An ÉMigré Art Historian and America: H. W. Janson

By Sears, Elizabeth; Schoell-Glass, Charlotte | The Art Bulletin, June 2013 | Go to article overview

An ÉMigré Art Historian and America: H. W. Janson


Sears, Elizabeth, Schoell-Glass, Charlotte, The Art Bulletin


In late summer 1935, Horst Woldemar Janson - twenty-one years old and a student of art history at the University of Hamburg - left Germany for the United States.1 The award of a one-year German-American exchange fellowship at Harvard University enabled him to take the initial step toward permanent immigration, a process accomplished in the following year. Young Janson rapidly became assimilated into the academic culture that in subsequent years he would do so much to shape. Strikingly adaptable, and soon very much an insider in American academic circles, he would always retain an outsider's attentiveness to the peculiarities of the American educational system. Like others of the émigrés of the 1930s, he brought with him a rigorous training in art historical method and an awareness of the discipline's deep past that allowed him to participate with confidence in determining American art history's future (Fig. 1).

Janson's decision to leave Germany was a heartfelt response to deteriorating conditions. The propagation of the "Aryan Paragraph" by the Nazi regime in April 1933 had precipitated the dismissal or departure of most of those teaching art history at Hamburg,2 including Erwin Panofsky,3 who was to have directed Janson's dissertation. The Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg - where Janson and others had learned to view images as documents of cultural history - had pulled up stakes; books, photographs, and furniture had been transported to London, where, under the direction of Fritz Saxl, the library had reopened in May 1934 as the Warburg Institute.4 Instruction in art history at Hamburg was now entrusted not to professors but to two Privatdozenten, Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich, a student of Panofsky, and Werner Burmeister, a committed Nazi, no friend to Panofsky's students. In a letter of 1934 to Gertrud Bing at the Warburg Institute, William Heckscher, one of Janson's closest friends,5 attempted to describe the increasingly surreal conditions and students' response to them: "a veritable cult of the vita contemplativa (of the productive kind) has broken out. . . . One lives as if in a closed glass ball from which one only dimly perceives the outside world. "6

An "Aryan" - the family was Lutheran of Baltic stock Deutschbalten) - Janson could not avoid dealings with the new government. In early 1932, upon completing his secondary education at the Wilhelmsgymnasium in Hamburg, he had received from the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes an elite award to support his university education. When the Nazis came to power, they intervened in the administration of the foundation and issued new sets of rules for grant holders. After April 1933, Communists and Jews could no longer apply; from June, only "Aryans" of good character engaged in Nazi activities (membership in the SA or SS or community work) were eligible. By July - and this may have affected Janson - recipients were required to engage either in paramilitary sports training or complete at least ten weeks of community work (Arbeitsdienst) organized by the SA, SS, or Hitler Youth and to write a report giving their thoughts about the new regime. Janson, by his own account, did four months of community work in the summer of 1933.8 By the beginning of the academic year 1933-34 he was in Munich, where he had a ringside seat to observe changes wrought by the National Socialists. There he very likely studied with Wilhelm Pinder, professor of history of art, friendly to the regime.9 When Janson returned to Hamburg in 1934, he immediately began seeking a way to leave Germany, and he set his sights on America.10

Harvard made available a fellowship, the Charles W. Holtzer Fellowship, for German students trained in German institutions. Janson, with Panofsky's support, won a Holtzer award for the academic year 1935-36. ll As the plan was coming together, Panofsky sent off a letter to Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, trying to win for Janson ("poor as a churchmouse") some funding from the Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation.

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