On Translating Panofsky

Jas Elsner and Katharina Lorenz

[Managing Editor's note: In anticipation of the appearance of their translation (in conjunction with a substantial essay) of Erwin Panofsky's "On the Problem of Describing and Interpreting Works of the Visual Arts" in the spring 2012 issue of Critical Inquiry, we asked Jas and Katharina for their thoughts on the project.]

Jas Elsner:  I got into the rather recherché business of translating Panofsky by an odd sidetrack.  As an expert in late antiquity, I decided I needed to know more about the critical historiography that brought this concept into being, and especially about the historical and cultural drives behind the invention of late antique art as a topic of scholarly interest in the late nineteenth century.  The key oeuvre for this is the work of Alois Riegl, one of the greatest of all art historians.  Little did I realize at the time that Riegl’s most acute and committed critic throughout the 1920s and early 30s was Panofsky in his German career.  The first key paper in Panofsky’s rethinking of Riegl (‘The Concept of Artistic Volition’, 1920) had been translated in the early 1980s by Kenneth Northcott and Joel Snyder in this very journal [Critical Inquiry], but the hugely important and difficult essay which developed Panosky’s scheme into a system of fundamental concepts for art history remained untranslated and virtually unread by non-German speaking art historians.  I approached Katharina Lorenz to help me (with what turned out to be one of the most difficult texts I have ever read and in one of the most difficult intellectual enterprises I have ever attempted), and we translated ‘On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory’ (1925) for Critical Inquiry in 2008.  However, as we worked, it became obvious that this piece was only the second stage in Panofsky’s most creative process of philosophical thinking in his German career, and that the brilliant, assured and much more readable essay (originally published in 1932) translated in this issue of CI [that is, the spring 2012 issue]—astonishingly never before translated into English and only rarely alluded to in English-language scholarship—was the culmination of that trajectory as well as the foundation of Panofksy’s theory of iconology.

Katharina Lorenz: I have to say ‘On Describing and Interpreting Works of the Visual Arts’ was much less of a brain ache than the art theory piece we translated earlier—with regard to its language and use of art historical jargon, but not least because for a classical archaeologist of German training it has the obvious attraction of opening with a piece by Zeuxis, and some en passant sneers against Lessing! Yet, what on the surface is seemingly much more straightforward and easier to grasp in the 1932 paper, in fact drills much deeper into how we deal with pictures than the earlier piece ever could, stuck as it is in its lofty binaries and abstract philosophizing. Indeed, what is amazing is how fresh and insightful the 1932 piece still remains as a meditation on both the problems of description and the limits on subjectivity in interpretation. And yet so many of the wild and wonderful things about it were later lost in the English emulations produced by Panofsky himself in his American career.

JE: Of course, it is precisely the distance between the German and the American models of iconology—both produced by Panofsky and claimed by him to be identical—that is so fascinating.

KL: Equally interesting is the paper’s relative insignificance in German scholarship—which is of course a result in part of the eclipse of Panofsky by Nazi-inflected art history after 1933, and of a subtle resistance to his ascendancy in America in the postwar discipline in Germany.  But even where people did use his work, many a time they refer to the later English versions of iconology (or German paraphrases of it), rather than the first German version, despite the palpable fact that the German essay is much more acute and propositional.

JE: Do you think that this is in part to do with the fact that the English versions of the piece— in Studies in Iconology (1939) and Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955)—are more general, as it were universally applicable, and without the rich empirical base of numerous specific visual examples from which the argument is constructed?

KL: One thing that is really interesting here is how important are pictures to the argument. I am wondering to what extent the 1932 discussion of Grünewald and others, like Franz Marc (which are cut in the American versions of the piece), are essential to Panofsky’s argument. Would the essay have worked in the same way with other pictures? Certainly, his American focus, or entrée, not on an actual work of art but on an action event—the episode of greeting someone on the street, which opens Studies in Iconology—shifts the emphasis of his argument. In the 1932 German version, he had only used that type of social encounter to demonstrate some aspects of his notion of “intrinsic meaning”; but by the time he reformulated the paper in America, it comes to stand in for the interpretive model as a whole. The way Tom Mitchell dissects Panofsky’s use of this social event, and contrasts it with Althusser’s greeting parable, is indicative of the fact that Panofsky did himself and his pictorial enterprise no favours by moving from painting to event. This aside, on a personal level, one thing I find particularly exciting about the 1932 paper is Panofsky’s implicit insight into how thoughts are governed by language (and then again also by images), and how the use of specific choices in language bears upon both interpretation and argument. This, along with the comparison between his choices of language here and those he will adopt in English later, is much more telling of the process his thinking undergoes between German and English than his own statements on the matter later in the 1950s.
JE: I certainly agree with this. But it may also be observed that because the stakes are raised so high by what happened in Germany in the 30s and 40s, and by Panofsky’s choice to confront Heidegger in the 1932 paper, the problems of one’s choice of terms, one’s ethics of argument, the limits one should apply to willfulness in interpretation, are more acutely and pointedly raised by the 1932 paper than by most writing in the history of the discipline.

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