A History of Art History

A History of Art History
Christopher S. Wood

Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2019
472 pp. Trade, $35.00; paper, $27.95
ISBN: 9780691156521; ISBN: 9780691204765.

May 2021

There was a time, now about 40 years ago, when I was much more engulfed in the early theoretical aspects of art history, inspired by a brilliant teacher during my studies. I welcomed reading A History of Art History thus as a happy refresher of my knowledge of the subject, which however left me largely confused. Princeton presents this book, which has now also been published as a paperback, as “an authoritative history of art history from its medieval origins to its modern predicaments” and “the first of its kind in English.” As Wood acknowledges himself in his references section, the latter is not entirely true. Back at the time we used Podro’s The Critical Historians of Art (1982) although that didn’t have the full scope, discussing ‘only’ Kant to Panofsky. Wood does indeed a much wider job for which there are antecedents in other languages such as Udo Kulturmann’s Kleine Geschichte der Kunsttheorie that was equally published around the time that I was studying (1987) and of whom Wood refers to his earlier Geschichte der Kunstgeschichte: Der Weg einer Wissenschaft (1966). Another earlier example of a history of art history could be The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, edited and with an introduction and concluding text by Donald Preziosi (1998). I mention these examples to situate the particular structured way in which I became acquainted with the discipline, being on top of that a so-called child of H.W. Janson whose History of Art, originally published in 1962 but of which we studied the 2nd edition of 1977, is described by Wood “as evenhanded across time and place yet keyed to the concept of the timeless and placeless masterpiece.”

Wood’s book has a different approach. Structured in an introduction, 21 chapters and an extensive conclusion, his introduction sets the scene by sketching the broad set up of his history starting with a description of the 14th century Crucifixion Altar Doberan, Mecklenburg to demonstrate an art historian’s knowledge. The example doesn’t have to surprise as Wood is a historian at the Department of German at New York University and specialised in German art and literature. Somewhat obscurely this is followed by introductory sections on relativism, “A cast of the dice” that mentions Anita Brenner who was strictly speaking not an art historian, but an ethnologist and anthropologist that “never adopted the academic mentality” letting Wood reflect that “(a)rt history comes closer to art when it opens itself to non-art” [1], the origin of art history, three modes of art history, and empirical scholarship. The subsequent chapters are dedicated to specific time frames, the first spanning an amazing 600 years in 10 pages (800-1400), of 100 years (1400-1500), 50 years (between 1500 and 1750), 20 years for the periods when the discipline of art history truly starts to develop (between 1750 and 1890) and finally in chunks of 10 years for the period between 1890 and 1960. Art actually most of the time alludes to architecture or the space in which art finds itself included. Cathedrals in all shapes and forms figure largely. That Wood, who is mainly specialized in Renaissance subjects, stops in 1960 is itself bizarre, although he mentions further developments in art and art history in his conclusion. The first chapters initially promise to include world art history when they make allusion to amongst others Chinese art, but this is not continued in a structural way. All in all references are uneven, focusing possibly rather unavoidable mainly on Renaissance art as this was the main subject of most art historical writing. Wood mentions the first Documenta-exhibition in Kassel of 1955, but stopping his main overview in 1960 prevents him from commenting more profoundly on the influence of a curatorial art history. No mention for instance of Alfred H. Barr’s and his influential insights on Cubism and Abstract Art via his writing and exhibition. Nor hardly any mentioning of the ideas of artists, which are for the main part also limited to those of the Renaissance. Of the modern period the selection is largely limited to the usual suspects Cézanne, Kandinsky and Picasso, avoiding mentioning Duchamp altogether although briefly alluding to readymades in a general way. This stands in huge contrast with another relatively recent publication, the critical reader What’s the Use? Constellations of Art, History, and Knowledge (2016) that combines the voices of scholars and artists on the subject matter. Another strange omission seems the avoidance of a discussion of Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production (1935). While referring to the discovery of cave paintings and its impact multiple times, Wood unfortunately misses the insights on their important influence on modern art as discussed by Maria Stavrinaki amongst others during the conference Deep Time and Crisis, c. 1930 from 2018 at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Münich in the context of the exhibition Neolithic Childhood. Art in a False Childhood, c. 1930 and more recently the exhibition Préhistoire, une enigme moderne (Prehistory, a modern enigma) at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2019 [2].

Wood duly mentions the late acceptance of women into the discipline and refers to early female scholars such as Anna Jameson or Stella Kramrisch, but the history of art history nevertheless turns out to be a mainly male business. Wood does refer to Molly Nesbit’s The Pragmatism in the History of Art (2013), but only in the references section, without discussing it more in-depth, only listing it as one of the many books that have been important for him. Other eminent female art historians such as Svetlana Alpers, Linda Nochlin, Rosalind Krauss or Lucy R. Lippard, the first one of which notably wrote the game-changing book The Art of Describing – Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (1983), are not mentioned at all. Instead the focus is more on how “(t)he major art historians of the modern era, (…) - Jacob Burckhardt, Aby Warburg, Heinrich Wölfflin, Erwin Panofsky, Meyer Schapiro, and Ernst Gombrich - struggled to adapt their work to the rupture of artistic modernism, leading to the current predicaments of the discipline.” Wood’s erudition is beyond question, and the scope of what is being discussed is certainly immense, but a more inclusive approach might nevertheless have avoided a missed opportunity.

After having finished reading the book I regretted that I hadn’t kept some kind of diagram to keep track of the continuously changing and often contrasting opinions on the standards by which art was discussed, either following fixed standards as during the Renaissance through the pioneering discussions of Ghiberti and of course Vasari, or according to the relativism of the 19th century, the pro’s and cons of historicism, whether one was to prioritise form or content, the role of antiquarians, the development from connoisseurship to scholarship, what was considered good or bad art or art altogether. This is not necessarily Wood’s fault but it’s easy to miss the wood for the trees (not intended as a pun) due to his flowery style of writing that is already apparent in the short indications for the subject matter of his chapters on the content pages.

The most mystifying are possibly the concluding pages, especially those where Wood seems to utter his frustration with academic art history since the 1970s, with “the household gods borrowed from other clans, the concept-makers, the “irrealist” thinkers (…) or “theorists” without however mentioning any concrete names. What to make for instance of “Form-histories were metafictions that sustained the fiction of gnosticism. Gnosticism is also the mode of the parabolic thinkers, the chimerical, nonconformist, demiurgic, marvelous, speculative, libertine theorists, often para-academic or exiled to the margins of academia. (…) The chimerical or antiphilosophical thinkers are mostly self-authorizing: they have no clear expertise, they do not appeal to the real world.” Etcetera [3]. Or is this a reference back to Brenner in the introduction? Wood indicates in his conclusion how the art and the art world have changed with art that is mostly much more ephemeral, often connected to protest and activism. That is certainly the case. At the same time there is the speculative and political intermingling of the art market with art history as recently displayed in the Leonardo da Vinci Salvator Mundi-case [4].

A History of Art History thus left me puzzled, which may be a quality in itself. It has certainly connected me back to my old love for art theory and I will thus definitely read it again, diagramming it along the way, while equally rereading Kulturmann, Nesbit, Podro and many others to put it into perspective. Although Wood seems to speculate about an end of art history, for the time being it id clear that the (history of) art history keeps passionately rethinking and rewriting itself.


[1] Wood, p. 21.

[2] See Neolithic Childhood. Art in a False Present, c. 1930, Haus Kulturen der Welt – https://www.hkw.de/en/programm/projekte/2018/neolithische_kindheit/neolithische_kindheit_start.php; Maria Stavrinaki: Through the Neolithic: Permanence, Recurrences, and End – conference Deep Time and Crisis, c. 1930 - https://www.hkw.de/en/programm/projekte/veranstaltung/p_140797.php; Préhistoire, une énigme moderne, Centre Pompidou - https://www.centrepompidou.fr/fr/programme/agenda/evenement/cnA9aKg.

[3] Wood, pp. 402, 403.

[4] See the recent French documentary Salvator Mundi: la stupéfiante affaire du dernier Vinci by Antoine Vitkine, https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/la-fabrique-mediatique/salvator-mundi-la-stupefiante-affaire-du-dernier-vinci.