Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Art Historical 'Borderlands': Elisabeth Wilson, Martin Heydrich, and August Schmarsow on 'Primitive' Ornament *

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Art Historical 'Borderlands': Elisabeth Wilson, Martin Heydrich, and August Schmarsow on 'Primitive' Ornament *

Article excerpt

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In 1914, Elisabeth Wilson submitted her dissertation on 'primitive' ornament, entitled Ornament on the Basis of its Ethnological and Prehistoric Foundations: A Chapter from the Beginnings of Art, to the University of Leipzig (Figure 1). She was a student of art historian August Schmarsow and of Karl Weule, the former only the third to hold a chair of art history at that university and the latter the first full professor of cultural anthropology there. Two other Leipzig professors, the founder of experimental psychology Wilhelm Wundt and historian Karl Lamprecht, were also her close advisors.1 In the same year, Martin Heydrich also completed his doctoral thesis 'Ornament in the Art of Primitive Peoples' at that institution (Figures 2-3). Heydrich studied primarily with Weule, as well as with Wundt and Lamprecht.2 Both of these noteworthy interdisciplinary texts, along with other student works spanning art theory and ethnology, were products of the burgeoning of research and writings on so-called primitive art by German-speaking scholars in previous decades. Both works surveyed this recent history and literature, and, in this essay, I examine their insights into these, along with their interest as documents of lively and contentious disciplinary intersections. Subsequently, I discuss an important extended article by one of Wilson's mentors, Schmarsow, on the relationship of art history and ethnology, a work that also gives a picture of the contemporary configuration of these fields disclosed by Wilson and Heydrich's works.

As their titles suggest, the topic of ornament was key to this recent scholarly outpouring and was regarded in this period, to a great extent, as synonymous with 'primitive' art.3 Ornament had been the subject of a tradition of architectural and decorative arts writing centring on the theme of decorum, and its global forms had also long been associated with the primordial and non-classical in European art theory. In this period, a number of cultural currents brought it to the fore. Ornament became the topic of widespread debate due to new nineteenth-century industrial processes of manufacturing everyday decorated objects and the phenomenon of historicism in design. These concerns meshed with the expanding knowledge of global objects considered in this category generated by colonial practices and by the recently established fields of anthropology and prehistory.4 The latter reinforced the notion that 'primitive' peoples' primary artefactual production was decorative and seemed to demonstrate universal beginnings of artistic activity, aligning also with the high post-Semperian scholarly standing of the minor arts. For ethnologists, art theorists, psychologists, and others, ornament's 'earliness' positioned it as a source of definitions and laws of art, mental processes, and their evolution. Significant too was the desire on the part of modern art theory to 'begin from below', inverting the approach of idealist aesthetics and thereby calibrating with contemporary approaches to cultural and natural sciences.5 'Primitive' ornament thus became intertwined with impulses in various fields to modernize and to demonstrate that traditionally esteemed periods and mediums were no longer normative, that the study of the minor and the temporally and geographically distant were key to understanding culture, and that critical aspects of human accomplishment and mentalities could be ascertained from characteristic objects and practices lacking accompanying texts.

The University of Leipzig was a key locus of such theoretical production. This was due in part to the city's important ethnological museum, one of the principal sites of the redefinition of German anthropological practice in the late nineteenth century. Chiefly responsible were key thinkers who facilitated the expansion of the notion of the 'primitive' beyond ethnology and prehistory, influencing the disciplines of art history, experimental psychology, and history. …

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