Volume 22, Issue 1 | Spring 2023

Als Kunstgeschichte popular wurde: Illustrierte Kunstbuchserien 1860–1960 und der Kanon der westlichen Kunst (When Art History Became Popular: Illustrated Art Book Series 1860–1960 and the Canon of Western Art) by Friederike Kitschen

Reviewed by Rachel Esner

Friederike Kitschen,
Als Kunstgeschichte popular wurde: Illustrierte Kunstbuchserien 1860–1960 und der Kanon der westlichen Kunst (When Art History Became Popular: Illustrated Art Book Series 1860–1960 and the Canon of Western Art).
Deutscher Verlag für Kunstwissenschaft, Berlin 2021.
392 pp.; 35 color and 236 b&w illus.; indices; bibliography.
€99 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978–3–87157–256–2

How does the public at large become acquainted with art? How do paintings and sculptures achieve their iconic status­—attracting millions to churches and museums around the world? During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries certainly not thanks to the somewhat obscure and esoteric language of art history, a discipline that from its origins was more closely associated with the salon than with the street. The detailed and erudite studies of early art historians, sprinkled with quotations in Latin and Greek, would hardly have appealed to the wider population, or even to the emancipating middle classes seeking to build their cultural capital in the wake of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. And yet, when the age of mass tourism began after the Second World War, everyone seems to have known which works of art they were expected to know, and what they needed to see on their modern version of the Grand Tour. Although the author’s approach is not highly theorized, the broader issue of how cultural memory is formed lies at the heart of Friederike Kitschen’s scholarly but eminently readable new book.

How then did art and art history become “popular”? What were the mechanics of canonization, both within academia and in the wider world? To answer these questions, Kitschen turns to a previously underexamined and underrated source: the (monographic) art-book series published in Europe, Great Britain, and the United States from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. Surprising here is not only the large number of series and individual volumes, but also their geographical spread; their highly specified target audiences; the eminence of their authors (some of them prominent art historians of the day, both male and female); and the attention paid to the illustrations (in particular, to reproductions in color) and to the design and printing in general. As far as the latter is concerned, Kitschen’s consideration of the “object character” of the series is one of the most interesting and methodologically innovative aspects of her work, making it additionally into a kind of “art history” of the book series that will be interesting to book scientists as well as art historians.

Who were the artists chosen, how were they chosen, and how were they presented in these series, which varied in character from the luxurious to the bargain-basement? Kitschen demonstrates that the monographs played an active role in propagating the nineteenth-century “cult of genius,” while at the same time modifying the older genre of the vitae by underpinning the biographical approach with newly discovered sources and documents—creating an interesting link between the academic and the popular. As Kitschen shows, the artists chosen, the authors who wrote about them, and the characterizations of the artists and their work depended heavily on the historical and political context of the moment. Often an explicitly nationalistic agenda played a determining role in the choices made, as in the German series Künstler-Monografien (Artist Monographs) and Künstler-Mappen (Artist Portfolios), both of which aimed to promote an essentialist notion of “German” art. Overall, one might describe the narratives presented in the series as another history of art, dealing with the same artists as in the academic discipline but presented in a new and accessible way—although how this accessibility was defined differed from country to country and from publisher to publisher. For example, German publishers seemingly forbade the use of footnotes and other academic “paraphernalia,” while English-language editors tended to trust that their audiences would find such additions both interesting and useful. This tells us something about the development of the discipline of art history in these countries, with the protectionist tendencies of its early practitioners in Germany set against the Anglo-Saxon desire to reach broad swathes of the population more in line with Victorian educational ideals.

Through a thorough, detailed, chronological, and thematic analysis of forty-eight separate series and their reception in and beyond professional circles, Kitschen draws attention to the myriad ways in which these books sought to serve their multiple publics, with each set of monographs belonging to a specific typology—e.g. “popular-scientific” or “for the masses”—aimed at a specific audience. And, most importantly, to how they worked to cement the art-historical canon: each promoting more or less the same set of artists, with some variation allowed in order to incorporate certain “national” heroes. Design, format, price, advertising, and even their presentation in bookstores were carefully orchestrated to ensure that the books reached their intended readers—or, perhaps more accurately, spectators. In fact, looking was sometimes expressly encouraged over reading, especially in the series designed for educational and popularizing purposes. For many buyers, it was the illustrations that proved most attractive, particularly with the advance of color printing technology. Although color illustrations were controversial among purist art historians, the general public showed itself enamored of them, and this undoubtedly contributed to the popularity of particular series and therefore to the spread of the reputations of certain artists. The number of color illustrations, though, was severely limited by the cost of reproduction. This demonstrates that the art-historical canon was—at least in part—the result not of consensus within the academic community but was rather largely determined by economics and even technology.

That the series returned again and again to the same “Old Masters” is perhaps not so surprising—after all, these artists were already known from the numerous vitae written from the sixteenth century onwards. But what about (then-)contemporary art? Kitschen gives the reader the chance to observe the process of canonization in action in the last chapter, which deals with the series on artists of the early twentieth century and their forerunners, the impressionists and postimpressionists. The period after the First World War saw a boom in series covering the latest art phenomena. Dealers and critics who before the war had supported the avant-garde in small-scale exhibitions and limited-edition journals now found themselves in positions of greater power as publishers in large publishing houses, prominent authors, and reviewers for major newspapers and magazines. They used these to bring their favorite painters and sculptors to greater prominence with the help of monographic series. Often, the younger artists were contextualized and provided with historical pedigrees through the publication in the same series of books on the older generation of—mainly French—artists who were seen to have prepared the terrain for the newly arrived. Within a short period of time the artist-lists of the series began to resemble one another, and the same set of works was reproduced over and over again. Series publishers and their authors and reviewers, together with the artists’ dealers, formed a tightly interwoven network of propagandists for the latest art—a strong voice in the art world that would eventually help form a transnational canon of modern art and come to influence museum policy in France, Germany, and even the United States. Not coincidentally, as Kitschen shows, the series on contemporary French “masters” played a prominent role in arguments in favor of the formation of a national museum of modern art, in which the same artists were to feature. And many of the artists included in Alfred Barr’s pioneering 1931 exhibition German Painting and Sculpture had been the subject of monographs in the series Junge Kunst; in the catalogue Barr even used this fact to justify his selection (305).

In recent years much has been written about canonization processes, with many articles focusing on the role of curators and museums, seminal exhibitions, or on individual art historians. With Als Kunstgeschichte populär wurde Kitschen introduces a number of new and equally important actors into the mix. As she demonstrates, in order to understand how both artists and artworks become part of our cultural memory we must also take account of the role played by the many art monographs that appeared in series from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The editors who made the choices of which artists to include in their publishing programs; the series authors who wrote the biographical narratives (in varying tones, depending on the intended audience); the technicians in charge of the printing quality; the designers responsible for the books’ look and feel; the booksellers who featured them in their shop windows; the reviewers who praised or condemned them; and the devoted public who bought each new volume—all contributed to the formation of the art-historical canon. Canonization is thus a multidirectional and multidimensional process, and not merely the result of scholarly or museum discourse directed from institutions at the public. As Kitschen shows, the canon is formed by an interaction of highly differentiated interests, including those of the publishing industry. This dynamism is also seen in the variation in national traditions in the series: each one was different and related to the time and place in which it was produced; at the same time, the fact that the public expected certain (international) artists to be included meant that various figures (e.g., Raphael and Rembrandt) were almost always present. Kitchen’s study also shows that canonization is not only a cross-cultural but also a “cross-class” process, since it was not just the elite but also the general populace that contributed, among other things by buying each new volume as it came on the market.

But what of the canon we finally ended up with? Here, too, Kitschen provides the reader with new insights. Why is it that we mainly speak of a canon of painters and painting? To answer this question, we might look not just to collectors and museums, but also to printing technology. Simply put, painting has become dominant because it is more easily reproduced, colorful, and therefore more attractive. This was particularly important for the popularization of certain artists and works among the broadest swathes of the public, at whom the series in color were expressly aimed.

If by providing a form of “permanent visibility” (327) the series contributed to the popularity of certain artists and their works, they also contributed to exclusion. The same market mechanisms that enabled the canonization of a key set of figures eventually meant that only the most popular “survived,” to the detriment of, for example, the decorative arts and non-European art. With their focus on the biographical, there was no room in the series for the anonymous or the collective, or works from cultures where the notion of “masterpiece” played little or no role. As far as women artists were concerned, after having been sporadically included in the early days, the ever-growing dominance of a handful of western European male artists eventually excluded their work, too. The economic, political, and social dynamics of the monographic series provide a further excellent explanation for why there are (were!) no “great” women artists.

An important building block for cultural and collective memory is repetition—and this the monographic series provided in abundance. By taking these books seriously, Kitschen has uncovered a new source that helps us to understand the repetitive focus on certain artists and works in the discipline of art history. An important step, for it is only once we have understood all the mechanisms of canonization, or the true extent of the system, that we can really begin to dismantle it.