Aloïs Riegl is one of the greatest of all modern art historians. The most important member of the so-called “Vienna School,” Riegl developed a highly refined technique of visual or formal analysis, as opposed to the iconological method, with its emphasis on decoding motifs through recourse to texts. Riegl also pioneered understanding of the changing role of the viewer, the significance of non–high art objects or what would now be called visual or material culture, and theories of art and art history, including his much-debated neologism Kunstwollen (the will of art).
At last, his Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts, which brings together the diverse threads of his thought, is available to an English-language audience, in a superlative translation by Jacqueline E. Jung. In one of the earliest and perhaps the most brilliant of all art historical “surveys,” Riegl addresses the different visual arts within a sweeping conception of the history of culture. His account derives from Hegelian models but decisively opens onto alternative pathways that continue to complicate attempts to reduce art merely to the artist’s intentions or its social and historical functions.
“The intelligence, originality, and range of Riegl’s writings remain unsurpassed in the history of art-historical scholarship. He occupies a singular position as a founder of his discipline and one of its most radical thinkers, and represents a crucial precedent for the current reevaluation of the theory and practice of art history today… . If you are interested in art history, you should read this book, and keep it, if not on a lectern in your study, on your shelf.” — from the foreword by Benjamin Binstock