18.09.07, Harley-McGowan and Maguire (eds), Ernst Kitzinger and the Making of Medieval Art History

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William J. Diebold

The Medieval Review 18.09.07

Harley-McGowan, Felicity and Henry Maguire. Ernst Kitzinger and the Making of Medieval Art History. Warburg Institute Colloquia. London: The Warburg Institute, 2017. pp. 180. ISBN: 978-1-908590-53-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
William Diebold
Reed College

Munich, 1934. A very young doctoral candidate in art history is taking his oral exams after only four semesters of study, as opposed to the more normal ten. The student is racing through the curriculum in large part because he is Jewish and is trying to complete his doctorate in record fast time. While he cannot know in all its detail what the fate of the German Jews will be, he sees that Jews have already been forbidden from holding civil service positions, so a German academic career has been closed to him even before such a career could have begun. This ban had forced the student to scuttle his plans to travel to Hamburg to study with Erwin Panofsky, whom the student recognized was doing an art history very different from the one he had encountered in Munich, which stood strongly under the aegis of Heinrich Wölfflin. The exam is conducted by the student's Doktorvater, Wilhelm Pinder. Pinder was deeply attached to a racial theory of art, culture, and history. Although he was not favorably disposed to Jews, he nonetheless respects this particular Jewish student, is perhaps even fond of him. Pinder thus takes the opportunity of the exam to ask the student a question that has intrigued him and into which he thinks this student might have special insight. It concerns the Ottonian manuscripts from the Reichenau, produced around the year 1000, considered among the core works of medieval art. Pinder points to one of the distinctive features of these manuscripts: their figures' extensive and expressive use of gesture, what Hans Jantzen will call their Gebärdensprache. How, Pinder wonders, could these most "German" of works of art be distinguished by this particular feature, since "talking with one's hands was a Semitic trait?" [1]

It is hard to know whether to laugh or to cry, but this anecdote (thankfully!) is clearly from a very different world than that of contemporary medieval art history. As the typographical conventions of The Medieval Review will long since have betrayed, the student in question was Ernst Kitzinger (1912-2003). Kitzinger left Germany the day after passing this doctoral exam and made his way to England and then to the United States, where he had a distinguished career at Dumbarton Oaks and Harvard. The volume under review contains the papers of a colloquium held at the Warburg Institute in London in 2013 to mark the 100th anniversary of Kitzinger's birth. It is divided into two sections, one devoted to biography, the other to methods of scholarship. These categories inevitably overlap, but it is primarily the essays in the second category that are crucial to the claim of the book's title, that Kitzinger was a maker of medieval art history.

Many of the volume's contributors were students of Kitzinger, both formal and informal; another is his daughter, Rachel. The tone is thus always respectful and tends towards the laudatory; panegyric is, however, avoided. This might be attributed to a déformation professionelle of Byzantinists; themselves necessarily critical readers of imperial Byzantine panegyric, they perhaps find it hard to produce themselves. But I suspect the restrained tone comes largely from the subject. Ernst Kitzinger was not one to overstate his own contributions. This modesty comes through exceptionally strongly in a remarkable document upon which some (but unfortunately not all) of the contributors to this volume drew: a long interview that, even more than the volume under review, is the crucial source for any assessment of Kitzinger's work and its importance. [2] Part of this interview's value is its detail (the transcribed typescript runs to over 300 pages); part is the excellent interlocutor Kitzinger found in the American cultural historian Richard Cándida Smith, who, although no expert in Kitzinger's work, was an exceptionally skilled oral historian who drew out the best from his subject. But the greatest strength of the interview is the interviewee himself. Kitzinger's blend of intelligence, introspection, frankness, and modesty make the document telling, believable, and a remarkably good read.

In the interview, Kitzinger does not present himself as a maker of medieval art history. Quite the contrary; he rather downplays his own contributions and spends more time bemoaning the amount of administrative work he did at Dumbarton Oaks, work that he saw as having kept him from his scholarship. And when he does talk about the kind of art history he practiced, he presents his concerns as very traditional art-historical ones; he wanted to understand how artists shaped the appearance of objects and to account for the changes across time in the appearance of those objects. Kitzinger recognized that these concerns, however fundamental, put him out of step both with the more iconographical and cultural-historical approach of most art history of his era and with the subsequent "new art history;" in the 1997 interview, he went so far as to say that changes in the discipline had made his major book published twenty years earlier, Byzantine Art in the Making, into "almost a prehistoric document." [3]

Faced with this situation, the authors of the essays in this volume take various tacks to try to place Kitzinger intellectually. Nees and Maguire look to Kitzinger's relationship to other intellectual currents outside art history; Nees to the sociologist David Riesman, whose work Kitzinger cited, and Maguire to modernist art of the first half of the 20th century. Such approaches are laudable, but also problematic, because, while Kitzinger was certainly not narrow-minded, the relationship of his art-historical thought to other intellectual currents of his era is not easy to discern. [4] Even within art history, Kitzinger is not entirely easy to place historically. His generation was dominated by the influence of Panofsky and, while Brenk has some useful comments about the ways in which Kitzinger was an iconologist of style and so Panofskyian in spirit, there is no doubt that Panofsky and Kitzinger were very different art historians. Nor has it yet generally been the case that Kitzinger's work has become influential long after it was written, as has happened for older figures such as Riegl, Warburg, and Walter Benjamin. Instead, rather the opposite has tended to occur. Hans Belting's contribution is very admiring, indeed moving (1984, the golden anniversary of Kitzinger's doctorate, was commemorated in Munich in an act of Wiedergutmachung orchestrated by Belting), but, as Belting notes, the subtitle of his enormously influential Bild und Kult, which spoke of a "history of the image before the era of art," revealed a "generational gap" between himself and Kitzinger, who used the word "art" unapologetically and unironically (xix).

In what sense, then, can Kitzinger be said to have participated in the making of medieval art history? Modern medieval art history, at least in the Anglo-American world, is dominated by several strands: a functional/anthropological one, along Belting's line; a socio-historical one, bearing the influence of Meyer Schapiro, Michael Camille, and many of the currents associated with the "new art history;" and a cultural-historical one, with roots stretching back to Panofsky. Kitzinger, by contrast, styled himself "the Wölfflin of late antique and Byzantine art history." [5] While this characterization was typically self-deprecating and, as a result, overstated, it was also in many ways acute. Byzantine Art in the Making is concerned with the "main lines of stylistic development," just as Wölfflin was in texts such as Principles of Art History. Byzantine Art in the Making was certainly more historicized than Wölfflin (and blissfully free of the nationalism and racism that ran through later editions of Wölfflin's Principles), but its subtitle also shows why Kitzinger could characterize this book as "prehistoric." Both of its key terms, "main lines" and stylistic development," have fallen out of favor; and probably for good reason. The first smacks of master narratives, which have been shown to be ideologically motivated and also insufficiently subtle to do really good history, while the notion that style "develops" according to patterns, an idea with its roots in Hegel, has again been seen as insufficiently subtle or historical. [6]

It is perhaps for this reason that what is now Kitzinger's most read, taught, and cited text, "The Cult of Images in the Age of Iconoclasm," the subject of Leslie Brubaker's fine historiographical essay, is deeply uncharacteristic of his work as a whole. This 1954 article from Dumbarton Oaks Papers, unlike almost all of the rest of Kitzinger's work, relies heavily on Byzantine-era texts, rather than the works of art themselves, as evidence. Nees rightly notes that the title of Belting's Bild und Kult pays homage to Kitzinger's essay and it is precisely because the Belting school of medieval art history is in the ascendancy that "The Cult of Images," with its lack of illustrations or close analysis of works of art, is the text by Kitzinger that still attracts the most attention. Brubaker has some very interesting remarks on this essay and its fate, as she provocatively but convincingly claims that Kitzinger essentially "invented" the concept of iconoclasm that is now so prominent a feature of the historiography of Byzantine art. "The Cult of Images" thus definitely played a role in the making of medieval art history, even if it was not part of the "main line" of Ernst Kitzinger's intellectual "development." But given the grotesque start that development got with Pinder's horrible question at his 1934 doctoral examination, we should likely be grateful for the deviation.

Table of Contents:

Hans Belting, "Foreword: Some Personal Memories of Ernst Kitzinger"

I. Biography Rachel Kitzinger, "A Scholar in his Study: Memories of Ernst Kitzinger at Work" John Mitchell, "Ernst in England" Felicity Harley-McGowan, "From London to the Antipodes: The Peregrinations of Ernst Kitzinger, and the Age of 'Transformation'" Rebecca Corrie, "'Cordially, E.K.': Ernst Kitzinger and Teaching at Dumbarton Oaks" Eunice Dauterman Maguire, "Ernst Kitzinger's Teaching at Harvard: A Style of Teaching, Teaching Style"

II. Methods of Scholarship Henry Maguire, "Ernst Kitzinger and Style" Lawrence Nees, "Ernst Kitzinger's Contribution to Scholarship on the Art of Western Europe" Beat Brenk, "Ernst Kitzinger's Contribution to the Study of Norman Mosaics in Sicily" Leslie Brubaker, "Ernst Kitzinger and the Invention of Byzantine Iconoclasm"

"Appendix. A Memo written by Ernst Kitzinger in June 1941, on his way from Australia to England on board the 'Themistocles'" transcribed by Tony Kitzinger


Notes: 1. This story is told in Ernst Kitzinger, "An Autobiographical Sketch," a text appended to Ernst Kitzinger, Style and its Meaning in Medieval Art, an interview with Richard Cándida Smith, 328 (available at: archive.org/details/styleitsmeaningi00kitz). In the interview itself, Kitzinger placed this conversation in Rome, not Munich, and dated it both to 1932 and 1934; Kitzinger, Style, 69.

2. The full interview, Style and its Meaning in Medieval Art, is readily available online; see note 1. Other authors in the volume drew on other unpublished sources; Corrie's essay, in particular, deserves praise for its extensive, careful use of archival materials.

3. Kitzinger, Style, 239.

4. For example, while Kitzinger borrowed the terms "inner-directed" and "other-directed" from Riesman, he was explicit that he did not use them in the sense that Riesman meant them; for Kitzinger's claim that he "misused" Riesman's terms, see Style, 219 and cf. ibid., 60. Nees (122), relying on a reading of Riesman rather than Kitzinger, comes to a related conclusion.

5. In conversation with Beat Brenk in 1987; cited in Brenk's essay (127).

6. For Kitzinger's acknowledgment of his work as Hegelian, see Style, 51 and 227.

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