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Panofsky and the art history of modern art

5 June 2014

Just published:

Flora Lysen, ‘What to do with the “Most Modern” Artworks?  Erwin Panofsky and the Art History of Contemporary Art ‘

Historical Presence in Visual Culture. Contemporaneity. Vol 3, No 1 (2014) | ISSN 2155-1162 (online) | DOI 10.5195/contemp/2014.81

In the 1930s, when the world-renowned Medieval and Renaissance art scholar Erwin
Panofsky became acquainted with the New York contemporary art scene, he was challenged
with the most difficult dilemma for art historians: how could Panofsky, who was firmly
entrenched in the kunstwissenschaftliche study of art, use his historical methods for the
scholarly research of contemporary art? Can art historians deal with the art objects of their
own time? This urgent and still current question of how to think about “contemporaneity” in
relation to art history is the main topic of this paper, which departs from Panofsky’s 1934
review of a book on modern art. In his review of James Johnson Sweeny’s book Plastic
Redirections in 20th Century Painting, Panofsky’s praise for Sweeney’s scholarly “distance”
from contemporary art developments in Europe is backed by a claim for America’s cultural
distance, rather than a (historical) removal in time. Taking a closer look at Panofsky’s
conflation of historical/temporal distance with geographical/cultural distance, this paper
demonstrates a politically situated discourse on contemporaneity, in which Panofsky
proposes the act of writing about the contemporary as a redemptive act, albeit, as this paper
will demonstrate, without being able to follow his own scientific method.

About the Author
Flora Lysen is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Media Studies at the University of

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