The Journal of Art Historiography, an open-access peer-reviewed e-journal, is dedicated to the self-critical exploration of art history as a methodological practice. The journal’s commitment to inclusivity results in remarkable breadth of coverage, with each issue collating commissioned articles, conference papers, book reviews, and primary research materials (including translations of influential texts). Its cross-disciplinary emphasis makes this journal of great interest not only to the art historian, but to sociologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnographers and scholars of many other disciplines.
This brief guide sets out some of the key themes addressed in the eleven issues published so far. The categorisations below are necessarily fluid, and are designed simply to help the reader navigate his or her way around the increasingly multifaceted field of art historiography. Certain articles have been picked out for illustrative purposes, but it is regrettable that there is not scope to highlight all those contributions which deal with very specific, specialised subjects.
Alternate issues of this bi-annual publication are guest-edited by scholars specialising in a ‘subfield’, or particularly under-studied area, of art history. Thus far, these issues have focused on Australian, Islamic, Central European and Chinese art historical scholarship, and each stands as a fairly comprehensive sourcebook of these subject areas. This year’s forthcoming issue will address the reception of ‘primitive’ art in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. The June 2013 issue stands out as a collection of works dedicated not so much to a ‘subfield’ but to a reappraisal of a central area of art history. The issue re-evaluates the cultural identity of the group of scholars known collectively as the Vienna School of Art History (whose best-known representatives are Alois Riegl and Max Dvořák). The papers here reveal the extent to which this academic circle’s exerted influence far beyond the imperial capital, across Central and Eastern Europe (see for example 8-MR/1). Similar ideas relating to the Vienna School’s wider intellectual network are also discussed in a selection of conference papers published in the December 2009 issue.
‘Global’ art history
As a discipline, art history has long been acquiring new roots beyond its parochial European beginnings. Many of the concerns touched upon in the guest-edited issues relate to the challenge of incorporating peripheral art historical narratives into a ‘global discourse’. Readers might like to reflect on such issues as: the role that ‘indigenous’ exhibitions and their native curators play in the dissemination of a region’s artistic identity knowledge; the transmission of knowledge between Western and non-Western institutions, and, leading on from this, the place of traditionally Western art historical paradigms and modes of practice in other cultures across the globe. In the latest guest-edited issue (June 2014, on Chinese art historiography), the dialogic relationship between Western and non-Western art histories is revealed in its complexity: several non-native scholars deconstruct the work of contemporary Chinese art historians in order to reveal certain localized agendas (10/JG1, 10/PG1). Conversely, in the same issue, the art historian Nicole Yiang attempts to break down those Eurocentric views of Chinese art which threaten to veil the true identity of the country’s objects and traditions (10/NC1).
The way in which ‘peripheral’ artistic cultures challenge the Western ‘guiding model’ of art historical study appears as a theme in all of the journal’s regular issues. Of interest, for example, is an attempt to situate the indigenous tradition of Aboriginal Art (which has seen a revival over the past 40 years) within the framework of ‘Contemporary’ art associated with Western culture (1-EBC1). An interest in cross-cultural historiography is reflected in certain studies – for example, in an investigation of the work of German art historians working in the US during the earliest days of art history as a scholarly discipline (2-TDK/1)
Questioning the art historical paradigms
Bringing into dispute the scholarly assumptions, aesthetic concepts, and meta-narratives which have shaped art history – including the narrative frameworks of periodization, the ‘canon’, style evolution – is a necessary task of art historiography. Established methodological constructs, derived loosely from the work of art historians from Vasari to Panofsky, are questioned as to their relevance to the increasingly interdisciplinary field of art history. An article in June 2010 discusses the ‘discontents’ of periodization, taking a lead from ideas set out by Ernst Gombrich’s stance (2-TDK/2). An interesting attempt to reconcile the positivism of Riegl, the formalism of Wölfflin and the psychologism of Worringer within a very general framework of shared aesthetic beliefs, offers a challenging read (9/VI1).
The need to embrace ‘modern’, and ‘contemporaneous’ art forms such as film, digital imaging and photography, is revealed as a priority in various papers. The loosening of the very definition of ‘the art object’ in the twenty first century has given rise to an increased consciousness of the entrenched hierarchical paradigms existing within art history. This hierarchy has been in question for a while now, and is an ongoing area of contention (9/PB1). For example, the problematic question of the status of architecture and the ‘decorative arts’ in relation to narratives of art history is discussed with reference to the Rococo period (9/KS1). A call for a new history of photography is put forward (3-YGG/1), and an interesting case study appears in the December 2011 issue on how photography, even in its earliest developmental stages, can be a vital tool in itself for the art historian (5-HM/1). The journal’s latest issue includes a sub-theme questioning the relevance of the decorative arts to the discipline of art history (11/CMCL1, 11/EJC1, 11/DLK1).
Re-evaluating the scholars and their works
As one might expect, much discussion is given over to re-examining the legacies of influential art historians. Important scholarly works are scrutinized from novel perspectives. December 2011 offers an examination of Giorgio Vasari’s use of epitaphs in Lives (5-MWG/1), and a discussion of the historicist-modernist tensions present in the scholar’s treatment of artistic ‘progress’ (5-IV/1). A paper focusing on Alois Riegl looks not so much at his theories and methods, but rather the significance of his practical work as a curator of textiles at the Austrian Museum for Art and Industry (3-DRC/1). Elsewhere, Aby Warburg’s cultural-scientific research is shown to have become of increasing importance to sociological scholarship (9/CB1). The psychology of perception, which so interested Warburg and Ernst Gombrich among others, is shown to be of the utmost relevance to the study of art today (1-SV1). The selection of papers written for an Italian conference on Gombrich in the Dec 2011 issue are of particular interest. The legacies of these scholars are brought up-to-date (11/LK1), and re-examined in light of new evidence (7-RD/1), and unexplored scholarly connections. Readers should take a look at the study of the way in which Sigfried Giedion’s writing about his tutor Heinrich Wölfflin illuminates the extent to which architectural style served as the art historian’s ‘laboratory’ for testing out theories. (7-AP/1)
The ‘places’ of art history
The growing prominence of ‘museum studies’ within art historical studies is reflected in the numerous examinations of exhibition practice; the place which curators have as ‘authors’ of art historical narratives is an increasingly recognized phenomenon (for example: 11/LB1). But the historiography of curatorship is itself a much contested topic, which gives rise to many of the same issues we see in the history of art objects themselves – including the viability of ‘authorship’ itself (11/EF1). The exhibition itself as a constructed ‘event’ to be understood art historically is a frequently discussed topic. Exhibition practice is explored in relation to the cultivating of national identity in Australia (7-RR/1), New Zealand (4-AS/1, 4-CLJMCS/1), and Ireland (9/NNG1). Even the usefulness of exhibition reviews as repositories of information is a topic of study (11/AH1). In-depth discussions about the intellectual culture within certain universities highlight the impact which ‘hotbeds’ of art historical research have had on emerging disciplines (5-EG/1, 7-EG/1 and 5-BW/1).
Inter-disciplinarity and intertextuality
From Marxism (7-MB/1) to sensory science (7-JL/1), the application of cross-disciplinary ideas to thinking about art is an ever expanding pursuit. The majority of papers published in the journal re-address modes of art historical practice by opening up discussion to include other scholarly and cultural disciplines. A paper published in the journal’s very first issue uncovers the influence of music on Alois Riegl’s understanding of the history of art (1-RWi/1). The application of contemporary psychological research on narcissism to the study of the Romantic intellectual tradition also makes for an intriguing paper (9/BM1).
Related to this broadening of critical lines of enquiry are the various attempts to think creatively about what exactly might constitute a source of art historical knowledge. To this end, the section ‘Reinventing the Old Masters’ (Dec 2010) explores what one can learn from non-traditional sources, about the reception of artists during their lifetimes. These sources are: a play which revealed much about the Italian sculptor Canova (3-CFe/1), and a selection of children’s tales which offered the only known spotlight on Pietro da Cortona during the nineteenth century (3-LS/1). Alternative avenues of historical enquiry are opened up in relation to more contemporary art; these include an article written on an experiment involving the use of the questionnaire as a potential source of future art historical knowledge (5-LC/1). The development of digital archiving also comes under discussion (6-HK/1). One paper explores the potential for learning about Jasper Johns’ artistic intentions by treating the difficult experience of interviewing him as centrally important to understanding his thought processes (7-AH/1).
Collectors and consumers: the ‘other’ figures in art history
The contribution of restorers, archivists and conservators to the field of art history is quite rightly acknowledged in many of these contributions as being of central importance. The processes behind compiling inventories and catalogues has been scrutinized in a collection of papers in December 2014’s issue. From an examination of the careers of pioneering conservators in the early twentieth century (11/SAH1), to a case study of the nineteenth century art dealer John Smith’s nine-volume catalogue raisonnée (9/AF1), the journal seeks to enrich the historiographical field by incorporating these neglected participants into the ‘mainstream’ scholarly discussion.
The increasingly cross-cultural, interdisciplinary nature of contemporary art itself is mirrored in the ever richer, complex network of ideas which make up the study of the history of art. Perhaps this is symptomatic of today’s sharpened sense of cultural self-consciousness. The contributions to this journal map the most recent and relevant developments in the ongoing interrogation of that indeterminate question: how do we, or should we, study art and its traditions?
Rachel Coombes gained her MA in History of Art (with Distinction) from the University of Birmingham, in September 2014. Having previously read Music as an undergraduate at Christ Church College, Oxford, she is particularly interested in the interdisciplinary relation between music and art. Her MA dissertation drew upon Wagnerian ideas relating to the Symbolist work of Maurice Denis.