Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Political Reception of the Vienna School: Josef Strzygowski and Serbian Art History

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Political Reception of the Vienna School: Josef Strzygowski and Serbian Art History

Article excerpt


A number of different factors determine the interpretation of the work of art historians and the adoption of their methods and approaches in specific cultural, scientific and social circles. Political issues have often played a key role in the reception of art historical texts; this was especially the case during the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, a time when art historical scholarship as well as artistic production made a significant contribution to the formation of ideas of national identity.1 A particularly striking example of the complexity surrounding the reception and the political importance attached to the work of art historians can be found in the case of the Vienna School of art history and the responses to the work of Josef Strzygowski by Serbian historians of art.2 Although he was a highly controversial scholar in Vienna, one who was shunned by many of his colleagues at the Institute of Art History, Strzygowski became a hugely significant figure in Serbia. Accordingly, this article examines the responses to his work, not only amongst art historians but also in broader social and political circles.

Serbian art history, Byzantine art history and Strzygowski before the First World War

From the beginning of the nineteenth century onwards, the development of art history in Serbia was closely connected to the contribution it made, alongside other disciplines, to the formation of national identity.3 Accordingly, state support for art historical research was intended to lead to better understanding of the national past, the discovery and formation of a national artistic canon, and affirmation of the identity of the Serbian nation.4 The study of medieval art in particular was regarded as vital, in that the Middle Ages were held to have been Serbia's Golden Age.5 Moreover, as Serbian medieval history and art were connected with the Byzantine Empire, Byzantine studies came to the fore as a focus of disproportionate Serbian academic and social interest.6

For most of the nineteenth century, European art historians generally viewed Byzantine painting as an underdeveloped and 'Oriental' art form and consequently Byzantine art was marginalized in the study of art history.7 Conversely, those scholars who did write about Byzantine and Serbian medieval art enjoyed what might be regarded as perhaps a disproportionate level of attention in Serbian political and social circles. It was believed that they contributed to a better international understanding of Serbian culture and Serbian political interests. This was particularly important at the time of the crisis of the second half of the nineteenth century, when the politics of the Balkan peninsula were marked by the so-called 'Eastern Question' that was prompted by the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire, the creation (or re-creation) of national states such as Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania, uprisings against Ottoman rule, as well as wars and other forms of political conflict between European states with strategic interests in this region.

One of the first foreign authors to write in any detail about Serbian medieval art was Felix Phillip Kanitz (1829-1904), a journalist, ethnographer and travel writer based in Vienna, who was the first curator of the anthropological and natural historical sections of the imperial collections (later to become the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna) and who wrote extensively about the ancient and medieval cultural heritage of the Balkan peninsula in general and Serbia in particular.8 Kanitz was author of the first book to be written about the Byzantine heritage of Serbia, Serbia's Byzantine Monuments, published in German in 1862 and translated into Serbian the same year.9 His work was highly esteemed and he was granted an honoured position in Serbian society.10 The work of Kanitz exercised great influence on the development of studies of Serbian medieval art, and on the construction of a national canon of Serbian architecture. …

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