Art History Books and the 1940s

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Recently a pristine copy of the 1942 The Life of Forms in Art by Henri Focillon came across my desk.  This is not a book much studied currently, a largely formalistic essay on art by an expatriate French art historian at Yale.  Whatever its intellectual value–and it was still being mentioned when I went to graduate school in art history in the 1970s and ’80s–the volume in my hands struck me as a marvelous object, a memento of a politically dark time in the world, a memento mori of the life of academics, and as a piece of Duke history.  Do books just have to be about the information they have inside?

I know the text of this book from the 1948 Wittenborn paperback edition which I read at The University of Chicago library.  Wittenborn Books–that famous New York art book shop and publisher on East 57th Street and later 1018 Madison Avenue, updated the original Yale University Press design with kind of a Matisse-style layout by Paul Rand.  Thus I was surprised to see the first English-translation issued in so staid a form.  Green buckram, that characteristic covering reserved for academic imprints, and the gold spine lettering now largely gone from university-press titles.  The book’s a vademecum, a synthesis of approaches to art without being a specific system.

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I tried to imagine the publishing world of 1942 America. Focillon, in failing health, was on his yearly exchange from the Sorbonne’s Institut d’Art et du Moyen Age when the United States entered World War II.  He was caught stateside, a rather better place to be all in all than occupation France.  In the Lilly Library, if you want to get an idea of what it was to exist in the United States in 1942, simply look at the advertisements in the Vogue or National Geographic magazines for those years.  Every advertisement, be it Palmolive soap or Philco air conditioners (below) had to related to the war effort.  Life1

It’s strange to think of the idea of ‘form in art’ and read this vulgar stereotype advertisement.  The Axis in 1942 seemed to be winning everywhere.  Country after country overrun, the Holocaust machine in full operation and, in this country, shortages of everything: rubber, sugar, paper and even the copper to make pennies (U. S. 1943 pennies were steel).  Focillon’s original French text had been composed in 1933, the year of Hitler’s rise to power.  It was translated into English by two New Haven scholars, Charles Beecher Hogan, a modest Yale English professor who had conveniently married of the wealthiest women in the country, and the other a student of Focillon, the eminent Yale art historian George Kubler.  Kubler, would twenty years later exceed his master by writing his own short treatise, the still-brilliant Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things.  All this publishing history is well-known.

Books, however, have locus.  A colleague of mine in libraries worries that library collections will become indistinguishable from one another.  Yet collections are shaped by the richness of their individual volumes as much as by their collection uniqueness.  The copy in my hands was owned by an eminent Duke faculty member, the late Lawrence Richardson, jr (1920-2013).  Richardson was a classics professor and author (of many books) but for me a treasured personal copy of his 1992 New Topical Dictionary of Ancient Rome.  I looked at the fly-leaf signature.

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The script is clear and the date precise, “October 13th, 1942″.  He must have bought the book the day it was issued.  It seemed initially odd for a classicist to have been so interested in what a French medievalist thought of form theory that he would have bought a copy “hot off the presses” as it were.  Somehow, readership has a way of crashing into one another.  Today we theorize how the traditional scholarly text is dead, how future publishing will rely on a series of socially-networked contributions to knowledge.  In 1942 there was only the author and his budding reader.  Richardson would go on to write his dissertation on the painters of Pompeii’s Casa dei Dioscuri (though through Yale’s classics department).  It made sense he’d want to read what art historians thought about the analysis of form.

What a terrible time to be thinking about the monuments of European art, of culture and freedom.  How did anything get published much less in green buckram and gold lettering?  Focillon had earlier asserted boldly that “the hand controls the eye.”  At that publication year, people everywhere were dying to fight an esthetic that only allowed for racial purity and the most stilted form of warmed-over Roman art (a la Albert Speer).  If scholarship is challenged today, it’s nothing like the challenges of researching or publishing in 1942.

What I will miss most about holding the book-as-object is not so much the physical piece (online reading suits me just fine) but the absence of evidence of the tradition of scholarly reading.  One can appreciate just as well in an electronic text as a printed book the hardships of publishing during World War II.  But gone from us will be the notion of who might have read the text in another era:

What stranger’s feet may find the meadow,
And trespass there and go.
Nor ask amid the dews of morning,
If they are mine or no.

RichardsonLawrence Richardson, jr., in Italy in the 1950s.

 

The Warburg: What is a Library?

WarburgThe University of London is considering merging the Warburg [art] Library with its main collection.  Anyone who’s taken even a day of classes at the master’s level in art history knows the idea of this unique library.  Though its history has been romanticized, the Warburg is a true scholars’ collection:  completely open-stacks, completely on-site, completely subject-specialist selected, completely scholar organized.  Modern academic libraries can no longer sustain this kind of arrangement and it would be unreasonable to expect them (us!) to do so.  But every university should invest in one subject collection in their library holdings where physical discovery and insight can happen.

The Warburg Library history is right out of a G. K. Chesterton novel.  Aby Warburg, a psychologically unstable but brilliant cultural historian decided to forgo the riches of his family business (same extended family as today’s Warburg Pincus Investments), if only he would be allowed to research and study his own topics and create a library, unhindered.  Warburg’s intellectual method was the study of the migration of classical learning and the recurrence of myth in visual arts, a vogue of scholarship more or less passed.  His idea, however, that humanistic intellectual connections are based on discovery–on a certain amount of caprice–is (re)proven every day.  The Warburg Llibrary, first in Hamburg and then in London, spawned the greatest–and most singular–art scholars of the twentieth century.  In addition to Warburg himself, Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Gombrich, Fritz SaxlHugo Buchthal, Edgar WindErnst Cassirer, all trace their intellectual careers to the mode that established this library.  A Google Scholar search shows over 500 references (mostly scholar’s appreciations in book introductions) to this library.

But it’s hard to show the value of this on a provosts’ spread sheet.  Large academic libraries (save one that I know of) gave up browsing years ago because they couldn’t house all their books together.  Some disciplines didn’t miss it but others, such as anything connected with image study, took a loss.  The question is, can the University of London afford to keep a unique art scholarly library open for the sake of a whole discipline?  Should it even try?

The Warburg is the opposite of that bellwether of academia, the MOOC.  It’s neither massive, nor online, nor publicly open nor a formal class.  I’m excited about MOOCs, I think they’re a great idea.  However, if the Warburg is dismantled, we’ll only one day end up re-inventing it because of its necessity for a certain kind of scholarship.  That, ironically, was, broadly speaking, the phenomenon of what Warburg studied.

Was it Eliot’s Toilet I Saw?

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A piece in the NYT‘s “Weekly Review” by James Collins on not outliving one’s office supplies began by quoting Eliot’s “Little Giddings,” one of the Four Quartets, the last and posthumously published poems by T. S.  I was not familiar with the poems and so, it being Primavera, I went to Perkins Library to check it out.  The sole copy available is an exceedingly worn first edition (1943), spine repaired with book tape and its pages some of the most heavily annotated, defaced, tortured, marginalia’ed I’d ever seen.  Here is the Angst of at least seven discernible hands (if my paleography is correct), crazed graduate students, bleary-eyed undergraduates, and perhaps a dutiful girlfriend helping her harried boyfriend, all trying to pull meaning from this verse the past seventy years.

Much has been written about marginalia, that study of reader’s commentary in the blank portions of (mostly medieval) texts.  It’s a form of public feed-back, crowd-sourcing-before-crowdsourcing.  When I was a graduate student, library book marginalia annoyed me.  I didn’t care if a reader ten years earlier thought the paragraph at hand was Kopros. Dutiful English word translations of the foreign quotations were always handy–though I usually quibbled with the German.  Today I take a tenderer view.  Those poor English majors, today working in the family business or those literature Ph.D.’s now high school principals, never having had their say on Eliot in any public forum, except in Duke’s sole copy of the Four Quartets.

The more I looked at these comments the more the pages appeared as art. Circles and arrows resembling David Cutcliffe’s diagram for an end around.  Fragmentary thoughts:  “different emotional tone,”  “epic simile,”  “See BN III [and then circled] The way down.”  The ‘way down’, indeed.  If Julian Schnabel’s canvases can be considered art, this must qualify, too.  So much of Eliot was devoted to recalling old texts (“can these dry bones speak?”).  How rich the layers upon layers of phrases–and what else is poetry but perhaps that very thing, forming a new text, a nearly different one from the original, without the palimpsest erasures?

Assuming some of this annotation is contemporary to the publication date, the earliest responders are likely dead.  All are gone from this place in North Carolina.  What I once saw (and am professionally required to see) as defacement, I find now as monument.  Like the graffito left by Goths during the sack of Rome.

I’ll let you figure out the ‘secret’ of this blog’s title, purportedly written in the men’s room of Faber & Faber, where the poet was employed.

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Lee Phelps 1918-2014

Phelps1-large Ruth and Lee Phelps, 2000

Duke Libraries are blessed to have generous and discriminating donors.  As a group, donors rightly are drawn to the high-profile collections for which our Libraries are known.  In sparer cases these donors retain their interests in the circulating subject collections from which their interest developed. Last Thursday, one such person, the Ur-donor of my collecting areas of art and architecture, died.  Donor and friend.  Read, then, below, how to be both.

I met my namesake shortly after arriving at Duke’s East Campus Library in the 1990s.  He was already retired (one of the last times we had lunch he quipped, “I’ve been retired from Duke longer than I worked there!”).  From the start, “Professor Phelps” was interested in what we did in art libraries, not just books.  The long-time head of the German Department, his avocation was art and architecture, but like most things Leland Phelps was interested in, it was difficult to distinguish a hobby from career.  Together with his wife, the late Ruth Phelps, they were already passionate art collectors, connoisseurs or musicians.  It should be every librarian’s privilege to discuss library acquisitions in a home with Schumann being played in the background on a baby grand piano. Such was nearly any visit to the Phelps’.

Library donors maintain a keen interest in how their money is spent, and rightly so.  Art books of importance, however–expensive things outside the regular budget of an academic art library–are often about strange art:  Barnet Newman’s splash paintings, or the ragged representations of Berlin street whores of 1920s German Expressionism (dressed, as their subterfuge was at the time, as widows), or the fat-and-fur sculptures of Josef Beuys.  Donors are some times hesitant to plop money down on those monographs.  But not in Lee’s case.  He understood.  He understood as a scholar you need to study it all, even that which you don’t admire.  Yet in most cases, he did.  He loved modern art, innately sensing that progressive culture demanded chancy products.  It seemed to me the more difficult the book topic was, the more likely he’d fund it.  Catalogues raisonnés (the scholarly “all the works of an artist” that are the core of undergraduate papers and dissertation-research alike) funded by the Phelps at Duke include:  Paul Klee (five volumes), Wassily Kandinksy (four volumes), Egon Schiele, Christo, Nolde, Jawlensky and Beuys.

The real treat–to a bibliographer such as myself at least–was to encounter a student using a book from Ruth or Lee’s personal collection donated years before any of our own arrivals. Whenever I got the chance, I’d remind the nineteen-year-old that libraries run on the largess of the literate and generous.  The history of the Duke University Libraries bookplates could just about be written using solely Phelps donations.  Frequently these had been the result of Lee phoning up, “Did you see [dealer’s name] catalog that the Rothko book on remainder!” barely saying hello first.  “If you need it, I’ll buy it.”

Like donors whom you know well, it was with Lee that the friendship came first.  More than once our lunch conversations got so intent that I forgot to take the check he said he’d written for me.  Lee had been stationed in the army air corps in Europe immediately during the Korean war.  The ravage of the country still discernible brought him no pleasure. A bookman from the first, he spoke of getting hard currency into the local’s hands buying books from the dealer’s stalls in bombed out cities, regretting his military pay would not allow purchase of a copy of Insel Verlag’s little book on Kandinsky, each with an original Kandinsky in it.  Having grown up in Detroit, he knew the Institute of Art so well he could recount installations from the 1930s there as if he’d just come from the show.  My personal interest of art historiography was deeply rewarded by Lee.  He knew the inside scoop on W.R. Valentiner (1880-1958), the great director of the DIA and later at the fledgling North Carolina Museum of Art.  He was friends with Justus Bier (1899-1990), Valentine’s successor at the NCMA and saw to it that Duke picked up the riches of that scholar’s book collection when it came up for sale.  The rare raconteur, his were always stories with a point.

A text from the religious tradition he and I both shared reminds us that “Whomsoever much is given, much is required.”  It seems amazing to me, considering how much he gave, that any person was afforded so much.

Bookish: The Books That Shaped Art History (2013)

1Art history has always been a bookish discipline.  Since its founding in the XIXth-century in Germany, it relied predominantly on the codex to disseminate its wisdom.  Even without illustrations, which was characteristic of those first monographs, art history books sold. Until the late XIXth century, few people could view even famous works of art. These paintings and sculptures were largely in private collections or sat in “public” museums–institutions not open weekends and who discouraged those poorly dressed who they thought would not “benefit” from art.  Art history and the book are deeply intertwined.  The terms “folio” and “coffee table book” came into play as formats principally containing illustration.  Even today, the e-book for art is almost unheard of, largely because of intellectual property rights preclude including images.

Despite that tradition, art history is strangely neglectful of the print medium.  Literature reviews for art are almost non-extant in the discipline and bibliographies scarce.  Perhaps because art as a topic for publishing can range from the anti-intellectual to the heady, the discipline has never seen itself worthy of self-reflection.  Old art history books represent tombstones to many art historians:  they serve in later years only to document the mistakes the scholars made.  So, a commendation to Thames & Hudson for publishing such an un-glitzy book.  This book is required reading for anyone seriously interested in art history, a worthwhile read for the eminent art historians who wrote the appreciation of each of the titles they selected as for the list of selections themselves.

But What Does the Mirror Think?

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To those of you who missed the Dec. 31st New York Times Op Ed page I recommend the rich writing and thinking that went into that page.  Every piece, David Brooks’ “The Sydney Awards, Part 2“, Frank Bruni’s “Tweet Less, Read More” (not per se about reading more) or Jennifer Finney Boylan’s thoughts on a missing friend like the longing for a gender you weren’t born with, each is a homily on la Condition humaine moderne.  Of course, the internet being more self-referential than Chris Christie, Bruni’s thought came from Matt Labash in the Weekly Standard in an article called “Twidiocracy” (this is the only time you’ll see me quoting a conservative positively).  The Labash article had its faults, but it included this passage about Twitter but apropos to social media in general:

[Twitter is] the constant mirror in front of your face.  The only problem is that it’s not just you and the mirror.  You’re waiting for the mirror to tell you what it thinks.

I guess what’s social media in a nutshell.  It’s so faceless while posing as someone so close.  The “mirror” is familiarly anonymous.  It’s creepy because it’s a living oxymoron.  I’m not against Twitter any more than I would be against picking a scab:  it won’t likely scar you unless you do it over and over again.  I keep looking at people staring at their cell phones–in busses, in restaurants, at church–and wonder if they’re finding any enlightenment in that thing?  Of course, I’m a cell-phone starer, too.  That’s what gives me the right to question it.

Brooks ends with Labash’s twitter from @GSElevator: “If you can only be good at one thing, be good at lying. … Because if you’re good at lying, you’re good at everything.”

Happy New Year

Lou Reed’s Halloween Parade

LR

Lou Reed’s death on Sunday wasn’t a shock.  The fact that someone like him lived that long was more of a surprise.  The NYT obituary had so many wonderful observations, “Reed starting singing outside the song’s melody as if he were giving a speech with a fluctuating drone in a New York accent.  . . .   He played lead guitar in the same way, straining against his limitations.”  We all strain against our limitations, LR made it seem meaningful.

The album that sticks with me the most is the John Cale/Lou Reed collaboration, New York.  Not his most famous album.  On it, Reed sings of the Halloween parade in the Village where the gays and drag queens dress so outlandishly on “their day” and the sadness of successive Halloween parades where the participants would be gone through AIDS deaths.  The costumes–like the lives of their wearers–in various levels of camp–formed a microcosm of all life where the good times and the great friends slip away.  “See you next year!” Reed ends the tune, a more hopeful than prophetic closing.  See you next year, Lou.

Perhaps the Allies should have bombed Germany using Dehio . . .

While purchasing old copies of Baedeker’s guides for Duke Libraries, I ran across this book dealer vignette on Baedeker’s Guides:

Literary references to Baedeker’s abound, from E. M. Forester’s A Room with a View to Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad. T.E. Lawrence is reputed to have used Baedeker’s guide to Palestine during his Doctoral work in the Levant and prompted his Allied superiors to make facsimile copies during WWI. During the Luftwaffe’s Vergeltungsangriffe the guides were important enough to be reportedly cited by Gustav Braun von Stumm. “We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.” In the so-called “Baedeker Blitz” of 1942 the English cities of Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York, and Canterbury were bombed.

There is no truth that cannot lead to perversion.

Bedtime for Panofsky

One of the perennial one-ups-manships games in academics is to intimidate your friends with all the great books in your discipline that you’ve read.  Luckily, there never was much consensus in art history.  Or rather there were too many censensae (that’s the nice thing about standards, there’s so many to choose from).  Most graduate students in art history are given reading lists supplied by their departments or advisers, but these varied from school to school. It was hard to play this game–and win definitively–in art history.

Until 2010, when Paul von Naredi-Rainer together with Johann Konrad Eberlein and Goetz Pochat picked 169 books that were ‘Hauptwerke’–the major texts–of art history and published them in a guide.  More amazing than the fact that any academic would write this is that they found a publisher of “pocket guides” (Taschenausgaben) to issue it.  I love art history but somehow the 169 greats of the discipline is not pocket literature to me.

But never mind.  Just test yourself, like one of those are-you-a-real-man questionnaires in Guns ‘N Ammo magazine.  Are yrou a REAL art historian?  How many of these books have you read . . .

 

James Ackerman:  The Architecture of Michelangelo
Jean Adhemar:  Influences Antique dans l’art du Moyen Age francais
Svetlana Alpers:  Rembrandt’s Enterprise:  The Studio and the Market.
Carlo Argan: Storia dell’arte italiana
Carlo Argan:  L’Arte moderna
Marcel Aubert: L’architecture cistercienne en France
Kurt Badt:  Eine Wissenschaftslehre der Kunstgeschichte

[more soon!]

Hauptwerke der Kunstgeschichtsschreibung.  Stuttgart: Kroener, 2010.  Lilly Library NX 175.H387 2010 (checked out!)

Must We Hate Renoir?

The rebirthed Barnes Foundation, now in Philadelphia, has issued a catalog on its holdings on Renoir, Renoir in the Barnes Foundation (2012).  Barnes owned 181 Renoirs by the time of his death in 1951, mostly from the artist’s later years.  This is problematic for curators because the last twenty years of Renoir’s life he settled into painting almost exclusively fantasy naked women. Renoir, bent over, in a wheelchair, hands crippled with arthritis, devoted his final years to producing thinly veiled porn.  If you dig your women on the plumper side, Renoir’s output from 1909-1919 is the acme.  Art history, for the last sixty years, has taken a really dim view of this production and understandably so.  Want to create an awkward silence at soiree of art types?  Just say you find Renoir’s late work important.  Even praising Normal Rockwell wouldn’t get you the horrified stares that a statement like that would.   The curators of the Barnes catalog were at a loss to explain why the collector–not generally disposed to modern art that was titillating–bought nearly exclusively from this period. The feminist view that this output is women-as-object (something Renoir himself unfortunately admitted); the Progressivist approach is that art historians bemoaning that there’s no “finish line” in Renoir’s late work–it doesn’t lead to anything in art history;  the New Art History types (rather older now) observe that these works don’t deconstruct very well. Like, not at all.

But there was some hope, it turns out we may not have to hate Renoir after all.  At one point, the Barnes’ curator, Martha Lucy, makes a startling observation:  all the criticism agreed with, couldn’t Renoir’s late work be viewed as making the woman the canvas?  Those large nudes taking up most of the picture plane and doing inane things, maybe Renoir’s fantasy isn’t so much an old man leering but a reversal of art and life.  The model in the studio becomes the art–not on the canvas, but of the canvas.

Post script:  the catalog describes one of Renoir’s favorite models as having been found by Matisse on a streetcar.  The Fauve master spied a zaftig redhead on the tram and told her she would be perfect as a model for Renoir.  Now, if I hadn’t read this in an art history book, I’d have thought this bogus!  Of all the lame come-on lines. But it worked (“I’m not the artist, but I’m a friend of his and I think you’d look great naked . . . ).  The woman, Claire Heusling, did become Renoir’s model and, after doing the nude stint, ended up marrying the artist’s son, the famous director Jean Renoir.

Only in art history.