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A review of Problems of Style by Alois Riegl.
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Alois Riegl Problems of Style: Foundations for a History of Ornament.
reviewed by J. Duncan Berry
Alois Riegl (1858-1905) was one of the premier art historians at the turn of the century and a founder of the Viennese School of art history. He and two of his colleagues, the Swiss Heinrich Wölfflin and the German Aby Warburg, forged the three main methodological avenues of twentieth-century art-historical scholarship. By and large, the research programs of Wölfflin and Warburg are already familiar to the English-reading world: beginning in the 1930s, Wölfflin’s main works became available in translation and Warburg’s renowned library was transplanted to London. For decades, these two great scholars, their works, and their disciples commanded wide attention.
Riegl has not been so fortunate. He has been viewed as an idiosyncratic scholar whose rarefied if encyclopedic interests and peculiar literary style were intelligible only to the most devoted students of the spicy Zeitgeist of fin-de-siècle Vienna. For many years, the only English translation of his work was an odd snippet from his lengthy study of Dutch group portraiture. Finally, in the mid-1980s, there appeared an English version of Riegl’s magnum opus, the Late Roman Art Industry. But the slipshod translation and inept editing were and remain an unsightly blemish upon Riegl’s genuine scholarly achievement.
Now Riegl’s first major book, the Stilfragen of 1893, is at last available in an English-language edition. But Problems of Style, as this edition has been titled, seems yet another missed opportunity. Its weaknesses are largely institutional in origin: that is, they are evident only where collective effort and attitudes are manifest. While I shall return to this matter in a moment, certain qualifications are in order. To begin with, it must be acknowledged that the translator’s rendering of Riegl’s German prose is outstanding. It has become an inaccurate cliché that Riegl’s writing is needlessly turgid and opaque. In truth, it is only as demanding as the subject matter warrants. While Evelyn Kain’s translation does not simplify Riegl’s prose, it does make his brilliant analyses easily accessible to an English-reading public. I found only two occasions where Riegl’s supple, sinuous style is infelicitously debased by contemporary colloquialisms.
The subject of Stilfragen is nothing less than the history of man’s depiction of the relationship between art and nature in vegetal ornament. Beginning with paleolithic carvings, Riegl traces a continuous evolution of decorative floral representations characterized by a series of swings between naturalism and anti-naturalism. Like few art historians before or since, Riegl exhibits an uncanny ability to focus on infinitesimal details of design. And, as is the case with the finest art-historical literature, the text is full of penetrating observations that, quite simply, change the way one sees. It is true, as David Castriota demonstrates in his ample annotations, that Stilfragen is only of marginal archeological value today. Although several of Riegl’s insights about the evolution of vegetal ornament remain valid, the corpus of samples he had available to work with was still rather limited.
But the real significance of Stilfragen, then and now, is its presentation of the theoretical perspective Riegl was just beginning to formulate. And it is the complete silence on this critical matter that makes the editorial handling of this volume an utter failure. Significantly, there are no annotations to the book’s introduction, where Riegl first took issue with the so-called “materialist” school of art history, which consisted of the epigones of the architect, theorist, and archeologist Gottfried Semper. The “materialists” accounted for artistic evolution by arguing that style was merely the by-product of the technical processes used in the crafting of any given object. For Riegl, not only did this contradict the historical record as it continued to unfold after Semper, but it also clashed with common sense. The self-styled Semperians left no room for what Riegl dubbed “the human artistic impulse [that] has always aimed unswervingly at transcending technical limitations.” Riegl held that psychology preceded technology. He had to resort to a maddeningly fuzzy neologism (Kunstwollen) to name this “artistic compulsion.” The term itself appeared only once in Stilfragen, but it came to occupy center stage in subsequent studies.
The implications of this shift of emphasis were momentous. On the one hand, it could now be shown that geometric patterns were not the earliest manifestations of style—that, in fact, geometric stylization was itself evidence of artistic “progress.” On the other hand, the psychological motivation of artists replaced technique as the primary generator of stylistic change. Indeed, the catalogue of artistic motivations Riegl provides in Stilfragen resembles nothing so much as a psychoanalytical lexicon; elaborate appeals to “impulses,” “drives,” “urges,” “appetites,” “de- mands,” “challenges,” “inclinations,” “strivings,” “denials,” “satisfactions,” and “repressions” are woven throughout his argument. While much ink has been needlessly spilled in an effort to link Riegl to the psychoanalytic movement, more perceptive analyses have revealed the latent structuralist tendencies in Riegl’s work. In his later writings, recurring formal constellations—structures—came to be seen as evidence of both individual and cultural psychic states. Wide-spread adoption of this theoretical position announced the birth of the Viennese School of art history. Later adherents, such as Hans Sedlmayr and Guido von Kaschnitz-Weinberg, extended Riegl’s method across the historical spectrum from ancient to contemporary art and architecture.
Although this is lightly touched upon by both Professor Castriota and the author of the preface, Henri Zerner, the practical consequences of this shift are wholly ignored. Stilfragen represents nothing less than the opening salvo from within the academy of the emerging modernist justification of formal abstraction. It has been known for over two decades that by 1900 Riegl was virtually required reading in progressive circles. The debt to Riegl declared by the German architect and industrial designer Peter Behrens alone goes a long way toward accounting for the revolution in abstract design that gradually suffused continental architecture by the 1920s. It is simply inconceivable that so much time and effort could be dedicated to bringing forth this seminal work without the slightest understanding of its extradisciplinary significance.
Although Riegl would later become more strident in his rejection of Semperian “materialism,” it is nonetheless interesting to examine his pronounced debt to Semper in the Stilfragen. Beginning with its title, “questions” (not “problems”) of style indicate a direct dialogue with Semper’s magisterial Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten, oder praktische Aesthetik of 1860-61. And as an interrogation of “Style,” Riegl pays frequent homage to his mentor. For instance, Riegl’s notion of a psychic horror vacui—to which primitive artists were especially prone and which accounts for the seemingly compulsive need to fill in every workable decorative space—is lifted straight off the pages of Semper’s Der Stil. The corollary of this postulate, later taken up by Riegl’s compatriot, the architect Adolf Loos, was that pleasure taken in the absence of ornament was a manifestation of an advanced cultural condition. Loos’s notorious essay of 1908, “Ornament and Crime,” addressed this issue head on. What is more interesting, however, is that Semper also emphasized the purely volitional (as opposed to mechanical) foundation of artistic invention. The extent to which Riegl still relied upon the “classical” psychological doctrine of imagination betrays his true, proto-modernist roots. His full impact on modernist theory and design can only be appreciated when it is finally understood how the “classical” faculty of fantasy was later eclipsed by Freud’s and Nietzsche’s volitional psychology of instinct.
At the same time, Riegl’s teleological arguments, grounded in the language of mid-century German Idealist philosophy, helped to instill an appreciation for a primitive, anonymous, collectivist ideology of form. In fact, there is a deep strain of Romanticism in Riegl that easily lent itself to evaluations of whole cultures. This hastened the emergence of a politicized, racist trend in art history whose disastrous cultural consequences anticipated the academic policies of the Third Reich. It is all too telling that today’s “multiculturalists” have selected Riegl as worthy of “serious” consideration: collectivists, Left and Right, will always wind up goose-stepping to the same beat.
The socio-political consequences of the Viennese School’s brand of Strukturforschung were attacked nearly sixty years ago by the Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro. In my opinion, it was the “political incorrectness” detected then that accounts in large measure for the lack of interest in Riegl in the decades since. Nevertheless, starting in the 1960s, structuralists lead by Sheldon Nodelman expressed an emergent interest in Riegl.
This is why it is ironic that David Castriota, an assistant professor of art history at Sarah Lawrence, sees this volume as “a Stilfragen for the 1990s and beyond.” Politics aside, Riegl’s staggering command of the visual evidence and rhetorical subtlety indicate why Professor Castriota’s crabbed rejoinders typify the appalling condition of the humanities: “Nowadays, one is prone to be a good deal more circumspect in attempting to understand or explain the root causes of major stylistic trends and developments.” While there is a grain of truth here, it is submerged in an ocean of exculpatory renouncements of the Big Questions. Today it is Riegl’s thesis of continuity that is deemed “politically incorrect.” Professor Castriota naïvely condescends to Riegl’s masterfully synthetic enterprise, pronouncing as if from above that
ours is … a period in which historians, critics, and epistemologists have come to question the basic assumptions behind the whole notion of cultural continuity and evolution. In place of continuity, relation, and order, it has now become preferable to seek discontinuity, difference, and fragmentation.
In short, today’s “scholars” take pride in deliberately skewing research. A clearer example of the sheer idiocy of politically correct “theory” as it relates to the history of art would be difficult to come by. To those of us still willing to state the obvious, Professor Castriota looks like a recent arrival to the sack of Rome explaining why the demolition of the Forum represented a salutary advance in architectural sensibilities.
Compounding the editorial irony is the fact that, by 1893, Riegl had not yet achieved the “exalted” perspective of cultural relativism that won him warm praise from later collectivists of the academic Left. Stilfragen is absolutely rife with judgments of value and quality! One suspects that it was the desire to resurrect Riegl-as-relativist that inspired this effort. Further examination of his work made it clear that some hasty back-pedaling was needed.
Haste is the key word. The contrast of genuine scholarship with what goes by that name today is painfully evident throughout. From the intrusive, pedantic annotations to the abundant typographical errors, this edition represents the “lite” version of intellectual achievement. Work on this edition began in 1985, and one would think that seven years would be sufficient to eliminate skipped lines and misspellings. The laziness of thought that characterizes the whole enterprise is nowhere more evident than in the book’s preface. Here Henri Zerner, a professor of fine arts at Harvard, presents the theoretical capstone of Riegl’s method. “In this work,” he writes, “Riegl’s concept of Kunstwollen (which can variously be translated as ‘artistic intention,’ ‘intentionality,’ ‘will,’ or whatever) was just taking shape.” “Whatever,” indeed.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 April 1993, on page 71
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