ed. and trans. Charles W. Haxthausen.
A Mythology of Forms: Selected Writings on Art
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, , 2019. )
A badass, but monumental: this book takes substantial texts, from 1912 to 1935, of a great critic and historian of idiosyncratic modernist German art, Carl Einstein – whose few writings have been accessible to artists or scholars English speakers – and translates them into developmental. order, making them both accessible and understandable.
A mythology of forms collects 14 texts, not mere excerpts, including entire essays and book chapters, and parallel chapters in revised editions. All contribute to fill the sense of a fearsome critical personality, brought back by penetrating and unhurried introductions. Broadly, the work is divided into three parts: (1) Einstein as a herald of the idea that traditional African sculpture is an art sufficiently refined to make it the subject of art history (1914 -26); (2) his view of Cubism (1923, 1926, plus Cubism in terms of Picasso, 1931, and so-called Braque, 1934); and (3) Surrealism (1929; 1931) and Klee (1931), as well as—except here the categories start to break down—supposedly no longer Braque, but finally, without any alleged work by Braque, the surrounding condition vexed with European culture (1934-35).
Don’t be intimidated by the details; this Einstein had a key idea, a sort of militant formalism: that the forms of works of art could cognitively accustom the viewer to rethinking his relationship to the surrounding social and political reality. The three big concerns are cumulative, and you have to read the first stuff first so that what might seem repetitive can turn out to be developmental. Fortunately, Haxthausen provides excellent analytically matched connective tissue. Think of Einstein as a soloist often singing the same songs in different arrangements, with Haxthausen’s editorial accompaniment.
In the first part, Einstein endeavors to historicize pre-literate African art, where it is necessary to push on the only evidence available, anthropology. (It’s not enough to clear your head of an exotic “Other”.) Here, Einstein’s distrust of “age-old” legends is invigorating. Desperate for something better, he clings to tribal memories of their own migrations: at least that allows for a diffusionism that is nothing if not art history. It also brings into play the major tribalo-critical idea of “totality” (which I suspect to be influenced by Russian Suprematism, as a volumetric unity of associated planes). Here, it is clearer than elsewhere that a certain directive repetitiveness can mean successively approaching the truth.
Fortunately, Einstein has no interest in the antiquarian in the tedious question of which European painter first took artistic inspiration from African art. It is more important that totality also proves important in Cubism – where Einstein prefers the intellectualism of Braque to Picasso.
The 1923 draft of a long letter inspired by Cubism, from Einstein to Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Picasso’s dealer and subject of his magnificent Portrait of Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler (Art Institute of Chicago) (1910) is for Einstein as a writer of art, typically speculative. Some don’t like it; but I don’t see the point of an art history that isn’t open to speculation, and Einstein is good at that, and Haxthausen at passing it on. So, as someone who believes Kant is relevant to the framing of Analytical Cubism (many passages in the Critique of pure reason concern the mind’s organization of perceptual diversity in a way that can be compared to Kahnweiler’s portrait), I am curious here because Kahnweiler was interested in Kant. 1 What did Einstein actually say to Kahnweiler? Something that I, for my part, come to see as related to this vision, namely how Cubist painting shows “that a renunciation of sensation is possible” – which can produce something both wonderfully linguistic and not metaphorical. An incisively cubist self-awareness places Einstein here at the limits of language, as he himself appreciates.
As Einstein’s scope expands to include the modern world, it may seem strange for him to view contemporary surrealism as “romantic” at all. Except, on second thought, for how gothic, romantic, primitive impulses, not to mention expressionism, can seem like a big thing in German art history.2 Einstein touches only lightly on the so-called primitive painters of pre-Renaissance Europe (Italian and Flemish) without mentioning Gothicism; but the most important point seems to be that there is plenty of room in modernity for admirably surreal (anti-classical) irrationalities.
Questions of influence arise. I’ve often wondered how, when he was an art historian, the art critic Clement Greenberg, first known as a translator from German, got away with simply skipping the most literal flatness of post-impressionist painting in accounts of the development of modernism from the flatness of impressionism. to cubist flatness. However, Einstein does just that. Along the same lines: My only complaint about this excellent Einstein anthology is editorial, and most likely related to this post-Impressionist point. Einstein was not a fan of non-objective art. OK; but I do not think he would accept, nowadays, the return to fashion of the reactionary usage “image”, which is practically invariable in Haxthausen’s translation.3 Curiously, however, Greenberg also indulged in it.
The broader, politically speculative air of later writing must be about the critic’s personal anxieties and dislocation, first a move to France in 1928 to escape the rise of Nazism at home, leading to a phase of final revisions, followed by greater anxieties about a culture. increasingly insensitive to the art form that might once have taught it. An art critic who once volunteered to defend his Kaiser in World War I, felt compelled to serve as an anarchist in the Spanish Civil War, devoting himself entirely to the cause of a world that could become socially equitable.
While reading A mythology of forms reminded me of my academic mentor Rudolf Wittkower (1901-1971), a Berliner turned art historian during Einstein’s critical heyday. This was most relevant in Einstein’s reading of Cubism as involving a circumnavigation of the object, as Wittkower insisted that the notion of self-contained sculpture meant to be meaningful from all angles is, in fact, true only under Mannerism. Even more generally relevant to Haxthausen’s astute versions of Carl Einstein was Wittkower’s Warburgian sense that classicism is always about a “golden age” always presumed past. Well, if you come to that, make Einstein’s utopia and mine.
- Not discussed by Haxthausen, but nothing he says disqualifies him.
- See my article “‘Art brut: “primitive” authenticity and German expressionism”, Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics (1982), repr. in J. Masheck, Modernities: art matters in the present (University Park: Penn State Prress, 1993), 155-92.
- This usage has become anti-modern, pseudo-British and reminiscent of the auction house. It is preferably used to “paint” (das Gemölde, “what is painted”) or in the picturewhich, as an “image” can happily accommodate African sculpture (“painting” cannot be applied to any sculpture other than relief).