Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

After Burckhardt and Wölfflin; Was There a Basel School of Art History?

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

After Burckhardt and Wölfflin; Was There a Basel School of Art History?

Article excerpt

For Linda Seidel in admiration and friendship

When I first came to Boston University in 1966, at 26 years of age, fresh from Basel University with a Dr. phil. in Medieval Art History, Classical Archaeology, and Church History, and a dissertation on Italian Romanesque sculpture,1 one of the first co-medievalists I met was Linda Seidel, then a young faculty member at Harvard. As luck would have it we saw each other each week when during my first year that coincided with Meyer Schapiro's Norton Lectures on Romanesque Sculpture.2 I was struck by his brilliant lectures and insights and surprised that I had hardly heard of him. But not so strange, if you came as I did from Basel (Fig. 1). This and many other experiences in my first years in Boston, like encountering Hanns Swarzenski3 and Ernst Kitzinger,4 made me realize then as now, that as a young post World War Two- European art historian, I came from a very different art historical background to that of my new American colleagues. While I had been trained in a very old distinguished tradition, deeply rooted in a European historical and cultural ambiance according to the legacy of Jacob Burckhardt and Heinrich Wölfflin, my American colleagues had been mostly trained by Americans and the German Jewish émigré generation who settled in the USA in the Thirties. Cultural geography and political history of the Twentieth Century made for distinct differences and deep ruptures in the relationships between humanistic centres in Europe and the English - speaking world of the United Kingdom and the United States, which lasted until the late 1960s. The lack of easy travel or the availability of publications in translation made for strong divisions in art historical research after the First World War. Certain German-speaking regions and their universities seemed to have been cut offfrom the mainstream and became provincialized and somewhat ingrown. By contrast, others developed anew through the forced emigration of scholars that occurred especially in the Nazi period from Germany to the United States and the United Kingdom. These German scholars began to write in the language of their new home, English. A more fertile broadening of approaches and expansion of fields of inquiry occurred really only from the 1960s onward. Finally, the old German institutes of art history and archaeology in Italy and Greece re-flourished in a new international climate with European scholars now internationalized receiving grants from such research centres as the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the Center for the Visual Arts at the National Gallery in Washington DC (CASVA), and the Getty Foundation in the United States.

This paper explores how and in which form and direction art history at the University of Basel developed after Burckhardt and Wölfflin. It discusses in which manner this once great centre of art history from the mid nineteenth century to the First World War leftits mark on art historical research, archaeology, and art criticism in the later Twentieth century. What was its legacy and how did their successors deviate and expand their method and approaches in the later Twentieth century?

Basel University, the oldest and most distinguished in Switzerland, founded by Pope Pius II Piccolomini in 1460, was known as one of the first four great centres of art history since the late nineteenth century through its own son, Jacob, (known locally as "Koebi") Burckhardt (Fig. 2), who, as a cultural historian, offered lectures in both history and art history from 1844 to 1886.5 Two other great centers in the German- speaking world were Berlin and Munich at which Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) and Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945) also taught. In 1893, Burckhardt was succeeded in Basel by his pupil, Heinrich Wölfflin6 (Fig. 3). Wölfflin had also begun his studies with Burckhardt there. After a few years at Basel University, Wölfflin taught for a much longer period in Berlin and Munich where most of his pupils were trained and where he developed his intellectual and methodological theories and legacy. …

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