Erwin Panofsky and the Renascence of the Renaissance

Article excerpt

IT HAS LONG BEEN understood that historians, literary critics, and art historians who write about past cultures use those cultures for present purposes, whether by turning Periclean Athens into an ideal for present-day America or the fall of the Roman empire into an ominous signal for modern empires. German humanists who sought refuge from Nazi Germany had, however, special reasons to use their cultural studies as a strategy of escape. Erich Auerbach in exile in Istanbul and Ernst Robert Curtius in "inner exile" in Bonn provided narratives of European literary history that minimized the contribution of their native culture, and in so reworking the narrative of Western literature, they were able to reshape their own identities. Their reconstructions of past cultures can thus be read as attempts at self-reconstruction.(1) Ultimately, however, the attempt by such scholars to distance themselves from German culture often faltered on the very Germanness of their cultural reconstructions. These constructions meant to symbolize un-German essences -- whether Curtius's Latinity or Auerbach's tradition of Western realism -- were assembled from rather German elements. For those German scholars who emigrated to the United States, such as Erwin Panofsky, another paradox emerged: they found themselves in an academy that was beginning to revere culture in much the same way as the Germans had traditionally done. The mid-century American university witnessed a growing effort to produce an American version of Bildung, and arriving German scholars were welcomed in some quarters specifically for the German style of their cultivation and erudition. It is in this context that the art historian Erwin Panofsky is particularly interesting. For Panofsky playing the part of the model humanist for American academic audiences often meant cultivating rather than escaping his Germanness. Although his vision of the Renaissance initially involved some of the same cultural distancing from Hitler's Germany that Curtius's Latin Middle Ages did, that vision played a more significant role within American cultural politics, essentially cooperating with the American academia's own efforts at cultural self-distancing. Panofsky's American work on the Renaissance is thus not only an example of self-construction but is also woven into the story of an academic ideology that has been faltering under attack for the last two or three decades. The faltering of that academic ideology, its move from the "hackneyed" to the "irrelevant" to its present place as an easy object in the canon wars is part of the post-history of Panofsky's participation. The fact that the ideology to which Panofsky contributed so much has been under such increasing attack makes Panofsky's role in its creation all the more interesting.

For many American historians of art the name Erwin Panofsky represents an important phase not so much in the ideological history of the humanities but in the history of their own discipline. There have been attempts to modernize Panofsky, to link his name to contemporary developments in the humanities, such as Christine Hasenmueller's comparison of Panofsky's iconology to the semiotics of the structural anthropologist Edmund Leach(2) or Michael Ann Holly's comparison at the end of her excellent study of Panofsky's early theoretical essays of Panofsky's work with that of Michel Foucault.(3) Nevertheless, Panofsky's many iconological studies are associated with a specific stage in the history of art history in the United States, and his books have acquired the patina of the "classic." They are venerated and often used in introductory art history classes. But they are venerated and used as the work of a past master, and Panofsky has come to be used as a foil for modern art historians, a symbol of a past to be left behind.(4)

Whatever justification for the present images of Panofsky, we should recognize that his writings from his first two decades in the United States were written in a very specific historical context and with a high degree of self-consciousness about their implications both for the development of art history in the United States and for the development of the humanities as a whole. …