Alois Riegl, 'Lovers of Art, Ancient and Modern'

By Johns, Karl | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Alois Riegl, 'Lovers of Art, Ancient and Modern'


Johns, Karl, Journal of Art Historiography


Riegl as Lecturer

Alois Riegl (1858-1905) was the most influential of the Viennese art historians from the period when the discipline was being defined there as an academic subject. He should not require an introduction to the readers of these pages. Otto Pächt offered a very succinct explanation of his work to a previously unsympathetic English audience.2 References he himself made to his own publications tell us that he considered it to have been his foremost achievement to have refuted the theories put forth by the followers of Gottfried Semper, who derived artistic forms from the material and techniques with which they were made. Riegl succeeded in demonstrating that one artistic form was based on another as the grounds of an autonomous history of art. A less forward looking aspect of his reflections was an interest in universal history which he shared with Wickhoff. This led him into subjects barely remembered today, but considering his lasting influence the entire work should be borne in mind and generalizations not be based on too narrow a selection.

Although his followers have been described as 'radical formalists', Riegl's relatively consistent approach was in fact comprehensive. A number of his essays address strictly iconographical subjects while others involve sociological aspects in the context of universal history. Although this has often been related to an influence from G. W. F. Hegel, he was in fact more interested in the rather different world view of Friedrich Nietzsche, and this is apparent in several of his more popular essays.3

His obscure manner of expressing his speculative ideas has always made it difficult to understand them properly. Ludwig Coellen and Walter Passarge misrepresented them as a 'psychological' explanation of art and the tangent taken up by Wilhelm Worringer was recognized and immediately reviewed as such.4 Riegl's famous concept of Kunstwollen was even misinterpreted with a national or racial connotation in lectures published during the 1930's by Karl Maria Swoboda, himself an editor responsible for popularizing Riegl's writings since 1929.5 Guido Kaschnitz and Otto Pächt may be considered as examples of critical and insightful scholars whose lectures and essays have endorsed Riegl and continued his approach.

Since obstacles to an understanding of Riegl obviously persist even beyond English-speaking areas, it seems worth recalling that in spite of his inscrutable way of expressing himself, his inconclusiveness and frequent mistakes in dating monuments among other things, he was efficacious as a teacher. The practical application of his particular idealist approach is probably best seen in the book reviews published by his students, primarily in the Kunst geschichtliche Anzeigen. Aside from the fact that much of the best surviving work of Max Dvorák and Hans Tietze is to be found among those reviews, Georg Sobotka, Oskar Poliak, Adalbert Birnbaum and other devoted students left evidence of Riegl's teachings in the criticisms they levelled in those pages against the publications of the time.

While the great works such as the Spätrömische Kunstindustrie suffered from empirical and other lapses which the author did not survive to emend, his lectures at the university must have inspired a greater seriousness of study which cannot be gleaned from his published work alone.6 The present lecture about art lovers ancient and modem shows his typical speculative nature as it was geared to a broader audience outside the walls of academia.

Alois Riegl, 'Über antike und moderne Kunstfreunde Vortrag gehalten in der Gesellschaft der Wiener Kunstfreunde' - translation

Our organizations and clubs are among the most striking phenomena of modem life. What is the reason for this, and what is the nature of this compulsion? The answer is that there is a community of interest. A group of people arrive at the same activity and consider it profitable to pursue the same goal together. …

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