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Monday, 13 October 2014

Emigre Scholars

While much has been written of the contribution to American art-making of European exiles such as the surrealists, rather less has been written of the ways in which American art history and art making itself was reconceptualised during the 1930s and 1940s following the exodus of academics from Europe. John Rewald was one of several emigre scholars escaping conflict who was welcomed into the USA. Rewald's 1946 The History of Impressionism may seem a strange choice on writing about American art but it is relevant for several reasons. First published in 1946 with the support of MoMa New York and subsequently revised across five editions, it was a publishing phenomenon, although it was not published in Great Britain until 1973. There were sequels: in 1956 Post Impressionism From Van Gogh to Gauguin, again not published in Britain until 1978, and then Gauguin to Matisse, and numerous collections of letters by post-impressionists such as Cezanne and Gauguin. In a post-war period when publishing in many countries was still subject to rationing, Rewald's lavish book, 670 pages long, contained more than 600 illustration plates, over 80 in colour. The power and authority of the printed word should not be underestimated. If histories are written by victors, then art histories are validated through publishing. John Tebbel, writing the history of the American publishing industry, identified a post-war boom between 1940 and 1980: what he termed "a great change" to "substantial growth." He noted that the MET, New York and MoMa in particular expanded their publishing developments through extensive collaborations with commercial publishers, and thereby greatly extended their readership.

Rewald's book confirmed the centrality of Paris to the modern art: Harold Rosenberg's "cultural Klondike" and Walter Benjamin's "capital of the 19th century". The books also normalised, in the English languag, a mythologising approach to the modern artist: artistic defiance against established norms is in The History of Impressionism's opening sentence. It is followed by detailed accounts of the artist's struggle to gain critical and popular acceptance. Born in Germany, Rewald studied under the humanist art historian Erwin Panofsky in Hamburg and Fritz Saxl in Frankfurt and later in France. He was part of the Jewish diaspora arriving in America in 1941 under the sponsorship of Alfred Barr, MoMa's director. Rewald, a professor of art history in Chicago and New York until the mid-1980s, also created the foundation that served from oblivion Cezanne's studio at Aix-en-Provence, which became instead a place of homage.

Rewald's writing is notable for its intense concentration on the details of artists' lives. The books are illuminated with Rewald's photographs, showing where artists worked, their studios and favourite motifs (such as Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire). 
Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1902-04, oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 36 3/16 inches / 73 x 91.9 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Empirical research around exhibitions together with the commentary of critics and public, numerous artists' quotes, diligently gleaned from letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and dealer's bids and interviews (with such luminaries as Matisse) are woven into a compelling story of official rejection and eventual artistic triumph. Citations are numerous, and part of Rewald's debt to the art-historical methodologies of the French historian Fustel de Coulanges, from whom he borrowed the notion that history is a pure science. Such a method:

consists of stating facts, in analyzing them, in drawing them together and in bringing out connections. The historian's only skill should consist in deducting from the documents all that is in them and in adding nothing they do not contain. The best historian is he who remains closest to his texts, who interprets them most fairly.   (Rewald, 1973.)

Under this methodology Rewald and others hopes to uncover a pre-existing story  interlocked in the lives of artists but separate from broader social and political considerations. In general, however, art historians of Rewald's generation rarely questioned the theoretical underpinning of their discipline. They operated within a hermetically sealed world of standards, defined by an elusive quality often designated to an art work through a trained eye conditioned by familiarity with the object of study. Early 20th century art history, like much of the 19th century, was also dominated by a methodology intent on tracing provenance and verifying authenticity via the lives of artists, and so the monograph and survey, such as Rewald's were staple scholarly devices. He did not seek an art history without names, but in Gombrichian mode argued that: "there is no art only artists." What is notable about Rewald's approach to art history is the lack of detailed reading of the artworks themselves in deference to the immediate "texts" that surrounded them. Nor did he engage in the psychoanalytical interpretations that feature strongly in more recent ways of writing about art. Rather he chose more general psycho-biography which often related the mental state of the artist  closely tot he artwork itself. 


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