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  • Iconology at the Movies: Panofsky’s Film Theory
  • Thomas Y. Levin (bio)

In the New York Herald Tribune of November 16, 1936, below the involuntarily ironic headline “FILMS ARE TREATED AS REAL ART BY LECTURER AT METROPOLITAN,” one could read at some length about how “For the first time in the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art the motion picture was considered as an art during a lecture there yesterday afternoon by Dr. Erwin Patofsky [sic], member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University [sic].” What made this event so newsworthy, besides the incon gruous union of the plebeian medium of the movies with such an austere institution and famous art historian, was the rather unusual cultural legitimation of the cinema that it implied. While the study of film continues to this day to struggle for a modicum of institutional legitimacy within the academy, in 1936 the notion of any scholar lecturing anywhere on film (much less this particular scholar speaking and showing films from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art Film Library to an audience of 300 at that particular museum) was nothing short of remarkable.1 What could possibly have motivated the recently immigrated, renowned art historian and theorist Panofsky to undertake such an excursion into the domain of popular culture in the form of a lecture entitled “The Motion Picture as an Art”?2

The canonical account is that Panofsky was approached by Iris Barry in 1934, who was in the process of gathering support for a new Film Department at the Museum of Modern Art of which she would later become the founding curator. For alongside architecture, which was already being established as a department at the MOMA following a highly successful 1931–32 exhibition, the museum’s young director Alfred H. Barr—who himself published articles on cinema in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s—had also announced in July 1932 the plan to establish a “new field” at the museum that would deal with what he felt was the “most important twentieth century art”: “motion picture films.”3 When, with the help of a $100,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and $60,000 from MOMA trustee John Hay Whitney (who had also been one of the major financial backers of Gone with the Wind), the Film Department of the MOMA officially opened in June 1935 (initially housed in one room piled high [End Page 27] with films and books in the old CBS building on Madison Avenue), it was also thanks to the engagement of Panofsky, who had agreed to lend his voice to promote what was then considered, as he himself put it, “a rather queer project by most people.”4 This solidarity first manifested itself in the form of an informal lecture “On Movies” presented in 1934 to the faculty and students of the Art & Archaeology Department at Princeton University and subsequently published in the Departmental Bulletin in June 1936.5 “And so,” as Robert Gessner notes, emphasizing the legitimation function which Panofsky’s text was meant to serve, “the respectability of the front door was opened.” Merely by speaking on film in Princeton and, subsequently, in other contexts explicitly associated with the fledgling film library,6 Panofsky gave an intellectual (art historical) and cultural (continental) imprimatur to MOMA’s pioneering move to establish a serious archival and scholarly center for the study, preservation and dissemination of the history of cinema. Indeed, once the film department was founded, Panofsky was named as one of the six members of its advisory committee in March 1936, a position he held well into the 1950’s.7

Panofsky’s surprising scholarly interest in cinema is, however, not nearly as punctual and radically exceptional as it is usually claimed to be. In fact, he continued to present his ideas on film in public lectures and in print long after the MOMA film library had become a firmly established part of the New York cultural landscape. In 1937 a slightly revised version of “On Movies” appeared under the new title “Style and Medium in the Moving Pictures” in one of the leading organs of the international avant-garde, Eugene...

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