Saturday, 17 May 2014

Kunstgeographie: A brief guide for the perplexed

What is Kunstgeographie?

Literally translated, kunstgegraphie means the geography of art. Whereas the history of art looks at art in its historical and time-related context, the geography of art looks specifically at place. DaCosta Kaufmann sets it out clearly, 'if art has a history, it also at least implicitly had, and has, a geography; for if the history of art conceives of art as being made in a particular time, it also put it in a place'. (Towards a Geography of Art, p1)

Therefore when looking at art, you should think about geographic issues, in addition to everything else. Ask yourself what are the antecedents to a change in style? What are the particular environmental factors, societal, economic, personal, psychological, climate, materials that have encouraged this change? And why should the place of art not be as important as the history of that same art; after all, both have informed it equally, in my view.

A German definition is given in the abstract to Birgit Bornemeier's thesis, Kunstgeographie - Die kunstgeographische Analyse als Methode einer synthetisch-kulturgeographischen Raumdifferenzierung. Am Beispiel der Renaissance in Deutschland (catchy title) states; 'Geography of art attempts to visualize the spatial linkage between art and the determining factors within its specific environment. In doing so the local diffusion of stylistic forms and variations, use of building materials, spatial variations in landscape and the regional appearance of stylistic forms are being considered'. I like this definition because it stresses the practical materiality of the art form; in this way we can almost feel the sand from Trouville in the oil paint.

Although people of many nationalities have been interested in the geography of art, as the name of this art theory suggests, it has mostly been developed by German scholars. It emerged as a separate area of study during the early twentieth century as the third part of the three part methodology for the complete study of the history of art. The first was iconology and the second was study of form or style in relation to the course of time. These have informed and influenced the study of art to a huge extent; when I had iconology lectures at the Warburg Institute, my artistic and intellectual world view turned on its head.

These last two methods remain influential on Anglo-centric research, probably because proponents emigrated to London or the States, e.g., Aby Warburg and Fritz Saxl, who founded the Warburg. However kunstgeographie didn't find its way out of Germany to the same extent, and even received a check at home during and in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. Nonetheless, modern German critical thought is still influenced by art geography but usually under a different term. I will come to that alternative later.

Why is it Controversial?

There is a convoluted historiography, which I am loath to get into here. But modern commentators generally conclude that we should set little store by these early twentieth century German art theorists. It came from a troubled place and time, culturally, geographically, artistically; Germany had long felt that it stood in the shadow of 'superior' Italian or even French art. The problem was that German art was seen by some as 'provincial' and less valuable. As we saw in the National Gallery exhibition, early modern (and I would suggest some later) German art is 'problematic', not conforming to an idealism or classical notions of beauty. So perhaps they felt they had good reason to fight back with ideas about nationalistic differences and assert their independence from the art of other countries.

Not only that but definitions of geography have evolved from their eighteenth century antecedents. According to Stephen Muthesius, their understanding was in terms of natural geography and the geographies of political power. (Borders in art, p20) This term is already ill equipped for modern interpretations.

The problems began in the late thirties when studies touched on politically sensitive areas. For instance 'Dagobert Frey's effort to define art in Silesia, or Nils von Holst's study of the art of the Baltic', where the latter is treated as German colonial territory. As DaCosta Kaufmann continues, 'these anticipate and lay the ground work for the Ostforschung, politically coloured studies of the territories to the east of Germany's Third Reich'. (Towards a Geography of Art, p78) As they examined art in different areas, they were claiming that art was actually previously created by Germans. Furthermore, an art historian called Karl Maria von Swoboda tried to rely on racial differences to explain national ones in Europe. 

All this is extremely distasteful and has left many German scholars reluctant to revisit the theory. As Bornemeier says, 'this was understandable, considering the cultural concept of space was exploited by the blood-and-soil ideology of the Nazis' (Die deutsche Zurückhaltung war verständlich, wenn man sich die Instrumentalisierung des kulturellen Raumbegriffs bis hin zur Blut-und-Boden-Ideologie der Nationalsozialisten vor Augen hält - my translation is probably terrible). I feel that both Muthesius and DaCosta Kaufmann have concluded that the entire theory, as it stood, failed at the time and continues to fail even now.

So what?

I feel that the theory described above is dead in the water, and yet I am still drawn to the geography of art as much as the history and the object itself. And therein lies the answer. If we return to the three pronged methodology which encompasses time, content and place as a whole, rather taking each one in isolation the theory undergoes a change in emphasis. Having mulled this over, the very fact that the geography of art has been neglected in favour of history and iconology feels like a political issue. If you were coming to the UK or the US in order to save yourself and family, why would you still want to investigate a theory which had been used to drive you out of your homeland?

'Geography' with its spatial turn remains one of the most fascinating areas of study in relation to art. I said last year in my essay on space 'that the cultivation of interdisciplinary theories and methodologies can add depth and insight; these abstract visual and real physical layers of space are there to be explored not only by art, architectural, social and cultural historians but also geographers and archaeologists'. And to be fair this is generally recognised by art historians willing to step outside their narrow area of expertise. 

This accounts for the increase in interest in the theory. In the past ten to fifteen years, there have been various essays, conference papers and monographs which revisit kunstgeographie and there is a sense of tentative revival. Interestingly, not all these scholars have been art historians, as architects and designers have taken taken up the theory and changed the vocabulary.

Critical Regionalism v Kunstgeography

Perhaps the only way to recover such a damaged theory is to couch it in less inflammatory language. So Alex Tzonis and Liliane Lefaivre coined the English phrase 'Critical Regionalism' in their article on nineteenth century Athenian architecture and the founding of the Greek state. This was then taken up by Kenneth Frampton, a 'modernist' architect who practiced in the sixties. He suggests that architecture is a perfect medium in which to demonstrate 'regionalism' because rationalised (ie mass) production methods need to be combined with time honoured craft practices, provided that the' project is small enough to allow for local idiosyncrasies. (Design after Modernity, p57)

This reminds me about an episode of Grand Designs where someone commissioned a Huff House. It was shipped over from Germany in pieces and carefully and efficiently put together by the Huff technicians. The only work done by the British were the foundations and the heavy plant loan. The house was a perfect example of a 'regional' mass produced product but the setting and decoration was entirely English, which makes it different from any version in Germany. A crude but illustrative example of what Frampton's is saying.

Frampton stresses that he means no particular style, hence his chapter title 'place-title and cultural identity'. Is place-form synonymous with geography of art? Linguists and cultural critiques would probably spend years fighting that one out. For me, they are fancy terms to put your 'art object' (building, painting, tin can, or wire drawing bench etc) in its environmental context.


I have used many words to get to this point. How convinced am I that the geography of art should be used to explore my wire drawing bench. Let's briefly look at the facts;

The bench was used to draw wire that was mined locally
The bench is decorated with idealised scenes of woodland
The designer worked closely with the Elector on items which were used to tame the landscape - garden implements, tools to work metal and wood
The kunstkammer was packed with ways of working the landscape
The iconography of the bench was wrapped up in the landscape and its leisure uses, such as hunting
The marquetry included many local woods
The bench represents the way in which the Elector wanted to make his state rich and powerful, so to compete with his wealthy Hapsburg, catholic neighbours

This bench couldn't be more rooted in the place in which it was commissioned, designed and constructed. It sat, dominating the main room of the suite that made up August's kunstkammer, in his main royal palace. Only now is it uprooted, situated far away in the Paris museum.

All these points contain aspects of the tripartite methodology; history, iconology, geography are all of equal importance.

- Bornemeier, Birgit, ‘Kunstgeographie - Die Kunstgeographische Analyse Als Methode Einer Synthetisch-Kulturgeographischen Raumdifferenzierung. Am Beispiel Der Renaissance in Deutschland.’ [accessed 11 May 2014]
- Golden, Lauren, Raising the Eyebrow: John Onians and World Art Studies : An Album Amicorum in His Honour (Archaeopress, 2001)
- Joint Conference of Polish and English Art Historians, Borders in Art: Revisiting Kunstgeographie, ed. by Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius (Warsaw: Institute of Art, 2000)
- Kaufmann, Thomas Dacosta, Toward a Geography of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004)
-Thackara, John, ed., Design after Modernism: Beyond the Object (New York, N.Y: Thames and Hudson, 1988)

1 comment:

  1. The absence of geographical/spatial context/analysis in art reminds me of the gap between urban design and planning - coming to art history from urban design I am struck by this absence. I illustrated one of my studies of the history of Romanian art with a map of the growth of pan-European railway links (and a picture of the first Orient Express steaming across -source Art history so often leaves out these basic spatial questions. BOB JARIVS