Sebastian Zeidler. Form as Revolt: Carl Einstein and the Ground of Modern Art. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2015. 320 pp.
Review by Our Literal Speed
The complexity and importance of this book are difficult to describe. First off, it is hard to explain—in the most prosaic sense—what this book is; that difficulty of description, one must understand, lies at the heart of Sebastian Zeidler’s project as an art historian. Ostensibly, we encounter here a kind of intellectual biography of Carl Einstein (1885–1940), a fascinating art critic and writer whose tragic, absorbing life story would be unbelievable if it were presented as fiction. In the course of this text, readers are confronted by invigorating analyses of Einstein’s multifarious writing—particularly his early and tempestuous engagements with various modernisms—and on this score it would not be an exaggeration to say that Einstein offered the single most cogent prewar analysis of cubism and the most potent embodiment of political commitment and theoretical precision among the entire Surrealist milieu. In other words, Einstein was far from a minor figure, and Zeidler’s book aims to demonstrate why.
The time and space that Zeidler covers—roughly the first four decades of the twentieth century in Europe—would be difficult to narrate under the best of circumstances, but in Zeidler’s case the task is far more complex than presenting a plausible highlight reel of modern art’s engagement with “primitivism,” Paul Klee’s “realism,” Rosa Luxemburg’s conception of “spontaneity,” and so on. The author must repeatedly present the received opinions about a given historical, theoretical, or artistic fact; then he must gently guide the reader into a step-by-step engagement with Einstein’s unique take on this same material; and then, most consequential of all, Zeidler offers his own interpretations of the received opinions and of Einstein’s thinking. The results vary, of course, but at its best the narrative electrifies the mind with its insights. Led along by Zeidler’s incredible inter-trans-multi-disciplinary skills, the reader learns that this is not so much a study of Einstein’s life and work, nor a rumination on the critic’s status as a conceptual forerunner of Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, nor even a meditation on the broader relationship of the aesthetic and the political (though the book pursues all of these themes). No, what we encounter here is scholarship as metamorphotic revolt: that is, Zeidler not only explores the cast of mind found throughout Einstein’s writings (most fundamentally, their active, productive rather than reactive, nonproductive stance toward the world) but also probes the possibilities of such active, productive revolt in the scholarly present.
Among the distinguishing traits of this narrative is its casual, assured handling of daunting material. Select any theme at random; say, something as important as Picasso and Braque’s cubism. Zeidler’s interpretations of Carl Einstein on cubism (and, at crucial moments, Zeidler on cubism) are not merely sharp or ingenious; no, page after page, the observations strike one as simultaneously unexpected and indisputable. Of course cubism is an erotics. Of course cubism is the quintessential theater of embattled subjecthood, rather than a kaleidoscope of four-dimensional objects, a codebook for the visualization of semiotic analysis, or a diagram of its artists’ biographies run amok. Is this Zeidler explicating Einstein or Zeidler working through Einstein? In crucial ways, we are meant to remain unsure about the exact character of this working relationship, and it is this fundamental, structuring neither/nor-ness that makes this book so intensely original. Form as Revolt is the inverse of esoteric; it ceaselessly winnows away the abstruse to place difficult art and thought within reach, but not in dumbed-down ways. To say this volume offers a remarkably insightful contribution to scholarship on the history and criticism of early twentieth-century art would certainly be true, but even such an accolade would hardly speak to the significance—and the courage—of Zeidler’s study. The fact that most modern and contemporary art historians have not read (and then reread) this astonishing book is a withering indictment of our field.