Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jas’ Elsner reviews Emily J. Levine’s Dreamland of Humanists

Emily J. Levine. Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky and the Hamburg School. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 464 pp. Paperback $27.00. 

Reviewed by Jas' Elsner

Levine’s book is the most recent cultural history of the Warburg Library in its early stages.  Its schtick—and I think there is much to this—is to center on Hamburg and the new University there in the late imperial and Weimar years in Germany, and on Jews.  I suspect the Hamburg end of this story has never been told so well or situated with such depth—and it is a fact that just as opera houses and concert halls were matters of local pride and distinction in the pre-30s German-speaking world, so academic schools (Viennese art history, Marburg philosophy, Frankfurt sociology) were in part distinct through local style and impact.  But much is unbalanced here.  One worries especially about Levine’s lack of deep scholarly command of the disciplines in which her protagonists engaged (not only art history but also philosophy). One worries about the up-play of the more famous (with bigger and more easily accessible primary and secondary literatures) against the place of the at least as influential but less famous. For instance, Fritz Saxl—Warburg’s number 2, Panofsky’s key collaborator in the years before 1933, ultimately the director of the library, the man who created its unique system of classification, the man who organized its move to England—is at least as important a figure as the three who make it into the book’s title and main discussions.  And arguably so is Edgar Wind, shared student and interlocutor of Panofsky and Cassirer, the one trained philosopher who tried to unite the history of science with art history, and the deputy director of the library in its early English incarnation. One worries finally about the extent to which the book’s Jewish story is a creation of hindsight—the prism of exile and of an American context.  Many on the other side intellectually, such as the great Viennese art historian Otto Pächt, were also Jewish.