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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