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Erwin Panofsky


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German-American art historian and essayist, whose famous books includeThe Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (1943) and Studies in Iconology (1939). Panofsky defined an artist as "one who is full of images." He was especially concerned with the iconography of the various periods he studied and interpreted works through the themes, symbols, and ideas inherent in the history of art.

"As I have said before, no one can be blamed for enjoying works of art ‘naïvely’ - for appraising and interpreting them according to his lights and not caring any further. But the humanist will look with suspicion upon what might be called ‘appreciationism.’ He who teaches innocent people to understand art without bothering about classical languages, boresome historical methods and dusty old documents, deprives naïveté of its charm without correcting its errors." (from Meaning in the Visual Arts, 1955).

Erwin Panofsky was born in Hanover as the son of Arnord and Caecilie (Solling) Panofsky. He studied at the universities of Berlin, Munich, and Freiburg/Breslau, receiving his Ph.D. in 1914 from the University of Freiburg. In 1916 he married Dora Mosse, who was also an art historian. Panofsky worked at the Warburg Library before it moved to London. In 1924 appeared his early major work, "Idea": Ein Beitrag zur Begriffsgeschichte der älteren Kunstheorie, which dealt with the history of the neoplatonic theory of art. His career in art history took him to the universities of Berlin, Munich, and Hamburg, where he taught from 1920 to 1933. During this period Panofsky started to develop the "iconological" approach to art history in his lectures and publications - iconography meant for him the mere identification of subject matter in art.

Panofsky's iconological interpretation is not far from Roland Barthes's later semiological system, in which the basic terms are sign, signifier, and signified. "And here is now another example: I am at the barber's, and a copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture. But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag... I am therefore again faced with a greater semiological system: there is a signifier, itself already formed with a previous system (a black soldier is giving the French salute); there is a signified (it is here purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness); finally, there is a presence of the signified through the signifier." (from Mythologies, 1973)

Panofsky first visited the United States in 1931 upon the invitation of New York University. Panofsky was permitted to spend alternate terms in Hamburg and New York, but after the Nazis came to power and ousted all Jewish officials, he was forced to leave Germany. He held for a year concurrent lectureships at New York and Princeton universities, and in 1935 he was invited to join the newly constituted humanistic faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. After Dora's death in 1965, Panofsky married Gerda Soergel. Panofsky taught at Princeton till his death on March 14, 1968. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy, and a number of other foreign academies. In 1962 he received the Haskins Medal of the Mediaeval Academy of America.

Most of Panofsky's later books were written in English. Studies in Iconology was based on the Mary Flexner Lectures at Bryn Mawr College. The Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard were published as Early Netherlandish Painting (1953). Among his other major contributions to art history are Pandora's Box (1956), written with his first wife Dora Mosse Panofsky, and Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (1960). Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St. Denis and Its Art Treasures (1946) made available Abbot Suger's account of his rebuilding of the royal abbey outside Paris. The French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu has criticized Panofsky's method to write on Suger and the "invention" of Gothic architecture almost only from the point of view of the interpreter: "To treat a work of plastic as as a discourse intended to be interpreted, decoded, by reference to a transcendent code analogous to the Saussarian "langue" is to forget that artistic production is always also - to different degrees depending on the art and on the historically variable styles of practicing it - the product of an "art", "pure practice without theory", as Durkheim says, or to put it another way, a mimesis, a sort of symbolic gymnastics, like the rite or the dance; and is also to forget that the work of art always contains something ineffable, not by excess, as hagiography would have it, but by default, something which communicates, so to speak, from body to body, i.c. on the hither side of words or concepts, and which pleases (or displeases) without concepts." (Pierre Bourdieu in Outline of a Theory of Practice, 1972).

Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951) was based on Panofsky's 1948 Wimmer lecture. He tried to show convincingly, how architectural style and structure provided visible and tangible equivalents to the scholastic definitions of the order and form of thought. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae and other great treatises were organized so that the reader is led, step by step, from one proposition to the other and is always kept informed as to the progress of this process. But also the composition of a High Gothic portal tended to be subjected to a strict and fairly standardized scheme which simultaneously clarifies the narrative content. Panofsky notes that the Scholastics and builders of the cathedrals respected and accepted authorities. "Of two apparently contradictory motifs, both of them sanctioned by authority, one could not simply be rejected in favor of the other. They had to be worked through to the limit and they had to be reconciled in the end: much as a saying of St. Augustine had ultimately to be reconciled with one of St. Ambrose." His Studies in Iconology drew the basic distinction between iconography, which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, and the study of their intrinsic meanings, iconology. To clarify his idea Panofsky gave an example: when an acquaintance greets one on the street by lifting his hat, from a formal point of view there is nothing but color, lines and volumes in sight. The world of pure forms carries primary or natural meanings, artistic motifs.

But the lifting of the hat forms a salute peculiar to the Western world, dating back to mediaeval times. One interprets the gesture as a polite greeting. Iconographical analysis deals with the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, specific themes of concepts are expressed by objects and events. In iconological analysis the equipment for interpretation is synthetic intuition, familiarity with the essential tendencies of the human mind, conditioned by personal psychology and world view. Thus a simple, polite greeting can reveal an experienced observer straits of personality, national, social and educational background, an individual manner of reacting to the world. This intrinsic meaning or content "is apprehended by ascertaining those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion - qualified by one personality and condensed into one work."

Besides art history Panofsky wrote on Mozart, the history of detective novel, and the cinema. His essay on the style and medium in the motion pictures, which originally appeared in Bulletin of the Department of Art and Archaeology (1934), is considered among the most influential examinations of the subject. Panofsky saw his first films in the silent era when often a pianist accompanied the events on the screen with music. "It was not an artistic urge that gave rise to the discovery and gradual perfection of a new technique; it was a technical invention that gave rise to the discovery and gradual perfection of a new art." These early experiences perhaps explain his view that "a moving picture, even when it has learned to talk, remains a picture that moves..." Due to this special nature of the film art, Shavian witty dialogue can sometimes fall, according to Panofsky, a little flat. A sensitive spectator can find even Groucho Marx's wise-cracks out of place, when they lose contact with the "visible moment." Panofsky compares the making of a film to the building of a cathedral - they both are collective efforts. The role of the director corresponds to that of the architect in chief; and the contributions of actors, cameramen, sound men, the whole technical staff, can be compared to that of sculptors, glass painters, carpenters and so forth.

The preceding text was written by Petri Liukkonen, and is also posted on the website

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