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The Vienna School of Art History: Empire and the Politics of Scholarship, 1847–1918

0 Comments 🕔25.Sep 2014

Matthew Rampley’s status as one of the foremost scholars of the historiography of art is on full display in this meticulously researched and detailed account of the rise of the first Vienna School of art history. In the book, Rampley sets out to write a history of the “larger-scale themes that preoccupied art historians in Austria-Hungary.” The book, he explains, “examines the novel ideas and methods explored by individual art historians, but it is concerned less with method per se than with the situational logic and the ideological and institutional factors that shaped art-historical practices in Austria-Hungary from the 1840s until its demise, in 1918. It is thus primarily a political and social history of the discipline, rather than an account of its intellectual evolution.” The book is thus an attempt to rectify a considerable bias in the literature toward certain authors – Riegl comes to mind – as well as toward intellectual history, without abandoning either entirely.

The book’s nine chapters can be roughly divided into two halves. Chapters 1 to 4 are a historical sketch of the emergence and geographical reach of the first Vienna School, offering en passant a much-broadened definition of the term. Chapter 1 investigates the origins of art historical scholarship in the city of Vienna post-1848, focusing on Rudolf von Eitelberger, who became the first professor of art history in Vienna in 1852 and founded the Museum of Art and Industry in 1864. Eitelberger set an example for future generations of art historians by being equally at home in the academy as well as in the public sphere, not least through his considerable work with museums. Chapter 2 moves the reader along chronologically to the 1870s and subsequent decades, and discusses the methodological innovations brought about by scholars and writers associated with the Viennese institutions. Most notable here is the establishment of a formalist art history, concerned not with aesthetic, but with art historical judgments, based on the belief that art history can be modeled on a positivist understanding of science.

In chapters 3 and 4, Rampley moves to expand the notion of the Vienna School, arguably beyond methodological usefulness, by assessing the Austro-Hungarian periphery and the kinds of art history practiced in the imperial provinces, such as Prague. In chapter 3, he delivers on the promise of his book’s subtitle, “Empire and the Politics of Scholarship,” and elucidates in some detail how art history came to be employed in support of nationalist political goals in the various regions under Habsburg rule, with a particular focus on Czech and Polish developments. Chapter 4, on the other hand, spells out the implications of rising nationalist sentiments for the writing of a specifically Austro-Hungarian national historiography. In this chapter, Rampley singles out the so-called Kronprinzenwerk (also known as The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Image), an imperially sanctioned multi-volume encyclopedia that “emphasizes the Empire’s cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity.” While turning a perceived weakness into strength, the Kronprinzenwerk, according to Rampley, still failed to produce a coherent narrative, as it had set out to do, and rather became a mirror of the complexity of national aspirations across the Empire.

Having thus established some of the major fault lines (center versus periphery, Austro-German versus Czech/Polish/Hungarian/etc., cosmopolitan versus national) running through Vienna school scholarship of the second half of the nineteenth century, Rampley uses the remaining five chapters to focus on specific topics that, according to him, bring those tensions dramatically into relief. Chapter 5 is concerned with the contested legacy of the baroque. Chapter 6 examines the politics of folk art; chapter 7 focuses on the role of modern art for Viennese art historians; chapter 8 deals with the notion of the Orient/East; and the penultimate chapter treats the question of preservation.

The main merit of this second part of the book is to remind us that the role of the art historian in the outgoing nineteenth century was very much that of the engaged scholar, attuned to the political and social ramifications of his (and there are no women in this narrative) work. This review is not the place to engage every intervention that Rampley makes, but some observations are in order nevertheless. While Rampley takes great pains to take into account previously marginalized authors of the Empire’s periphery, some well-established figures do anchor much of these discussions, sometimes in surprising – if not entirely new – ways. In particular, the writings of Wickhoff, Dvorak, and, importantly, Strzygowski are prominently featured in these pages, while Riegl often serves as a foil, without, however, being reduced to a straw man. On the contrary, the image of Riegl that emerges is complex and stresses his ideological biases, in particular his penchant for a sometimes-condescending attitude toward the Empire’s provinces.

In all of this, it is chapter 8 that caught this reader’s attention in particular. Ostensibly concerned with the idea of the East, and Orientalizing attitudes within Vienna school scholarship, the chapter revisits a debate between Franz Wickhoff and Alois Riegl on the one hand, and Josef Strzygowski on the other, over the origins of early medieval art. For Rampley, this chapter is an important piece of his larger argument. He thus writes on page 2 of the book’s introduction: “The dispute has largely been viewed in terms of the political differences between the individuals concerned, but this view underplays the fact that they were reprising a decades-long debate over European identity and the place of Austria-Hungary in Europe, a debate that continued long after the personal antagonism between these authors had been forgotten.” It is here that the advantages of Rampley’s revisionist account of the Vienna School of art history, as well as its pitfalls, most prominently come to the fore, as the chapter itself amounts to an extensive rehabilitation of Josef Strzygowski’s contribution to art history as a discipline. Strzygowski, we are reminded, is predominantly known for his open alignment with a virulent anti-Semitism and admiration for and support of Nazi ideology.

To quote Rampley once more: “Subsequent accounts of the dispute have focused less on the substance and details of Strzygowski’s claims than on the ideological conflict between the scholars. In particular, the fact that Strzygowski’s argument was laced with reactionary political rhetoric has ensured his subsequent marginalization except as a negative foil to Riegl and Wickhoff. As a result, his criticisms of his Vienna colleagues, as well as his wider polemic against the Eurocentrism of the art-historical establishment, have been ignored.”

While it is certainly laudable for Rampley to revisit Strzygowski’s early writing without the hindsight of history, the way he goes about it is not without problems. Indeed, the contributions that Strzygowski has brought to the discipline have already been pointed out in those earlier texts that Rampley uses here as his foil, namely Jas Elsner’s “The Birth of Late Antiquity: Riegl and Strzygowski in 1901.” What is more, Rampley consistently stays clear of close textual readings, unlike Elsner, who clearly shows that what Rampley euphemistically calls “reactionary political rhetoric” is racially tinged rhetoric, a qualitative difference worth noting. While Wickhoff, Riegl, and Strzygowski may well have “reprised a decades-long debate,” it was Strzygowski’s use of much longer-standing anti-Semitic tropes that really makes these texts toxic, if art historically valuable, documents. It is the opinion of this reviewer that it must be possible to name these things clearly, without necessarily overlooking the contributions of Strzygowski to the discipline. Indeed, as Jas Elsner has put it, “despite his dire political views, if we uphold any aspects of these intellectual positions, we remain Strzygowski’s children.” Given that Rampley’s stated goal of the book is to highlight the political and social history of the discipline, it seems a curious maneuver to neutralize Strzygowski’s passionate hatred in such way – a culturally sanctioned hatred, it should be noted, that has always been political and social.

There are some other misgivings, too. While the book rewards attentive reading by offering unexpected and informative detail, it certainly refuses stylistic pleasures, and makes for a sometimes exhausting read. It also leaves questions of intellectual transfer largely unaddressed. Its model of discursive practice remains implicit. While making extensive use of various kinds of sources, such as catalogs, exhibition reviews, journals, reports, and more, in various languages, the question of how ideas circulate within the Empire remains a blind spot that would warrant further investigation, given the expansion of technology and increase in media use over the second half of the nineteenth century.

To close, it should be said that Rampley’s book is a necessary corrective and addition to the existing scholarship on the Vienna School. While not necessarily breaking new ground with this book, Rampley significantly deepens our understanding of the first Vienna School. What is more, this book should be read in view of the current crisis of the humanities, reminding us that there is a role for scholarship outside of the academy.

Reviewed by Max Koss, University of Chicago

The Vienna School of Art History: Empire and the Politics of Scholarship, 1847–1918
by Matthew Rampley
Penn State University Press
296 pages / 18 illustrations / 2013
ISBN: 978-0-271-06158-0

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