Nationalism, the Jews, and Art History

By Olin, Margaret | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Nationalism, the Jews, and Art History


Olin, Margaret, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


1. Introduction: Vienna 1980

Anti-Semitic art historians, we assume, need not write anti-Semitic art history. Granted, Orientalism, of which anti-Semitism is a subcategory, has been convincingly exposed in many disciplines.(1) Yet we trust scholarly objectivity to keep art history free of anti-Semitism, holding Jewish art itself responsible for the scant attention paid to it, the commandment against the making of graven images presumably insuring that there was not much to talk about.(2) To prove anti-Semitism in art history would take more than a tally of anti-Semitic remarks made by classic art historians such as Jacob Burckhardt.(3) It must be shown to play a role in shaping the discourse of art history, in dictating its terms, or in regulating access to the canon of objects deserving of study. My reflections here will be brief and fragmentary, their focus narrow and personal, but in them, I will question the habits of mind that make the exclusion of Jewish art from the discourse of art history appear natural and inevitable.(4)

I begin in 1980, during a year of research in Vienna. Reminders of anti-Semitism played at the margins of my work on art historical theory at the turn of the century. In the archives I read scholarly correspondence that interrupted theoretical discussions to complain about anti-Semitic incidents, and newspapers that juxtaposed art reviews with notices of pogroms or announcements of excursions for anti-Semites to the International Exposition in Paris in 1900.(5) Among correspondence about historical monuments, I was struck by a letter that an unknown correspondent named "Richard" sent in 1902 to the art historian Franz Wickhoff. He sought Wickhoff's support in an effort to prevent the construction of a museum by the architect Otto Wagner on Vienna's Karlsplatz, home to Johann Fischer von Erlach's eighteenth-century Church of St. Charles Borromeus (p. 475). Fearing that Wagner's opulent structure would clash with Fischer's masterpiece, he urged the professor to take immediate action: "Say that in front of your window a dear, helpless merchant, who is harmlessly going about his business and living modestly without bothering anyone else - let's call him David Cohn - is set upon and strangled by a couple of punks. You'd see that. And, Herr Hofrat, since, to speak in Viennese terms, you're a good, lovable chap you'd - well you wouldn't exactly go charging down there immediately and place yourself at his service, but you would make an earnest attempt to call out for help - with all your strength. Now, David Cohn is a good man, but there are many, many of that sort around; for the purposes of cultural history he can easily be replaced. Even Herr Suss must admit that! But I will tell you, and prove it, that presently in Vienna artistic punks, a pair of brutal architects, want to attack and murder not an innocent Jew, but the great Church of St. Charles by Karl Fischer von Erlach! Cry out and protest!"(6)

Wagner's design was not built and Fischer's church remains in all its grandeur unfettered by the bland modernist museum built next to it after World War II.(7) But the correspondent was wrong about the David Cohns. Their supply was not unlimited. They were killed or fled and the good, lovable chaps of Vienna closed their windows and did not call out for help. By the time I read the letter, the Jewish presence in Vienna was little more than a memory.

My interdisciplinary dissertation involved an art historian known for his work in formal theory, historical preservation, and the reevaluation of the neglected art of the Late Roman Empire.(8) I studied his formal theories in relation to other Viennese cultural contributions in music, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and architecture. To do so, I deployed historical, psychological, literary critical and philosophical methods. Broad though it was, however, my scholarship could not encompass the documents of anti-Semitism that surrounded it.

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