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Naming the GracesCharles Hope
Vol. 6 No. 5 · 15 March 1984

Naming the Graces

Charles Hope

2774 words
The Art of Humanism 
by Kenneth Clark.
Murray, 198 pp., £12.50, October 1983, 0 7195 4077 1
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The Eloquence of Symbols: Studies in Humanist Art 
by Edgar Wind, edited by Jaynie Anderson.
Oxford, 135 pp., £25, January 1984, 0 19 817341 5
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In the last forty years Kenneth Clark did more than anyone else to create an interest in the art of Renaissance Italy, but Edgar Wind had a much greater influence on the way in which this art has been studied. Both men were outstanding lecturers and gifted writers, and both, in very different ways, were influenced by the work of Aby Warburg. Both, too, were particularly drawn to the early Renaissance in Florence and to the High Renaissance in Rome, to those masterpieces, in fact, which occupy the central place in the English and American canon of great art. But there the resemblance ends. Whereas Clark was a populariser who wore his learning lightly, Wind was exactly the opposite. His best-known work, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, was an attempt to relate the ideas of Neoplatonism to Renaissance paintings and sculptures; and his main contention was that such works could only be fully appreciated by someone deeply versed in this unusually abstruse and now unfamiliar philosophical system. Clark appeals to those who like their art easy, Wind to those who want it difficult.

A major factor in Clark’s success was that he wrote about works of art which his readers knew to be outstanding even if they could not always say why. This is particularly evident in his famous television series Civilisation. The title gives the impression that he was providing a survey of Western art, but this was by no means the case, as he himself admitted. The works he chose to talk about were carefully selected, and the omissions are extraordinary. Not merely did he say next to nothing about Spain: he tended to avoid works that were overtly emotional, sensual or even unfamiliar. Thus the mythologies of Titian and Rubens were not mentioned, nor the Mannerist art of Italy and Northern Europe, while even Grünewald was confined to a walk-on part, in a discussion of Holbein, with the comment: ‘Now I suppose everyone would prefer Grünewald’s Isenheim altar, where the sense of tragedy makes the very word civilisation falter on our lips.’

Although Clark can be criticised for keeping within the parochial bounds of English taste, we must be grateful that he chose to concentrate on the masterpieces which he most admired. No one since Ruskin has written so well in English about works of art, or has been so uninhibited in expressing his emotional responses or in making sweeping generalisations. But Clark was not only unusually sensitive: he was also very knowledgeable. His early work on the Leonardo drawings at Windsor more than established his credentials as a scholar; and all his best books, above all the monographs on Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca, were based on wide and intelligent reading.

The Art of Humanism is again concerned with the 15th century, but it is certainly not of the quality of these earlier publications. It consists of five lectures composed over a period of 40 years. Although the earliest, on Alberti’s treatise on painting, retains a certain interest, even if it is seriously out of date, the others, on Donatello, Uccello, Mantegna and Botticelli, are altogether less significant; and the discussion of Donatello, in particular, is marred by the fact that one crucial work, the St John in Venice, is misdated by 15 years. Even John Walker, in his preface, is hard put to find anything very remarkable in the text. The best he can do is to claim that ‘Italian 15th-century art needs an apologist like Kenneth Clark,’ as if no one visited Florence any more, and to tell us that after reading the book, ‘improbable as it is for one who hates and fears Communism as I do, [I am now eager] to cross into East Germany to see the originals of Botticelli’s illustrations to Dante. I can give the author no higher praise.’

Throughout his life, Clark believed that the modern viewer could understand an artist’s intentions largely through his own aesthetic response, that the appreciation of art was above all a matter of feeling. Wind, by contrast, thought that the art of the past, and particularly of the Renaissance, was the product of a culture – and above all of a literary culture – which could only be reconstructed by immense labour; and he supposed that the artists often illustrated ideas that had been formulated by Humanists. The notion that Renaissance art is now accessible only through the study of texts has an obvious appeal to anyone who does not possess Clark’s gifts for articulating his feelings about paintings or sculptures; and it also transforms the study of art history into an academic activity of a reassuringly familiar kind that can be done as effectively in Oxford or Chicago as in Florence.

Edgar Wind himself was an exceedingly learned man. His publications are full of untranslated passages in Latin and Greek, with long discursive footnotes. But these often serve to obscure the extreme shakiness of his arguments, even to a scholar as acute as Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Thus in his biographical memoir of Wind in the volume under review, Professor Lloyd-Jones states that Wind’s now famous identification of the Graces in Botticelli’s Primavera as Chastity, Pleasure and Beauty is ‘precisely documented in Ficino’s Theologia Platonica’. This is certainly the impression that Wind tried to convey; and it takes a very close reading of Pagan Mysteries to discover that it is wholly untrue: despite the pages of references to Neoplatonic texts about the Graces, Wind produced not a single instance in which they were given this combination of names. And in an entirely characteristic way, he himself failed to draw attention to this difficulty.

A free and easy use of textual evidence is a constant feature of Wind’s work. In Pagan Mysteries, for example, he almost never provided the dates of the texts he cited; and the unwary reader could be quite unaware that his interpretations were often based on passages post-dating the work of art in question by fifty years or more. Inconvenient lacunae in the evidence, as in the case of the Primavera, were frequently just disregarded. Central to Wind’s approach, therefore, was the assumption that Renaissance artists picked up their philosophy in informal conversations with learned men. But if such conversations took place, they must have been very one-sided, for there is singularly little to indicate that Humanists as a group took much interest in works of art, or for that matter that Renaissance artists commonly sought out their company. In fact, the only evidence that Wind produced for his contention was a letter of Celio Calcagnini containing the remark that Raphael’s greatest pleasure was ‘to be taught and to teach’. If one troubles to look up this letter, it comes as a surprise to discover that the passage specifically concerns Raphael’s architectural and archaeological activities, and his discussions on these subjects with Fabio Calvo, the translator of Vitruvius. An equally striking example of historical wishful thinking comes in the concluding chapter of Pagan Mysteries, in which Wind asserted, without any supporting evidence, that the kind of decorations known as ‘grotesques’ ‘represented to perfection what Pico della Mirandola had defined as the Orphic disguise: the art of interweaving the divine secrets with the fabric of fables’, omitting any reference to the considerable Renaissance literature which stressed that such decorations were fanciful and without meaning.

It might seem from all this that Wind consciously set out to mislead his readers: but this is almost certainly not the case. It was rather that he seemed to lack any kind of self-doubt or self-criticism. How else could he claim, in his interpretation of the Sistine Ceiling, that Julius II’s ‘favourite theologian’ was a man whom the Pope may never have met, and whose work he may never have read? The bizarre combination of exceptional erudition and a complete lack of any acceptable historical method was one of the reasons he was such a compelling lecturer. The material itself was new to his audience, the conclusions often paradoxical and wholly unexpected; the delivery was supremely confident, witty and engagingly spiced with asides about personalities he was discussing, which seemed to be based almost on personal acquaintance. He opened up a new world, and no one was to know that it was largely fantasy.

It was no accident that some of Wind’s best work was concerned with that most elusive branch of Renaissance imagery – emblems, personal devices and hieroglyphs. These were often meant to be obscure or ambiguous in their meaning, and they explicitly drew on learned and esoteric texts. Indeed, during the Renaissance the discovery of new and unexpected significance in such images was a popular intellectual game. Wind would have made an ideal Renaissance court Humanist, because he could play the game to perfection. The problems arose when he applied the same methods to large-scale paintings and sculpture, simply because there is very little evidence that these were customarily interpreted in a similar way.

Of course, if Wind had actually succeeded in producing coherent and plausible readings of major works of art, this would have helped his case. But his conclusions have not gained widespread acceptance, because on close examination they seem so extraordinarily contrived. One famous example shows just how far he could be misled. It concerns Bellini’s painting of The Feast of the Gods, about which he wrote an entire book, arguing that it was based on a complex programme by Pietro Bembo, and showed, in a burlesque form, the marriage of the patron, Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, with Lucrezia Borgia. It was subsequently discovered that the picture is actually a very faithful illustration of a Medieval version of an episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which Bellini must have taken from an Italian prose paraphrase of the Metamorphoses published in Venice; there was no learned programme, and the picture subsequently had to be changed because the artist had overlooked the fact that his patron wanted a representation of an authentic Classical story.

The case of The Feast of the Gods is important for two reasons. First, it shows how easy it is, using an approach like Wind’s, to construct an entirely fictitious interpretation of a major Renaissance work of art, simply because the range of potentially relevant texts is so large and their relationship with the painted imagery so imprecise. Secondly, it undermines one of his basic preconceptions: namely, that patrons of the period habitually provided artists with detailed programmes devised by learned Humanists – that they thought painting was an appropriate medium for elaborate and erudite allegory. Indeed, if such a programme was ever used, this would have been the occasion on which one would have expected to see evidence of it, since The Feast of the Gods is the only major mythological picture that Bellini is known to have painted, it was probably the largest work of this type produced in Venice up to that time, and it was commissioned by a sophisticated patron.

Wind’s influence on later students of Renaissance imagery, like that of a much greater scholar with whom he is commonly associated, Erwin Panofsky, depended on the fascination and universal applicability of his method. The present volume, mostly devoted to his relatively early publications, is of interest principally because it illuminates the origins of his approach. In fact the subtitle, Studies in Humanist Art, is slightly misleading, since the contents, apparently selected by Wind himself before he died, range over a much wider area. Thus in addition to a group of articles on Renaissance art and thought, there is a long early essay on Plato’s philosophy of art, the text of a lecture on the ideas of Aby Warburg and a short piece on the religious art of Rouault and Matisse. Finally, as a companion to the Warburg text, Wind chose to republish his review of E. H. Gombrich’s biography of Warburg, which originally appeared anonymously in the Times Literary Supplement. If one were not assured by Professor Lloyd-Jones that this was written ‘as a matter of duty’, it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that Wind was here motivated by personal animus. Why else should he have claimed, for example, that ‘no account at all’ was taken of the influence on Warburg of the aesthetics of Friedrich Robert Vischer, when Gombrich devoted four pages to this very subject? Whatever his motives, the inclusion of this piece at least shows the severe standards by which he expected to be judged.

Although Wind’s own approach to Renaissance art is often described as Warburgian, his essay on Warburg makes it clear that this is not strictly accurate. Warburg was certainly interested in pictorial symbols, but he understood the term in an unusually wide sense which covered any phenomenon that retained, in however attenuated a form, some symbolic significance. Thus his study of the Renaissance revival of motifs from Classical art was prompted by his curiosity about the ways in which these had preserved their expressive connotations. In this respect, Warburg’s closest follower writing in English was Kenneth Clark, in The Nude. Wind, by contrast, was not concerned with Renaissance culture in the broadest sense, in its accidental and marginal manifestations, but in a particular type of high culture which happened to be richly documented in Warburg’s library. The early iconographic studies reprinted here already reveal the preoccupation with philosophical and Patristic texts that was to inform all his later work on Renaissance art. They also illustrate his characteristic strengths and weaknesses, and include a brilliant and convincing study of Erasmus’s personal device, a sensible identification of a small panel by Botticelli, and a thoroughly far-fetched reading of one of Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura, in which the obvious objection – that he has provided an interpretation for only three of a group of five children – is simply passed over in silence. Since Wind was not a prolific scholar it is a pity that he decided not to reprint all his articles on Renaissance art, especially as some are less easy to find elsewhere than those included in this volume. It is possible, of course, that he himself no longer found all of them convincing: this may, for example, explain the omission of the characteristically-titled study ‘Dürer’s Männerbad [Men’s Bath]. A Dionysian Mystery’. But others, such as ‘The Saint as Monster’, a witty note about St John Chrysostom, retain their validity. Fortunately, the editor of the present volume, Jaynie Anderson, has provided a comprehensive bibliography of Wind’s writings. She has also tactfully brought the references up to date; and this is particularly helpful in the article on Grünewald’s St Erasmus, since more recent scholarship has overturned several of Wind’s conclusions.

A selection of Wind’s work on his other main area of interest, English art of the 18th century, is to be published in a companion volume. But at present there seems to be no prospect that his hitherto unpublished manuscripts will become available. That will be a disappointment to many readers, since Wind’s reputation was founded on his lectures, and in these he proposed many ideas – for example, about Raphael and Michelangelo – which have never appeared in print. But whether his theories would have stood up to detailed scrutiny is open to question. In particular, it is doubtful that he could have provided a complete and plausible reconstruction of the programme for the Sistine Ceiling, as he promised in a published lecture on Michelangelo’s Prophets and Sibyls, given that even the limited conclusions which he advanced there have already been in part discredited. Moreover, the one interpretation of a work by Raphael from the Oxford lectures which Professor Lloyd-Jones mentions in his preface hardly makes one wish for more. It involves Raphael’s Transfiguration, completed in 1520. Wind saw this as a depiction of the two kinds of madness which Plato distinguished in Phaedrus, the one a mortal infirmity, the other a divine release. The theme seems singularly inappropriate for an altarpiece, especially for one that was not even destined for a city like Rome, where a few people had read Plato, but for Narbonne; nor does the interpretation seem to fit the text on which Wind based it, a poem by Achille Bocchi. This was published in 1555, accompanied by an engraving of the upper part of Raphael’s composition and a motto which all students of Renaissance art ought to take to heart: Archana quaerens curiosius, perit – ‘it is fatal to investigate mysteries too closely.’

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Vol. 6 No. 6 · 5 April 1984

SIR: Now that the editors of Edgar Wind’s writings (reviewed by Charles Hope in your last issue) have lifted the anonymity of his review in the Times Literary Supplement of my biography of Aby Warburg (London, 1970), I should like to make known the letter he wrote to me in response to my sending him an offprint of the memorial lecture I had given at Hamburg University on the centenary of Warburg’s birth. The letter from 27 Belsyre Court, Oxford is dated 2 December and reads:

My dear Gombrich,

Thank you very much for your kindness in sending me your beautiful speech on Warburg. It is a most moving document, true and close to the original, and at the same time distinguished by a feeling of distance. Warburg would have been particularly pleased that, without diminishing in the least the pathos of his history, you succeeded in saving him and yourself by a sense of humour. The remark about Böecklin and Anton von Werner is as delightful and comical as it is pertinent – a genuine ‘period piece’.

Also the Kreuzlingen episode is handled with exemplary clarity and lightness of touch. What you say about the Warburg archive makes me hope that one day you will give us a comprehensive history, including the relationship of Warburg to Binswanger, which you alone would be able to elucidate.

It must have been quite a gruelling experience in Hamburg, with so many ghosts around. The very thought of Carl Georg Heise, particularly suitable for a ghost, might put one off (not to speak of la famille); but in reading the lecture one has the feeling that you swam very safely, and that alone is a great achievement and a cause for warm congratulations.

With best wishes and kindest regards,

Edgar Wind

It so happens that an English version of my centenary lecture is about to be published by the Phaidon Press in a volume entitled Tributes. Anyone interested will therefore be able to judge whether my interpretation of Warburg’s life and thought, an interpretation so highly praised by Wind, differs from the one in the book he found it his duty to drag through the mud.

E.H. Gombrich
London NW3

SIR: I write to correct a confusion created by Dr Charles Hope in his review of my edition of the first volume of the late Professor Edgar Wind’s papers, The Eloquence of Symbols, with a biographical memoir by Professor Hugh Lloyd-Jones. In his discussion of Wind’s review of Sir Ernst Gombrich’s biography of Warburg, originally published anonymously in the Times Literary Supplement, Dr Hope writes: ‘If one were not assured by Professor Lloyd-Jones that this was written “as a matter of duty", it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that Wind was here motivated by personal animus. Why else should he have claimed, for example, that “no account at all" was taken of the influence on Warburg of the aesthetics of Friedrich Robert Vischer [sic], when Gombrich devoted four pages to this very subject? Whatever his motives, the inclusion of this piece at least shows the severe standards by which he expected to be judged.’ Sir Ernst Gombrich does, indeed, devote four pages to a discussion of the aesthetics of Friedrich Theodor Vischer and his paper ‘Das Symbol’. However, in his review of Gombrich’s biography, Wind drew attention to the importance of the theory of Einfühlung (empathy) for Warburg’s thought, which was brought to bear on aesthetic theory by Robert Vischer – not mentioned by Gombrich – in his revolutionary treatise, Uber das Optische Formgefühl (1873). Warburg himself acknowledged his debt to both the Vischers in the preface to his very first publication, the now legendary dissertation on Botticelli (1893). These two important German aestheticians, Friedrich Theodor Vischer and Robert Vischer, are mentioned separately on page 27, note 16, as well as in the index, of The Eloquence of Symbols. Dr Hope has conflated father and son into one person.

Jaynie Anderson
Wolfson College. Oxford

Vol. 6 No. 7 · 19 April 1984

SIR: May I point to the confusion created by Dr Charles Hope in his review of The Eloquence of Symbols, when he writes that ‘the articles republished were apparently selected by Wind himself before he died,’ and makes erroneous claims on the basis of this statement (LRB, 15 March). The final choice was, in fact, the editor’s, made well after my husband’s death, in consultation with me, his literary executor, and with the many scholars who wished to emphasise the wide range of his interests. As stated in the preface to The Eloquence of Symbols, Edgar Wind himself ‘never carried the project beyond its early phases’.

Also mentioned in the preface are the Michelangelo papers, as being ‘of necessity’ excluded from the present volume because of their bulk – not, as your reviewer alleges, because their author lost confidence in them. His last years were almost entirely devoted to these studies on Michelangelo’s theological sources, which he always conceived of as a separate book, and it is my intention to follow his wishes and publish them as the third volume of his selected papers.

One final point. On the basis of erroneous evidence, Dr Hope finds it hard to resist the conclusion that my husband’s review of Sir Ernst Gombrich’s biography of Warburg was inspired by ‘personal animus’. Sir Ernst now cites (Letters, 5 April) the entire text of an appreciative letter from my husband about his memorial address for the Warburg centenary in Hamburg. I am at a loss to understand the relevance of this letter. Is it suggested that it committed the author to an equal approval of all Sir Ernst’s subsequent writings on Warburg? My husband greatly admired the address (13 pp.); he was gravely disappointed by the biography (375 pp.), finding the impression conveyed there very different: in each case he spoke as he found. Had it been possible – as it then was not – he would certainly have put his name to the review.

Margaret Wind

Vol. 6 No. 8 · 3 May 1984

SIR: Jaynie Anderson is quite right to point out (Letters, 5 April) that I conflated the two Vischers, Friedrich Theodor and Robert, in my review of Edgar Wind’s volume of collected papers; and I apologise for my carelessness. But this mistake fortunately does not negate my claim that Wind’s review of Gombrich’s biography of Warburg was unduly tendentious. In his dissertation on Botticelli, Warburg did indeed cite both Vischers in his third footnote, in connection with the notion of Einfühlung (empathy). As Dr Anderson points out, it was Robert who focused on the term in aesthetic theory in 1873; and then in 1887 Friedrich Theodor, making explicit reference to Robert’s work, applied it to the interpretation of symbols. In his biography of Warburg, Gombrich discussed Warburg’s debt to Friedrich Theodor at some length, and also gave prominence to the concept of empathy. Since he was writing about Warburg rather than the Vischers there is no obvious reason why he should have explored the various usages of the term. Its origins, incidentally, are not as straightforward as Wind maintained: far from being a new coinage in the 1870s, as he claimed in the review, it can be found as early in 1843, in Friedrich Theodor’s Plan zu einer neuen Gliederung der Ästhetik. In taking Friedrich Theodor’s publication of 1887 as the key text, without mentioning his debt to Robert’s paper of 1873, Gombrich was of course following the precedent set by Wind himself in a lecture delivered at the Warburg Library during Warburg’s own lifetime, and reprinted in The Eloquence of Symbols.

My assumption that Wind himself selected the papers republished in this volume was based on some remarks in the editor’s preface: ‘Many years ago Edgar Wind had contemplated publishing a collection of his essays with the title The Eloquence of Symbols, but as he was always preoccupied with new research he never carried the project beyond its early phases … For many of the essays that Wind had chosen for republication he left offprints with annotations and revisions, as well as notes with references to further sources and more recent bibliography, and these have been incorporated when they seemed appropriate.’ In that preface the editor specifically indicates that Professor Lloyd-Jones had suggested the inclusion of Wind’s early essay on Plato: but readers will understand why I had supposed – wrongly, as it turns out – that otherwise the choice was Wind’s own.

Charles Hope
Warburg Institute, University of London

Vol. 6 No. 21 · 15 November 1984

SIR The discussion arising from Charles Hope’s review of Edgar Wind’s The Eloquence of Symbols (LRB, 15 March) has only recently come to my notice. May I add a postscript on a systematic problem which seems to me to have been overlooked? Associationism or empathy – that’s the question. In his review of E. H. Gombrich’s Aby Warburg, Wind insisted on the impact Robert Vischer had on Warburg’s psychology of art. He did this because he doubted Gombrich’s assumption that ‘in Warburg’s naturalistic philosophy of man’, as in Herbart’s theory of associationism, there is ‘little place for the creative imagination’. In Wind’s view, which I share, Warburg was not a Herbartian at all, but an adherent of the theory of Einfuhlung, according to which the imagination has an integrative function within the aesthetic act of endowing objects with our own feelings and emotions.

As to whether the term and theory of empathy were coined and developed by Robert Vischer, or by his father Friedrich Theodor, Wind certainly agreed with research on the subject, which attributed both term and theory to Robert. When, on the contrary, Hope maintains that the concept of empathy ‘can be found as early as 1843, in Friedrich Theodor’s Plan zu einer Neuen Gliederung der Ästhetik’, he is, I am afraid, conflating plan and realisation. In Friedrich Theodor’s Plan, Einfuhlung can be found neither as a theory nor as a concept, indeed, not even as a word, but only in modo absentiae, in a vague awareness of the problem, the solution to which was to await the advent of Robert. Since in his early writings Friedrich Theodor did not abandon the assumption of an objectively existing beauty, he could not arrive at the Kantian solution later advanced by his son, namely, that beauty is not given as an object, but is grounded in the aesthetic act of a subject projecting its feelings and emotions onto an otherwise dead and senseless object.

It is misleading of Hope to assume that, in disregarding Robert Vischer, Gombrich ‘was of course following the precedent set by Wind himself in a lecture delivered at the Warburg Library during Warburg’s own lifetime’. Apart from the fact that the lecture was delivered in 1930, a year after Warburg’s death, we must remember that Wind confined himself in it to a reconstruction of Warburg’s and Friedrich Theodor’s concept of the symbol. Since he did not deal with Warburg’s Fragments on the foundation of a monistic psychology of art, there was no need to mention Warburg’s debt to Robert Vischer. When, however, he reviewed Gombrich’s biography of Warburg, Wind was quite right to criticise Gombrich for omitting to mention Robert Vischer in his discussion of the Fragments, because it was largely this omission which led to Gombrich’s mistaken view of Warburg as an associationist. What did, in fact, take place ‘during Warburg’s own lifetime’ were several methodological conversations between Warburg and Wind. According to the Tagebuch of the Warburg Library, only two weeks before Warburg’s death the two men had a long discussion specifically about his Fragments. This personal exchange of ideas lends added authority to Wind’s various accounts of Warburg. On this ground alone, the decision to include in The Eloquence of Symbols Wind’s 1930 Warburg lecture and his critical review of Gombrich’s biography was, in my view, correct and reasonable.

Bernard Buschendorf
University of Heidelberg

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