Biographical Memoirs: Ernst Kitzinger

By Mitchell, John | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Biographical Memoirs: Ernst Kitzinger


Mitchell, John, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


27 DECEMBER 1012 * 22 JANUARY 2003

ERNST KITZINGER, who died in Poughkeepsie, New York, on 22 January 2003 at the age of ninety, was one of the last of the regiment of distinguished art historians who were forced to flee Germany with the rise of National Socialism, and effectively changed the complexion of the subject in the English-speaking world, revitalizing the academic study of the visual arts in North America and rendering it for the first time really respectable in the British Isles. That was an exodus that touched not only scholars of Jewish ancestry like Kitzinger himself and his old friends and colleagues Sir Ernst Gombrich, Rudolf Wittkower, and Erwin Panofsky in England and America, but also an impressive tally of the leading non-Jewish German and Austrian academics of anti-Nazi convictions, like Fritz Volbach, who found sanctuary during the war in the Vatican City, and Kitzinger's lifelong co-worker on the arts of Byzantium and Norman Sicily, Otto Demus, who assisted the Allied war effort from London and then returned to his native Vienna to care for the cultural heritage of his war-torn country. The result was an extraordinary enrichment of academic life and activity in England and the United States in the 1930s and in the postwar decades. As Walter Cook, the director of the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University, one of the leading centres for the study of art history in the United States, once memorably remarked, "Hitler shook the tree, and I gathered up the fruit as it fell." Kitzinger's interests ranged over the whole of late antique and early medieval art from Anglo-Saxon Northumbria and Carolingian Francia through Rome, Sicily, and the Balkans to Byzantium; it was this vast spectrum of interest and expertise that allowed him to have such an impact on the subject, and to put a new shape to the way in which we understand the development of artistic practice in the first millennium in all its various manifestations.

Kitzinger was born in Munich in 1912 into a professional family; his father was a lawyer and his mother a leading figure in child welfare. He studied at the university there, where his principal teacher was Wilhelm Pinder, a forceful and charismatic character, a colourful figure in the intellectual culture of the city, and a popularizing expert in the art of the German Middle Ages, who, although seduced by the nationalistic agenda of National Socialism, was fair-minded and open-hearted enough to encourage Kitzinger to complete his doctoral thesis at breakneck speed before he was compelled by the Nazi curtailment of Jewish life to flee to England in 1935. In a later recollection, which vividly points up the colour of the times, Kitzinger recounted how together with his mother in the summer of 1933 he happened to see Hitler and his entourage enter the Cafe Heck, a favourite haunt, by the Hofgarten in Munich; was overcome by curiosity and followed them in; ordered coffee at a neighbouring table and then, fearful of not being able to contain a rage rising rapidly at the thought that this slight, sallow, unimpressive man should be ruining the lives of so many ordinary people, rose precipitately and left. In the extraordinary circumstances of the time, Kitzinger went to Rome, where after only one semester at university he began the research that would culminate in his doctoral dissertation. With this thesis, an inquiry into the nature and development of painting and mosaics in Rome in the earliest Middle Ages, Kitzinger revealed an extraordinary clear and subtle appreciation of the visual qualities of works of art and a remarkable ability to synthesize his sights and insights into a coherent evolutionary structure. Researched and written in well under two years, and consigned and examined before his twenty-second birthday, it was immediately recognized as putting the subject onto a new standing, and remains a fundamental starting point for the study of early medieval painting in Rome. …

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