Friday, July 03, 2009

Morelli, Wölfflin, Beazley

[The following piece will be of interest to students of art history,]

      One of the most incisive and for decades the most influential of the theorists of the visual arts was the strange Italian Protestant, Giovanni Morelli (1816-1891). Even today the adjective “Morellian” honors the distinctive method of art analysis he pioneered.

Educated mainly in Swiss and German schools, Morelli preferred to write in the German language. After home-schooling at Bergamo, he received more formal instruction at Aarau in Switzerland. Debarred as a Protestant from attending any Italian college, he enrolled at the University of Munich, where he was a student of Ignatius Dellinger, a noted professor of anatomy and physiology. His formation was principally scientific and medical. A little later in Paris, his friendship with the art critic Otto Mindler stimulated his growing interest in the visual arts.

Morelli then entered politics in Italy, urging reform in the administration of the fine arts. Eventually he headed a commission to bring under government control all works of art which could be considered public property. He appointed as his secretary G. B. Cavalcaselle, who was then engaged in collecting materials for a work on Italian art. Cavalcaselle, who followed an essentially positivist methodology of collecting facts, presented his findings in the well-known New History of Painting in Italy published in 1864 in conjunction with Sir Joseph Crowe.

Morelli’s next move in the realm of the fine arts was produce a series of articles in German, which he subsequently gathered into books. His first contributions, a cluster of articles on the Borghese Gallery in Rome, were published in Lützow's Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, 1874-76. Posing as an art-loving Russian, he adopted the pseudonym "Ivan Lermolieff." The surname is an anagram of his own family name with a Russian suffix, while Ivan corresponds to Giovanni. Further complicating matters, the essays were purportedly translated by Johannes Schwarze, another ruse (Moro = Schwarze).

As Constance Jocelyn ffoulkes remarks: “[t]he originality of the method recommended by the author for studying art, the general soundness of his critical opinions, and the many new (and apparently correct) attributions suggested for pictures in the Borghese Gallery and elsewhere, attracted the attention of all students of art; but failure attended every attempt to discover the identity of the Russian critic.” In 1880 Morelli followed suit by published a small book bearing the same pseudonyms, entitled Die Werke italienischer Meister in den Galerien von München, Dresden und Berlin. This volume reached a larger public, creating consternation in some quarters because the author dared to contradict the views of the most renowned art historians of the day. An English translation of the book appeared in 1883, this time with Morelli’s own name on the title page.

Subsequently, Morelli published some further iconoclastic articles. Amusingly, he also wrote a skit (unpublished) on art connoisseurship in Europe, planning to issue it in English as the musings of an American satirizing the follies of art critics in the Old World. Morelli’s appetite for concealment had revived in a different form

What in fact was Morelli’s method? It has been aptly characterized by Constance Jocelyn ffoulkes in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

”The study of the individual parts and forms was, in his estimation, of the highest importance, for they were not mere incidents, but the outward and visible seal of an artist's character stamped upon his work, and obvious to all who had eyes to see. By diligent observation of the forms the rudiments of the language of art might be mastered, and the first step taken towards initiating a methodized system of study. The education of a critic consists chiefly in learning to compare, and Morelli soon recognized the value of systematic comparison in the study of art. By the combined methods of critical analysis and comparative observation he found the clue he had so long been seeking. Studying one day in the Uffizi, it suddenly struck him that in a picture by Botticelli containing several figures the drawing of the hands was remarkably similar in all; that the same characteristic but plebeian type, with bony fingers, broad square nails, and dark outlines, was repeated in every figure. Turning to the ears, he observed that they also were drawn in an individual manner, and that in the numerous figures in which the ear was visible the same typical form recurred. Having noted these fundamental forms, he proceeded to an examination of other works by this painter, and found that the same forms were exactly repeated, together with other individual traits which seemed distinctive of the master: the characteristic type of head and expression, the drawing of the nostrils, the vitality of movement, the disposition of drapery, harmony of colour (where it had not been tampered with by the restorer), and quality of landscape. In all Botticelli's true works the presence of these and other characteristics proclaimed their genuineness. In paintings where the forms and types were those of the painter, but where vitality, movement, and all deeper qualities were absent, Morelli recognized works executed from the master's cartoons; while in pictures where neither types nor forms responded to the test, and where only a general family likeness connected them with Botticelli, he discerned the productions of pupils and imitators. After applying his method to the works of Botticelli, he proceeded to examine those of other Florentine masters, and afterwards of painters of other Italian schools, everywhere meeting with results to him not less convincing. If the drawing of the hand and ear were not always conspicuous, there were other peculiarities of this language of form to aid in the identification of a master: the treatment of the hair, as in Piero [della Francesca]i; the indication of the sinews, as in Foppa; the drawing of the eye, as in Liberale da Verona; the modelling of the eyelid and upper lip, as in Ambrogio de Predis; the form of the feet, as in Luini. In short, all apparently insignificant details were of importance in his plan of study, for to him they were like the signature of the master.”

Clearly Morelli's method of attending to individual bodily parts reflected his scientific training in anatomy and medicine. Following the principles of medical symtomatology, the physician looks for tell-tale signs--the quavering of the hands, the yellowness of eyes--as indicators of an overall physical condition. Of proven worth for attribution, the method struck some observers as too atomistic, for it appeared to ignore the whole work in favor of certain details.

Not so Sigmund Freud who acknowledged his affinity with Morelli, based on their common interests in medical symptomatology and in art. In a much-noticed 1980 article, the Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg cleverly noted that Morelli, as well as Freud and Sherlock Holmes (all roughly contemporary), concentrated on normally ignored small, inconspicuous details to trace patterns that would identify the true works of an artist, trace the evolution of species, and catch master criminals--clues that when properly interpreted would disclose the truth.

Why did Giovanni Morelli go to such lengths--at least at first--to conceal his true identify? The device is striking because the purpose of his method was to validate attribution, unmasking the false identities under which art works had been passing so as to reveal the painters who were their true authors. In his own person, however, he adopted the opposite procedure, obscuring a true identity under the cover of a false one.

There are of course many reasons for adopting a pseudonym, one of them being to achieve greater credibility. Shrewdly, Mary Anne Evans realized that her novels would have greater impact if they were published under a man’s name, George Eliot. Morelli’s procedure was the inverse, since he chose to publish his first works under the assumed name of a Russian dilettante.

Does this habit of concealment have something to do with Morelli’s own nature? He never married, and his efforts at concealment may have something to do with a problem that faced most men and women of homosexual temperament during his time. The issue of course was the prudential imperative of maintaining closeted status. As a rule, gay people of this period became versed, almost by necessity, in the art of camouflaging one's identity. This factor of sexual orientation, if it could be demonstrated conclusively, would explain both Morelli’s own personal disguise and his preoccupation with the disguises that had been imposed on the paintings that he deeply admired.

Morelli had a number of significant disciples in the world of art scholarship, among them Gustavo Frizzoni, Jean Paul Richter, Adolfo Venturi, Bernard Berenson, and Sir John Beazley, the most renowned student of Greek vase painting of the time. In actuality the more creative of these followers subtly modified the theory, making use of the work of a younger scholar, Heinrich Wölfflin, a Swiss Protestant. It is interesting that the two most influential art historical authorities of the second half of the nineteenth century were both Protestants with a Swiss formation.

Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945) was the son of a classics scholar.  He studied art history in Basel under Jakob Burckhardt, then in Berlin and finally in Munich, where he submitted his doctoral dissertation, Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur in 1886. With little interest in either biography or iconography, Wölfflin focused on the principles for analyzing works of art as much as the art itself.  He spent two postdoctoral years in Italy, producing his first book, Renaissance und Barock (1888).  In 1893 he moved to Basel to succeed his mentor Burckhardt. This succession was curious because the younger scholar was to discard the cultural-history approach of his mentor, replacing it with a narrower formalistic method. It was during this time that Wölfflin wrote his widely read book Klassische Kunst (1898), which actually concerns the masters of the Italian high Renaissance.   In 1901 was called to the summit of German-speaking academia, the University of Berlin to become a full professor, succeeding the pedestrian Hermann Grimm. In 1912 he returned to Munich, withdrawing to his native Switzerland in 1924.

In Wölfflin's case there are strong indications of homosexuality, obscured by the scholar's tendency to caution and secrecy.  During the period 1920-35 he destroyed all his personal correspondence. Following the decedent's wishes, his literary heirs deleted all "intimate and private" passages from his diaries. Possibly revealing letters to his friends Robert von Planta, Emanuel LaRoche, and Ernst Heidrich have disappeared, and must be presumed lost.  As a result of this process of erasure, the "homoerotic deep structure permeating his entire life and creative achievement can only be reconstructed in general terms."  (Bernd-Ulrich Hergemöller, Mann für Mann: Biographisches Lexikon, Hamburg, 1998, p. 750).

Wölfflin’s most significant contribution is embodied in his Kunstgeschichtliche Kunstbegriffe (1915), known to many from its somewhat inaccurate English version, Principles of Art History. This book sets up a binary system of two sets of five polarities. In a nutshell this is the contrast between the linear and painterly modes, the first exemplified by the Renaissance and the second by the Baroque. In doing this Wölfflin decisively broke with the then-common judgmental dismissal of the Baroque, paving the way for an impartial study of all periods and styles.
In his own time Wölfflin ranked as one of the greatest of art historians.  The English formalist and Bloomsburyite Roger Fry's produced an enthusiastic (though anonymous) review of the English edition of Klassische Kunst (1903) in the Athenaeum. In the second edition of his Drawings of the Florentine  Painters (1938), Bernard Berenson exclaimed: "would that our studies had more Wölfflins!" 

In the 1970s the rise of the social-history approach to art as well as iconographic studies and poststructuralism eroded Wölfflin’s standing, as he became a target for all that was ostensibly wrong with current art history--in a word formalism. This label may be applicable, but the method is not necessarily bad.
While Morelli emphasized significant details and Wölfflin holistic analysis, both did in fact concentrate on style and form, neglecting subject matter. The roots of formalism in aesthetics have been traced to the Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904), together with other musical analysts, who pointed out that instrumental music generally has no subject matter, and therefore m u s t be analyzed in formalistic terms. Possibly a more important source is the doctrine of French writers of the l’art pour l’art (for art’s sake) school.

The decisive formulation of the concept is credited to Théophile Gautier (1811–1872). Some hold that Gautier was not the first to advance this view. Scholars have traced its beginnings to the works of Victor Cousin, Benjamin Constant, and Edgar Allan Poe. Gautier, however, was the first to crystalize the idea as a slogan. "Art for art's sake" was a bohemian creed in the nineteenth century, a slogan raised in defiance of those who, from John Ruskin to the later Marxist advocates of social realism, held that the purpose of art--in fact, its only redeeming virtue--lay in serving some moral or didactic purpose. By contrast, "art for art's sake" affirmed that art was valuable as art, that artistic pursuits were their own justification, and that art did not need moral justification. It if turned out to be morally subversive, so be it.

The explicit slogan is associated in the history of English art and letters with Walter Pater and his followers in the Aesthetic Movement, which was self-consciously in rebellion against Victorian moralism. The precept first appeared in English in two works published simultaneously in 1868: Pater's review of William Morris's poetry in the Westminster Review and in William Blake by Algernon Charles Swinburne. A modified form of Pater's review appeared in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), one of the most influential texts of the Aesthetic Movement. Pater was cautious, unlike his outspoken follower Oscar Wilde, who held that there was no such thing as an immoral book. A book was either well written or it was not.

Many influences coalesced then to account for the appeal of formalism in the second half of the nineteenth century. Some were bohemian and avant-garde, others ostensibly “scientific.” Some scholars, however, sensed that this aesthetic approach was not sufficient, among them was Emile Male, who founded the modern discipline of iconography in France at the end of the nineteeenth century.

Implicitly, Edward Warren, the Boston connoisseur, recognized that subject matter was important, as he was drawn to art objects touching upon his own sexual nature. For many at least, homosexuality involves the aesthetics of bodies. Yet it also involves choice, with the idealized young male body at the height of the pyramid. This kind of selectivity may be termed iconographic in the broadest sense.

To complete our picture, one final art scholar must be discussed. Sir John Davidson Beazley (1885-1970) was an English classical archaeologist. An indefatigable and gifted connoisseur, Beazley is best known for his vast repertoires of Greek black-figure and red-figure pottery based on artistic styles.

As an undergraduate, he studied at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was reputedly "much involved" (according to John Boardman) with the poet James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915). Flecker wrote poetry dedicated to Beazley and the two enjoyed an aesthete lifestyle that may have been modeled on their Oxford predecessor, Oscar Wilde. Beazley began producing articles on Greek vase painters in 1910; his first study of the Berlin Painter was published in 1911. In 1918 he published his book Attic Red-Figure Vases in American Museums which included a history of the genre and the artists' works in the text. In 1925 he published the first edition of what would be his major contribution to classical archaeology, in German, Attische Vasenmaler des rotfigurigen Stils, a systematic list of red-figure artists and their relationship to other artists. Throughout his career Beazley was to revise and update these lists in a series of successive editions.

After many subsequent monographic publications, Beazley issued his corollary magnum opus on black-figure painting, Attic Black-figure Vase-painters, in 1956.

Beazley acknowledged the German classical scholars Adolf Furtwängler, Paul Hartwig, and Friedrich Hauser as his mentors. However, Beazley's method differed from theirs. This difference reflected his major debt to Giovanni Morelli. Using the Morellian approach to detect the specific "hands" (individual styles) of individual artists, he developed a comprehensive vision, looking at the sweep of classical pottery--major and minor pieces--so as to construct a history of workshops and artists in ancient Athens. Beazley's friend and colleague at Cambridge, Andrew Gow (1886-1986), may have influenced his focus on Morellian methods.

It is often thought that Beazley had little interest in iconography. While this may be generally true, he made a major contribution to the study of imagery in an article slyly and innocuously entitled “Some Vases in the Cyprus Museum” (Proceedings of the British Academy, 33, 1947 197-244). Here he identified several major semiotic devices of homosexual courtship, including the chin chuck and the presentation of gifts. Today, this article ranks as the beginning of modern study of gay subject matter in the vases.


Blogger Eugene Costa said...

Valuable, excellently presented annex to Carlo Ginzburg's brilliant little article.

Like yourself, one is a retired academic (Classics and Ancient History) but one retired from academic life much younger--in one's thirties.

You may or may not find one's blogs interesting here:
and here:

Any comments and criticisms welcome.

E. A. Costa

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