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Spring 2020

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New in Bryn Mawr Classical Review
A Review of Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts

In a new review in Bryn Mawr Classical Review, Vladimir Baranov discusses Jacqueline Jung’s new translation of Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts by Aloïs Riegl. Click here to learn more about the book. Click here to read the full review. An excerpt appears below:

“Under the same cover are published two versions of the fundamental study of Aloïs Riegl (1858-1905), the brightest representative of the so-called Vienna art historical school. The first version represents the manuscript of 1897-98, the second version is the author’s lecture notes of 1899. This arrangement is very useful since it allows us not only to learn the views of the author but also to see their development and to see the author’s method of reworking the material. A nice font, large margins, convenient index, and hard binding make this book pleasant to use. The editors have also provided 30 black and white images to illustrate Riegl’s most recurring references.

Jacqueline Jung did a marvelous job of rendering the author’s very complex ideas and difficult language into clear and eloquent English, as we can see simply from a comparison of the English terms she uses with their German equivalents provided in parentheses. The translator’s preface is fascinating by itself as a small philological essay because it gives a clue not only to the translator’s techniques but also to the flavor of the original German text.

A study in art history more than a hundred years old must be something outstanding to warrant a brand-new English translation, and this is indeed the case. Before evaluating its merits and shortcomings, it is necessary to mention the author’s intentions, method, formal principles, and the structure of his study. The author tacitly uses a formal linguistic approach for the analysis of the general principles of art history. The study of language can be applied to any text regardless of its message and contents; Riegl’s study was the first successful attempt to single out similar formal categories for any object of art and for any time period. For characterization of an art object Riegl does not use the typical approach of a “catalog card” listing of function, material and purpose, but tries to establish more universal terms. The most important of them is Riegl’s famous Kunstwollen, ‘the will of art,’ the impersonal driving force behind art’s evolving visual elements. According to Riegl, the essence of art as fashioning objects out of dead matter is contest with nature, not sheer imitation or replication of nature; illusionism is only one of the recurrent stages in art’s development.”