Obituaries: Professor Peter Lasko ; Energetic Director of the Courtauld Institute

By Heslop, T A | The Independent (London, England), May 28, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Obituaries: Professor Peter Lasko ; Energetic Director of the Courtauld Institute


Heslop, T A, The Independent (London, England)


PETER LASKO made a huge contribution to the study of the visual arts. His work ranged from museum curatorship through research and writing to teaching and academic leadership. Although principally renowned for his knowledge of medieval art, he completed a book on German Expressionism and Modernism shortly before his death.

Peter Lasko's father worked in the film industry, and Peter told the story of setting off for school one morning and meeting his mother and father returning from an all-night party. This was Berlin in the early 1930s, and much that Peter Lasko went on to achieve has to be seen in the context of his childhood there, and then briefly in Paris, during a vital period in the development of 20th-century visual culture.

That he ultimately made a career in art history, and in England, was due to a chain of accidents which are equally significant of the period. A friend of the family was a senior officer in the SS. He advised Peter's father, Leo, who was Jewish, to leave Germany. Peter and his mother, Wally, and ultimately his sister, subsequently joined him and so it was in London that Peter Lasko finished his education. His first ambition was to become a painter, and he trained at Hammersmith and St Martin's Schools of Art. A contemporary was Eduardo Paolozzi, who remained a good friend.

But by the end of the Second World War, Lasko was beginning to realise that he did not have the talent to succeed as an artist and enrolled at Birkbeck College, under the tutelage of Nikolaus Pevsner, to study art history. Despite some shortcomings in his academic background (he had no Latin), Lasko was admitted to the Courtauld Institute in 1946 and graduated three years later.

For the next 15 years, Lasko worked in the Department of British and Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum. At the time, the focus of much of the department's scholarly activity, under the guidance of Rupert Bruce Mitford, was publishing the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Lasko was only tangentially involved, but the stress on the study of early medieval Europe in the period of Germanic migrations became fundamental to his thinking, as is apparent in his later book The Kingdom of the Franks (1971).

In that work, as in almost all his other writings, the interplay of European cultures with the styles and techniques of artistic production were pivotal. Rather than being a pure formalist, Lasko preferred to analyse the course of art history as the coincidence of skilled craftsmanship and the patronage that nurtured it.

His particular interest in the technology of medieval metalwork led to his being commissioned, by Pevsner, as general editor of the series, to write the volume in the Pelican History of Art on Ars Sacra 800-1200 (1972), which is his greatest contribution to scholarship.

In it he synthesised the hitherto disparate and partisan local and national histories of goldsmithing, metal casting and ivory carving into a plausible narrative. In the process he effectively created a subject, helping to establish the centrality of the so- called minor arts in the formation of medieval visual sensibility. Germany and the Low Countries took centre stage in the story, but the plot was international in its outlook and ramifications.

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