In two successive afternoons in late October, 2009, New York-based art historian Sasha Suda came to visit the world renowned scholar of art history Willibald Sauerländer at his home in Munich to talk about his life and work.
Sasha Suda (Rail): In the preface to the 1999 collection of your essays titled Geschichte der Kunst—Gegenwart der Kritik (History of Art—Present State of Criticism) you express skepticism towards self-reflection in art history. With that said, let’s start our conversation by talking about your personal history.
Willibald Sauerländer: Yes, in self-reflection there is always illusion and self-deception. You can try to be very reflective and critical of yourself, but every psychologist and brain specialist will tell you that memory is not always truth—it changes the past. But, under these auspices we can talk about my past as it is present for me now, if it was really so—that’s another question.
In old age you think back. Before 1914, my father was a late-Impressionist painter and he stopped painting under the impression of modern art and then designed tapestries and had a little factory where they were woven. Now that’s not interesting, but what is nevertheless revealing is that I grew up in a house where the arts were present. My father built a house that we still owned in 1929/30, which was a sequence of the Weissenhofsiedlung [housing project] in Stuttgart—a modern house. My father disliked art historians, as most artists do, and he died very early. I don’t know that he would be happy that his son became an art historian. Nevertheless, there were works of old and modern art in the house when I was growing up, and a year after the war ended, in 1946, I began to study art history at university in Munich.
Rail: How would you describe the university when you came?
Sauerländer: You must imagine—in 1946, Munich was in ruins and the intellectual situation was therefore extremely truncated. Most of my Jewish colleagues had been driven out in 1933, which was very sensitive in the case of art history, including [Erwin] Panofsky, [Paul] Frankl, [Richard] Krautheimer, [Rudolf] Wittkower and many other very important scholars. And, moreover, the Nazis removed Modern Art from art history. I came to the university at a time when it was a very special atmosphere, the center of everything was the study of medieval art, in a curious kind of secular, mystical—aesthetic mystical—spiritualism. I was 22 and we were in this nutshell that was very closed. Relations with the outside world practically did not exist. I remember that a friend of my parents, who was a psychiatrist who had been thrown out of the University of Heidelburg by the Nazis, asked me in 1947: “What do the Warburg people do?” And I had never heard of them, so [in Munich] I could be an art historian and the name of Warburg didn’t even occur. That suggests how truncated the separation was. On the other hand, one was trained in looking at things in a very intense way, I must admit, which was connected to a kind of spiritualism that was very curious, so by ’49 -’50, I became quite unhappy with it. When I had finished [my studies] in ‘53, I was rather slow, I was offered to go to the newly-opened German institutes in Italy—in Rome and Florence—and I refused because I wanted absolutely out of the world of German art history. So, I went to Paris for five years instead, which was a great experience, despite the fact that I came close to a not-very-modern way of studying French archeology. French archeology was something between archives, documents, inscriptions, and so it was rather dry.
Rail: Did you work with Eugène Viollet-le-Duc [Viollet le Duc, an architect and theorist, was famous for his restorations of medieval buildings]?
Sauerländer: Yes, I did. Even though Viollet-le-Duc did not belong to the archaeological art history, because he was a liberal, anti-clerical, therefore he belongs rather to this curious group of French historians who saw France’s Gothic cathedrals as civic creations. For him the art of French architecture was Gothic Architecture, but if you read his writings on architecture, you see that he was an extremely modern man. He says that the architectures of our age are the railways, the locomotives and not the art palaces, so it was not the art of that archeological world. Those were other people who are not famous. I like that world, but it was a world full of dust. I was lonely in Paris, I was without an institution, my wife and I guided tourists in order to gain our life, and then we worked in the Bibliothèque Nationale. The Bibliothèque Nationale was then an extraordinary place full of curious people, crazy Frenchmen, mixed with many from Eastern Europe, some became French citizens, including Robert Klein, a brilliant man who was a Jew from the German-speaking part of Romania. He had studied philosophy, especially the works of [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau, and Renaissance art history. We lived with the art, with the art world, with the institutions. In Paris at the time, you couldn’t live without observing public life. It was the period of the Algerian War. I taught German at a French lycée, all the teachers were Communist—coming from provincial Germany that was a great experience. I regret not going to hear [Claude] Lévi-Strauss or [Michel] Foucault, but I only realized that later. I went back to Germany in ’59, but in between I had sent some offprints to Panofsky and he wrote back with such a very nice, even flattering, letter. A year later, during the 1960 Poussin exhibition in Paris, I finally met him, and he basically told me to come to Princeton. So, I fell out of a cloud.
Rail: Before we move onto Princeton I want to backtrack to the “nutshell” of Munich. In such a closed environment, how did you know that there was something else outside Germany?
Sauerländer: I believe I’m a relatively rational man, and there were all these sides of the German mind with its darkness, mysticism, and romanticism—that I didn’t like. I was always a man of enlightenment. I couldn’t have made this statement in ’53 when I went to France, but it was this kind of uneasiness with that fogginess of German art. It was always this will to go against the dark side of the German spirit.
Rail: What were the objects or the monuments that you were studying at the University in Munich?
Sauerländer: Three things: medieval sculpture and architecture with a strong focus on France, Poussin, and the French 18th century. With the French 18th century: [Jean-Honoré] Fragonard, [Jean-Baptiste] Greuze, [Jean-Antoine] Houdon, and so on. So, it was nearly exclusively French. After the experience of ’43-’45 there was a certain reluctance to go into German materials. In French art there was a kind of evasion into a world that I maintained as more illuminated, enlightened, and reasonable. There was a different relationship between art and civic structures than there was in Germany, art was more connected with social and political questions. There was certainly a deep reason why I remained very attached to France, even now despite the fact that the situation in France today is not very interesting.
Rail: You mentioned being unaware of the Warburg School of thought, how about the Viennese School?
Sauerländer: The Viennese School: In part, it’s a myth. In 1934 [Julius von] Schlosser published the little booklet Die Weiner Schuler der Kunstgeschichte and a doctrine has been made out of it. The Viennese School was on the one side [Alois] Riegl, who was very important because his kunstwollen is like the weltgeist of Hegel transformed into art history. If I look on other parts of the Viennese School, Schlosser whom I think today is even the greater man than Riegl, well, one knew that the Kunstliteratur existed as a man wrote [it] but didn’t know much more. There were the younger students of Schlosser, [Ernst] Gombrich and [Ernst] Kris, who began a kind of critical art history based on psychology. Kris was close to Freud, Gombrich was not (he didn’t know anything about it). In post-war Germany Freud and Marx were absent. Then there was the case of [Hans] Sedlmayr [who had ties to the Nazi party]. Sedlmayr was naturally present and there were people who adored nothing more than his kind of structural analysis. Then there was his book against Modern Art, which became a sort of Bible for all the reactionaries and conservatives in Germany—
Rail: You mean Verlust der Mitte (Art in Crisis: The Lost Center)?
Sauerländer: Yes, Verlust der Mitte—it said that all the disasters of the modern world, as they are evident in modern art, are only the consequence of art which began in the 18th century. It was not Hitler who was responsible, no it was the young people of the French and English enlightenment who turned away from God and lost art.
In 1950 I organized a big protest against the rearmament of Germany. I made a long speech that even the [university] rector was present for. Then, in 1951 Sedlmayr was drawn to Munich and we protested. I wrote a critique of his book on the cathedral in the newspaper in 1951 and we protested at his inauguration lecture. Sedlmayr was very present as part of the Vienne School but he was a case of dispute. Today I am convinced that Sedlmayr was one of the most intelligent art historians of the 20th century. With that said, from the beginning he was an Ultra reactionary, the fact that he became a Nazi in ’38 is only part of it. He was a reactionary fundamentalist with a great sensitivity for Modern Art, which he hated or found for the devil. But, his sensitivity was so great that it was sometimes more intelligent than the people who adore Modern Art. He was a very curious case. However, Sedlmayr was naturally an anathema, with his Nazism he had not behaved very decently in’38 after the Occupation of Austria.
Rail: Could you tell us about your acquaintance with André Chastel?
Sauerländer: My wife and I worked either at the Bibliothèque Nationale or we worked at the Centre Michelet, or Institut de l’Histoire de l’Art where Chastel was teaching, so we would see him in the library, especially in the afternoon. And in the evening we read his articles in Le Monde. Chastel was an astonishing presence, who became one of my very closest French friends. He was a brilliant intellectual, who knew all the languages and all the other literatures. Italian was his field, but he also knew German and English equally as he did of all the French literary figures. Through Chastel I met [Claude] Lévi-Strauss and others. It was him who took me deep into the French literary/artistic world. It should also be said that Chastel did not belong to the world of archeology, that’s self understood. Chastel was fascinated by Paul Valéry, by Braudel the historian [and author of] La Méditerranée. But, he was conservative: “[Pierre] Bourdieu est un penseur intéressant mais vulgaire”—I can still hear him today. We have nobody in France now like Chastel, that’s the tragedy, that is why art history has no voice in France. [Chastel] made the game with [André] Malraux, who was another reactionary, they were very close. For me, Chastel was of enormous importance. That was really a door into interior France, in the best sense. For ten years he worked to enter the Institute; I said, “André why do you do this? There are so many stupid people in the Institute. [Laughter.] You need not go there!” but it had to be, so he was part of the French bourgeoisie, but there he was extremely intelligent and inspiring. For my wife and I it was an extraordinary friendship. We didn’t notice it at the time, but there was naturally a right-wing/left-wing separation in France and for a time Chastel dominated everything in France.
Rail: Fascinating. Where did the Annales school [20th-century school of historiography] factor into this milieu and your time in Paris?
Sauerländer: The Annales School… You see, that mode archéologique was a poor and dry positivism focused on Chartres and stones, which was a world I was close to. The Annales School became for me important much later, only after 1970. Then, I had not only read Marc Bloch but I had contacts with [Georges] Duby and closure with [Jacques] Le Goff, which essentially changed my work. But early on things were blocked, there was no Lévi-Strauss, no [Michel] Foucault, and no Bloch, but there were the others, Duby and so, but these were all separated camps. Paris is a terrible battlefield. The process now between Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin, is only one example, of how these camps are so much against each other.
Rail: So it’s an open milieu that is, upon closer inspection, very separated.
Sauerländer: Very separated. Chastel often drove me through Paris and I remember one day he said: “Look up there. Mondrian lived in those towers for 15 years.” Nobody in Paris realized it! The Frenchmen were only occupied with quarrelling with each other.
Rail: Were you aware of Modern Art at that time?
Sauerländer: Yes, in a moderate sense, but I would say that I developed a vivid interest in it only after coming to New York. I can’t deny it, it came with Pop Art. Not with Abstract Expressionism, not Barnett Newman, not Rothko. I’ve written on Rothko a couple of times, but I’m a little skeptical of his religious and mystical aura. It was in the 60s that I became interested in the works of Rauschenburg, [Claes] Oldenburg, and even Warhol (Warhol before 1970, Warhol after 1970 is a different thing) we had liberation, even if today I am skeptical of it. Suddenly the thick reality of a consumer’s world, of a media world, entered the art and that was liberating.
Rail: How did you feel about the German artists who became very visible in the decade of the 1980s, for example, Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer?
Sauerländer: Beuys was an enormous event and we all were fascinated because he transformed cold reality, real things of the everyday world, into symbols of misery, death, extinction. It fascinated us though I admit that I always mistrusted the man a little. There was something tricky about it. The man was not very agreeable if you met him. Kiefer, on the other hand, is a man who lives from the darkest of the German meeds, which I don’t care much for. I remember the 1988 Kiefer exhibition [opening] at the MoMA full of drunken American ladies, if possible also Jewish. They looked as if they were in a Wagner opera, staring at all these symbols of German fire, blockhaus, the Reich Chancellor. I know Kiefer personally and there I would make a great distinction. There is something intelligent and even enlightened in Beuys whereas in Kiefer it’s a sort of fundamentalism that doesn’t interest me. Due to my health, I couldn’t go to see the 2007 Kiefer exhibition in the Grand Palais in Paris, which must have been gigantic. People were very impressed, but I have a suspicion that Kiefer is exactly what the French think Germany should be—Wagner and mysticism and so on.
Rail: Now getting back to where we had left off before: What was your impression of the U.S. when you came to Princeton in 1961?
Sauerländer: We had a totally idealistic image of America, it was the perfect democracy, the Bill of Rights, we believed in all of that. It was the moment of President Kennedy who everyone saw as young, progressive, and enlightened. Whether that was true, well that’s another question.
So we arrived in September just in time for the International Congress [of Art History]. Upon arriving at the Columbia dormitory where we were housed, my wife asked: “Goodness, who is that?” There was man who looked like an Old Testament prophet! It was Meyer Schapiro and he was the first person we saw. Apart from participating in the Congress, it was a great experience to come from truncated Germany and suddenly encounter all these émigrés. It was Panofsky, his wife, and Walter Friedländer; suddenly we discovered a Germany that no longer existed in Germany. We couldn’t help but just listen to them because they had very much remained German. With that said they, especially Panofksy naturally, regarded themselves as American. Suddenly a pre-Nazi German past came back on us and it was astonishing. During this first phase in the United States, between ’61 and ’62, we became close friends with Panofsky, Friedländer and Krautheimer. Later I invited Freidländer to Freiburg where he taught before ’33 and Panofsky took an honorary position there; [seeing these scholars return to Germany, if only temporarily] was a very important part of my American experience.
I came back to the U.S. in ’64-’65 to teach at The Institute of Fine Arts [at New York University] and things were different. Now I had to do with American students—a new, extremely democratic and exciting experience that I enjoyed enormously. I am still in very close contact with a number of my students from the Institute. I’ll always remember, I taught a seminar on medieval art and there was a girl who didn’t recognize any New Testament imagery. I, this charming professor, even got angry. The next day she came to my office and said: “Oh, Doctor Sauerländer, I am from a Jewish worker background in Baltimore. I have no Christian experience whatsoever.” These were naturally things you didn’t encounter in Germany. You certainly saw that there is a totally different kind of society and even a different approach to art history in the U.S.
Another example comes from much later, in 1989, when I taught a seminar on Romanesque art at Berkeley. The first thing that the students did, which would never happen in Munich, was to go as a class to the University Cinema and see The Milky Way by [Luis] Buñuel. It was wonderful!
I must say that I remained in unbroken admiration of the U.S., even in ’64-’65, I found it all wonderful. Then I came back to teach in 1970 during the centenary of the Metropolitan Museum and there were all these parties with rich ladies—Panofsky, Friedländer, all were dead, the emigrés, in part, had disappeared. I suddenly saw all the poor people on the streets and I discovered the dark side of America. It was actually the moment when Panofsky’s great illumination was at its end—everyone imitated him. Panofsky himself said, “Well if I am punished for what I did to art history, I will come into the seventh stage of Hell.” In ’65 he gave those Titian lectures, which with all respect for Panofsky were a disaster. I mean, reducing Titian to iconography naturally doesn’t work.
Rail: Before we go into the 70s I would like to talk about the 1970 publication of your seminal catalogue of French Gothic Sculpture—Gotische Skulptur in Frankreich. Can you talk a little bit about your research? You worked from an amazing collection of photographs.
Sauerländer: The photographs came from the Marburg Institute, which was founded by Richard Hamann. He was a very curious type who came from very modest background, workers background and became a full professor before 1914 when full professors came from higher classes. He organized systematic photographic campaigns with the Marburg students, in France or in Germany especially, and built an enormous photo collection. [The photographs] were certainly important for me but also I had studied the originals in France as well. [Max] Hirmer was the editor and photographer of this curious book of mine. I gave him precise instructions and he re-shot all of the photographs. I would say the book is a gravestone to my development before 1970: it is a systematic catalogue with an introduction. The book was well received and there was an extremely flattering review in the Times Literary Supplement [“Comparable Carvings,” April 13, 1973: 410]. I took the compliment as a criticism.
Rail: Would you say your intentions were different throughout the writing process than they were published in the book?
Sauerländer: No, I must say that I wrote that book very quickly, not even a full year. I was on sabbatical and sat in my studio in Freiburg. I tried to distance myself from poor positivivism and poor stylistic art history in the introduction, but it remains in that shell. Right before the book was published I gave my farewell lecture in Freiburg on pop art.
Rail: Was your enthusiasm for America and Pop Art something shared by Germans at the time?
Sauerländer: I don’t think there were many people in Germany who were aware of it. There was Evelyn Weiss in Cologne who wrote on Pop Art and I’m not absolutely sure at what moment Peter Ludwig, a collector of art in Cologne who bought an enormous number of Pop Art pieces, began acquiring it. It was relatively early even in New York as well. [Barnett] Newman, [Mark] Rothko, [Meyer] Schapiro were shocked by Pop, they thought it was the end. It was a break that others have to write about. I couldn’t have done it in 1970, which I regret it to this day. This break coincides with all the social and mental changes of the 60s—before and after 1968.
Rail: Even in America, it has taken time for Pop to enter scholarly discourse.
Sauerländer: The disturbing question is what remains? I was very fascinated by [Edward] Kienholz, [Robert] Rauschenberg, and [Claes] Oldenburg, but where are they today? Warhol remains an icon—Warhol until 1970. Later the factory goes wrong. At this moment I find photography seems to be more interesting than other fields, especially, there are very good photographers in Germany, for example [Thomas] Struth, [Andreas] Gursky.
Rail: How about Bernd and Hilla Becher, Candida Höffer?
Sauerländer: Höffer, yes, too many libraries, a little bit sterile. I have great problems with the Bechers. There is a great human message with Walker Evans, but never were with the Bechers or Höffer. [Bernd] told me that he photographed at 5 a.m. and made scaffolding above the human level, on an abstract level. The [Robert] Bergman catalogue that you gave me is something different altogether. [August] Sander is one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. [Thomas] Struth and [Thomas] Demand are interesting.
Rail: I saw the Ai Weiwei exhibition “So Sorry” at the Haus der Kunst, what a very powerful show. Seamlessly, he incorporates the building’s Nazi past into a beautiful display of contemporary political art.
Sauerländer: It seems astonishing how it works in the building. [Chris] Dercon, who has been running the Haus der Kunst for the last five years, is a Belgian who was the director of the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam. He is important in Munich because he makes unconventional, not in the traditional sense, beautiful, impressive, shows using that ghast-like building to stage these spectacles.
Sauerländer: How is Mass MoCA now? We were very impressed when we were there for the first time—old factory rooms with the great Beuys, the great [John] Chamberlains. How are they doing?
Rail: The Beuys is still there, as far as I know, and the shows remain of a high caliber.
Sauerländer: Does their program still include dance and music?
Sauerländer: I like it [Mass MoCA] better then the famous Dia Center north of New York, which is impressive but has the character of a conventional museum. I like the chaotic side of Mass MoCA.
Rail: Yes, you feel part of it. Perhaps it’s a question of space and real estate. Have you been to Storm King?
Sauerländer: Yeah, yeah. When we were the last time in New York, I think in 2007. During that visit we were very disappointed by the new arrangement of MoMA. They have some good sections, photography was good, but the other things I don’t know what happened. When we saw the MoMA for the first time in September ’62, it was still the time of Alfred Barr, we even had dinner with him. It seemed a perfect, crystal-clear presentation of classical modernity thought out by Barr with a great sense of purity and organization. Then, I remember in 1970 living artists, understandably, protested:, “This is called the Museum of Modern Art and it’s only historical because it presents an art which is no longer modern art.” So, then they had a Dan Flavin exhibition. It was in 1970 and the first Flavin show that I saw, and I thought this is a mistake. I would have preferred leaving Barr’s historical conception and then founding a new museum for post-1960 art. After 1960 there was a break from classical modernity, art became sterile and lost contact with political and social problems.
Rail: I am too young to have seen Alfred Barr’s installation in person but photos suggest that there was transparency, you could see history being written for you. Perhaps now there is an ambiguity there.
Sauerländer: But listen, that’s naturally our situation. Alfred Barr began around 1930, at the moment when Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock wrote The International Style. The MoMA was his vision of the art of modernity stemming away from bad tradition and creating a purer abstract art as an ideal, it was his conception for the museum too in the late 50s. Around 1960, Kandinsky’s idea of das Geistige in der Kunst suddenly appeared and the moment to which Barr’s museum was a monument was over.
Rail: How would you characterize MoMA today? How is it different from before?
Sauerländer: Well, as far as I can judge it holds a very rich collection of 20th century art, but the gods have been thrown down. The gods of the old museum—Cézanne, Seurat, Van Gogh, made up the golden portal through which one entered the realm of the Cubists who were the gates to Mondrian, then to German Expressionism, Austrian Expressionism, to all these great things.
Rail: Would you say there’s been a leveling?
Sauerländer: It’s still an astonishing display, but a display without guidelines. Perhaps the guideline of a history of modern art and history of art altogether has been blurred.
Rail: Is there a fear of being accused of creating a hierarchy?
Sauerländer: The artists had a furor against classical modernity that made sense, but how should a museum react? What will Thomas Campbell [director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art] finally do? I’ve only seen the New Yorker article and spoken with some people and it seems to be his intention to break down the departments into a trans-departmental display. I exaggerate, perhaps I am wrong, but it may lead towards a thematic representation of artifacts from everywhere and maybe that is the future. The whole old system of art history—with its chronologies, artists’ legions, and schools, is at risk of evaporating, but perhaps that’s the future.
It may be difficult for the museum, the university and for the writers, but they shouldn’t make compromises with politics, they must remain independent. Let the politicians make their compromises—we are a different world. The other thing is the breaking down of art history, in my eyes, is probably unavoidable. I will die and will no longer see this, but the field will profoundly change for a number of reasons. First, there is no distinction between low art and high art. Second, art history was a product of the European Enlightenment, a European project, and enfin it studied only European art. As a supplement to European art, there were ethnographic studies—in German Völkerkunde Volkskunst.
Rail: Folk art?
Sauerländer: Folk Art is something different because Folk Art is, in the European context, low art. I mean the exotic art of the other civilizations. In a globalized world you can no longer make that division, the time will come when you study the art of the other civilizations with equal right as European art. With the global art world there’s one difficulty I spoke with [Hans] Belting about: In a deep structural sense, art history was a European project because Europe had arranged a process of secularization where religious art suddenly became aesthetic art. This process, which to my limited knowledge, never happened in Africa, or India, not even in China despite great breaks they’ve made with their past. So, it’s not easy to expand the European concept of art history to the other civilizations because it means bringing European concepts to them. We are in a peculiar situation at the moment because there are still people who pursue traditional research topics and there is also a new interest in what I would even describe as artifacts. It’s a new interest in the signs and monuments of religion, life, and public life that has created what is called cultural studies—not a very beautiful term but a strong trend. How, in the face of this trend, will you save the professional knowledge of traditional art history and expertise? All of these are open questions that are not discussed enough.
Rail: Yes, because we can see everything online and even travel easily to see those things, we have this natural desire to incorporate them into our scholarly dialogue. We are trying to expand the curricula to be more global but we don’t necessarily have a framework for doing so.
Sauerländer: Yes, we don’t have a framework. Yes. I had lunch with my good friend [Director of the Getty Research Institute] Thomas Gaehtgens yesterday. When he started at the Getty he spoke a lot of global art history—African things, Indian things, and so on. After two years of trying to organize things to be open, what does he do? He makes one center for South American art, one for Californian art, one, which is really reasonable, for film. At first [Gaehtgens] spoke of anthropology and now he returns to western topics. There is the framework for anthropological studies, but how do we avoid what André Malraux did with the Musée Imaginaire? How do we save professionalism, which is not only technical but critical in the sense that we critically understand the object? If you make an exhibition on masks and bring Inca masks, African masks and so on, you will be enormously successful with the public but you err by creating a sort of new mysticism that has nothing to do with history. This is what exactly the Musée du quai Branly in Paris does; it’s a sort of “Geisterbahn” (ghost train), a great Halloween. I am an old man, I no longer can solve these difficult questions but I am aware that our traditional patterns are in part exhausted. For example, I had to review the one-painting Andrea del Sarto show at the Alte Pinakothek [in Munich] for the newspaper here. I looked into the literature and found these art historians: Sydney Joseph Freedberg says the painting is 1518, John Shearman says 1520, then comes [a third art historian] who says, “No, it could also be 1516.” At this point you ask yourself: what are we doing? What is interesting about this dispute?
Rail: Could it be that those who know how to look have been painted into a corner?
Sauerländer: I’m afraid it’s more complicated than that. I may annoy our people, I mean let’s take another field which I know. I’ve written on Poussin’s landscapes, so I looked into literature. Again, there were pages and pages, controversies and controversies: is the painting 1639 or in the spring 1640? One should reflect on what this kind of research means and whether this is just a vicious circle of specialists. One should be clever enough to say, “between 1638 and 1641” and leave the thing quiet. On the other hand, there’s no harm to it and let’s be thankful that there are still people look at things and who think it verifiable to discuss such questions. The question of looking is a very tricky one. I don’t know if my health will allow me to finish it, but I am writing a book on the altarpieces by Rubens. My impression is that Rubens scholarship never addressed the ritual function of his 17th-century Catholic paintings. I have asked myself, “What am I doing here? What does this have to do with the splendor of Rubens’s art? Couldn’t the same thing be done with miserable paintings?”
We have to ask ourselves what is looking? Is looking a strictly visual process or is it a deep, emotional process? We should test and totally absorb the emotional process in front of a work of art and then, as art historians, we should undergo the critical task of asking ourselves whether the emotional impact of the art is identical with the historical, or original, mission of the object. One must ask oneself what the tension between these two things is and then bring them together. Today in the art history of Bildwissenschaft or media studies people want to throw away the emotional side of art history so that works of art become examples of information. We must defend the emotional effect of art even if, in Germany, we experienced irrationalism among art historians who swam in their emotional impressions alone. So, we have the task of putting our emotional impression through critical enlightenment, but if we remove the emotional side then we can close shop.
Rail: Couldn’t it be that we only find emotional resonance in certain works of art and that that resonance is what provides the incentive to proceed with a rigorous investigation?
Sauerländer: When you say you react only to certain works of art in an emotional way, that’s your good right but if you listen to music you have to be totally quiet and extinguish things going on in your brain to truly become a listener and it takes time. It’s the same with a work of art—sometimes you’ll need an hour or more before it opens. You say, “I react only to certain works of art” and that’s quite normal, natural, and human. But as an art historian one gains by listening, not only seeing. Everyone should have his taste, favorites, and antipathies, but as an art historian or art critic you should try to broaden your capacity to listen to things—to let them come. There’s a wonderful sentence by French Catholic writer Paul Claudel, whom I can’t stand enfin, on seeing works of art: “l’oeil écoute” (the eye listens). Alone that can be dangerous, you risk becoming a mystical figure that blubbers and writes things that make no sense, so we have to connect with a critical process. It’s a very tricky problem, but we are in danger of losing this [twofold] understanding of art.
Rail: This summer Michael Kimmelman wrote an interesting piece about the museum experience [“At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus,” New York Times, August 2, 2009]. He commented on how very little time people spend with art in museum galleries.
Sauerländer: Let me say one thing, nothing is more unpleasant than pessimistic generalizations. For example, the Hypokunsthalle [in Munich] had a Jean Dubuffet exhibition. He is an artist I like very much, but he is neither pleasant nor easily accessible. When my wife and I went to the exhibition it was interesting to watch. There were no crowds, but the were people really looking at the art. Television has transformed looking enormously. Nothing against television, but we flip from one image to the next and even in public spaces, if you go down Broadway in New York, you are attacked by visual stimuli. How do you expect the same people who experience that every day to stand in front of a Vermeer painting, where nothing happens and it’s totally quiet, for ten minutes? Where you have to sink in, to admire the blue and the light and so on? As art historians we have a great responsibility here, one that goes beyond the historical and aesthetic experience because teaching people to look makes them sensitive. It’s an enriching sedative, for example in the treatment of traumatized people and sick people doctors use works of art to heal because it is a process which makes you sensible and goes beyond thinking to bring us back to the emotion.
Rail: Returning to the discipline of Art History for a moment, how did the discipline lose the momentum that it had in the 80s with the “New Art History” and its many new methodologies?
Sauerländer: I’ll try to answer your question in the context of the narrow German framework. I would say the productive phase was between the late 50s and then came the ’68 people and those of the 70s and 80s. There was a desire to build a more open, democratic and social society. This broke down when Helmut Kohl became Chancellor in ’82 and the conservative professors founded confederations and became private people. The feminists were the only ones to survive them, perhaps because their ideas were not general but rather ideas of subjectivity. Then came the post-modernists. How does one start the next thing? For example, from the outside I saw the Obama experience as something coming from outside of politics, politics alone being an administration serving the needs of society, bringing new perspectives and opening doors. After less than a year that hope seems to be breaking down. There are no perspectives anymore. Be careful, I am 85 years old and I may overlook many things and may not know many things.
Rail: The Obama experience is interesting. Politics and culture are polarized according to party lines.
Sauerländer: That could be an opportunity! We don’t have enough polarization in Germany. Let me tell a story that comes to mind here, it comes from one of the four volumes of the published correspondence of Panofsky. Panofsky’s son was a famous physicist who taught at Berkeley in the 50s when the administrations demanded that all professors make the oath that they had never been communists or fascists. The Medieval historian Ernst Kantorowicz famously wrote a Latin tract pronouncing that the administration’s demand was illegal. Initially, Panofsky’s son thought he would go along with the pact, but Panofsky told him that if he did he would no longer recognize him as his son. One has no right to sacrifice one’s convictions for one’s career. Panofsky’s son left Berkeley and began teaching at Stanford—can you imagine asking today’s art historians to do such a thing?
Rail: What are we responsible for as art historians, professors, and critics today?
Sauerländer: We are responsible for one of the greatest parts of mankind’s cultural memory. We are responsible for physically conserving and keeping alive that cultural memory. We are responsible for maintaining critical perspective. But, is the art historian a critic? Aren’t these different camps? Greenberg was not in academia but he was probably more important than many professors of art history. One New York friend was outside of the field said that one of the tragedies of American intellectual history is that many people who were independent writers and critics in the 60s have become professors and thus uninteresting. In Germany, I’m not sure what the situation is in the United States, there is a different problem concerning the critics, their reviews of any contemporary art are laudatory. I rarely read the paper and encounter a critic who says “this is rubbish or this is bad art”—there is a connection between critics and commerce that requires a specific vocabulary.
For art history, I would say that we have an essential and very specific responsibility. We are the people who are responsible for one of the greatest treasures of mankind—from Egyptian art to Picasso and Klee. In the museums we must watch over it and in the universities we must hand it over to the next generation. We are responsible to watch over these treasures and make sure that they are physically conserved. We are responsible for keeping their memory alive, to protect them from being forgotten, overlooked, or from being transformed into some kind of entertainment. That is our greatest responsibility. The critic enfin should be the man who writes critically about contemporary art. The art historian should be a scholar whose private opinion remains unknown. These are two tasks that have to be kept separate, and I would say the task of a good critic is nearly more difficult that the task of art historian.