Baroque and the Political Language of Formalism (1845–1945): Burckhardt, Wölfflin, Gurlitt, Brinckmann, Sedlmayr by Evonne Levy (review)
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Reviewed by
Evonne Levy. Baroque and the Political Language of Formalism (1845–1945): Burckhardt, Wölfflin, Gurlitt, Brinckmann, Sedlmayr. Schwabe Verlag. 404. @68.00

Formalism, if understood as a simple classification of stylistic developments, has been out of fashion in art history for a long time now. The rhetorical, constructed, and literary qualities of formalist scholarship have been scrutinized, and its claims to objectivity or scientific neutrality critiqued. Formalism, however, if understood as a complex and historically situated scholarly language, continues to garner the attention of scholars, who seek to understand the motivations, sources, and politics of some of the German art historians who helped established the modern discipline of art history in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.

Evonne Levy's new book contributes to these ongoing historiographical debates through a discussion of what was politically at stake in writings on the Baroque, especially Baroque architecture, by Jacob Burckhardt, Heinrich Wölfflin, Cornelius Gurlitt, A.E. Brinckmann, and Hans Sedlmayr. Formalism, she convincingly demonstrates, did not become politicized only in the 1930s with art historians like Brinckmann and Sedlmayr, who were sympathetic to the Nazi cause, but was politically conservative from its very beginnings in the work of Burckhardt and, more importantly, Wölfflin. Levy contends that political thought is embedded in art historians' formalist analyses: discussions of architectural formations in the past relate to the form of the state in the present. One theme that continually arises in her study is the ideal relation of the individual to [End Page 287] the state. When Wölfflin, for example, distinguishes between a Renaissance building's individuality (coordination of independent elements) and a Baroque building's unity (subordination of the parts to the whole) in his Renaissance und Barock (1888), his stylistic categories are not just aesthetic but political as well. As Levy explains, the Renaissance, for the early Wölfflin, "is a moment of equilibrium, where individuals are relatively free and autonomous relative to the whole. The Baroque is almost entirely negative in its oppressive treatment of the individual."

One of the strengths of Levy's argument is the way in which close readings of texts are substantiated with biographical information as well as with links, often discovered through extensive archival research, between the art historians and events and/or writings of their day. Her textual analysis of Wölfflin's Renaissance und Barock, for example, is supported by her discussion of his Berlin university education and his enrolment in German nationalist and political theorist Heinrich von Treitschke's lecture course on politics, which Wölfflin discusses in his notebooks. Similar links between art historians and contemporaneous events, religious concerns, and political philosophy are made in every chapter. Levy thus does not treat formalist art history as a body of literature with a "strong internal coherence," in the tradition of Michael Podro's pioneering The Critical Historians of Art (1984). Rather, she understands art historical writing as always engaged with external factors, which she uses to uncover the political language of the texts she studies.

In plotting her protagonists' politics, Levy is careful not to repeat in the structure of her book the interpretative models she finds in the writing she examines. The five individual chapters are not unified in the sense that they are intended to tell a full story. The parts are not subordinate to the whole. Rather her five case studies show "theoretical patterns" (Levy uses Woodruff Smith's concept), that is, shared "assumptions, ideas, imagery, vocabulary and metaphors." In discerning these patterns, Levy, like the formalists she studies, organizes and classifies the past, and thus reduces the anxiety of historical chaos. At the same time, she avoids disciplinary borders in her treatment of formalist art historians and their engagement with diverse political thought of their times. Such disorderliness is also evident in her selection of authors, all important in their treatment of the Baroque, but not easily defined as a group. Burckhardt was as much a cultural historian as an art historian; Gurlitt was a popularizer and journalist as well as a scholar. Wölfflin, Sedlmayr, and Brinckmann may all have been art historians with university posts...


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