428 A bad day in Baltimore in 1963

College and graduate school funks can strike deep wounds. I’m not sure that reporting on this one is a service to students of today who might read it. It’s about how my aversion to anachronistic period names got me into trouble.

In my third year of graduate school in art history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, I had a seminar conducted by Adolf Katzenellenbogen (1901-64), chairman of the department, on periodization and nomenclature.

My assignment was “Baroque.” I looked into the matter with sympathetic interest and what did I find? Confusion and contradiction. Until the mid-nineteenth century baroque was a term of general abuse. To the Swiss historian and art historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97) it stood for the decrepitude that followed his own favorite period, and it started right after Michelangelo; for a later Swiss art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945), it distinguished the seventeenth century from the sixteenth as a perfectly honorable successor. But he and most of his successors also used the term to designate distinctions within seventeenth-century art: Rubensian baroque as opposed to Rembrandtesque realism or to Poussinesque classicism. Baroque, I discovered, was also used in a transhistorical sense to illuminate the nature of Hellenistic art and some Indian art. Then there was a famous unpublished lecture by Erwin Panofsky entitled “What is Baroque?,” in which he endows the term with universal significance: Baroque as a holistic approach to art, a key to the meaning of life.

I concluded very sensibly that Baroque was a useless concept and should be avoided. Because I tend to get emotionally involved in my research, I did not just say this mildly and regretfully. I felt that I had to agitate against the word and those who assigned all these contradictory meanings to it, which I did with all my graduate-student fervor.

On the day of the seminar, Katzenellenbogen walked into the room with someone his own age who looked vaguely familiar to me, and announced that he had taken the liberty of bringing along an old friend of his who was visiting him and who was interested in my subject. His friend’s name was Rudolf Wittkower (1901-71).

So there, sitting in the front row, vigorously taking notes, was a giant in the field whose seminal books Art and architecture in Italy, 1600-1750 and Studies in the Italian Baroque were all about the transition from proto-Baroque to Early Baroque, Early Baroque to Early High Baroque, proceeding via an intermezzo on “High Baroque Classicism” (between quotation marks, because Wittkower was not insensitive to the questionable nature of this combination) to High Baroque itself, with due regard to the important differences between its first and second generation representatives and its opposition to Archaizing Classicism and Crypto-Romanticism, before descending to Late Baroque, Late Baroque Classicism and Rococo, all of which developments must be understood in terms of the disparities and dichotomies between Roman Baroque, Italian Baroque outside Rome and International Baroque.

I would describe my feelings, except that I did not have any. I passed into a psychiatric condition known as a fugue state, completely losing touch with what I was doing or feeling. Some of you may have experienced a mild form of this when speaking to an audience. I too have had it in milder forms since: your spirit departs from your body and roams around the room looking for the exit while the rest of you stands behind the rostrum reading from a paper you have never seen before in your life, the contents of which are unintelligible gibberish except for occasional fragments which are understandable but either absurdly banal or totally insane. My two hours before Wittkower and his long, detailed response to my paper were a lot worse than this. I sometimes wonder whether everything I have been doing since is not overeager compensation.

The above is from a lecture that I gave in Tübingen in 1995 at a symposium for the seventieth birthday of Klaus Schwager (1925-2016), a professor of mine at Hopkins who had become a dear friend. It came back to me now that I am writing a book for the general public on Dutch painting and find myself tempted, after sixty years of shunning anachronistic period names, to be able to say  “Renaissance and Baroque” rather than “mostly Italian art from the early fifteenth to the later sixteenth century and Italian but predominantly northern [a term I also avoid] art of the seventeenth.” Maybe there’s another way out.

© Gary Schwartz 2024. Published on the Schwartzlist on 26 May 2024.

The book on Dutch painting is for Thames & Hudson, which is relaunching its venerable World of Art series. The deadline will keep me at my desk for the next while.

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16 thoughts on “428 A bad day in Baltimore in 1963”

  1. What a pity for you that Ernst Gombrich’s essay “Norm and Form” did not appear until 1966. It would have saved you a lot of headaches.

  2. Hi Gary,
    Nice piece thank you. I think if we qualify Baroque with Northern, Italian, Spanish, etc., we sort of know what we mean and the term works well enough.
    Maybe what you suffered from was “dissociation”…a fugue state is rather more serious and I think you wouldn’t have been able to continue your talk at all. But the former has occasionally struck – as once when I was giving a gallery talk to the general public in an exhibition at the British Museum which, as misfortune would have it, was all within earshot of someone who happened to be visiting the same show – Ernst Gombrich (there he is again!). Maybe the condition is related to an inability to decide between Fight, or Flight, but I am not a psychologist,
    Best wishes, Martin

    1. Since I’m reconsidering my intolerance for the word Baroque, dear Martin, I will not comment on that, except to say that “sort of knowing what we mean” does lower the bar on scholarly intent, no?

      I was surely overdramatizing the case by calling my episode a fugue state. I appeal to literary (as opposed to scholarly) license.

  3. Hi Gary: Good to have your early thoughts on ‘the Baroque”and Baroque. Still fraught topic if you ask me. I too experience such a disassociative, out of body, or fugue state when I gave my first lecture on Michel Foucault and painting at the Collège de France, perhaps exacerbated by it being delivered in French. I am glad to hear that other scholars have faced the same experience for similar reasons.
    Best to you, Catherine

    1. Yes, Catherine, and I can’t help thinking that in my time and perhaps your more recent time in graduate school extreme psychological stress was not talked about at all except by students to each other late at night. Some of it is worse, as when faculty members play off students against each other to get at their own department colleagues. It’s a good thing that it now gets into the papers and is apparently being addressed by universities in some way or another. I’ve gotten two responses off the list from befriended, younger colleagues who underwent trials like mine.

  4. Good for T&H for returning to publicaton of inteligent, general interest books again! And for choosing you–Rudi Fuchs has long languished as a rare book for such uses, though Westermann’s book (reprinted by Yale) took a different, less predictable tack than a digest of Rosenberg and Slive’s Pelican volume. We are all in need of such a book–and it would not hurt them to have one on earlier, Netherlandish art, not to mention German art on the eve of the Reformation.
    Bravo–a marriage made in heaven! Larry

    1. Thanks, Larry. If I get to have a good discussion with the responsible parties at T&H I will tell them.

  5. Delighted to learn you’re writing a book that I will certainly purchase and might even understand…at least some of it!

    1. Dear Sheila,

      If there is anything in any of my writings that you don’t understand, please just ask me!

      Yours ever,

  6. It would be life affirming if you would continue to avoid these misleading abstract titles – Baroque and especially Rococo – in favour of looking at pictures. I suspect this is the most difficult activity of all – looking at a picture and deriving meaning from it, especially with a deep and wonderful artist (say) Vermeer. Otherwise, each time the term ‘Baroque’ is used surely the writer has to explain its use and hence its meaning?

  7. When I was in graduate school in American studies at Yale in the 1970s I had a similar experience. I had one of two fellowships in the graduate for humanities graduate students to spend a fellowship year studying psychoanalysis. The only requirement was to take notes, which would be distributed among faculty seminar members, of papers given to the humanities faculty and interested medical school faculty. I had the same “ out of body” experience. And also in the presence of another art historian, Ernst Gombrich. He was speaking about psychoanalysis and synesthesia. I didn’t understand one word. Not one word. In a split second my anxiety spiked: my panic became acute. My mind and body and my presence were in different universes.

    1. Thanks, Stan. There must be an evolutionary advantage of some kind built into us to allow for experiences like this. Maybe allowing you to go into battle forgetting about your own life.

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