Reviews -- Problems of Style by Alois Riegl, Translated by Evelyn Kain and with Annotations and an Introduction by David Castriota and a Preface by Henri Zerner / Forms of Representation in Alois Riegl's Theory of Art by Margaret Olin / and Others

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ALOIS RIEGL, Problems of Style. Foundations for a History of Ornament, trans. Evelyn Kain, annot. and intro. David Castriota, pref. Henri Zerner, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992. Pp. xxxiii + 406; 197 black-and-white ills. $45.00.

MARGARET OLIN, Forms of Representation in Alois Riegl's Theory of Art, University Park, Penn., Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992. Pp. xxiv + 238; 73 black-and-white ills. $42.50.

MARGARET IVERSEN, Alois Riegl: Art History and Theory, Cambridge, Mass., and London, MIT Press, 1993. Pp. ix + 223; 19 black-and-white ills. $29.95.

The Austrian scholar Alois Riegl (1858-1905) was among the most highly nuanced and influential thinkers in the nascent field of art history at the turn of the century. His publications, which included studies of ancient and medieval ornament, late Roman art and Dutch 17th-century painting, made decisive contributions to the theory and methodology of art history. The complex and everchanging conceptual fabric of his writings gave rise to much controversy and to a remarkable range of appropriations by later scholars. Aspects of Riegl's thought affected the work of major Viennese art historians (for instance, the Strukturanalyse developed by Hans Sedlmayr and Guido von Kaschnitz-Weinberg), as well as scholars active both within and beyond the borders of art history, including Wilhelm Worringer, Erwin Panofsky, Walter Benjamin, and Mikhail Bakhtin. Riegl's legacy has also provided significant ongoing stimulus for more recent European and European-trained scholars.(1)

English speakers have tended to be less familiar with Riegl's work than with the research programs of other pioneers of art history such as Heinrich Wolfflin, Aby Warburg, Adolph Goldschmidt, and Emile Male. Until the early 1980s, very little English-language scholarship on Riegl existed, and only about fifty pages of his writings had been translated. In view of this circumstance, the appearance during 1992 and 1993 of three English-language publications on Riegl--two interpretative studies and an annotated translation of one of Riegl's seminal works--constitutes a major event. These studies acquire greater significance in relation to the renewal of interest in he founders of art history manifested on both sides of the Atlantic in recent decades. It is within the context of this broader process of historiographical excavation, and for their contributions to the study of pioneering German-speaking theorists in particular, that the three publications need to be considered here.

For many scholars and students of art history today, the mention of Riegl's name conjures up visions of formalist and linear models of artistic development conceived at a time when the discipline had scientific pretensions. Riegl is also closely identified with the concept of Kunstwollen, which he employed variously in his writings to denote a collective form of artistic will or volition that motivated and shaped the art of specific eras or ethnic groups. Yet these important aspects of Riegl's work do not fully reflect the scope and implications of the problems he addressed in his major studies, including Questions of Style (Stilfragen) of 1893, Late Roman Art Industry (Spatromische Kunstindustrie) of 1901, and The Dutch Group Portrait (Das hollandische Gruppenportrat) published in 1902. Possessing a capacious intellect as well as a highly perceptive eye for the works of art he studied, Riegl grappled with a wide range of theoretical issues, which probed in diverse ways the very nature and purpose of art-historical inquiry.

Consideration of the dynamics of historical development and continuity in artistic monuments--for instance, how and why styles of art come into being and change--was central to Riegl's scholarship. In the course of his investigations, many of which were based on study of anonymous artifacts, Riegl came to argue against hierarchical distinctions between "low" art, or the applied arts, and the "high" arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting. …