Edgar Wind and Modern Art – In Defence of Marginal Anarchy

Edgar Wind and Modern Art – In Defence of Marginal Anarchy
Ben Thomas

Bloomsbury, London, UK, 2020
256 pp., illus. 19 b/w. Trade, £72.00; ebook, £57.60
ISBN: 9781501341755; ISBN: 9781501341748.

Reviewed by: 
Edith Doove
September 2021

This publication, discussing Edgar Wind and his take on Modern Art, is in more than one way a timely undertaking. Connecting it to a notion of ‘Marginal Anarchy’ certainly is. Surprisingly this is the first comprehensive study of Wind’s critique of modern art.

The starting point for the book is Wind’s Reith lectures series for the BBC on Art and Anarchy from 1960 that would be published in a book with the same title three years later. Ben Thomas first sketches the intriguing life of the philosopher and art historian that took him from Germany, where he was born in Berlin in 1900, to the States and finally to Oxford where he would become the first professor of history of art. As the main elements in his biography that are of importance for the further thematic of the book, it suffices here perhaps to mention his study of art history, first in Berlin and later in Hamburg as the first pupil of Panofsky. Warburg wasn’t present at the time as he was treated for his mental breakdown in Switzerland, but Wind did study in the Warburg library where he thought his ‘ghostly presence was very evident’ (Thomas, p. 5). Leaving for New York in 1924 due to his concerns about the escalating violence in Berlin, Wind was during his first American period strongly influenced by pragmatism. When he returned to Hamburg in 1927 he immediately struck up a rapport with Warburg and developed an important working relation with him. He became a research assistant at the Warburg Library and worked on the Mnemosyne Atlas with Gertrud Bing as well as on Warburg’s efforts to try and return to New Mexico. This review doesn’t allow for too much detail, but it’s worth mentioning for those that Wind would become deputy director of the Warburg Institute and from 1937 co-editor with Rudolf Wittkower of its Journal. During his active time as editor Wind stressed the journal’s “dedication to the study of symbols as vehicles of cultural memory” (Thomas p.13), something which would also stay important in other domains of his career.

This is for instance explicitly the case in the Reith lectures series and subsequent book. The focus by Wind on modern art in itself seemed unusual, but as Thomas convincingly demonstrates, it’s exactly the application of the analysis of cultural memory to modern art as well as the relation of Wind’s analysis of modern art to his iconographical interpretations of Renaissance art and early philosophical writings that’s at stake. As Thomas indicates it’s possibly Wind’s interest in play and playfulness that allowed him to bridge the so-called gap between Renaissance and Modern art. Or as the quote from his Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (1980) at the beginning of Thomas’ book indicates: “Intellect excludes contradictions; love embraces them”, in which love is intrinsically equated with both imagination and play. The series consisted of six lectures, respectively titled ‘Art and Anarchy: Our Present Discontents’, ‘ Aesthetic Participation’, ‘ Critique of Connoisseurship’, ‘The Fear of Knowledge’, ‘The Mechanization of Art’ and ‘Art and the Will’. They dealt overall with the notion or rather necessity of art as a form of counter movement, taking Plato’s ‘holy fear’ of art’s magical power as an important point of departure, which comes down to appreciating art, but also putting it outside of society or at least at a distance. In this hybrid identity it takes on a form of monstrosity that is both repulsive and attractive. This basically to develop an independent and critical view in which the use of symbols prevails.

Thomas discusses the general content of Wind’s Reith lectures very helpfully with the results of his personal extensive archival research and specifically previously unpublished lectures by Wind. Overall, the notions and importance of holy fear and monstrosity in relation to Wind’s analysis of modern art prevail as do the clear differences with the then leading formalist opinions of Alfred Barr and Clement Greenberg.

Interestingly Thomas also discusses the influences of or exchange with Wind’s ideas in the work of three leading artists of the time, the now more or less obscure Pavel Tchelitchew and Ben Shan as well as the more recent R.B. Kitaj. Wind formed important friendships with them although they don’t figure in his writing. Of the three artists the case of Kitaj seems the most interesting to get a better understanding of Wind’s influence. Ronald Brooks Kitaj, who was an American, was taught by Wind in Oxford and after moving to London counted Gertrud Bing amongst his direct neighbours. But as Arnold states, it’s also his varied experiences prior to arriving in Oxford, especially through his links with Vienna, Catalonia, and New York, that made Kitaj receptive to Wind’s influence. This is amongst others apparent in his development of his ‘diasporism’ in others the notion of a hybrid identity played an important role. Kitaj was which amongst very specifically interested in the interplay between image and text, as demonstrated in his exhibition and publication Pictures with Commentary / Pictures without Commentary that Thomas discusses at length and which in his use of the ‘monstrous’ collage probably best demonstrates Wind’s influence.

All in all this publication is so rich that it’s difficult to summarise it briefly. Thomas concludes that in the complex relationship between myth and logic Wind would have put that “a ‘holy fear’ of art’s magical power must also be accompanied by a distrust of reason’s ‘limping virtue’” (Thomas p.201). This makes for the exact dynamic that causes both Warburg and Wind to still be of importance today. Thomas finishes with mentioning “the complex play of sign and symbol” in the work of Jasper Johns or the “richly allusive mythical scenarios (that) constitute the oeuvre of Anselm Kiefer”. Although indeed prominent these examples seem too reductive. However, Thomas’ final remark that “Wind’s experimental foray into the field of contemporary art seems more compelling than ever” definitely rings true.

My one and only negative critique is for the book’s design. Its selective, but nevertheless extensive bibliography and index certainly add to its richness, but the illustrations are not only in black and white, but also too small. This is especially unfortunate as Thomas discusses the depicted works in detail for which the illustrations are really no reference at all. One thus has to try and find them elsewhere to fully understand what he’s talking about which is obviously a bit of a tedious undertaking. It would have been worthwhile to spend the cost of the rather ugly or ‘monstrous’ blue hard cover on a better quality of illustrations, larger and preferably in colour, or at least to provide a link to a website to find them altogether. This issue might be solved in the eBook-version, but maybe against the grain, I would like to stress the importance of a fully workable physical book as well.