Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Marshall Brown reviews Baroque and the Political Language of Formalism

Evonne Levy. Baroque and the Political Language of Formalism (1845—1945): Burckhardt, Wölfflin, Burlitt, Brinckmann, Sedlmayr. Basel: Schwabe, 2015. 400 pp.

Review by Marshall Brown 

Imaginatively conceived and meticulously worked; dedicated and judicious; deeply researched in archives and ephemera, in major and occasional writings by the core authors and by all those they interacted with; unfailingly lucid in organization and presentation; committed to understanding these figures from within and from their contexts—Evonne Levy's magisterial study is an honor to her and to the profession. Specialists will want to read the text closely, along with many of the teeny-tiny chapter endnotes; those who don't know the tenets of the five art historians will still find much to ponder in the eminently skimmable text.

Formalism is reputedly ivory-tower stuff and hence conservative. Levy's first mission is to demonstrate real engagements embedded in the texts, though her chosen authors--unlike other formalists who might be examined--range only rightwards from tepidly liberal (Heinrich Wölfflin) to Nazis or fellow travelers (A. E. Brinckmann and Hans Sedlmayr). In this mission she succeeds abundantly, above all (to my mind) in highlighting the social implications of Wölfflin's language of individual and totality. Her second mission is a history of changing views of the baroque. Well before our modern designation emerged, the young Jacob Burckhardt called it Jesuit style, a label that stuck even though he soon abandoned it. Shifting winds identified what came to be called the baroque with Catholic hegemony, monarchism, German Protestantism, formal unity, synthetic multiplicity, antiquity, modernity. And a third mission, especially in the later chapters, is to account for her authors' multiple versions of baroque art and architecture in terms of their biographies.

Levy scrupulously evaluates the complex and often ambiguous evidence. She calls her method "read[ing] between the lines" (p. 156). The lines, it appears, do not speak clearly on their own. Every chapter is alive to her figures' uncertainties and wavering judgments about both art and politics. Politically, her last three scholars slipped in and, as best they could, out of complicity with German aggression in two world wars, with their true feelings emerging only in veiled form—which is as much as to say, not truly emerging. Levy's intellectual history is composed of problems and solutions, but the latter can be "rather puzzling" (Burckhardt) (p. 77), or the position "ideologically ambiguous" (Wölfflin) (p. 144), or indeed "maddeningly vague" (Cornelius Gurlitt) (p. 222)—where Levy eventually finds a "coherent political message," though she remains "unclear whether this was a lament or consolation" (pp. 229, 228)—or else reliant on an "ideologically multivalent" underlying theory (Sedlmayr's use of Gestalt theory, which he later abandoned). Most extreme is Brinckmann, whose "views were not entirely consistent because he was so responsive to the political moment," because, indeed, "he changed his message on a dime," so that "what Brinckmann may have believed" often remains "uncertain" (p. 250).

Is it possible to be too careful? "I believe that," "he seems to have," "I am inclined to side with," "perhaps it is safest to say," "stubbornly resists a definitive answer" (pp. 325, 330, 333, 343): formulas like these qualify the judgments throughout. Following Levy's example, I am, shall I say, disposed to suspect that the strength of her research is inseparable from the hesitancy of her conclusions. Her inner Nelson Mandela is reluctant to condemn the wartime academics for their accommodations. At the most, she is willing to call Brinckmann a “political opportunist” (in her chapter title) and "disturbing" (p. 286) when he sounds despicable to me, and while she also acknowledges Sedlmayr to have been an "opportunist," she continues by stressing his inner reservations to "the racialized and to some extent nationalized history he was expected to write," leading him to have remained "rather quiet" during the period of the Anschluss (pp. 338, 339). Her scrutiny is a reminder just how hard it can be to judge fairly, but I have to say that such heavily cushioned verdicts leave me uneasy.

Critical reserve at this level is, finally, not the highest virtue. Levy remains too cool for my taste. She makes it clear why Gurlitt has never been translated and has lost the national prominence he once had, even calling one passage she quotes "utterly unconvincing" (p. 225). But in fact all five of her subjects come across as cold fishes. You won't learn why Burckhardt and Wölfflin finally matter so much more than the other three. At most, there is a concluding, lukewarm acknowledgment that Wölfflin's "formalist terms . . . both make good sense and are compelling on their own at the descriptive level" (p. 361). Such faint praise is clearly overmatched when she calls the "left-of-center" James Ackerman's work "a profound revision" of Wölfflin's (pp. 364, 365), leading to a curiously ill-judged final sentence that deems formalism "less useful but every bit as politically imaginative today" as in the century that she studies (p. 367). The book is a product of enormous devotion but, it seems, little love.

And it does, finally, raise the question how relevant the politics are to the formalism. Sometimes the formalism seems to guide the rather half-hearted politics, sometimes the politics seem to inflect or deflect the implications of the formalism. There is no doubt that the languages of description have political implications, now explicitly asserted by the scholar, now only peeping through between the lines. But the hesitancies and uncertainties in this book suggest to me that the political lens is not the most revealing optic. Formalism is, unquestionably, implicated in politics, but not necessarily enmeshed. Levy probes deeply behind her texts with an earnest and constructive aim, but even where her contexts do not—in Rita Felski's much-noticed word—stink, they illustrate the limits of critique.

Still, there are great riches within Levy's limits. Read the book. You won't regret it.