Transposing the Zeitgeist? Nikolaus Pevsner between Kunstgeschichte and Art History

By Evans, Emilie Oléron | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2014 | Go to article overview

Transposing the Zeitgeist? Nikolaus Pevsner between Kunstgeschichte and Art History


Evans, Emilie Oléron, Journal of Art Historiography


In April 1933, Nikolaus Pevsner was dismissed from his position as Privatdozent (a lecturer affiliated to an institution but paid directly by the students) in Art History, which he had held since 1929 at the University of Göttingen, on the grounds of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums). This interrupted a career in which he had already accomplished what might be described as several rites of passage.1 It is interesting to tackle the case study that constitutes Pevsner's subsequent migration to the United Kingdom in terms of the transfer of his professional accomplishments, because the theoretical frameworks traditionally used in the history of exile and of migration are only partially relevant to understand the transfer of his sense of self into a new environment. Until the 1990s, the main narrative within research on the migration of intellectuals and scholars was largely positive assessing the gains, both for universities and for society in general, of the transmission of knowledge from German-speaking refugee scholars.2 This view was challenged in 1996 in Forced Migration and Scientific Change: émigré German-speaking Scientists and Scholars after 1933, which set out to focus on 'the geographical circulation of intellectual elites'3 rather than on an assessment of the degree of cultural assimilation. This new paradigm allowed for a more nuanced approach to the topic particularly relevant for art history, for which no real tradition existed in Britain, certainly not on the scale of the status enjoyed by the subject in Germany and Austria. The successful rescue of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg through its emergency relocation from Hamburg to London in 1933 went down in the history of art history as a model of displacement,4 which tends to gloss over the diversity of isolated cases by representing German-speaking art historians as a homogeneous collective. After his arrival in England, as shown in Susie Harries' biography of 2011, Pevsner's newly forming identity did not revolve around the usual ideas of being a 'migrant' or a 'refugee', two concepts that he was actually reported to have regularly dismissed.5 However, we will try to demonstrate that his sense of identity was very elaborate and self-reflected when it came to his profession. An academic discipline and the institution in which it is practiced can be understood as the basis for the formation of a group identity, a sense of belonging that goes along with an ethos or way of life. In the case of Pevsner, this discipline was that of the Kunsthistoriker in the first half of the twentieth century. Broadly speaking, the rites of passage that he had been through before he had to leave Germany6 were the following: his Ph.D. thesis was supervised in 1924 in Leipzig by Wilhelm Pinder, who became his mentor.7 The following year, he published a volume on Italian mannerism in the famous Handbuch für Kunstgeschichte.8 This can be seen as recognition of his potential as a leading art historian who could go on to make groundbreaking contributions to his field. He then worked as Voluntary Assistant to the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, where he gave several lectures and became closely acquainted with the modern art world. In 1929, he started his role as a Privatdozent in Göttingen.

This paper is based on a close reading of Pevsner's own impressions of his emigration to Great Britain in the 1930s and on the continuation of his career as a Kunsthistoriker. Rather than translate this term, it seems appropriate to use the German word since the main question and the main motivation behind Pevsner's work in Britain is: to what extent can the German-speaking form of art history be translated into English? Was Pevsner able to translate his own reflection and practice of his academic discipline and to re-establish the place he felt he had lost? The documents presented here all share an 'us and them' rhetoric familiar in situations involving natives and foreigners. …

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