William Diebold

title.none: Brush, The Shaping of Art History (Diebold)

identifier.other: baj9928.9707.001 97.07.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: William Diebold, Reed College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Brush, Kathryn. The Shaping of Art History: Wilhelm Vöge, Adolph Goldschmidt, and the Study of Medieval Art. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xiii, 263. $65.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-47541-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.07.01

Brush, Kathryn. The Shaping of Art History: Wilhelm Vöge, Adolph Goldschmidt, and the Study of Medieval Art. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xiii, 263. $65.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-47541-4.

Reviewed by:

William Diebold
Reed College

One of the most positive aspects of the "new art history" has been its serious concern with historiography; as a result, the history of art history has become recognized as an important sub-discipline. While book-length studies of such figures as Alois Riegl, Heinrich Wölfflin, and Erwin Panofsky have appeared over the last decade, The Shaping of Art History is, to my knowledge, the first scholarly monograph in English devoted specifically to the historiography of medieval art. As such, it is a most welcome addition.

Prospective readers should be warned that this book's title is not a particularly good guide to its contents. We are not simply faced here with the normal titling problem of the contemporary academic monograph, namely that the phrase to the left of the colon is so ambitiously broad as to guarantee disappointment; in this instance, the defect lies to the right of the colon, in the subtitle (Wilhelm Vöge, Adolph Goldschmidt, and the Study of Medieval Art), which is for several reasons an inaccurate guide to the book's contents. First, while Goldschmidt is treated at some length, he is very much a foil for Brush's real subject, Vöge. Second, Brush focuses almost exclusively on a tightly circumscribed period of time, the 1890s. As she demonstrates, her narrow chronological bounds are entirely appropriate, for Vöge's work in that decade was very rich, but they mean that Goldschmidt's most important scholarship (notably his corpus of medieval and Byzantine ivory carvings) lies well outside the book's scope. Finally, even from the limited body of Vöge's art-historical publications of the 1890s, Brush is highly selective, concentrating almost exclusively on his 1894 study of early French Gothic sculpture, Die Anfänge des monumentalen Stiles im Mittelalter. Although there is plenty to say about Vöge's Gothic book, students of the early Middle Ages, who think of Vöge as the author of a still-important dissertation on Ottonian manuscript illumination (his 1891 Eine deutsche Malerschule um die Wende des ersten Jahrtausends), will likely be disappointed.

But these quibbles about titling are meant as a caveat to the reader, not as a criticism of the substance of Brush's book; even given the restrictions of the subject described in the previous paragraph, there is substance aplenty in The Shaping of Art History. After an introduction outlining the book's contents, the first chapter surveys the intellectual environment in which Vöge and Goldschmidt were trained, first sketching the development of art history as an academic discipline in nineteenth-century Germany and then concentrating on two crucial methodological questions addressed in the work of the two art historians: how the work of art can be seen as illustrative of the historical era in which it was made and "the extent to which formal elements can or should be interpreted as vehicles for the ideas and intentions of their period or maker (24)." The key figures in this section of Brush's presentation are the art historian Anton Springer, under whose guidance Goldschmidt completed his doctoral thesis at Leipzig in 1889 (Vöge also studied with Springer), and the historian Karl Lamprecht of Bonn, who was the crucial influence on the young Vöge (even though the latter's dissertation was actually completed at Strasbourg under the direction of Hubert Janitschek). Springer advocated a scientific, positivistic art history, while Lamprecht espoused a broad cultural history in which all kinds of documents, and perhaps especially works of art, were believed to offer direct access to the mentality or spirit of the past. This difference between Springer and Lamprecht is a leitmotif of the entire book, for Brush sees it as a fundamental duality in the work of Vöge and, to a much lesser degree, Goldschmidt. In her account, Vöge vacillated between these two modes of art history throughout his career, while Goldschmidt, although familiar with both positions, consistently leaned toward Springer's positivistic art history. The chapter ends with a presentation of the dissertations of Vöge and Goldschmidt (on sculpture and painting in Lübeck from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century).

Chapter 2 is devoted entirely to Vöge's second major art- historical work, Die Anfänge des monumentalen Stiles. I must confess that, before reading Brush's study, this book was hardly more than a name to me, known at best from a few vaguely remembered excerpts printed in the collection of essays on Chartres Cathedral edited by Robert Branner. But Brush's presentation of Vöge's text in this chapter and her discussion of its reception in chapters 4 and 5 leaves little doubt about the book's importance. Unlike Vöge's contemporary, Emile Male, who also concerned himself with the sculptural programs of Gothic cathedrals, Vöge's primary interest was stylistic rather than iconographic. Vöge, influenced by both the connoisseurship of Giovanni Morelli and, more generally, the biographical approach to art history developed to study Renaissance art, introduced the individual master-sculptor into the study of medieval art. In Die Anfänge des monumentalen Stiles, for example, he identified and named the "Headmaster" of the Chartres west facade, while in a later study he dubbed the Joseph and Visitation masters of Reims. Vöge's approach can be seriously questioned (many contemporary historians of medieval art would see his move as an inappropriate one, attempting to impose a Renaissance or nineteenth-century conception of the individual artist on the very different social situation that pertained in the Middle Ages) but, as Brush observes, it became a dominant paradigm for the study of all kinds of medieval art, especially Gothic sculpture. To cite only two of Brush's examples: Willibald Sauerlaender's standard monograph on the subject, his 1970 Gotische Skulptur in Frankreich, follows Vöge's interest in identifying individual masters, while as recently as 1994 (that is, a full century after Vöge's book), C. Edson Armi published a two-volume study entitled The "Headmaster" of Chartres and the Origins of "Gothic" Sculpture. While the scare quotes of Armi's title indicate his disagreement with certain details of Vöge's argument, his title as a whole shows how powerful a hold Vöge's conceptual model still has on the study of Gothic sculpture.

Because the idea of art history as a history of individual artists is so old (it was introduced by Pliny and Vasari) and so dominant, it is easy to dismiss Vöge's work as essentially derivative, the inappropriate application to the Middle Ages of a method that, by 1894, was old hat with respect to the Italian Renaissance. According to this view, Vöge's book would be just one more example of a situation with which we are all familiar: medievalists belatedly in thrall to important developments in other fields. But, as Brush shows, that dismissal would be wrong, for in many ways the methodological argument of Die Anfänge des monumentalen Stiles was quite remarkable in its day. Brush recalls for us that, at just the moment that Vöge was adopting the identification of individual hands as a proper method to recover the working processes of anonymous masters, Heinrich Wölfflin was taking the precisely opposite tack and proposing an "art history without names" for the Renaissance and the Baroque, eras replete with individual artistic personalities. Nor, as Brush makes clear, was Vöge simply behind the times. His interest in individual masters derived not simply from what we would now call connoisseurship; rather, like his contemporaries Robert Vischer and Adolf von Hildebrand, Vöge was interested in the ways in which the individual artist's mind interacted with his hands and his physical material to create a work of "art." He believed, in other words, that one of art history's goals was to recover a historically conditioned psychology of the individual artist. As Brush notes, this aspect of Vöge's work was essentially lost among his later followers, who continued Vöge's connoisseurship but not his interests in psychology, aesthetics, and materials.

The third chapter of The Shaping of Art History brings the account of the careers of Goldschmidt and Vöge up to about 1905 and emphasizes Brush's basic theme, the tension between the scientific and the aesthetic in the writing of the two scholars. The fourth and fifth chapters survey the reception of Vöge's work, first among his German and foreign contemporaries and then, more cursorily, up to the present day, with an emphasis on the period around World War I. Through this study of reception Brush is able to show that the discipline of art history emphasized the scientific aspect of Vöge's work at the expense of his equal interest in aesthetics and the psychology of the individual artist. By contrast, Goldschmidt's more purely "scientific" scholarship fit better with developing ideas of what art history should be; this surely explains why Goldschmidt's work is still current (remarkably, eighty years after its publication, Die Elfenbeinskulpturen is still the standard work in the field, a book used daily as a reference by many art historians), while Vöge's ideas, at least in their original form, have been forgotten.

Brush should be applauded for her scholarly diligence (she discovered several groups of unpublished archival material), exceptionally thorough research (apparent in the over 70 pages of closely spaced footnotes, including the citation of all the relevant passages in the original German), and for bringing to broader attention the now-forgotten or wrongly appreciated Wilhelm Vöge and his Die Anfänge des monumentalen Stiles im Mittelalter. That said in admiring praise, I also wish that the book had taken a slightly more aggressive attitude towards its material. In her Introduction, Brush makes a fundamental claim for the importance of her subject, writing that "a keen critical sense of the discipline's past can better equip us to meet its current uncertainties and self-questionings (15)." I agree entirely, but am skeptical that The Shaping of Art History's rather reserved presentation of its subject qualifies as a sufficiently keen critical sense.

Brush is surely right that it is important for us to recognize the ideological roots of those theories which we adopt or reject. I wish that she had spent more time in her book pointing to instances of the influence of ideology on the reception of Vöge and Goldschmidt, for this is her most exciting and relevant material. For example, Brush repeatedly complains that Vöge's followers did not take up all of his interests; while his concentration on individual masters was exceptionally influential, his concern with artistic process and psychology fostered little interest. But she herself has a telling explanation for this, although it does not get as much attention from her as I think it deserves. The neglected aspects of Vöge's art history were precisely those exploited by nationalistic art historians during the First and (especially) the Second World Wars. As Brush notes (and one wishes she had gone into this in more detail), for an art historian like Willibald Sauerländer, a German working on French Gothic sculpture after World War II, Vöge's interest in separating hands or Goldschmidt's work on ivories and manuscripts appeared refreshingly objective and scientific, while Vöge's psychologizing about artists was altogether too distressingly reminiscent of the misuse of ideas about art propagated by nationalistic German art historians such as Wilhelm Worringer or Wilhelm Pinder, whose speculations on national character in art were decidedly out of favor in the wake of the Nazi past. But such an example of the importance of ideology to reception is very much the exception in Brush's book. She is more often content to lay out the foundations for such arguments without drawing the sharpest conclusions possible. And that is too bad, for her knowledge of the material is unparalleled. Perhaps in a future study Brush can combine more forcefully her exceptional body of knowledge with the keen critical sense she rightly encourages on art historians. Until then, The Shaping of Art History is a fine guide to an important, central period in art history, the 1890s, and to a scholar of exceptional interest, Wilhelm Vöge.