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JUNE 2022

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JUNE 2022 Issue

Carl Einstein’s A Mythology of Forms: Selected Writings on Art

Activist Formalist: Carl Einstein

Carl Einstein
ed. and trans. Charles W. Haxthausen.
A Mythology of Forms: Selected Writings on Art
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, , 2019. )

A toughie, but monumental: this book takes substantial texts, from 1912 to 1935, of an idiosyncratically great early modernist German art historian-critic, Carl Einstein—few of whose writings have been accessible to Anglophone artists or scholars—and translates them in developmental order, rendering them both accessible and comprehensible.

A Mythology of Forms collects 14 texts, not mere excerpts, including entire essays and chapters in books, and parallel chapters in revised editions. All contribute to filling out the sense of a formidable critical personality as related through penetrating and unhurried introductions. Broadly, the work divides into three parts: (1) Einstein as herald of the view that traditional African sculpture is sufficiently fine art to make it the object of art history (1914-26); (2) his view of cubism (1923, 1926, plus cubism in terms of Picasso, 1931, and supposedly Braque, 1934); and (3) Surrealism (1929; 1931) and Klee (1931), along with—except that here the categories begin to break down—supposedly more Braque, but finally, with no works of Braque adduced, the vexed surrounding condition of European culture (1934-35).

Don’t be intimidated by the details; this Einstein had one huge driving thought, a sort of activist formalism: that the forms of artworks could cognitively accustom the spectator to rethink his or her relation to surrounding social and political reality. The three big concerns are cumulative, and one must read the early stuff first so that what might seem to be repetitious can reveal itself as developmental. Fortunately, Haxthausen provides excellent analytically attuned, connective tissue. Think of Einstein as a soloist often singing the same songs in different arrangements, with Haxthausen’s editorial accompaniment.

In the first part, Einstein sets out for the task of historicizing pre-literate African art, where one has to push on the only evidence available, anthropology. (It is not enough to clear one’s head of an exotic “Other.”) Here Einstein’s distrust of “age-old” legends is bracing. Desperate for something better, he latches onto tribes’ memories of their own migrations: at least that allows for a diffusionism that is nothing if not art-historical. He also puts in play the major tribal-critical idea of “totality” (which I suspect of being influenced by Russian Suprematism, as a volumetric unity of associated planes). Here it is clearer than elsewhere that a certain directive repetitiveness can mean getting successively closer to truth.

Fortunately, Einstein has no antiquarianism interest in the tedious question of whichever European painter was first artistically inspired by African art. It is more important that totality turns out to matter in Cubism too—where Einstein favors the intellectualism of Braque over Picasso.

The 1923 draft of a long letter inspired by Cubism, from Einstein to Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Picasso’s dealer and the subject of his magnificent Portrait of Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler (Art Institute of Chicago) (1910) is for Einstein as an art-writer, typically speculative. Some don’t like that; but I don’t see the point of art history that isn’t open to speculation, and Einstein is good at it, and Haxthausen at conveying it. So as one who believes that Kant is pertinent to the framing of analytical cubism (many passages in the Critique of Pure Reason concern the mind’s organizing the perceptual manifold in a way that can be compared with the Kahnweiler portrait), I am curious here because Kahnweiler was interested in Kant. 1 What does Einstein actually tell Kahnweiler? Something I, for one, can manage to consider related to that view, namely, how cubist painting shows “that a renuancing of sensation is possible”—which can produce something both marvelously linguistic and non-metaphorical. An incisively Cubist self-consciousness has Einstein here up against the limits of language, as he himself appreciates.

As Einstein’s purview expands to include the modern world, it might seem odd for him to take then contemporary surrealism as at all “Romantic.” Except, on second thought, for the way Gothic, romantic, primitive, not to mention expressionist, impulses can seem to be one big thing in German art history.2 Einstein touches only slightly on the so-called primitive painters of pre-Renaissance Europe (Italian and Flemish) without mention of Gothicism; but the larger point seems to be that there is plenty of room in modernity for admirably surrealist, (anti-classical) irrationalities.

Questions of influence arise. I have often wondered how, when being art historical, the art critic Clement Greenberg, at first known as a translator of German, got away with simply skipping over the most utterly literal flatness of Post-impressionist painting in accounts of modernism’s development from Impressionism planarity to Cubist planarity. However, Einstein does just that. Relatedly: my only quibble about this excellent Einstein anthology is editorial, and quite possibly related to that Post-impressionist point. Einstein was not a fan of nonobjective art. All right; but I don’t think he would go along, nowadays, with the faddish return to the reactionary usage “picture,” which is practically invariable in Haxthausen’s translation.3 Curiously, however, Greenberg also indulged it.

The wider, politically speculative air of the late writings must concern the critic’s personal anxieties and dislocation, at first a move to France in 1928 to escape rising Nazism at home, making for a phase of final revisions, followed by still greater anxieties about a culture ever more insensitive to whatever artistic form might once have been capable of teaching it. An art critic who had once volunteered to defend his Kaiser in World War I, felt compelled to serve as an anarchist in the Spanish Civil War, giving himself over entirely to the cause of a world that might become socially equitable.

Reading A Mythology of Forms reminded me of my academic mentor Rudolf Wittkower (1901-1971), a Berliner who became an art historian in Einstein’s critical heyday. This was most closely relevant in reading Einstein on Cubism as entailing a circumnavigation of the object, because Wittkower insisted that the notion of freestanding sculpture as supposed to be significant from every angle is, in actual fact, only true under Mannerism. Even more generally pertinent to Haxthausen’s astute versions of Carl Einstein was Wittkower’s Warburgian sense that classicism is forever about an always presumedly past “golden age.” Well then, if it comes to that, make Einstein’s—and mine—utopian.


  1. Not discussed by Haxthausen, but nothing he says disqualifies it.
  2. See my “‘Raw Art: ‘Primitive’ Authenticity and German Expressionism,” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics (1982), repr. in J. Masheck, Modernities: Art Matters in the Present (University Park: Penn State Prress, 1993), 155-92.
  3. This usage has become anti-modern, pseudo-British, and redolent of the auction house. It is used in preference to “painting” (das Gemӓlde, “that which is painted”) or das Bild, which, as “image” can happily accommodate African sculpture (“picture” cannot apply to any sculpture except relief).


Joseph Masheck

Art historian Joseph Masheck received the CAA’s Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art in 2018.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

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