The Beginnings of Scholarly Study
A reader familiar with developments in the nineteenth-century reflection on art may be surprised to find Semper's name in a discussion of ideas concerning the primitive in art. Semper is usually considered a “functionalist,” sometimes even a “materialist.” These characterizations have attained wide currency as a result of Alois Riegl's critical analysis of his views, mainly in Riegl's Stilfragen, a book that marks a watershed in thought on the visual arts. To a considerable extent these characterizations can be supported by what Semper himself had to say. Yet without attempting to reject such interpretations of Semper's work and position I shall try to show that he played an important part in assigning a well-defined place to primitive art in the modern system of thought, and in establishing some of the essential categories employed in its exploration and interpretation.
Gottfried Semper was born in Hamburg in 1803. He became a teacher of architecture in Dresden, but was also actively involved in the revolutionary movement that shook Europe in 1848. As a result he was forced to leave Dresden, and spent many years as a political refugee in England. Semper's English experiences had a formative influence on his intellectual world, and may well have contributed, or at least supported, the direction of his thought. In 1851 he helped organize the Great Exhibition in London. Some of the intellectual vistas that this Exhibition opened up to him are relevant to the consideration of the primitive, and we shall encounter them shortly. In later years he went to Zurich, where he took part in building the Technical University, the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule. He eventually moved to Vienna, where he died in 1879.
Here we are concerned with Semper's theories of art, particularly with what he had to say about primitive art. But first we must make some general comments on his doctrine. The overall character of Semper's literary work, it has been said,1 is that of a Mischform, composed of art theory, art history, and archaeology. Actually it includes many other elements. Nobody