Reading: Aloïs Riegl — Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts

Another of the quartet I acquired/purloined late last month. Aloïs Riegl’s Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts was recommended to me by a friend who knows about medieval stuff. I asked for a book that would decipher medieval art, contextualise its development, go into the various movements, regions, workshops—as an introduction of sorts, to balance my tendency to go direct into extremely specific and narrow academic writing (I’m looking at Bynum here).

I had the idea—because I’m often very lazy at doing preparatory research—that this was written by a woman, quite recently. Well, yes, literally the case, it was translated by Jacqueline E. Jung in 2004, but Riegl himself was Viennese and died in 1905; Historische Grammatik der bildenden Künste was posthumously published in 1966. So Frances, can we presume it’s going to have some questionable Teutonic themes? Hell, yes! The forward, by Benjamin Binstock is bombastic old white man stuff. Binstock isn’t even that old, but has spent considerable effort sounding like he mummified in the late-1800s, it’s bizarrely anachronistic, but I can usually forgive a work its forward having experienced Satre’s for Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, so on to Riegl.

He writes German in a similarly joyous explosion to Adorno: endless sentences of myriad clauses across chapter-length paragraphs. It’s glorious and horrific, particularly being German—albeit translated into English—of the Gründerzeit kind. Look, I haven’t read much yet, Jung’s translation feels convincing, given that even in German it is appallingly difficult to make sense of at times; and there’s stuff Riegl says that’s just fucking hideous, racist, misogynist, colonialist, arrogant, and completely unsurprising for someone of the establishment at that time and place. There’s also things he says that are disconcertingly radical even for now, which makes me keep going. Yes, I’m going to read this, even while my instinct is to nod and smile at the attitude of, “You must read this if you are at all serious about art,” and sod off to better things. It’s like the dogmatic Marxists who won’t consider any social or political (or any) theory unless it’s been run through Marx’s bowels first.

The book itself is a delight, fat margins and delectable paper, beautifully laid out, a cover a love just looking at, you know, care and attention to the tactile and sensory experience of reading, the kind of hedonistic thing I live for. I wish all books were this seductively made—or maybe not, my book spending has been eye-watering this year.

Aloïs Riegl — Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts
Aloïs Riegl — Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts