Form as Revolt: Carl Einstein and the Ground of Modern Art by Sebastian Zeidler (review)
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Form as Revolt: Carl Einstein and the Ground of Modern Art. Sebastian Zeidler. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv + 306. $99.95 (cloth); $35.00 (paper).

The German-Jewish poet, critic, and philosopher Carl Einstein (1885–1940) was a reluctant practitioner of the “paraphrase,” his name for the practice by which writers and academics reduce concrete, sensuous realities to abstract ideas. But not only did Einstein himself produce an impressive body of critical and theoretical texts on art, thus becoming an art paraphraseur à contrecœur, his own elliptical, hermetic language had subsequently subjected scholars to the same embarrassing predicament. If all serious students of Einstein have wrestled with the intractable yet necessary task of paraphrasing Einstein, Sebastian Zeidler has done so with exceptional vigor.

Informed by Zeidler’s PhD dissertation and containing previously published articles, Form as Revolt is a theoretically oriented reading of Einstein’s philosophy of art through select texts, specifically Einstein’s seminal Negerplastik (on African sculpture) and his writings on cubism, Pablo Picasso’s surrealist period, and Paul Klee’s 1920s work. The reader should therefore not expect an intellectual biography or an historical-contextualist study of this major figure of the European avant-garde. Acknowledging the intertwinement between writing and activism in Einstein’s life in a brief biography at the outset, Zeidler nevertheless concludes that “Einstein’s exploits during [events like the Spanish Civil War] are . . . redundant for an account of Einstein as a writer or art critic” (54). Unlike most Einstein scholars to date, Zeidler has no interest in Einstein’s relationship to expressionist circles and Berlin Dada in his native Germany, or his participation in the dissident surrealist group in interwar Paris, which Zeidler deems “anecdotally entertaining but critically negligible” (158). Claiming that “the contexts through which Einstein kept moving never grounded his texts,” Zeidler insists instead on Einstein’s singularity as the “lost wanderer,” whose life and thought reflect “a modern ontological condition” that Zeidler terms “groundlessness” (9).

In the first, most philological of the chapters, “The Lost Wanderer,” Zeidler reads Einstein’s early writings as exercises in the “style of nonessence (Unwesen).” This refers to Einstein’s skepticism in regard to language’s ability to capture the essence of things, which for Einstein “is both assumed and not assumed to be ‘given’” (40). Attributing Einstein’s “nonessentialism” to the influence of German Romantic thought, Zeidler shows the extent to which Hegel’s philosophy and Novalis’s Mathematical Fragments informed Einstein’s negative conception of language and his interest in form as an “equation” rather than mimetic representation.

The second chapter, “Sculpture Ungrounded,” concerns Einstein’s 1915 treatise on West African sculpture, in which he polemicizes against post-baroque European sculpture’s over-reliance [End Page 891] on the pictorial. Epitomized by the neoclassical sculptor and theorist Adolf von Hildebrand’s advocacy for the sculptural relief, “pictorial” sculpture becomes for Einstein the foil for African sculpture’s unique capacity to convert material mass into “cubic form,” which Einstein deems “objective” in contrast to the “subjectivism” of European art. Zeidler does not as much take issue with this standard reading as he complicates it (though the interested reader can find in the footnotes his energetic reactions to previous scholarly discussions). He first enlists more potential targets for Einstein’s polemic: the physiological optics of Hermann von Helmholtz (an acquaintance of Hildebrand, but not of Einstein), and Georg Simmel’s texts on Auguste Rodin (to which Einstein alludes in passing). Zeidler argues that these two figures—representatives, respectively, of neo-Kantian epistemology (Helmholtz) and Bergsonian vitalism (Simmel)—coincide in their advocacy for “a temporalized sculptural experience” (82). To this Zeidler opposes Einstein’s concept of sculpture as “totality” and “simultaneity,” which while equally indebted to Bergson is for Zeidler more akin to “the Bergsonism of Gilles Deleuze” (86). This theoretical manoeuver allows Zeidler to develop a Deleuzian reading of African art: “It is . . . as an actualization of the virtual, in Deleuze’s reading of Bergson, that the totality of Einstein’s Chokwe [Angola] figure confronted the Western viewer in 1915” (86).

Given the strong case Zeidler makes for Einstein’s “non-essentialism,” the reader might find...