Sunday, 29 June 2014

Introduction 2: This time it's kunstgeographie

Not distracted by the view. Oh no.
When looking at art, the viewer should be encouraged to consider geographic issues, to enquire how far environmental factors impact on the society, economy, psychology which produced the piece of art or architecture. In my view, the place of art is as important as the history of that same art; after all, both have informed it equally. For example, in the heart of royal Dresden, along the Augustusstrasse, attached to the back of the Royal Mews, a 102 metre long ceramic mural dominates the street. Known as the Procession of Princes or Fürstenzug, Saxony’s rulers from the first, Konrad the Great (1127-1156) to the last, Friedrich August III (1904-1918) are shown. Originally painted between 1870 and 1876 by artist Wilhelm Walther to celebrate the 800 year anniversary of the Wettin dynasty, they were originally presented in lime wash and stucco but were made permanent in Meissen porcelain in 1906-07.[1]

It is not my intention in this dissertation to compare the Procession of Princes with Elector August’s (1526/1553-1586) wooden and metal wire drawing bench, however, these two pieces of art reflect many of the art-geographical themes that I discuss. Given that rulers, collections, or works of art should not be seen in isolation, either in terms of artistic, political, religious or international events, this ceramic piece reflects ‘Saxony the place’ and provides a situational and introductory backdrop. Looking beyond the ceramic glaze of the tiles, the scholar can see the economic importance of manufacturing and natural materials, which contributed to the prosperity of the state. Elector August was a shrewd ruler who recognised the economic value of local crafts, and he encouraged skills and knowhow of artisans by employing them at court. It also eloquently demonstrates the love of show and parade of might which was central to Saxon court culture throughout its existence.

In this dissertation I want to explore the notion of geography in art in relation to an object which dominated the Elector of Saxony’s unique collection of technical and scientific objects. Kunstgeographie, or the art of geography is a little known, controversial theory so it is first necessary to define it and present a brief overview of its rise and fall, and subsequent rehabilitation as a potentially respectable and relevant art theory. It is then necessary to explain how kunstgeographie can be used to interpret this obscure object. Despite recent academic investigation, the wire drawing bench is relatively unknown. Inevitably over the past 450 years there have been interpretations of its elaborate decoration but academics have focused on the frieze with religious imagery. I intend to describe the less familiar geographic aspect of the frieze below, which depicts active scenes from the hunt, with various wild and domesticated backdrops. August was fascinated by technology which could extract land wealth to ensure a prosperous Saxony during his reign. Therefore I suggest that kunstgeographie and geography in its widest modern sense is key to understanding not only the bench, but August’s entire collecting ethos. I conclude with some observations about the as yet unknown designer of the marquetry friezes.

Literally translated, kunstgeographie 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. Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann clarifies, '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'.[2] Its meaning has inevitably and subtly evolved since 1910 where it emerged as a method of linking art with nationality. For instance Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983) suggested that it was the study of ‘the history of art in its relationship with the nation’ and others like Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945) thought that regional differences were fundamental in the development of art.[3] The reason for this shift can be partly attributed to the change in the meaning in ‘geography’, which as Stephen Muthesius explains, ‘up until the eighteenth century geography was chiefly understood in terms of natural geography and geographies of political power’.[4] Modern academics have embraced geography in its widest sense, and an adequate definition is given in the abstract to Birgit Bornemeier's thesis, which 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[5]
This definition correctly and helpfully circumvents the problematic, misleading and moveable notions of ‘region’ or ‘nation’ within geography, and encompasses the environment as a whole, including topography, natural resources, and so forth.

Although art historians of many nationalities have employed kunstgeographie in their studies, as the name of this art theory suggests, it was originally 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, and both informed and influenced the study of art to a huge extent. These last two methods remain influential on Anglo-centric art historical research, because proponents emigrated to London or the United States, e.g., Aby Warburg and Fritz Saxl, who founded the Warburg. However kunstgeographie failed to emerge from the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, where there was a rapid denazification of academia. Nonetheless, modern German critical thought is still influenced by art geography but usually under a different term. I will come to that alternative later.

The study of art in Germany from the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th was dominated by the new field of kunstwissenschaft or art theory, associated with influential figures such as Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945). Building on the long tradition of earlier art historians from the western tradition, from Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), Johann Joachim Winkelmann (1717-1768) to Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897), they were determined to develop a more rigorous scientific methodology for the study of art.[6] As Christian Fuhrmeister explains, ‘this was partly in reaction to both critical advances from other academic disciplines and challenges that emerged from the cultural sphere and the larger political context, several art historians embrace new findings from fields such as psychology, philosophy, physiology, biology and geography’.[7] Their work was taking place within a period of growing scientific and rational thought and they were keen to demonstrate that art history had nothing to do with subjective intuition and arbitrary interpretation.[8] And as Mitchell Frank and Daniel Adler conclude, this work represented the most original thinking and argumentation that has ever been performed by art historians, formalists or otherwise.[9]

There was no single methodologist of kunstgeographie, however the literature suggests that Wölfflin was a major implicit contributor to the theory.[10] He wrote in his conclusion to Principles of Art History a section headed ‘National Characteristics’ stating,
The time will soon come when the historical record of European architecture will no longer be merely subdivided into Gothic, Renaissance, and so on, but will trace out the national physiognomies which cannot quite be effaced even by imported styles. Italian gothic is an Italian style, just as the German renaissance can only be understood on the basis of the whole tradition of Nordic-Germanic creation[11]
As Jean Lindsay points out, his repeated references to race is most troubling and statements about the ‘Germanic’ or ‘Nordic’, ‘Italian’ or ‘Latin’ aesthetic are hazardous from a modern perspective because they cannot be fully supported.[12] Indeed as early as the 1920s, the danger that the formalism of Wölfflin could be co-opted by the far right were hinted at by Edgar Wind and Erwin Panofsky, and each expressed their methodological distaste for abstract aesthetic categories.[13] By the time Wölfflin’s classic appeared in translation in 1932, and in the years thereafter, published German art historical studies were increasingly politically suspect. For instance DaCosta Kaufmann cites 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. He 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'.[14] Art historians were echoing the Fuhrer’s inexorable march across Central and Eastern Europe, justifying cultural annexation by claiming the art of those countries was actually previously created by Germans.

All this is extremely distasteful and has left many art historians reluctant to revisit the theory.  Bornemeier says, 'this was understandable, considering the cultural concept of space was exploited by the blood-and-soil ideology of the Nazis'.[15] Modern commentators generally conclude that we should set little store by these early twentieth century German art theorists. 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 traditional classists as 'provincial' and less valuable.[16] However, even now, according to a recent National Gallery exhibition titled ‘Strange Beauty’, early modern German art is 'problematic' because it does not conform to an idealism or classical notion of beauty. The exhibition ended with a number questions but stated, 'today art galleries avoid identifying aesthetic qualities with national character'. I agree, 'national character' is an unspecific and unhelpful phrase.

Combining this National Gallery conclusion with those of Muthesius, DaCosta Kaufmann and others, it would suggest that the entire theory, as it stands, failed at the time and continues to fail now. Yet as I shall demonstrate, the geography of art matters 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. My research suggests that the geography of art has been neglected in the past in favour of history and iconology because of political implications.

Recently has there been a re-examination. In the past ten to fifteen years, various essays, conference papers and monographs which revisit kunstgeographie have been published and there is a sense of tentative revival. Interestingly, not all these scholars have been art historians, as architects and designers have taken up the theory and changed the vocabulary. Perhaps the only way to recover such a damaged theory is to couch it in less inflammatory language. 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.[17] Frampton stresses that he means no particular style, hence his chapter title 'place-title and cultural identity'. Whether or not place-form is synonymous with geography of art is a matter for debate but it is an interesting starting point for placing an art object, whether a building, a painting, or wire drawing bench etc., in its environmental context.

However when a patron like Augustus commissioned a work of art and/or technology, it is necessarily going to be identified with him and his personal interests. They were forcefully tied to the identification and exploitation of his state's natural resources. His collection, as I will describe, was packed with mechanical and hand tools which the designer of the bench had produced with the August’s approval to tame the landscape, for instance, garden implements, tools to work metal, ivory and wood. Under August, Saxony was famous for silver mines and industrial processes, and the one of the specific tools required for turning metal into wire is highly decorative. The bench is decorated with idealised scenes of woodland and its leisure uses, such as hunting. The marquetry design includes a mix of exotic and local woods. I want to investigate whether there is evidence to assume that the images are inspired by the local landscape. The bench represents the way in which the August wanted to make his state rich and powerful, so to compete with his wealthy Catholic Hapsburg 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. 

[1] Wilhelm Joliet, ‘Die Geschichte der Fliese’, Der Fürstenzug in Dresden <>.
[2] Thomas Dacosta Kaufmann, Toward a Geography of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 1.
[3] Mathew Aitchison, ‘Wölfflin, Pinder and Pevsner: Kunstgeographie from the Baroque to Modernism’, in Proceeding of the XXVIII International Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand (presented at the Audience, Brisbane, 2011) <>.
[4] Joint Conference of Polish and English Art Historians, Borders in Art: Revisiting Kunstgeographie, ed. by Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius (Warsaw: Institute of Art, 2000), p. 20.
[5] Birgit Bornemeier, ‘Kunstgeographie - Die Kunstgeographische Analyse Als Methode Einer Synthetisch-Kulturgeographischen Raumdifferenzierung. Am Beispiel Der Renaissance in Deutschland.’ <> [accessed 11 May 2014].
[6] Aitchison, p. 3.
[7] Mitchell Benjamin Frank and Daniel Allan Adler, German Art History and Scientific Thought: Beyond Formalism (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2012), p. 162.
[8] Frank and Adler, p. 162.
[9] Frank and Adler, p. 6.
[10] Stefan Muthesius in Lauren Golden, Raising the Eyebrow: John Onians and World Art Studies : An Album Amicorum in His Honour (Archaeopress, 2001), p. 223.
[11] Heinrich Wölfflin, Principles of Art History: The Problems of the Development of Style in Later Art, 7th edn (Dover Publications, 1932), p. 235.
[12] Jean Lindsay, ‘Review: Heinrich Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History’ <> p. 3.
[13] Frank and Adler, p. 6.
[14] Kaufmann, p. 78.
[15] Bornemeier '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'.
[16] Joint Conference of Polish and English Art Historians, p. 21.
[17] John Thackara, ed., Design after Modernism: Beyond the Object (New York, N.Y: Thames and Hudson, 1988), p. 57.

1 comment:

  1. I've learned more from your postings about Art than I ever did at school.