History and Philosophy

ERWIN PANOFSKY (1892-1968)

Part One: The Antecedents of Iconography

To be an art historian in Germany or Austria, the sites where the study of the discipline was both founded and developed, was to be a member of an intellectual elite. The study of art in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century was based as much on private art collections, and the ability to gain access to these homes, as upon the study of art in museums. Born into the family of wealthy business people, Erwin Panofsky, who was taken to museums as a child, moved among these privileged intellectuals in those brilliant years of the Weimar Republic before its tragic end. Like many German intellectuals, Panofsky moved his career to America, taking with him the scholarly method of studying art in terms of meaning to Princeton University, where he spent the rest of his life. All too often the American understanding of this art historian is somewhat stripped down and remembered as a process of interpretation: icon, iconography and iconology, meaning that the icon or image was the symbol for a certain concept, such as the Cross was symbolic of the Crucifixion. All too often Americans tended to neglect the basis of Panofsky’s thought: iconology or the placement of art in culture. But for Panofsky, art history was an extension of the philosophical thought of Germany in the early twentieth century.

The nearly century long pride of place that Erwin Panofsky holds in art history is demonstrated by the recent excitement at the finding of his long lost Habilitation thesis that was found in June of 2012. The German publishing house De Gruyter will publish Die Gestaltungsprincipien Michelangelos, besonders in ihrem Verhältnis zu denen Raffaels in 2014. There is no doubt that his thesis will be marked by traces of the state of German philosophy of the early twentieth century. The best way, indeed, the only way, to discuss the art historical writings of Erwin Panofsky is to place the historian in the rich and complex intellectual context of his time. His art historical methodology was firmly grounded in German philosophy—specifically that of the philosopher, his colleague, Ernst Cassirer (1984-1945). Cassirer, a professor of philosophy at Hamburg, whose cousin Paul Cassirer was an art dealer, stated that, “Reason is a very inadequate term with which to comprehend the forms of man’s cultural life in all their richness and variety. But all these forms are symbolic forms. Hence, instead of defining man as an animal rationale, we should define him as an animal symbolicum.” A neo-Kantian from the Marburg school, Cassirer’s contention that people thought symbolically would profoundly shape Panofsky’s ideas on how people read or understood “icons” or images.

In his 2006 study of Cassirer, Edward Skidelsky introduces his book, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture, by making the point that, after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Cassirer has been reconstructed by German historians as one of the few intellectuals who emerged post 1989 as something of a hero who famously debated (and probably lost the debate) the future Nazi, Martin Heidegger in 1929. In the “Debate on Kant,” Cassirer asserted that Kant must be understood, no metaphysically, but functionally in the various forms of neo-Kantianism which, “..enquire into the possibility of philosophy as a sciencewith the intention of formulating its conditions..” For Cassirer the form is the function of philosophy, and the path to the symbolic form is Kant’s concept of “schema”, defined in the abstract as “phenomenon,” but reinterpreted by Cassirer as “symbol.”

During his years as a philosopher of the Weimar Republic, Cassirer’s works were published by his cousin Bruno and one of his earlier works was on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, published in 1921 and translated in English as early as 1923, signaling that Cassirer was first of all a philosopher of science. Indeed, Kant was understood in Marburg from the standpoint of science, but when Cassirer published The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms in three volumes between 1923 and 1929, he showed that he had moved into the arena of culture. As Donald Philips Verene points out in The Origins of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Kant, Hegel, and Cassirer (2011), myth is not just the origin of culture but also of language itself: “Linguistic symbolism is representational symbolism. All natural languages are structures of representation…” Taking Kant as his starting point, Cassirer proposed a “critique of culture.”

The first Jew to serve as the rector of the new university at Hamburg, Cassirer was also among the first to leave Germany in 1933 and after nearly a decade of lecturing in England and Sweden, he ended his career at Yale and Columbia universities. As Sebastian Luft pointed out in Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Between Reason and Relativism; a Critical Appraisal, that Cassirer wrote his last two important works, The Myth of the State (1946) and An Essay on Man (1944), were written in English. The “functional concept” proposed by Cassirer ordered his symbolic forms according to a principle of “serial arrangement” in which certain elements obtain meaning only within that particular system. In other words, Cassirer was positing a universal model for language that could incorporate the particular under the functional concept. The combination of the particular that acquires meaning within a universal system is not dissimilar to the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure and his networks which make meaning possible. For Cassirer symbolic forms—myth, religion, language, art history and science—were understood contextually as “inner forms” unique to each culture.

The three volumes have very specific subtitles which almost certainly can be explained by his association with Warburg: The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume One: Language (1923), The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume Two: Mythical Thought (1925), and The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume Three: The Phenomenology of Knowledge (1929). The fourth volume on the metaphysics of symbolic forms was in progress when the philosopher died suddenly of a heart attack the day after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During his years in Germany, Cassirer was in contact with the other seminal figure that helped Panofsky form his approach to art was one of the founders of the field, Aby Warburg (1866-1929), who was the eldest son of one of Germany’s premier banking families. Warburg gave up his position as heir to his younger brother Max who would helm the family business. An art historian, specializing in the Renaissance, Warburg asked in return only that his brother support his life long desire to amass a library on art and culture. It is this library and the mode of its arrangement that would prove to be the foundation not just for Panofsky’s methods of study but also for the contextual approach to the visual arts.

In counter distinction to the formalism of Heinrich Wölfflin, Warburg insisted that works of art were more than a mere collection of shapes and colors. While it should be noted that Wölfflin was somewhat in concert with Cassirer in that he thought that each era had a “period eye,” or a particular way of seeing or making forms, Warburg had “a downright disgust for aestheticzing art history.” In other words, he resisted the notion that a work of art was presented for pleasurable appreciation rather than for its deep psychological meaning across time. Warburg was fascinated with the Renaissance, not as a “rebirth,” but as rebirth redefined as “survival,” or the continuous reappearance of a motif or an idea that moved through time, leaving its traces on art and literature. And, also in contrast to received wisdom, Warburg did not regard the Renaissance as a return to classical reason but as the continuation of the struggle between the forces of rational thinking, as personified by the figure of Apollo, and the power of the irrational, as symbolized by the god Dionysus.

This human struggle between the rational and the irrational was part of a collective (un)consciousness that had as its origin in the body, manifested in art as an empathetic expressiveness. These primal experiences of suffering or traumas became for Warburg, “pathos formulae.” Warburg worked as an archaeologist of culture, excavating these ancient wounds which could be found, as antique echoes, in the works of the Renaissance, which contained the marks of the primitive nature of what the classical artists had grappled with—the dialectic between the animal in the human. These traces or tracks could be discerned in a variety of sources, not just visual but also textual, and Warburg assembled his books, building a cohort of sources or references around lingering ideas. These books would be grouped together in sections in what would become one of the most famous intellectual libraries of the twentieth century.

Mark A. Russell noted that the establishment of this collection followed Warburg’s move to Hamburg. According to Russell, in Between Tradition and Modernity: Aby Warburg and the Public Purposes of Art (2007), the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg or the Warburg Institute had acquired 15,000 volumes by 1911 and by 1926, when the library became a research institute with Fritz Saxl as Warburg’s assistant, there were 46,000 books. By this time, as Russell recounts, Warburg had suffered from his own mental illness and during his absence, the library had been moved from the private home and became a public library with the books, arranged by Saxl, placed on the shelves in accordance to scholarly expectations. Upon the fragile recovery of his mental health, Warburg continued his scholarship on memory and pictorial representation until his death in 1929. Saxl carried on his legacy but when Hitler came into power, it became clear that a library, founded by a Jewish family could not survive under the Nazis. Saxl and the Warburg family made arrangements to transfer the entire library, now some 66, 000 books, to London where it became the Warburg Institute in 1933. The library never returned to Germany.

Although Warburg actually visited America and made the acquaintance of the anthropologist Franz Boaz, his archaeological/psychological/anthropological focus remained on Florence during the Renaissance and he was fascinated with the lingering spell of pagan expressions on modern thought. But the scholar, who published his works almost entirely in articles, did not see history as evolving in a progressive form over temporal periods; instead,Warburg thought of history in terms of psychic time. When the Great War broke out, Warburg watched in horror as Europe descended into once again into savage barbarism. Although Warburg supported his nation, as any good patriot, he suffered great psychological anguish during this period and it can be argued that the balance of his mind never quite recovered from the darkness of the War. Warburg did not live to see the rise of Hitler, much less the destructive power of unleashed irrational primitive thinking by the Nazis, but he would have been transfixed to witness the return of a psychic trauma that would cause history to shudder with the new primal wound it would inflict.

If Cassirer’s thinking sought to be transcendent, the method of Warburg was concrete, based on the image as metaphors which progress or transform over time. To this end, Warburg collected a disparate array of images which formed an Atlas of recurring symptoms of humanity’s ongoing trauma/s. The Mnemosyne collection, also known as “Mnemosyne, A Picture Series Examining the Function of Preconditioned Antiquity-Related Expressive Values for the Presentation of Eventful Life in the Art of the European Renaissance,” began in 1924 after Warburg had recovered from his mental collapse and could have been part of his attempt to understand the War and the world’s regression into a primitive state. The “Atlas” was never completed and remains frozen in time, surviving as old photographs of groupings of clippings, reproductions, photographs and other images arranged according to Warburg’s intuition.

This Atlas of Images or Bilderatlas consisted of over sixty or seventy screens (depending on which reference you read), or wooden frames covered with black fabric, where an array of images could be pinned and clustered as visual aids to Warburg’s thought processes. Warburg, who used these screens as illustrations to his lectures, took photographs of these screens, showing his collection of reproductions which traced motifs over time. These photos are all that is left of this vast memory project. It should be noted that Warburg did not differentiate between high or low art nor did he hesitate to cross disciplines. Not only did he pioneer in interdisciplinary research, he also established the mode of lecturing in art history—comparing and contrasting images. According to Sarah Blacker in “Institutional Purlieus and Archival Collapse: Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas”, the “Atlas” was disassembled and is thought to have not survived the move to London except as boxes of images. Warburg had intended for his homage to the goddess of Memory to become the basis for the organization of his library and its images, but art historian Rudolf Wittkower in London used iconography as the system for the Warburg Institute.

The other seminal influence on Panofsky’s thought was Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a founder of modern linguistics. If Cassirer thought of humans as symbol-making beings, Saussure defined the human as a language-maker and elaborated upon a system of semiotics or semiology, a science of signs. The philosophical conclusions of these two thinkers were intertwined: both posited a system or a structure through which people communicate, either through symbols (which are a type of word) or words (which are a type of symbol). Both insisted that these symbols/words can be interpreted only within a cultural network that determines how language is understood and interpreted. Saussure’s Course on General Linguistics was not translated into English until 1959 and while a more definitive version came out in 1986, the original and complete text finally emerged in 2006.

Saussure distinguished between language (langue) and speech (parole): one is formal and is a system which is structured—language which is to be studied by the philosopher, unlike causal speech acts. Language is a system of rules which makes performing speech possible. Language is a system or network of relations among elements, none of which can be understood outside the system, which is synchronic or outside time. Language is a system of signs which operate within a structure that the user has incorporated unconsciously. It is that structure of set of rules that govern usage and allow the subject to communicate. To the extent that Saussure can be considered a Structuralist, the Swiss philosopher was also connected to the French anthropologist, also a Structuralist, Claude Lévi Strauss, who asserted that culture had a language that could be de-coded.

Saussure’s “sign, signifier, signified” would be re-interpreted by Panofsky as “icon, iconography, iconology” with a work of art (icon) as a work of culture or a cultural activity (iconography) that must be interpreted in a historical context (iconology). The sign is the icon which resembles the thing, just as a portrait resembles the person depicted. The index is another form of a sign is the “index,” in which smoke, for example is an index of “fire.” In Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (1975), Jonathan Culler noted that indexes are problematic and uses the example of Lévi-Strauss who suggested that an ax could be used as an “index” of a certain level of culture. But most signs are arbitrary in their (dis)connection between the word (sign) and the thing. The arbitrary nature of the sign, or the fact that there is no “natural” connection between the object and the sign, is the seminal insight of Saussure. The sign has significance or meaning and is further elaborated by that which is signified or what the sign means within the culture and why it has acquired this meaning at this point in time. On one hand, the significance of the sign is always incomplete and always escapes total interpretation, but on the other hand, it is this signifé that creates the meaning, however unfinished, of the sign. For Panofsky, as shall be seen in Part Two, the iconology of the icon is embedded in the culture itself.

Part two of this series discusses the idea of symbolic form and three of this series will discuss Panofsky’s famous iconographical method.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Podcast 65: Norman Rockwell and American Change

Norman Rockwell, Part Three

Contrary to what many Americans assumed, Norman Rockwell was a very modern and forward thinking artist. Far from being old-fashioned, the artist moved with the times and was able to follow the nation from the sleepy fifties to the turbulent sixties. This podcast, the last of the series, reveals the surprising Last Act of the career of Norman Rockwell.

 

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are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

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are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

African-American Art: The Harlem Renaissance

AFRICAN-AMERICAN ART AND ARTISTS

The Harlem Renaissance

To ask the question: what is African-American art? is to ask what is American art? America is a nation of immigrants. The only “American” culture is that of the Native Americans and, ironically, as was pointed out earlier, this is the most marginalized of artistic expressions in America. From the nineteenth century, scholars—completely ignoring the Native Americans—pointed out that there was no such thing as an “indigenous” American culture and that American art and literature and music were all based upon European forms and precedents. In the twenty-first century, scholars are more inclusive and speak of hybrid cultures or hyphenated art.

The Chicano and Mexican-American artists based their art on precedents from Mexico and Central America. The Asians who came to the United States from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and India also arrived with their unique sensibilities. Likewise, African-American artists, descended from slaves kidnapped out of Africa, brought the culture of African tribes to America. These African forms of literature, art and music had no ties to Europe or America or Asia. It would be fair to say that “American” art is an amalgam of four continents. It would also be fair to to point out that when cultural elements though of as quintessential “American” art are listed, the origin is, in fact African.

Black culture produced several unique genres of literature, such as the slave narrative, the sermons from the African-American churches, and, of course, the Blues, the source of gospel music and jazz. Today, many people would agree that the music that is “American” is rock ‘n’ roll and jazz and hip hop, the food that is “American” is barbeque, fried chicken, and “soul food”—all of African origin. Ironically this specifically American culture developed the result of the forced slavery and segregation of the Africans who were taken from their homelands and brought to a strange new land. Even after the abolition of slavery, African-Americans were denied equality of any kind and any demands for the rights of citizenship met with violence on the part of whites.

In exchange for peace and in self-defense, Blacks withdrew from whites and formed their own separate institutions and social groups. Here, in isolation, African-Americans could be themselves, sing their own songs, maintain their African roots, make their own speeches, expressing their sense of shared struggle through sermons in the churches. While some sensitive whites were able to recognize the original qualities of African-American culture, others refused to believe that Blacks were capable of making art. Many European philosophers, including Kant and Hegel, insisted that Africans had no culture, no art forms, and were, therefore, not human, for only a fully realized human being was capable of producing art.

While the Southern churches were centers for music-making, that region of the country—an armed camp imposing white will upon the blacks by terror—had little to offer the African-Americans outside of their own marginalized culture. By the end of the nineteenth century, faced with a web of Jim Crow prohibitions, Blacks began to migrate north and one of the key destinations was New York City and the neighborhood of Harlem. In her brilliant 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson lays out a frightening historical account of “escapes’ from the South to a place of refuge in Northern cities. African-Americans were needed for their cheap labor and were not “allowed” to leave the South and were kept in their place by both legal and illegal means, much like the old slave culture. Those who managed to make it to a city like Chicago or Los Angeles or New York were brave, determined and willing to risk their lives for the American dream.

The African American artist, Jacob Lawrence, produced a remarkable suite of paintings on The Great Migration (1940-1), an exodus from the segregationist South that continued until the 1960s—fifty years to northern and western destinations. Using simple blocks of strong color, Lawrence combined figuration with Cubism to tell a visual story that is paralleled by the history later recounted by Wilkerson, a story of persecution and hardship, ending with fulfillment. Giving an account of an extreme level of segregation and lives lived in daily fear in the South, African Americans existed in near complete isolation. Wilkinson pointed out that many of these escapees had never voted, had never spoken to a white person and had never left the place of their birth. This historical background of racism in relation to the phenomenon called the “Harlem Renaissance”—the sudden flowering of art, music, poetry, literature, political philosophy in the legendary New York neighborhood—is significant because the “renaissance” was an extraordinary accomplishment from the children and grandchildren of slaves.

Understanding the incredible deprivations endured by African-Americans in the South makes the art made in Harlem more meaningful, not just in terms of paintings or sculpture, but more importantly in terms of a flowering of a glowing human-ness. The Harlem Renaissance was an attempt of African-Americans to refute the charge, leveled by whites, of being “less than human” by giving the production of culture as much importance as economic success and entry into a middle class life. To be an artist was to be a human. Being an artist requires a strong sense of self and a healthy ego, qualities not permitted for African-Americans in the South where they were indoctrinated with the propaganda that they were “inferior” in every way. And yet, once they had put distance between segregation and the closed racist society, African-Americans began to write, recount their own history, develop their own philosophy; they started to sing, to dance, to make music, to express themselves through the visual arts.

During this era important Black philosophers and cultural observers began to write seriously about what the philosopher, W. E. B. DuBois, called “the soul of black folks.” The black “soul,” DuBois stated, was divided into a “double consciousness:” on one hand, the Black was an African with the heritage of slavery, oppression, and struggle; and on the other hand, the Black was an American with all the hopes and dreams that characterized the society. The hyphenated term “African-American” reflects that dichotomy, that divided identity that has created the original art we call “American.” Many of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance practiced their craft under difficult conditions. The visual artists were supported by well-meaning but slightly condescending white patrons who disappeared with economic hard times. The musical artists performed for white patrons at venues such as the Cotton Club, where no African-Americans were allowed, except as entertainers.

Like Native Americans, African Americans, from the time of the Harlem Renaissance, confronted white art forms and were faced with a decision that white artists never had to consider. If an African-American artist appropriated “white art,” did she give up her own cultural identity in a quest to become accepted simply as an “artist?” Was she selling out? If, on the other hand, an African-American artist maintained and developed the survivals of African culture, did he risk being marginalized as a “Black artist?” Would his art ever be seen as “art?” These questions faced the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Painting as a form of “fine art,” was not part of an African heritage, like the music—jazz, blues, gospel—or the slave culture, like the soul food. African sculpture, however, was part of the tribal heritage and was celebrated by the European artists of the early twentieth century, who appropriated African art forms and made them their own.

For the African-American artist of the Harlem Renaissance, the appropriation would be reversed: Western style easel painting was used by Blacks to make statements that were specifically African-American. In doing so, the artists signaled by their adherence to painting both an assimilation of white art forms and a desire to use them to preserve and develop their own modes of expression. The easel painters of the Harlem Renaissance used painting to develop African motifs, such as Lois Mailou Jones, or to show life in Harlem, such as Palmer Hayden, or the culture of New Orleans, such as Archibald Motley. Similarly, sculptor, Richmond Barthe, used Greco-Roman forms to celebrate African life.

The hybrid art of African Americans is hybrid because these artists are, first and foremost “American” and are part of the larger American society. “African” is a statement of pride and distinction and expressions of “African-ness” are American-style survivals of tribal culture, a culture from which they have been separated for centuries. The result, as with all American art, all of which is hybrid, is a rich mixture of histories and traditions and inheritances. One of the most famous works of visual art of the Harlem Renaissance were the murals of the New York Public Library branch in Harlem. These murals, telling the story of Africans who came as slaves to America and suffered and endured and final triumphed, were the masterworks of Aaron Douglas.

However, the Harlem Renaissance was part of the jazz age, the Prohibition, and was dependent upon a prosperous bubble economy. After the Crash on Wall Street in 1929, the Great Depression devastated all of America and, as usual, the African-Americans were especially hard hit. America did not recover from the collapse of the economy until World War jump-started the stalled economy and offered hope, once again, to African-Americans. The photographer who recorded the Harlem Renaissance, its people and its places, James Van Der Zee, lived long enough to photograph the second coming of African-American art when he made a portrait to the Puerto-Rican-Haitian-American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

Podcast 63: Norman Rockwell—America’s Favorite Artist

Norman Rockwell, Part One

Although the career of Norman Rockwell, the acclaimed illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post, spanned the twentieth century, his mature period of the 1940s and 1950s is the best known. This podcast, the first of three, discusses how this artist “invented” a traditional old-fashioned America, using modern movie methodology of “directing” his cast of characters to create his iconic “America.”

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast 58: New Deal Art, Part Two

NEW DEAL ART AND ARTISTS

In the decades before local community museums were common, New Deal art was, for many communities, the only access to art. Although often disparaged as being too “folksy,” New Deal murals were only one part of an extensive government program which not only supported artists but also professionalized these groups. This podcast makes the case that New Deal art was the part of a process of “readiness” of American artists to challenge the hegemony of European Modernist art.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast 57: New Deal Art, Part One

THE STORY OF ART UNDER THE NEW DEAL

Long ignored and often neglected, the art made during the New Deal was far more impactful for American art than is usually realized. For the first time, the American government supported artists and art through a number of programs that made “American” art for Americans. The result was that a nation was introduced to art which came to towns and cities across the nation. For many Americans in the 1930s, the New Deal art in the local post office was an introduction to the idea of “art.”

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline