Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Ideal and Material Ornament: Rethinking the 'Beginnings' and History of Art

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Ideal and Material Ornament: Rethinking the 'Beginnings' and History of Art

Article excerpt

The first lines of Johannes Ranke's 'The Beginnings of Art: Anthropological Contributions to the History of Ornament' of 1879 - from a lecture delivered at the Bavarian Applied Arts Society - beautifully capture many emerging directions in the study of art and material culture at this time:

Outwardly unimpressive, inconspicuous, but extremely meaningful for the understanding of the general cultural development of humanity is the material that comprises the object of the following discussion....I speak not as a connoisseur of art, but rather as an anthropologist . .about material in which archaeology and anthropology join hands... .[Mjodem anthropology.. .has not renounced the study of the foundations of the spiritual development of mankind, the basic phenomena of societal life...represented in...objects like...implements, weapons, jewellery. In this way, anthropology becomes directly connected with cultural history and archaeology. But while both of these [latter] disciplines must seek their main task in the representation of the highest flowering of the human spirit, anthropology concerns itself with the 'beginnings of culture and art', as we still today partially observe in the peoples and races standing closer to a natural condition and, on the other hand, can reconstruct from cultural remains that the former inhabitants of our continent have left us.1

In this passage of this short work on prehistoric art, Ranke highlighted the value of seemingly insignificant, everyday objects and their fragmented remains for illuminating the humble beginnings of culture, instead of its 'highest flowering'.* 2 Recounting the most recent prehistoric discoveries in Europe, he indicated that these artefacts and those of contemporary Naturvölker, or so-called natural peoples, together comprised an interconnected body of evidence for the study of the 'primitive'.3 Ranke asserted, furthermore, a scientific persona and techniques opposed to those of the art connoisseur.4 Other contemporary commentators - including historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists - also contended that such newly disclosed periods and previously unappreciated types of objects were crucial to art and cultural history. They attempted to insert these into an expanded narrative of art's development, to derive from them laws of its emergence and transformation, and to discover their implications for the shapes of their fields. As the subtitle of Ranke's lecture and its audience of designers signal, the category of ornament was central to this rethinking.

Ranke was a distinguished anthropologist, physiologist, and editor of the publication of the German Society for Anthropology, Ethnology, and Prehistory. His research brings to the fore the importance of particular sites of encounter with and display of artefacts for the redirection of the attention of art theory in the late nineteenth century. These include the prehistoric excavation site, the ethnological museum, small regional collections of prehistoric and early medieval artefacts,5 as well as publications and local and national organizations associated with them.6 He and other scholars of anthropology and archaeology were in dialogue with art theorists and historians, themselves representatives of a recently institutionalized discipline, in the midst of efforts to define itself in conversation with shifting, adjacent fields. In Ranke's case, he was an early follower of the highly influential and compelling works of theorist and architect Gottfried Semper on the minor arts, which endowed the study of these with great urgency and scholarly esteem.

This article deals with a number of anthropologists and archaeologists who claimed to contribute to the field of art history through the study of ornament and their scholarly exchanges with art theorists and historians, including Semper and Alois Riegl.7 'Primitive' ornament, especially 'geometric', functioned as an interface between art history and other disciplines and was a primary material with which scholars negotiated the meanings of 'objective' scientific method and the implications of such 'beginnings' for art scholarship and practice. …

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