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ArtPrintCritical dictionary

Art History

Paulo Pereira

Art History is the subject that studies the artistic objects along time, aiming to answer five fundamental questions: who did it?; when was it done?; why was it done?; to whom was it done?; how was it done?. It is reckoned that this discipline was born with the first text dedicated to the analysis of the works and its authors from Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) a biographical work titled “Le Vite de più Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architettori” (1550 - 1568). Only with Johan Joachim Winckelman (1717 - 1768) is considered that the critical process of the art belongs to the academic not to the practitioner, and a history of the “artistic styles” is established. With the beginning of the analytic history, Art History adopts the documental study as one of its methods. The advent of the so called “Vienna School” and the “artistic will theory” (kunstwlolen), from Alois Riegl will devote this branch of history, with incidence in artistic history in general, contradicting the positivist tendencies of Positivism. From that time on, there were several methodological systems which continued this current of formalist tendency and based on the analysis of styles (Worringer, Wöllflin). As an alternative method, Aby Warburg (1866-1929) and, after him, his disciple Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) defined a new method, the “iconology”, aiming to give objectivity to the history of the art. The second half of the 20th century saw the Art History pulverize in contradictory methods, combining the influences of Marxism (Schapiro, Greenberg, Hauser), psychoanalysis, psychology (Gombrich), critical evolutionism and archaeology (Kubler), semiotics (Barthes, Krauss), anthropology (Belting), coming to our days as a discipline of eclectic methodology.

Keywords: work of art; style; iconography; symbol; aesthetic experience; Artistic Will; reproducibility of image

It is considered that the discipline was born with the first text dedicated to the analysis of the works  and its authors, through a critical appreciation inscribed on History, from the artist Giorgio Vasari, with the title: Le Vite de' più Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architettori  (1511-1574), published in 1550 and revised in 1568 [1]. It was guided by strict aesthetical precepts and from the judgment of the place occupied by the artists on the, inevitable, progress and leading to “perfection”, understood as the obedience to the Antiquity canons. Only with the works of Johan Joachim Winckelman (1717-1768) we began to consider that the critical process of the art belongs to the scholars not to the practitioner, to the learned and lettered man and not to the artist, establishing a history of the “artistic styles”, in conformity with the history of men.

Its autonomization as a discipline was stressed by the interest of the philosophers in aesthetics and the lessons learned on the rediscovery of the roman ruins (Pompey) and on traveller’s books of curious, dilettantes, writers and artists who wandered around Europe and explored Greece (the “Grand Tour”), followed by, already in an archaeological tone, Egypt. The resulting Art History will follow the political and imperialist program of Napoleon – and after that those of the great powers France, England and Germany – with the resulting appropriation and pillaging of works of art and its displacement to the great imperial cities and their museums, which were then invented in its “modern” formulation.

From this will result a discrete, but afterwards overwhelming, reaction that was the reversal of the medal from the returning to the Classicism: revivalism will explode with fashion strength. Romantism will suggest the valorization of every national corner as a political co-optation way. First of all, one should recognise the specificity of the people by studying its most authentic cultural demonstrations, that is to say, the oldest and less permeable to the canonical levelling of classicisms. The interest in Middle Ages and medieval art was born. The impact, in terms of historiographical speech was enormous. Suddenly, the discipline had to deal with a considerable widening of the universe of its objects and goes after the Romanic and the Gothic [2].

With Romantism, image becomes object of interpretation based on the valorization of the sensibilities about subjective themes (the “voyage”, the “uncommon”, the “exotic”, the “picturesque”, the “singular”, and the “occult”). The rehabilitation of medieval art during the last years of the 18th century and the beginning of 19th will occur, always, majorly, anchored in an important panoply of images, registry and documentation. Ilustration and the development of graphic art, and the creation of numerous periodicals multiply edition. The books of Art History then produced start to depend on image, and the iconographic mass that they bring together get a new utilitarian or different dimension, half way from the assertion of its disciplinary usage or from the “imaginary museum”.

However, it was the Swiss historian, Jakob Burckhardt’s (1818-1897) [3] mission to enlarge the study subject of the History of the Art, by conceiving it as a piece of the immense mosaic of the history of culture. History emancipates from the singular aesthetical judgement or the artistic critics and is treated as a socio-cultural symptom, and we cannot or should not value a period sacrificing another. The subsequent work of Julius von Schlosser (1928-33) [4] will consecrate this branch of history with incidence in the artistic history in general.

One can, then, consider the middle of the 19th century as the birth date of the real Art History with “scientific” basis. That’s to say, with the advent of the analytic History and with the epistemological revolution that makes the transition between chronic-History and factual-History, Art History also gets credibility privileges, leaving the aesthetical judgement burden that excessively tied it to taste options and cultural tendencies. From that moment on, we seek to establish a discipline that wants, in first place, to demystify the present and legendary discourse of the History of the chronicle-art. The point was to be objective.

This objectivity will consist, in first place, in the study of documents, so as to know the authors of the works of art. If there were few or no documents at all, the process, as objective as possible, will be the evaluation by specialists or experts on styles, forms and techniques of each author – what was especially worthy to paint and sculpture –, so as to give, with reasonable safety, an authorship to the work. This current that naturally crosses with the documental study – and enforces it –, constitutes an episode in the history of the discipline whose methodological profile would stay on. The attribution process (Morelli, Berenson) is, until now, one of the instruments of the art historian. But this is also the period of the antiquarian and the advent of a fruitful business area. Buy and sell art to collect or speculation is a phenomenon that refers to the 1800s: and, here, Art History worked as an instrumental discipline too, to warrant the authorships and fix prices by “estimation”.

But the beginning of the 20th century testifies the epistemological undertow of History (therefore the positivist History of the Art). The alternatives from this moment on have an epicentre in central Europe – Berlin and Vienna. The most innovative methodological proposals in this dominion appear in German language.

The advent of the so called “Vienna School” and the “artistic will theory” (kunstwlolen), from Alois Riegl will devote this branch of History with incidence in artistic history in general, contradicting the positivist tendencies of Positivism. From that time on, there were several methodological systems which continued this current (Worringer, Heinrich Wöllflin [5]) of formalist tendency.

One cannot also discard from History of the Art, its most romantic feature, mythic as well, with its dosed but conspicuous portion of smugglers, thieves, collectors of no scruples, auctioneers and, inclusively, spy art historians. In fact, the art historians – as well as the archaeologists – were experts with some mobility and a certain eccentric status that allowed them in some cases, that became famous, to follow the agendas of the “intelligence” through Europe at war, and even through the world.

As an alternative method, Aby Warburg (1866-1929) [6] and, after him his disciple Panofsky (1829-1968) [7] define a new method, the “iconology, seeking to constantly question the subject-object relationship and enlarging the understanding of the formation of the symbol as part of that relationship, aiming to give objectivity to the Art History. The Panofsky’s method [8], contrary to the intuitive and empirical thesis, consists in three stages, to this stages correspond as many operations or classes, as if in an axiology: a) to see/description; b) to read; literalism; c) to interpret/ image inscription in a web of complex and dynamic references. In these considerations, that organize a system and a method, one can see the preoccupation to constantly question the subject-object relation, to enlarge the comprehension of the symbol formation as a part of that relation, being the result of it. Analysing the dimension of the iconology three parts system as it is explained in the famous Panofsky’s diagram, one recognises the creation of a “inter-perspective”, that grants the access to a diversity and variation of points of view that “contemplate each other”.  The interest by the migration of symbols and the difficulties that their interpretation presents (their mutation or variants, their struggle within different systems of thought, their survival or extinction) is better understood this way, as an unmistakable component of the Panofsky’s system. The iconological method, by its author’s will, will be the one that most fulfils the wish of giving objectivity to the Art History. In this, it corresponded, in a certain way, to the impossible urge of the creation of an “art science” or kunstwissenshaft[9]

The second half of the 20th century saw a spraying of Art History into contradictory methodologies, combining Marxist influences (Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg, Arnold Hauser [10]), psychoanalysis [psychoanalysis and culture], psychology (Gombrich), critical evolutionism and archeology (George Kubler [11]), semiotics (Roland Barthes, Rosalind Krauss), anthropology (Hans Belting [12]), reaching our days as a discipline of eclectic methodology.

The debole philosophies, in particular, and the approaches that recognize the “uncertain” and the “unspeakable”, generated new research attitudes or other working freedoms [13]. If one can observe that in non academic historiography (or not only produced by the art historians), it is also true that this fact is a symptom of an epistemological “crisis”, of a development of the discipline that we seek to realign through the creation of alternative schemes and new methodologies or para-methodologies.

This fact, more sensible in the French speaking world or under its influence, has its counterpart in the Anglo-Saxon scope with the remarkable recuperation of the positivist currents – that should be more properly called neo-positivists –; in the German scope , the most recent reflections tend, curiously, not to elide Panofsky’s contribution, but to incorporate it already in the traditional context of the historiographical production: the proposed alternatives turn, then, to a new inscription of more anthropological countenance of the Art History, and not so much as socio-cultural, questioning, inclusively, the object of art status.

In extreme, the new methodological proposals lead to a lighter form of the artistic object, and from that to its inscription in a essentially anthropological net in which the art object is considered a cultural “utensil”. Hubert Damish even anticipates the possibility of “a Art History intentionally not (but not anti-) humanist and ordered.” [14]

The only, actual, possibility is to pose the ancient art the right questions, to understand what its functional destiny is and what the generated expectations about it are. In a certain way, this is the explanation of George Kubler when studying the artistic objects in series, with its seeds (or masterpieces, in its literal sense of “first works”), objects with a life horizon more or less extended, if they fulfill the created expectations, suffering deviations or, even, extinguishing in a biological chain.

Now it’s the time for fragmented narratives, which simply give priority to the works themselves, according to the testimony of the absolutely unprecedented plurality of the contemporary artistic objects. Lost the anthropological ties, its “natural” rooting on society by extreme necessity and external imposition, the work of art is a sort of absolute, not metaphysical, but only material. Each ancient work of art can, and must, be observed from this point of view. One can, then, say that more and more, and somehow paradoxically, Art History is directing to a “timeless” Art History, with no periodical marking (the same way that some tried to make an Art History with “no authors”). The object becomes its own revelation, revelation as something inscribed in the world, revealing the man who produced and consumes it, opening up the driving strategies that underlie that artistic object and its inscription in society.

Because Art History, contemporary art, or the contemporary critical discourse are placed in the same and precise place: the meaning and significance of things that man implanted in space discussion, things through which man transformed space, transformed perception and communication and stated his place in the world.



[1] VASARI, Giorgio, Lives of Seventy of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Edited and anotated in the light of recent discoveries, by E.H. and E.W. Blashfield and A.A. Hopkins. New York, Scribner, 1902

[2] Cf. WATKIN, David, The Rise of Architectural History, Londres, Architectural Press, 1983


[3] BURCKHARDT, Jacob, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, (1860) 1878

[4] VON SCHLOSSER, Julius. Die Kunstliterature: Ein Handbuch zur Quellenkunde der neuern Kunstgeschichte. Wien: A. Schroll, 1924 (VON SCHLOSSER, Julius, La Letteratura Artistica: manuale delle fonti della storia dell’arte moderna. Trans. by F. Rossi, Florence,1964)

[5] WÖLFFLIN, Heinrich, Principles of Art History, New York, Dover, 1950

[6] - WARBURG, Aby, Gesammelte Schriften, Leipzig-Berlim, 1932; Italian translation titled La Rinascita del Paganismo Antico, Florença, 1966; reprint titled La Tirania degli Astri, Florença, Capel1i, 1986

[7] PANOFSKY, Erwin, Die theoretische Kunstlehre Albrecht Dürers (Dürers Aesthetik), Berlin­Freiburg, , 1914.;, “Die Perspektive als ‘Symbolische Form’”, in Vortrage der Bibliothek Warburg, Leipzig-Berlin,1924 (Translated in English, Italian, French and Spanish).*

[8] Cf. PANOFSKY, Erwin, Estudos de Iconologia, Lisboa, Estampa, 1986; O Significado nas Artes Visuais, Lisboa, Presença, 1989.

[9] PANOFSKY, Erwin, “Der Begriff des Kunstwollens”, in Zeitschrift jür Aesthetik und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft,, XlV.; “Das Problem des Stils in der bildenden Kunst”, in Zeitschrift jür Aesthetik und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, X, 1915.

[10] HAUSER, Arnold, The Social History of Art, 4 vols., New York, Vintage, 1957

[11] KUBLER, George., The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, 1962

[12] BELTING, Hans, The End of the History of Art, Trans. by Christopher S. Wood.

[13] Cf  PREZIOSI, Donald, Rethinking Art History: Meditations on a Coy Science, Yale, Yale University Press, 1991.

[14] DAMISH, Hubert, “Artes”, in Enciclopédia Einaudi, vol. 3, Lisboa, INCM, 1984.

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