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Iconology and more
Harald Szeemann in the Social Art History & Iconology fields

Through different readings concerning iconography, iconology and social art history I started thinking about Harald Szeemann’s personal way of dealing with Art History. Many resemblances between his archive and his methodology and the ones of particular figures of writers and critics of the XX century have appeared during this time.
Harald Szeemann’s approach to art history is very similar to the historical point of view of Carlo Ginzburg, Aby Warburg’s iconology, Arnold Hauser’s microhistory, even to ethnographic and anthropological studies, more so than the approach of an art historian.
Harald Szeemann has never taught in university, his working methodology was strictly private and his archive followed a personal logic based on personal choices and interests he reinterpreted during the years with different meanings and that often had nothing to share with the will to historicize art history or with the aim to exhibit big works of art. For his shows he has never followed any chronological criteria or strict sortings, but he started from what is magic, ritual, primitive, irrational in life, and maybe the charm and the power of attraction of his exhibitions consisted in this. His interest was to show how the artistic "kunstwollen" can express itself into the contemporary society.
His sociological approach’s aim was to better understand artists’ reasons more than market’s and fashion’ ones.
Following these ideas the work of art has to be studied not from the formal, aesthetic point of view, but because it’s the expression of a collective and social memory. As Aby Warburg, Carlo Ginzburg, Jacob Burkhardt, also Harald Szeemann didn’t narrow the knowledge field, but they transformed art history into a cultural history without leaving out any human manifestation and expression, both intellectual and physical. Specifically, Szeemann made the borders between archive and "wunderkammer" very fragile. If sometimes there isn’t a clear difference between his exhibition and a curiosity cabinet it is because he followed a construction and deconstruction process which revealed itself as a personal way of criticize and exhibit : but this is the curator’s purpose and job, to actualize, to rethink, to relink and to leave to the spectator the possibility to share his own view or to rebuild one by himself.

Harald Szeemann put art history in the Social Sciences field. He didn’t analyse art from an aesthetic/formal point of view, but he put it into the society finding the essential meaning and interpreting it. The work of art is the result of artist’s intentions (kunstwollen) and both with the exhibition they reflect aspects of society (see When Attitudes become forms, Documenta 5) =
Panovsky Meaning in the visual arts, 1955 : he speaks about the differences between the “primary formal meaning” vs the “essential meaning” presented into a work of art. The first one is only related to the formal aspect, while the second one is related to the symbolic values and it needs to be studied and interpreted through the analysis of society
Hauser The Sociology of Art, 1974 : he investigated the social and economic determinants of art. His suggestion is that art does not merely reflect, but interacts with society. In Social History of Art was traced the production of art from Lascaux to the Film Age in the framework of changing socio-historical forces. Hauser’s thesis was that form and content develop in direct relation both to concrete material conditions and to cultural development. The Hungarian-born british writer had a Marxist-oriented approach that refused the autonomy of art
Burckhardt was against the prejudice that put Cultural History on a the lower level. He was one of the founders of the cultural interpretation of history. While earlier historians had concentrated on political and military history, Burckhardt discussed the total life of the people, including religion, art and literature. He wrote : "... and all things are sources - not only books, but the whole of life and every kind of spiritual manifestation..."
Panovsky and the concept of “Kunstwollen”, artistic will. If you study the work of art in the social context you can understand why the artists adopted that style/shape/proportion instead another.

Political implications expressed through the work of art, importance of social context in the work of art/in the exhibitions (H.Szeemann was liberal, anarchic, his favourite artists were Beuys, Wagner, Malevitch, Ludwig II. He created in the archive precise folders and blinders where he collected newspaper regarding political, economical events all around the world) =

C.Ginzburg, The enigma of Piero - Piero della Francesca, 1994 : he includes much valuable research on the involvement of Piero’s probable patrons in the great political, religious and cultural events of the time.
C.Ginzburg, Conference on Hobbes, Lyon, February 2007 : the conference dealt with social context in the age of Hobbes and with implicit references to the religious and political fights in his text Elements of law, 1650

Different layers of meanings in HZ exhibitions and in his archive : anthropological, ethnographic, sociological interests (see books about ex-voto, religious and archaic symbols) =
Jurgis Baltrušaitis (born 1873 in Lithuania, died 1944 in Paris) was a Lithuanian poet of the symbolist trend. He was one of the foremost exponents of iconology. He has consistently broken new ground by pursuing the other side of science, myth, and ideology and by examining its relevance to the formation and history of art. He exposed the byways through which the natural environment is turned into art. (his books : Le Moyen-Âge fantastique. Antiquités et exotismes dans l’art gothique ; Formations, déformations : La stylistique ornementale dans la sculpture romane, Idées et recherches ; Réveils et prodiges. Les métamorphoses du gothique, Lithuanian folk art, 1948 ; Le miroir : Essai sur une légende scientifique : révélations, science-fiction et fallacies ; Anamorphic art ; Aberrations : Quatre Essais sur La Legende des Formes ; Les perspectives depravees - anamorphoses ou thaumaturgus, 1955)
Warburg, Atlas of Mnemosyne : (advertising, picture of a golf player, picture of the Pope with Mussolini signing the Pact) = La Belgique Visionnaire. They dealt with social memories
Artifacts are shown and considered like works of art and as documents on cultural memory

The archive of Harald Szeemann =
Warburg : criteria of “neighbourliness” between books and shelves where one could find associations between contents. History of culture, more than history of art, culture as an intellectual place where all the disciplines can cross and link between themselves

Warburg : role of the memory as tool for transmission. An archive is a structure, a tool for memory. Culture is a process of transmission and reception. Books and pictures are humanity’s cultural memory, they are the objective instruments for human expression
Warburg : he adopted a mnemotecnique system “à usage privè”. I think that only HS knew exactly what was inside his archive

Metodology of Harald Szeemann =
Warburg - Ginzburg, (The cheese and the Worms- the cosmos of a Sixteenth Century, 1976) : Carlo Ginzburg utilizes the court inquisitions and texts possessed by Menocchio at the time of his trial to argue his point : by subtracting the elite texts from Menocchio’s extraordinary statements, he can postulate what the peasant culture of the 16th century must have been like. He always makes a reconstruction effort, he puts attention towards small and careless objects.

Warburg - Ginzburg : Philology of details, obstinated care, passion for research. A methodology that needs slowness, investigation, respect of details against any temptation of definitive closing.
Burkhardt - Warburg : tools proper of a psycolog : the center is the man with all his complexity
Warburg : in HS’ s exhibitions, as in Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, they followed a process of decontextualisation and recontextualisation of images, texts, pictures (MONTAGE) where the spectator is free to share the vision they proposed or he is free to rebuild links and connections only suggested by them.

Microhistory in Harald Szeemann’s exhibitions =
Hauser : in Social Art History, 1956 he designed a total scheme in which the biggest events (realism, expressionism, avant-gards) are linked to smaller phenomenons related to the changements in the society

Lucia Pesapane

Bibliography and linkography :

E. Panovsky, Meaning in the visual arts, 1955, Torino, Einaudi
A. Hauser, Social Art History, 1956, Torino, Einaudi
E. Gombrich, Aby Warburg, an intellectual biography, 1970, Feltrinelli, Milano
G. Agamben, Aby Warburg et la science sans nom, in Image et mémoire, 1975, Art&Esthétique, Paris
C. Ginzburg , Da Aby Warburg a Ernst Gombrich. Note su problema di metodo, 1992, Torino, Einaudi
J. Baltrusaitis, Il Medioevo fantastico, antichità ed esotismi nell’arte gotica, 1993, Milano, Adelphi
C. Ginzburg, The enigma of Piero - Piero della Francesca, 1994
C. Ginzburg, Miti, emblemi e spie. Morfologia e storia, 2000, Torino, Einaudi
K. Forster, Introduction to Aby Warburg, 2002, Mondadori, Milano
H. Foster, Archives of Modern Art, in October 99, 2002
A. Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas, images tables


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