A History of Art History 
by Christopher Wood.
Princeton, 472 pp., £30, September 2019, 978 0 691 15652 1
Show More
Show More

What​ is the point of art history? If we say that history is a series of stories about changes, and that by art we mean things that humans have made for one another to look at, then what stories would be most interesting? Stories that tell us something special about humans, perhaps, something we could learn no other way. But it’s not easy to see what that is. There’s a shaggy horse drawn in charcoal 13,000 years ago on a wall of the Niaux cave in Southern France, and every frisky hatching looks as though it could have been set down yesterday by a student leaning a sketchpad on a farmyard fence. As far as the human brain is concerned, there’s apparently little change to report. Other sorts of history might tell us about the social, political and technological conditions that have shaped millennia of picturing, from the Niaux horse to yesterday’s art student – via, for instance, the neolithic White Horse at Uffington, the black horses on Greek vases and the blue horses of Franz Marc. But the transitions between then and now supplied by those tales of material change are so radical that they point us back to one central assumption about our species. Our brain is also a mind: an internal space in which we reorganise the visible contents of the world more swiftly than any other animal, to decisive and visible effect. And the mental process that enables us to style and restyle appears itself to be subject to transformation. The study of visual production should give us some insight into how mind alters.

Horse drawn in charcoal, c.11,000 BCE, in the cave at Niaux.

If that prospect seems conceivable, that is because made things can affect us doubly. We respond to the presented image – the horse in its horseyness – but may also sense the pressure of the person holding the charcoal. Interpreting a particular image, we examine its surface, hoping to discern the intelligence behind it. In interpreting several images and noting how they differ, we might assemble a basis for a history of mind. But the most obvious way of analysing those differences seems to head straight back into tales of material change. Minds have contents. When those contents alter, mental products such as drawings will alter accordingly.

Accepting this premise, you might turn to a standard instance of stylistic change to argue that the builders of 1050 and the builders of 1250 were bound to raise European cathedrals in rather different ways because the information available to each was different. In the interval, Europeans had begun moving from a feudal towards a monetised economy, the so-called commercial revolution. The shift from materially grounded power to abstract, ever-expansible potential was reflected in the switch from the semi-circular arches of the ‘Romanesque’ 11th century to the soaring pointed arches of the ‘Gothic’ 13th century, and from a structural system based on walls to another based on columns, resulting in more dynamic interior spaces that also saved on masonry costs. Visual expression allows us to infer a shared mentality, a mentality shaped by an era’s economic and political conditions. By this model – taking the mind to be the sum of its externally acquired contents – art history would serve as the façade for a more comprehensive, materially grounded history-in-general.

But that proposition feels at the least inadequate. The cathedrals themselves drove behaviour: think, for instance, of the 12th-century ‘cults of the carts’, the ecstatic-cum-penitential mass movements of lay people who lent their labour to them at construction sites such as Chartres or Châlons. Art isn’t simply façade: it can be a historical agent, making things happen. Moreover, to talk of a visual change ‘reflecting’ economic change is to ignore individual human agency. No doubt you could incorporate issues of ideology into the economy-based argument: you could posit that the doctrine attached to the new Gothic architectural style – one whose guiding principle was all-pervading light – could only take root and flourish in a society pervaded by cash. The architecture of this lux nova had its contemporary advocate in the abbot Suger, who in 1137 commissioned the first building we now call ‘Gothic’ at St Denis, outside Paris. But in his accounts of its construction and of his own abbatical administration, the eloquent Suger omitted to name the masons who came up with the fresh shapes that people could look at and walk among and talk about. Surely it is those masons’ inventiveness with stone-cutting and space to which we must attend.

A history of art should therefore be a history of stylistic inventiveness. This would no longer be a history of received mental content, of shared ideas and circumstances: for to come up with something new is to push at the mind’s own limits. A story about such changes would need to focus on the relationship between the internal processor and the external world. When it comes to representations such as that of the horse, we could lean here on familiar conceptual pairings – how ‘subjective interpretation’ transmutes ‘objective data’, how ‘ideal’ and ‘natural’ interact. But the term that will cover both the horse and the cathedrals is ‘form’.

Form constitutes the visually construable effects that mind has on not-mind. It is what the St Denis masons did to the stone, just as it is what emerges whenever I look at things and draw lines in response. Ever since translators equated forma, the Latin for ‘shape’, with Plato’s idea, ‘form’ has been the concept binding visual production to abstract thought and philosophy, detaching it from the minutiae of historical circumstance. At the same time, a history of formal changes is arguably the most purposeful of art histories. It asserts that in making things to look at, we reveal aspects of the nature of mind and of our human condition that are revealed no other way: it sets mental activity centre stage and allows for the possibility that art itself could be a protagonist in history.

Christopher Wood cares for the idea that art history could consist in what he calls a ‘biography of form’. This is one of the chief sympathies underpinning his huge and hugely impressive chronological narrative A History of Art History. The book surveys stories about changes in art that have been devised from the early Middle Ages onwards, taking in accounts from cultures that extend as far as Iran and China. Wood’s curiosity is that of an interrogator. What is the point of art history? The introduction notes three kinds of response. Most straightforwardly, to fashion a hall of fame; more ingeniously, to trace patterns across time (‘typologies’); or more ingeniously yet, to relativise (‘Artists saw it that way then and see it this way now’). But Wood doesn’t settle for any of them: he has a philosopher’s desire to arrive at what’s true. Giorgio Vasari is excoriated for his unilluminating descriptions of artworks as ‘beautiful’ and his resort, when all else fails, to non so che, that is, the je ne sais quoi of the imaginatively potent. ‘How poor Vasari’s literary soil is, how uninspiring and unpoetic his comments on art.’

Wood’s own literary soil is German: he is a historian at New York University who over the past three decades has established himself as a specialist in art and art writing from the deutsche Sprachraum. In his eyes, art history’s ‘first great age’ began not with the first publication of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists in 1550, but rather in 1772, when Goethe published an essay hailing ‘the gigantic spirit’ that had steered the construction of Strasbourg Cathedral during the late 13th century. In arguing for a style that had been out of favour for three hundred years, Goethe’s voice reached further and deeper than those from the Vasarian ‘academies of fine art’ when it asserted that ‘art is form-making long before it is beautiful [schön], and still it is true and great art, indeed often truer and greater than “fine [schöne] art” itself. For in man there is a form-making nature that becomes active as soon as his existence is assured.’ This conceptual bridgehead allowed Goethe’s successors to elaborate stories about that bildende Natur and its progress – narratives more urgent than those that had been regulated by definitions of ‘the beautiful’.

The notions of progress that stole into this late Enlightenment storytelling culminated in Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics. Here was art history compressed into a three-stage contest between not-mind and mind, each round delivering its distinctive outcome: first, the brute material pyramid; next, classical statuary, perfectly balancing fleshly and ideal; and finally, modern painting – a virtualisation of appearance, things flattened into thought. In this account, the mind’s steamrollering of outward matter was an inexorable process and, once complete, art itself would become superfluous. The very crudity of Hegel’s ‘fable’ (as Wood puts it) was a spur to more scholarly readings within the research-oriented art history departments that started springing up across Germany from the 1830s.

By the end of the century, the protagonist of art history had been recharacterised: behind the changes from period to period you no longer sought out the mind per se, but rather its specialist annex, the eye. According to the Viennese theorist Alois Riegl, it was necessary to isolate what we might now think of neurologically as a visual module: ‘a specific and purposeful Kunstwollen’ which guides how we use colour and outline to interpret objects and spaces, and which ‘asserts itself in conflict with practical purpose, material and technique’, showing up distinctively in whatever we make to look at. Across time, this so-called ‘art-will’ had undergone society-wide permutations – such as the shift from Romanesque to Gothic – that are the business of the historian to analyse. Heinrich Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History, published in Munich a decade after Riegl’s death in 1905, stated matters comparably but more boldly: ‘Every artist finds certain visual possibilities before him, to which he is bound. Not everything is possible at all times. Vision itself has its history, and the revelation of these visual strata must be regarded as the primary task of art history.’

Wölfflin’s Principles pairs visual contrasts (the ‘linear’ versus the ‘painterly’, ‘closed’ versus ‘open’ form) with contrasting eras (the ‘Renaissance’, the ‘Baroque’), and with these memorable formulae it remains, in Wood’s reckoning, ‘the most influential book by the most influential art historian of the 20th century’. Yet he holds Riegl’s earlier Problems of Style (1893) in higher regard: it marked ‘the arrival of art history’s culminating moment, the years when the project of art history most perfectly realised its possibilities.’ Riegl set his Kunstwollen, his form-creating impetus, within the most embracing of historical schemes, and – as Wood argues at the outset of his book – what readers of ‘the project’ have most yearned for is a setting for form. There stands the fine product – the cathedral, the carved marble, the canvas. You look, you sigh with delight: beautiful. But if you attempt to stretch your exhalation into a defensible statement, you may find yourself struggling for satisfactory explanations. Itemisation or description won’t supply them: ‘A causal art history would be a reverse alchemy, converting gold back into base earth. And yet the historian, if she is not to be reduced to pointing to features of artworks, will want to tell a story, and so pens the biography of form.’ Or more exactly, of good form: of how it is that people have made things that can so gratify us.

Wood salutes these intellectual initiatives. He sets no values above the making and the cherishing of art and therefore can’t but love the notion of form and celebrate the way that art history has garlanded it with ‘biographies’. But Wood is beset by suspicions – not only that these tales about form have always been fantastical, but that they have become obsolete. They were bound to remain mere hypotheses in the sense that the facts could never securely support them. Riegl’s case studies of the evolution of vegetal ornament and of the arts and crafts of late antiquity may have been grounded in his expertise as a museum curator, yet ‘his overall narrative is a fantasy,’ featuring the Kunstwollen as a ‘ghost in the machine’ and a myth of destiny, inherited from Hegel, in which art must leave materiality further and further behind. There was in fact a permanent disjuncture between the lofty schematic ambitions and the ground-level accumulation of data in all those university departments. Wood traces the split back to the Novum Organum of 1620, Francis Bacon’s revisionary programme for human endeavour that commended empirical investigation while warning that works of art may ‘cast their own peculiar spell’ on the intellect, ‘so that it becomes incapable of further knowledge’. Here, Wood notes with a characteristically bold sweep, in the era of Rubens, just as European fine art was rising to a zenith of social prestige, Bacon was denouncing it as culpably fictive:

Modern art in the West, or art under the conditions of technological modernity in general, accepts Bacon’s partition, agreeing that art opens a view not onto what is, but only at best onto what is not; not yet, perhaps not ever. Modern art history, meanwhile, Baconian at its core, is obliged to carry on delivering knowledge, knowledge about a kind of non-knowledge.

That scientific ‘core’ of art-historical investigation persists into the 21st century, but the onetime flesh of the project – the fabulising about form, itself intrinsically creative – has withered: and this is the conundrum to which the later parts of Wood’s narrative chiefly attend. I found his perspective bracing. Like many English-language readers, I was first introduced to art history by the writings of Ernst Gombrich, and here was Wood telling me that Gombrich could ‘almost be said to be not an art historian anymore’. The reason – plainly stated by Gombrich himself – is that after he abandoned Vienna for London in 1939, Gombrich also put behind him the dominant German-language art-historical discourses. Teleologies and invocations of any sort of ‘will’ smacked too much of Nazism. He chose to alter the agenda: in Art and Illusion (1960) he turned towards issues of representation, aligning art history closer to science.

Adifference​ of philosophical accent is involved. Proponents of form assume that anything to which we attend is moulded in the mind of the viewer and therefore liable to change whenever mentalities change. Analysts of representation presuppose (as do most scientists) that there is a separable content of reality to which our eyes and minds respond and to which they relate as if to a constant. Wood is somewhat reluctant to concede that the latter are art historians at all. He calls them ‘the fallen’, a category in which John Berger becomes Gombrich’s unlikely bedfellow: for the provocative reductionism of Berger’s Ways of Seeing, equating painting with property, shares with Art and Illusion an appeal to a firm wall of material fact.

If the discourse of form collapsed, this wasn’t simply on account of its political connotations. The relations between the art historians of the long 19th century and their artist contemporaries may have looked oblique, insofar as the former busied themselves with ‘Old Masters’. Wood contends, however, that their discussions of form kept painters on their toes, refining the agenda for them as they tackled the present-day content demanded by Realism and Impressionism. Indeed, in Wood’s reading, this helped raise the game for the art of painting, so that it reached the ‘high point’ occupied by the oeuvres of the half-century that stretched from Degas and Cézanne to Picasso, Klee and Beckmann. The advent of photography compounded the challenge: painters of that era met it ‘either by intensifying their scrutiny of given form, leaving the lens far behind, or by delivering the results of new, non-objective ways of seeing’. But once painting has broken free of representation, it ‘defictionalises’. It sheds its doubleness and threatens to topple into sheer content, stuff to bombard the eyes. In which case – to compress what has happened in art since that ‘high point’ – why resort to the use of paint? And why – more to the point here – worry further about art history?

Many of Wood’s later pages therefore fret at ‘the question of whether art history as a project can survive the end of painting’. (Or, he adds, ‘the beginning of painting’: for his favoured ‘biographies of form’ preceded the discoveries of Niaux, Lascaux, Altamira et al, which, often revealing a strikingly contemporary naturalism, seemed to throw into doubt any hypotheses about brain evolution.) The economic system of art, as Wood is well aware, has continued to flourish and expand. But what we see, he claims as he embarks on a thirty-page concluding essay, is that the modernist ‘break with the past’ announced by the likes of Malevich was ‘irreversible, just as advertised, but was realised only belatedly’. Contemporary art is content-choked and form-lite, and discourse about it can dispense with ruminations on ‘dense and stylised artefacts’. The essay tangles with the resultant flattening of time from various angles, doggedly, querulously, concedingly, mournfully, its grip blunted by Wood’s self-denying ordinance against naming any living art historian. Thus at the close of his survey, he conducts the reader down into a glum dark place. His dungeon is shot through, however, with mystery lights:

The historians of the contemporary are devoted to art but are too confident they know where to find it. They believe they are looking straight at art. But art wears many masks: beauty, piety, knowledge, justice. None of these masks is art itself, which is unavailable to reason and not fully involved with history, an unknown external to man even if produced by man.

Should we fall in with the wild Romanticism of that peroration? Should we fall in with the historicist judgment that canvases from a century ago constitute painting’s ‘high point’? Should one author attempt both? I don’t think so. How are the temporal high points to maintain themselves when any image, no matter when it was created, is liable to slip the bonds of history, latching onto viewers with subversive immediacy? In principle, Wood knows this – that the first constitutive term of ‘art history’ will always trump the second. But his faith flickers. When he envisages the ice cracking and the past floating away from us, or when he despairs of the present ever obtaining its own stylistic history, I sense that a uniquely bold and high-minded project has succumbed to campus-constricted exhaustion. Wood confesses as much in an aside, reflecting on the atmospherics of the discipline’s supposed summertime: ‘The weight of learning in 1890 seems light when one struggles today, deep in the stacks of an art history library housing half a million volumes, to part the mobile shelves creaking on their runners.’ The remedy is self-evident. After his prefatory pages – where Wood swears his allegiance to art over a puzzling old retable from Mecklenburg – he declines to look another artwork directly in the eye. To return to that first fresh challenge is to recognise that far from withholding some ‘unknown external to man’, the artefacts that others have made reveal to us – whether with strange or with familiar faces, whether from Gothic Germany or palaeolithic Niaux – what our own species capacity may extend to: what kind of creature we are, in other words; a question we are unlikely to resolve, but keep on asking. Art history is nothing if not human curiosity.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences