Art and “Thick Description,” Part Two



Gathered together at the Warburg Library and impacted by the neo-Kantian revival in the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Aby Warburg and Ernst Cassirer created diachronic analyses of cultural symbols from the perspectives of psychology and semiotics respectively. Byron Good and Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good commented in “On the ‘Subject’ of Culture. Subjectivity and Cultural phenomenology in the Work of Clifford Geertz,” that Geertz’s anthropological works are..

..grounded in the work of Ernst Cassirer and his vision of “symbolic forms” as mediating between Kant’s a priori categories of mind and the perceived world, actively constituting “image worlds” (in Cassirer’s terms) of language and myth, religion, art, history, and science. But all of this becomes an ethnographic theory of subjectivity when made local..

It is their colleague, Erwin Panofsky, however, who was closer to Geertz, because Panofsky’s art historical approach was synchronic and, inspired by Fernand de Saussure, semiotic. As Michael Ann Holly pointed out a quarter of a century ago, Panofsky’s method has been drained of what we might call its “thickness” by his followers who thought in terms of decoding symbols rather than interpreting a culture. Few followed Panofsky and took his idea past iconography into iconology, except for the art historian, Michael Baxendall, who is Geertz’s guide to understanding art through his Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy. In Local Knowledge, Geertz maintained he relied upon Baxendall who “takes precisely the approach I here advocating. Baxandall is concerned with defining what he calls the “period eye.” Geertz continued, “The famous solidity of Renaisance painting had at least in part its origins in something else than the inherent properties of planar representation, mathematical law, and binocular vision.” Baxendall, he noted connected “the moralism of religious preaching, the pageantry of social dancing, the shrewdness of commercial gauging, and the grandeur of Latin oratory.” Geertz described “the painter’s true medium” as “The capacity of his audience to see meanings in pictures.”

Just as Panofsky attempted to recover the medieval mindset or “mental habits and controlling principles” in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, Baxendall recreated the particular Renaissance worldview through Piero della Francesca’s paintings. In Studies in Iconology, Panofsky referred to Cassirer’s conflation of cultural symbols and symptoms. He warned that the historian must make sure the intrinsic meaning of the work be checked by relating it to other like works. What Panofsky called “mental process of a synthetic and subjective character,” which engender meaning is that which ultimately interests Geertz, but we must not think in terms of a diachronic zeitgeist. Geertz created a thick description of a limited number of acts and actors, who, while speaking thought a culture, can speak only out of themselves and within their own time. As Geertz wrote in his chapter on “Thick Descriptions,”

Theoretical formulations hover so low over the interpretations they govern that they don’t make much sense or hold much interest apart from them. This is so, not because they are not general (if they are not general, they are not theoretical), but because stated independently of their applications, they seem either commonplace or vacant.

The thick description of a local culture at a specific point in time can be compared–and Geertz did–to early Michel Foucault’s notion of the épistemé, but with caution. Certainly thick description sounds like the Foucauldrian archive. Although Foucault rejected a seamless diachronic view of cultural progress, he still examines cultures over time, albeit time disrupted and ruptured. Nevertheless, Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) suggested that gaps and lacunae in knowledge need to be expected and accepted, making the inevitable “thinness” of “thick description” understandable. Geertz thought in terms of “cultural texts” or public texts that are representational and durable. In Local Knowledge he stated,

The key to the transition from text to text analogue, from writing as discourse to action as discourse, is, as Paul Ricour has pointed out, the concept of “inscription:” the fixation of meaning.

Any art historian laboring in historical archives is aware that the most careful collection of primary sources can produce only a product that looks like a sponge—more of less thick and full of holes, like Swiss cheese. While Geertzian method is obviously consequential to a historian working within a Panofsky-esque framework, several questions come up. First, art historians could be more precisely classified by working method. Anyone attempting to recreate an archive of a dead culture is traveling into the past—“a foreign country”–as David Lowenthal expressed it, and is thus working as an anthropologist. Whether or not one wants to boldly go where Baxendall goes, that researcher is more precisely a cultural historian, working though Panofsky to Geertz, recreating a thick, ultimately semiotic, description. Panofsky stated that

Every historical concept is obviously based on the categories of space and time…The cosmos of culture, like the cosmos of nature is a spatiotemporal structure…the succession of steps by which the material is organized into a natural or cultural cosmos is analogous, and the same is true of the methodological problems implied by this process. The first step is, as has already been mentioned, the observation of natural phenomena and the examination of human records. Then the records have to be “decoded” and interpreted, as must the “messages from nature” received by the observer. Finally the results have to be classified and coordinated into a coherent system that “makes sense.”

The combination of history and semiotics has attracted the attention of the New Historicists to Clifford Geertz, but what of the oxymoronic contemporary art historians? The Geertzian method removes the false dichotomy between fine and popular art—that much is obvious—but his method also breaks the confines of visual culture and transforms the historian into a cultural observer, into an anthropological watcher, who investigates and records and describes–like Honoré Balzac. As with any good researcher, all preconceived ideas, all assumptions, all theories, all hoped-for outcomes must be abandoned at the entrance of the project. For example, a study of contemporary museum practices is not Geertzian, when those practices are critiqued. A simple, careful, and methaphorically rich thick description of the cultural conditions should suffice. Clifford Geertz did not do systems analyses, for he is seeking a culture’s episteme of which the system is merely a symptom of a particular mode of thinking.

Geertzian methodology suggests that art historians need to research further afield, outside of the presumed arena of art history, if s/he wants do produce a “thick description.” A “thick description” replaces formalism, connoisseurship, and all other narrow viewpoints, with a broad cultural perspective re-created out of Wittgensteinian “bundles of family resemblances.” In “The State of the Art,” Geertz remarked that

…the conjoining of History and Anthropology is not a matter of fusing two academic fields into a new Something-or-Other, but of redefining them in terms of one another by managing their relations within the bounds of a particular study: textual tactics.

Moreover, Geertz always used the time-honored Warburgian method of compare and contrast in order to thicken and bring his description to life and to account for the change of meaning through use over time. Geertzian culture is always local, that is limited, and the scope of his research is always narrow and modest. An art historian or cultural historian has the luxury the cultural observer does not. For the cultural historian, time stands still, and the selected slice can be thickened over years of archival research. For the cultural observer of—say the art scene—-the moment is fleeting, and Pierre Bourdieu’s “field of cultural production” must be seized in the immediacy of its “habitus.”


The Arnofini Portrait (1425)

For both kinds of art historians, interpretation is the goal, but the overriding question is when to stop this interpretation. When Panofsky heard an over-interpretation of Arnolfini’s “identity,” in the so-called Arnolfini Portrait he reported,

I was dumbstruck, my hair stood on end, and my voice stuck to my mouth..There is, however, admittedly, some danger that iconology will behave not like ethnology as opposed to ethnography, but like astrology as opposed to astronomy. There is, I am afraid, no other answer to this problem other than the use of historical methods tempered, if possible, by common sense.

From Panofsky’s perspective, the Portrait was a “symbolic form,” a portrait, if you will, of a shift in European culture: away from a religious or spiritual world view to a more materialistic or secular perspective on society. Like the Merode Altarpiece, the Wedding Portrait is replete with “disguised symbolism,” or ordinary objects that, in their very domesticity, hid spiritual meanings. The practice of “hiding” God in actual life was in itself a “symbolic form” of thinking and therefore of art itself which reflected this epistemology. Panofsky’s colleague, Ernst Cassirer understood that humans invested, not just language but all objects, with meanings. Those meanings, according to his three volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms were never fixed but were always mutating within the culture. Relativity means here, unfixed and evolving as the society requires and “reading” works of art like “texts,” not as objects bounded by formal thinking depends upon “thick description.” Clifford Geertz followed in the footsteps of Panofsky who followed the thinking of Cassirer, moving from Iconography to Iconology; and it is here, somewhere between Symbolic Forms and Iconology, that the anthropologist slipped himself and his thick description between philosophy and art history. The result is a traunche of contemporary thought with thick description at its core.

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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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.

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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.

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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“The Origin of German Tragic Drama,” 1925, by Walter Benjamin


(The Origin of German Tragic Drama), 1925

by Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin’s Ursprung des deutschenTrauerspiels utilized a thought floated by Marx, that all art would become “allegorical” as a result of commodification and of its transformation into a fetishistic object. In this notoriously difficult book, Benjamin foregrounded allegory as the structural underpinning of the Baroque épistemé. Originally intended as his Habilitationsschrift, or an academic manuscript, submitted to the faculty of a German university as the necessary prelude for being accepted as a Privatdozent. Once accepted into the university fold, the Privatdozent has the right to lecture on whatever topic s/he desires. On the surface, the submission was exemplary. Benjamin had made all the right moves: he found a long neglected area of culture to investigate—German Baroque tragic drama—-and analyzed this obscure topic with exemplary and labyrinthine thoroughness.

However, after being passed among departments, this complex tome was summarily rejected by the traditional academics at the university in Frankfurt. The Ursprung was an uneasy but innovative work—ahead of its time in its willingness to combine exacting research with poetical interpretation. The major complaint against this book from its main reader was that it is impossible to study the spirit of an age, but forty years later, Michel Foucault would do just that in his Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) when he studied the notion that each era had its own system or theory of knowledge.

But beyond the question of how or whether “knowledge” was a social construct, there were larger problems with the Ursprung. In resurrecting an almost forgotten art form, Benjamin actually challenged the prevailing belief that the “Classical” was superior to the “Baroque.” It seems clear that he had read or was familiar with the work of the art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin: Renaissance und Barock (Renaissance and Baroque) (1888), and Die klassische Kunst (Classic Art) (1898, and Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Principles of Art History) (1915). Wölfflin treated the Baroque as a co-equal of Classical, as simply another style and not as a “decline” from the Classical. However, as the prompt rejection of Benjamin’s thought experiment on the Baroque would suggest, the ideas of Wölfflin were still not accepted among those favoring classicism as the epitome of any form of art.

For a century, Germans had preferred the “classical”, that which the poet Göethe had called “healthy” to the Baroque or the early version of the Romantic which was therefore “unhealthy.” The Baroque had long been considered to be a decadent version of the pure Classical and its obscure manifestations in Germany were of little interest to anyone, but Benjamin, who revisited this manifestation for his Habilitationsschrift. In a time when academics worked within disciplinary confines that were strictly limited and patrolled, Benjamin was writing an interdisciplinary work, crashing through the room divides between studies of German culture, art history and aesthetics. The writer looked through a prism that incorporated Jewish mysticism from the Kabbalah.

Of course art history is in many ways a Jewish discipline, a life-long Yeshiva school, where art is endlessly rewritten and debated. However, art history, like any other religion or belief system, has its rules and its areas of conventional wisdom. In his excellent introduction to the Ursprung, George Steiner noted that Benjamin’s manuscript found its way into the hands of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), author of Studies in Iconology in 1939. According to Steiner, Panofsky did not view Benjamin’s work favorably. Steiner posited that Benjamin could have found a home with the group of scholars in Hamburg, Panofsky and Ernst Cassirer, Neo-Kantians, and Aby Warburg, the cultural historian in what became the Warburg Institute.

But Benjamin was probably too eclectic in his methodology even for this group and the moment passed and Warburg was dead by 1929 and Panofsky in America by 1933. Benjamin gave up on academics and spent the rest of his life as a free lance writer and radio broadcaster. Here, in short articles and lectures on the radio, Benjamin could roam free, indulging his wide range of interests as a literary and cultural critic. “Criticism,” he said, “should do nothing else than uncover the secret predisposition of the work itself, complete its hidden intentions…”

For Benjamin, the power of interpretation was the power of the idea and he sought a synthesis between philosophical abstraction and aesthetic concreteness. Using the idea of the dialectic, he thought that the universal would be revealed through that which was particular or in comparing the overall structure to the insignificant detail. Benjamin sought the detail, an element thought unworthy of intellectual effort. In contrasting the Classical to the Baroque, Benjamin is able to isolate certain defining characteristics: the symbol is the characteristic property of the Classical mind and the allegory is the characteristic property of the Baroque way of thinking.

Allegory, like the Baroque, had been considered a decadent form of symbolism. Symbolism, in its purity, idealized and subdues the material object, totalizes its meaning and signification. The allegory, in contrast, is a sheer hemorrhage of significations that disrupt meaning and coherence. This surplus of signification called “écriture” by later French writers, contrasted the purity of speech (the Classical) to the impurity of writing (the Baroque).

For the modern reader The Origin of German Tragic Drama is a difficult slog and the best advice one can give to skip over the obscure theatrical productions that languish (deservedly) in obscurity and to seek the fragments of insight from Benjamin. The writer contrasted the Classical Hero in Greek tragedy who is silent in his suffering, in his tragic and unspeakable fate. In his inability of speak, this hero become superior to the gods and thus transcends not just the deities but also history itself. But the Baroque hero is mired in history that is natural and not timeless. This hero must be noble so that his fall will be from a high place, suggesting that his suffering is more of a social humiliation than a preordained tragedy from a fatal flaw. The Classical tragic hero wrestles with the inextricable workings of Fate but the Baroque hero is but one character amid a larger cast who—not gods—are his fellow actors.

Therefore, according to Benjamin, “tragic drama” is not “tragedy.” Tragedy is about mourning. Tragic drama is about melancholy. as Like Sigmund Freud in a paper, On Mourning and Melancholia, which had been delivered in 1917, Benjamin separated “mourning”—classical tragedy form “melancholia”—tragic drama. Indeed, Benjamin identified Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, as melancholy. If the Classical is that which is timeless and transcendent, then its eternal life must be contrasted to the historicism and decay of the Baroque. If the Classical is that which is whole, complete, and self-sufficient, the Baroque is a mere collection of those left-behind details, fragments of a melancholy cult of decay. Benjamin forces the reader to examine these fragments, these “found objects” of the Baroque allegory.

Although Benjamin used the Hegelian notion of the dialectic to study an obscure and devalued topic, Baroque theater in Germany, Benjamin’s thinking was greatly influenced by Surrealist strategies for discovering the “marvelous.” The marvelous was a mental state that resulted from the isolation of the object, resulting in defamiliarization and the shock of defamiliarity on the part of the now-dazzled viewer. The frozen object is estranged from context and is freed to take on new meanings.

Like the Marvelous, the allegorical discourse is characterized by doubleness; the object is expressionless and yet possesses unbridled expression. The object is purged of mystified immanence and is capable of multiple uses. In its plurality, the frozen object can contain and radiate a bricoulage of elements, and because the allegory lays bare its devices (demystifies), the visual figure defeats symbolism. Symbolism, by its very nature, “disguises,” as Erwin Panofsky would say, but Allegory ostentatiously displays its construction. But its meaning is de-centered and refuses to submit to the totality of structure.

Benjamin connected allegory to the death of symbol and to the decline of aura in commodity production. He linked the atomizing of the objects to Baudelaire’s observation of commodity culture where objects become abstracted and acquire an arbitrary status. The commodity exists as fragment, ambiguous and ephemeral, and becomes fetish. The object become overwritten, a palimpsest bearing unconscious traces of its aura and authenticity, neither of which exist, except as trace. The object is reinvented as an emblem by Renaissance scholars and became the stylistic principle of Baroque art. Rather than symbol, the emblem is code, pictorial codes or “thing pictures” (dingbilder) or a rebus, as Freud would have expressed it. The allegorical form, however, is capable of capturing historical experience, which is why Postmodern Critical Theory would be so interested in Allegory.

Art, for the Critical Theorist, must be grounded in history. Aesthetics attempts to turn an object into radiance and to transform exaltation into transcendence. This process of aestheticizing the object idealizes the work but in a negative fashion, for the memory or history of the object is transfigured into a “sentimental glow”. Allegory, in contrast, is not radiant and extinguishes, along with light, the false glow of totality. Allegory admits that history is ruins and acknowledges the transitory nature of things. The allegory, lodged in history, is beyond (idealized) beauty. The allegorical form is petrified and frozen in the landscape of history, destroying aesthetics. The governing law of aesthetics is not totality but antinomy and the dialectic is used as a mechanism of reversal of extremes.

Allegory depends upon conventions, which may be cheapened and degraded. Allegory is a gathering, a collection of things, a combination of references that are assembled through a law that combines scatteredness and collectedness. The arrangement of these collections is slack. The most important allegorical figure is the fragment, which is imaged by an architectural ruin, ravaged by time. For Benjamin, it was important to acknowledge that history was a ruin, in a state of decay, for history could be appropriated and idealized or aestheticized.

The Origin of German Tragic Drama brings together a number of tendencies in Germany at the early stages of the Twentieth Century. Benjamin noted that Göethe, the Classicist, rejected allegory. In his epic essay, On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, German poet, Friedrich Schiller was correct in understanding his friend, Göethe, as being “naïve” in that the older poet was immune from history and created art from an internal force. The “sentimental” artist, however, is more akin to Benjamin’s allegorical maker, who makes it very clear that an allegorical object is being put together through an act of bricolage.

It is important to note that the mechanics of the allegory are not concealed or, as Brecht would have it, “naturalized”. The assemblage that is allegory is always grounded in the truth. Schiller’s sentimental artist may have mourned the loss of innocence and may have suffered from alienation but this artist is deeply connected to the history of his/her period. Karl Marx pointed out that in an era of commodification, it would be the fate of art to become allegory. That is, art, in becoming commodified would loose its “halo” and in its unsacred condition could be appropriated and turned into a fetish.

Art as allegory is alienated art. The allegorist is thus both elegiac and satirical, but Benjamin foregrounds the condition of mourning and melancholy, pictured in ruins. And yet, like Charles Baudelaire, Benjamin is torn. He mourns the loss of the Old Paris, but like a Baudelarian flâneur, strolls through time and collects fragments or “remnants” and recombines them into an excess of writing. Benjamin’s writings were very metaphorical, as though he turned to the past to express the future. He understood Baudelaire’s metropolis as a manifestation of space within which new technologies were displayed as spectacle.

In an age of secular spectacle, fashion would be king and anything could be fashion, which is the ultimate form of “false consciousness” and cultural distraction. Benjamin is fascinated with death and that which is dead, the corpse. Once the object becomes a fetish and is alienated from social production and social use, it becomes fashion and is worshiped as a commodity. The fetish is inorganic as opposed the corpse, which is organic.

Feeling that European culture was in a condition of crisis, Benjamin’s gaze is Janus-like. He understood the past could only exist as ruins and that its fragments would only be displaced into the present as fetishes. The future was even more bleak and marked by a mourning for the past. The future could never be authentic; art could only be allegorical; and Baudelaire as the quintessential poet-critic exemplified the only stance of the artist that of an observer of the spectacle, alienated and enlivened only by cynical commentary. Although we can read his literary action as allegorist in The Arcades Project, the work of Benjamin was re-read by postmodern critics and philosophers as portents of Postmodernism.

The arbitrary and nostalgic piling on of historical traces torn from the fabric of time, decontextualized and overwritten by the present, while retaining the trace of the past would be the prime strategy of postmodernism. The Frankfurt School philosopher, Theodor Adorno, who survived Benjamin, would complete the setting of the stage for Postmodernism. Critical Theory would be developed in its contemporary form after the Second World War, in the wake of the Holocaust. “There is no document of civilization, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” Walter Benjamin prophetically remarked in his essay On the Concept of History of 1937.

Benjamin’s insight that a dislocated history could be nostalgically fetishized for the Nazi cause, that art would become allegory and could be fetishized as propaganda seemed both prophetic and tragic. All that he feared came true. Towards the end of what would turn out to be his only book, Walter Benjamin wrote,

Allegory goes away empty-handed. Evil as such, which it cherished as enduring profundity, exists only in allegory, is nothing other than allegory, and means something different from what it is. It means precisely the non-existence of what it presents. The absolute vices, as exemplified by tyrants and intriguers, are allegories. They are not real and that which they represent, they possess only in the subjective view of melancholy; they are this view, which is destroyed by its own offspring because they only signify its blindness.

And then he concluded,

In the ruins of great buildings the idea of the plan speaks more impressively than in lesser buildings…Others may shine resplendently as on the first day; this form preserves the image of beauty to the very last.

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

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

[email protected]