Three Essays on Style
Perspective as Symbolic Form
“Expulsion into Paradise” was Erwin Panofsky’s characteristic remark in the spring of 1933, when he received the letter that deprived him of his chair in art history at Hamburg University because of his “race.” He had been so fortunate as to enjoy the foretaste of Paradise before, having divided his teaching activities between Germany and the United States for some time, and soon afterward his bliss became perfect on his appointment as Professor of Art History at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, made famous by the presence of an even more eminent “non-Aryan,” Albert Einstein.
It was one of Panofsky’s most attractive traits that he never behaved as if his unique position was his due. The arrogance traditionally associated with German professors was wholly alien to him. “Some people are vain and others conceited,” he once remarked to me. “I may be vain, but I am not conceited.” I was often privileged to experience the truth of that characterization—indeed, I had the impression that he felt doubly obliged to help younger colleagues because of his own good fortune.
In the public mind Panofsky’s name became associated with the subject with which he had introduced himself to the United States, his Studies in Iconology. His ingenious interpretations of Renaissance masterpieces in the light of Neo-Platonic philosophy caught the imagination of a whole generation who tried to emulate him, not always to his pleasure. But for Panofsky iconology was only one aspect of the method he had absorbed from the German tradition of art history, one which was deeply rooted in German intellectual history, but relatively new to American academic life. What distinguished this tradition was the claim to hold the key to the history of artistic styles as an expression or manifestation of changing “world views,” or Weltanschauungen. To this approach, which ultimately goes back to the Romantic philosophy of Georg Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), the course of human history resembles a clockwork of wheels within wheels activated by the unfolding spirit of mankind, a spirit that animates art, no less than science, law, or religion, in a precise and determined way. On this interpretation it is the ultimate task of the art historian to demonstrate the dependence of artistic styles on the logic of this development, as it is the task of the astronomer to explain the position of the planets by his knowledge of Newtonian physics.
Thus the art historian embarking on such a demonstration had to be familiar with most of the other historical disciplines to adduce parallels from philosophy, poetry, and all the other aspects of the past. It was here that Panofsky excelled. He enjoyed the game of finding links between individual works of art and stylistic developments in other fields, and despite his notorious quip that we must “beware of the boa constructor,” he was firmly convinced that such links must always be there to be found—indeed, I have described elsewhere with what emphasis he asserted his creed in …