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.

[email protected]

Language, Culture, and Philosophy

THE LINGUISTIC TURN

How do words mean? How is meaning constructed? These seemingly innocent questions are lethal to the entire edifice of knowledge. If we imagine knowledge, not as wisdom, but as an architecture of writing, then the foundation of “truth” is undermined. The question becomes not what do we know but how do we write? If philosophy in the nineteenth century was about ideas, then philosophy in the twentieth century was about language or linguistics. We live in the aftermath of this “Linguistic Turn.”

This “turn” away from ideas and towards language meant that words, not things, would be examined in terms of how words, put together into speech acts and discourse, acquire meaning. Which philosopher marks this “turn,” when and where this “turn” took place depends upon which account is read and which definition of “linguistic turn” is used. Some have contended that German mathematician and philosopher, Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege, others think that the “turn” was British (or Anglo-Austrian) and was the work of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Perhaps it is best to think not in terms of “first” but in terms of the significance of what is a change in direction. As Richard Rorty said,

The picture of ancient and medieval philosophy as concerned with things, the philosophy of the seventeen through the nineteenth century as concerned with ideas, and the enlightened contemporary philosophical scene with words has considerable plausibility.

The linguistic turn is a concern about how language allows speech and under what linguistic conditions meaning is constructed. In other words, philosophy becomes fused with literary theory and knowledge become examined as the result of a social/cultural structure. The turn towards the study of the arts, visual and literary, through linguistic philosophy started with concerns with logic (analytic philosophy) and semiotics (the study of signs).

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

After this death, the students of Saussure recreated his lectures and published them as Cours de linguistique générale (1916). This act of devotion brought their teacher’s radical reconsiderations of the way in which meaning is formed. Saussure made a distinction between langue, that is the system, the institution, rules and norms, and parole, which is the actual manifestation of the system in speech, and writing. The philosopher made the distinction between rule and behavior and noted that meaning is bound up in this system of relationships and differences. Language is composed of a network of established significations and relativism is checked by a competent reader who has a sense of what one is reading towards. Langue is a Metadiscourse and parole is a specific text, and structuralism attempted to find and establish an almost scientific approach to de-coding signs and finding their meanings.

Postmodernism and Poststructuralism will specifically deny the basic precepts of Structuralism–its reliance on rules, its search for meaning and its bi-polar structure. Language is the rule and speech is the behavior. The system itself is synchronic as a functional whole and diachronic in its inevitable historical evolution. Saussure and his followers concentrated on the synchronic study of language that is examining the system as a whole as an abstract structure. The diachronic structure was left to others as this aspect of the structure changed with historical changes and was relative and ceaselessly in flux.

The Saussarian system is constructed on the basis of binary oppositions, which Saussure declared to be inherent in the language as a habit of thought that allowed any culture to order and sort out a vast heterogeneous field of elements into distinctions and differences. Structuralism, as a mode of analysis, studies signs within this network of relations. Meaning is bound up within a system of relationships based upon difference and relativism or individual interpretation/solipsism is checked by cultural competency or a sense of what one is reading towards.

Language competence is the ability to represent within a system of norms and rules. This system is one of relations and oppositions in which elements are defined in formal and differential terms. The units of language are modes of a series of differences or functional contrasts. These binary oppositions are inherent in language and this relational identity or dependent identity is crucial to language. For the signifier to express meaning, the signifier must differ from other signifiers and these differences are essential for the signs to work. The linguistic system can be defined as the place of the sign, which acquires meaning only within the system of differences.

Semiotics or semiology seeks the grounds of signifying processes. Structuralism is important because it does NOT seek the truth. There is no truth; there is no human subject. There are only codes or sign systems and it is these structures that produce meaning. Meaning is arbitrary and there is on necessary connection between these structures and “reality”. The revolution of semiotics is the undoing of the common sense link between the word and the thing. The “thing” can be “named” anything and can mean anything. Language, therefore, is not a window on reality, nor is it a mirror. Language is merely a network of signification. Furthermore, knowledge is structured by the systems of code. The structuralist discourse is a method designed to master and explain language and to create a universal grammar of narration.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914)

Peirce proposed a topology of signs organized into the icon, the index, and the sign, which is the combination of the significant and the signifié or of form and meaning. That the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary is one of the central insights of Structuralism. The arbitrariness of the mechanics that create the sign upsets the ancient notion that words were imbued with the qualities of their referent. Words and things become detached, and things can be known only through words, which in turn can function only within a system and only in terms of their differences. Peirce separated icons from signs by pointing out that icons are based upon actual resemblance, rather than arbitrary relationships, such as a portrait resembling the subject: a one to one relation.

These indexical signs are also mythic and change within the conventions of knowledge and the linguist reads these indices within this system of conventions. According to Peirce, all signs consist of a significant, which is the form, and of a significance, which is the meaning of the sign. All signs are fundamentally incomplete. The significance of one sign cannot be grasped by examining the sign on its own. Any sign acquires meaning only within a network of relations that presents an interpretant in the form of another sign. The sign’s meaning is developed within the system of language and the meaning is manifested through the use of the sign.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2000)

In Structural Anthropology (1958), this French scientist combined anthropology with linguistics, understanding signs to be combination of the signifier and the signified and as forms that were fundamentally incomplete. The signifier cannot be directly grasped but can be understood only in the form of another sign and meaning is determined through this development. All cultural phenomena are signs read by the inhabitants of the culture, but these inhabitants cannot function as subjects because meaning is bound up within the conventional structure. It has been said that Structuralism is Kantian thought without the transcendental subject or without to reasoning and rational human mind actively interpreting and creating reality. The Kantian subject is dissolved and becomes a passive, unwitting object upon which the linguistic system operates at will. The structural analysis refuses to consider a notion of “self” identified with consciousness and does not seek for external causes that make the “subject” as the explanatory cause.

Any object (even human objects) is defined/structured by its place in the system, but unlike form this structure has no content. Content itself is a logical organization and is the same nature as form. Form is only a way of organizing the particular structures that make up content; and meaning is only the effect of logical, intellectual structures by which the mind orders experiences. Following Kant, Lévi-Strauss proposed that the mind imposes form on raw materials and creates myth, which are forms of concrete logic composed of bundles of relations or sets of items. Organized in terms of binary oppositions–dark and light, good and evil–myths explain or reduce the often-frightening contradictions in the real world.

Carl Jung (1875-1961)

Carl Jung united Freud and Structuralism into his concept of the “Collective Unconscious.” He recognized Freud’s concept of the dream but asserted that the unconscious remained unconscious. Although Jung understood that “dream-work” was an active process that included actions of displacement, condensation, symbolization and so on, he disagreed with Freud’s notion that these actions were actions of censorship. For Jung, dreams did not deceive but express. Dream thinking was simply an “older mode of thought” and the interpretation of dreams will show that the meanings are bound up in recognizable form. Dreams are like plays, they dramatize through plots and culminate in a climax. The manifest content of dreams, therefore, is drama. The latent content can be uncovered through free association, for dreams are self-portrayals in symbolic form. Dreams have a creative role to play in the total human psyche and are linked to the dreamer’s life.

Both Jung and Freud considered mind and body to be linked. For Jung the psyche functioned in terms of archetypes that are inscribed in the body and are genetically transmitted. These archetypes are unconscious pre-dispositions. In the Kantian sense, archetypes are a priori conditions for actual experience, or, to put it another way, archetypes organize experiences. Archetypes are models or primordial types or ideas that act as originals or exemplars. Jung was talking about cognitive structures that were congenital structures that produced patterns of behavior.

The image, which is symbolic, is the functional form of this system and can be described as a typical situation into which energy is released. Image approaches instinct. Symbols manifested in images necessarily emerge from archetypes which, being universal, are part of the collective unconscious. It is not so much that we can read each other’s symbols but that we can read the instinct to make symbols. Once these symbols are decoded, the archetypal foundation of these forms will be revealed.

Freud and Jung corresponded but disagreed on what determined the nature of the human psyche but they were part of a philosophical mindset that sought to set out what Jean-François Lyotard would call a “grand narrative.” For Freud the engine of his grand narrative was sexual energy, for Jung the engine was the organizational capacities of archetypes. Also writing philosophy during this period was Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), a Neo-Kantian philosopher and Kantian interpreter, who would bring a number of these ideas together into his three volume (1923-29), Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, which incorporates art as a language of symbolic forms that had to be interpreted.

Cassirer worked with Aby Warburg (1866-1929) and Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) at the University of Hamburg. These three scholars were the Hamburg School and were interested in the historical evolution of “symbolic forms.” Warburg applied the notion of psychological archetypes of art and searched for recurring images and recurring symbols that returned eternally in art as symptoms of the unconscious. Panofsky applied the notion of the Kantian mind actively constructing culture to works of art and attempted to read art according to the teachings of structuralism, especially that of Saussure whom he had read.

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

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

[email protected]