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Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968)


German-American art historian and essayist, whose famous books include The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (1943) and Studies in Iconology (1939). Erwin Panofsky defined an artist as "one who is full of images." He was especially concerned with the iconography of the various periods he studied and interpreted works through the themes, symbols, and ideas inherent in the history of art.

"As I have said before, no one can be blamed for enjoying works of art "naïvely" –  for appraising and interpreting them according to his lights and not caring any further. But the humanist will look with suspicion upon what might be called "appreciationism." He who teaches innocent people to understand art without bothering about classical languages, boresome historical methods and dusty old documents, deprives naïveté of its charm without correcting its errors." (from Meaning in the Visual Arts, 1955)

Erwin Panofsky was born in Hanover, the son of Arnold Panofsky, a successful businessman, and Caecilie (Solling) Panofsky. He studied at the universities of Berlin, Munich, and Freiburg/Breslau, receiving his Ph.D. in 1914 from the University of Freiburg. In 1916 he married his fellow student Dora Mosse. They first met at an art history seminar conducted in Berlin by Professor Adolph Goldschmidt.  Dora was the daughter of the prominent Prussian jurist Albert Mosse, who had reached the highest level of judical seniority possible for a Jew at the time.

The Panofskys traveled a great deal and took their two sons to long museum tours, hoping to spark also their interest in art. "There is probably no surer way to divert your children's interest from art to "plumbing," recalled Panofsky's son Wolfgang, who later became Professor of Physics at Stanford. In Panofsky on Physics, Politics, and Peace (2007), he gives a loving portrait of his father, who taught his son to play chess at the age of four, and ceased playing when he started winning.  

Panofsky was employed by the Warburg Library before the famed collections were moved to London. In 1924 appeared his early major work, "Idea": Ein Beitrag zur Begriffsgeschichte der älteren Kunstheorie, which dealt with the history of the neoplatonic theory of art. Panofsky's career in art history took him to the universities of Berlin, Munich, and Hamburg, where he taught from 1920 to 1933. He also was involved in arranging chamber music concerts. During this period Panofsky began to develop the "iconological" approach to art history in his lectures and publications – iconography meant for him the mere identification of subject matter in art. His colleague at both the University of Hamburg and the Warburg Instiute was Ernst Cassirer, a neo-Kantian like Panofsky himself. Panofsky attended his fellow professor's lectures frequently over the years.

What was new in Panofsky's approach was his concern with content when the discipline of art history was dominated by preoccupation with form and stylistic analysis. Heinrich Wölfflin and Alois Riegl were two notable exponents of this method. From early on, Panofsky criticized Wölfflin's separation of form and content. The usefulness of Wölfflin's famous five categories of visual representation he did not doubt, though it was Riegl's terminology that he favored in his own work. His own five pairs of oppositions Panofsky gave in the article 'Über das Verhältnis der Kunstgeschichte zur Kunsttheorie' (On the relationship between art history and art theory), published in Zeitschrift für Ästetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft (1924-25).

Panofsky's iconological interpretation is not far from Roland Barthes's later semiological system, in which the basic terms are sign, signifier, and signified. "And here is now another example: I am at the barber's, and a copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture. But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag... I am therefore again faced with a greater semiological system: there is a signifier, itself already formed with a previous system (a black soldier is giving the French salute); there is a signified (it is here purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness); finally, there is a presence of the signified through the signifier." (from Mythologies, 1973)

Upon the invitation of New York University, Panofsky visited the United States in 1931. He was permitted to spend alternate terms in Hamburg and New York, but after the Nazis came to power and ousted all Jewish officials, he was forced to leave Germany. Hamburg was one of the last German cities to yield to the Nazi demands. The faculty of the university, which was compelled to vote for his dismissal, expressed regrets in private. The wind section of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra held a goodbye performance in their house. During WWII, the city was practically destroyed by Allied bombings.

Panofsky held for a year concurrent lectureships at New York and Princeton universities, and in 1935 he was invited to join the newly constituted humanistic faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study. When the German German philologist and literary historian Erich Auerbach had to leave Pennsylvania State University due to insurance problems, Panofsky helped him to find a temporary refuge in Princeton.

After Dora's death in 1965, Panofsky married Gerda Soergel. Panofsky taught at Princeton till his death on March 14, 1968. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy, and a number of other foreign academies. In 1962 he received the Haskins Medal of the Mediaeval Academy of America.

Most of Panofsky's later books were written in English. The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline (1938), which introduced the interpretation of works of art as a specific science, was written in Princeton. It opened with an anecdote about Immanuel Kant. Mark A. Cheetham has argued in 'Theory reception: Panofsky, Kant, and disciplinary cosmopolitanism,' that the structure of the essay "mirrors that of his current poltical reality. Panofsky's emigration is the link between disciplinary concerns and world of politics; these realms can be distinguished but they are not separate." (Journal of Art Historiography, Number 1, December 2009) By connecting his concept of art history to humanism and cosmopolitanism, he emphasized its separation from national interests.

Studies in Iconology was based on the Mary Flexner Lectures at Bryn Mawr College. The Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard were published as Early Netherlandish Painting (1953). Among his other major contributions to art history are Pandora's Box (1956), written with his first wife Dora Mosse Panofsky, and Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (1960). Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St. Denis and Its Art Treasures (1946) made available Abbot Suger's account of his rebuilding of the royal abbey outside Paris. A frequent subject of Panofsky's writing was the relationship between art and neo-Platonism in humanism.

Panofsky's Hercules am Scheidewege und andere antike Bildstoffe in der neueren Kunst (1930) first presented his iconological approach, but as a method it was not systematized until 1939. Studies in Iconology drew the basic distinction between iconography, which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, and the study of their intrinsic meanings, iconology. To clarify his idea Panofsky gave an example: when an acquaintance greets one on the street by lifting his hat, from a formal point of view there is nothing but color, lines and volumes in sight. The world of pure forms carries primary or natural meanings, artistic motifs.

But the lifting of the hat forms a salute peculiar to the Western world, dating back to mediaeval times. One interprets the gesture as a polite greeting. Iconographical analysis deals with the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, specific themes of concepts are expressed by objects and events. In iconological analysis the equipment for interpretation is synthetic intuition, familiarity with the essential tendencies of the human mind, conditioned by personal psychology and world view.

Thus a simple, polite greeting can reveal an experienced observer straits of personality, national, social and educational background, an individual manner of reacting to the world. This intrinsic meaning or content "is apprehended by ascertaining those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion – qualified by one personality and condensed into one work."

The French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu has criticized Panofsky's method to write on Suger and the "invention" of Gothic architecture almost only from the point of view of the interpreter: "To treat a work of plastic as as a discourse intended to be interpreted, decoded, by reference to a transcendent code analogous to the Saussarian "langue" is to forget that artistic production is always also – to different degrees depending on the art and on the historically variable styles of practicing it – the product of an "art," "pure practice without theory," as Durkheim says, or to put it another way, a mimesis, a sort of symbolic gymnastics, like the rite or the dance; and is also to forget that the work of art always contains something ineffable, not by excess, as hagiography would have it, but by default, something which communicates, so to speak, from body to body, i.c. on the hither side of words or concepts, and which pleases (or displeases) without concepts." (Pierre Bourdieu in Outline of a Theory of Practice, 1972)

In Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951), based on Panofsky's 1948 Wimmer lecture, he analyzed, how architectural style and structure provided visible and tangible equivalents to the scholastic definitions of the order and form of thought. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae and other great treatises were organized so that the reader is led, step by step, from one proposition to the other and is always kept informed as to the progress of this process.

But also the composition of a High Gothic portal tended to be subjected to a strict and fairly standardized scheme which simultaneously clarifies the narrative content. Panofsky notes that the Scholastics and builders of the cathedrals respected and accepted authorities. "Of two apparently contradictory motifs, both of them sanctioned by authority, one could not simply be rejected in favor of the other. They had to be worked through to the limit and they had to be reconciled in the end: much as a saying of St. Augustine had ultimately to be reconciled with one of St. Ambrose."

Besides art history and various studies of specific historical characters, such as Galileo Galilei, Erasmus, and Mozart, Panofsky wrote on the history of detective novel, and the cinema. His essay on the style and medium in the motion pictures, which originally appeared in Bulletin of the Department of Art and Archaeology (1934), is considered among the most influential examinations of the subject.

Panofsky saw his first films in the silent era when often a pianist accompanied the events on the screen with music. "It was not an artistic urge that gave rise to the discovery and gradual perfection of a new technique; it was a technical invention that gave rise to the discovery and gradual perfection of a new art." These early experiences perhaps explain his view that "a moving picture, even when it has learned to talk, remains a picture that moves..."

Due to this special nature of the film art, Shavian witty dialogue can sometimes fall, according to Panofsky, a little flat. A sensitive spectator can find even Groucho Marx's wise-cracks out of place, when they lose contact with the "visible moment." Panofsky compares the making of a film to the building of a cathedral – they both are collective efforts. The role of the director corresponds to that of the architect in chief; and the contributions of actors, cameramen, sound men, the whole technical staff, can be equalled to that of sculptors, glass painters, carpenters, and so forth.

For further reading: Signed "PAN": Erwin Panofsky's (1892-1968) "The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline" (Princeton, 1938) by Barbara Baert (2020); Mouse that Michelangelo Did Carve in the Medici Chapel: An Oriental Comment to the Famous Article of Erwin Panofsky by Peter Barenboim (2018); Sokrates in Pöseldorf: Erwin Panofskys Hamburger Jahre by Karen Michels (2017); Erwin Panofsky von zehn bis dreissig und seine jüdischen Wurzeln by Gerda Panofsky (2017); Figural Philology: Panofsky and the Science of Things by Adi Efal (2016); Art History: A Critical Introduction to Its Methods by Michael Hatt, Charlotte Klonk (2006); Meaning in the Visual Arts: Views from the Outside, edited by Irving Lavin (1995); Cassirer, Panofsky, and Warburg by Silvia Ferretti (1989); Erwin Panofsky and Svetlana Alpers: A Correlation of Their Methods of Approach to Northern European Art by Eileen Knott (1989); Panofsky and the Foundations of Art History by Michael A. Holly (1984); The Origin and Development of Erwin Panofsky's Theories of Art by Michael A. Holly (1981); Erwin Panofsky: Kunsttheorie u. Einzelwerk by Renate Heidt Heller (1977); Pandora's Box; The Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol by Dora Panofsky (1956); A Translation of Erwin Panofsky's "Idea", with a Critical Introduction by Frederick William Meier ( 1933) 

Selected bibliography:

  • Die theoretische kunstlehre Albrecht Dürers, 1914  
  • Dürers Kunsttheorie, 1915
  • 'Dürers Stellung zur Antike', 1921/22 (in Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte, I)
  • Dürers "Melencholia I", 1923 (with Fritz Saxl)
  • "Idea": Ein Beitrag zur Begriffsgeschichte der älteren Kunstheorie, 1924 - Idea, A Concept in Art Theory (translated by Joseph J. S. Peake, 1968)
  • Deutsche Plastik des elften bis dreizehnten Jahrhunderts, 1924
  • 'Über das Verhältnis der Kunstgeschichte zur Kunsttheorie', 1925 (in Zeitschrift für Aesthetik und allgemaine Kunstwissenschaft, XVIII)
  • 'A Late-Antique Religious Symbol in Works by Holbein and Titian', 1926 (with F. Saxl, in Burlington Magazine)
  • 'Über die Reihenfolge der vier Meister von Reims', 1927 (in Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft, II)
  • 'Perspektive als Symbolische Form', 1927 (in Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg, 1924/25) - Perspective as Symbolic Form (translated by Christopher S. Wood, 1997)
  • 'Das erste Blatt aus dem 'Libro' Giorgio Vasaris', 1930 (in Städel-Jahrbuch, VI)
  • Hercules am Scheidewege und andere antike Bildstoffe in der neueren Kunst, 1930 (Studien der Bibliotek Warburg, XVIII)
  • 'Classical Mythology in Mediaeval Art', 1933 (with F. Saxl, Metropolitan Museum Studies, IV)
  • The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline, 1938
  • Studies in Iconology, 1939
  • Codex Huygens and Leonardo da Vinci's Art Theory, 1940
  • Albrecht Dürer, 1943 - The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (4th ed. 1955)
  • Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St. Denis and Its Art Treasures, 1946 (edited, translated and annotated by Erwin Panofsky)
  • 'Postlogium Sugerianum', 1947 (Art Bulletin, XXIX)
  • 'Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures', 1947 in (Critique, Vol. 1 No 3)
  • Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, 1951
  • Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character, 1953
  • Meaning in the Visual Arts, 1955
  • Pandora’s Box: The Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol, 1955 (with Dora Panofsky)
  • Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, 1957
  • Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art, 1960 (2 vols.)
  • The Iconography of Correggio's Camera di San Paolo, 1961
  • Studies in Iconology, 1962 (2nd ed.)
  • Tomb Sculpture, 1964 (edited by H.W. Janson)
  • Saturn and Melancholy; Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art, 1964 (with Raymond Klibansky, Fritz Saxl)
  • Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographic, 1964
  • Dr. Panofsky and Mr. Tarkington, 1974 (edited by Richard M. Ludwig)
  • Three Essays on Style, 1995 (edited by Irving Lavin)
  • Siegfried Kracauer - Erwin Panofsky, Briefwechsel 1941-1966, 1996 (edited by Volker Breidecker)  
  • Korrespondenz 1910 bis 1968: eine kommentierte Auswahl in fünf Bänden, 2001-2011 (5 vols., edited by Dieter Wuttke)
  • Ewig die Liebe allein: Erwin Panofskys, der sich auch Pan nennt, lateinische Gedichte gesammelt, revidiert, berichtigt und mit einigen knappen Anmerkungen versehen; mit Einleitung in lateinischer und deutscher Sprache sowie deutschen Versèubertragunge
    Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, c2018
  • Michelangelo's Design Principles, Particularly in Relation to those of Raphael, 2020 (Erwin Panofsky, Gerda Panofsky, Joseph Spooner)

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