Selected Writings on Art – The Brooklyn Rail

Carl Einstein
ed. and trans. Charles W Haxthausen.
A Mythology of Forms: Selected Writings on Art
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, , 2019.)

Tough, but monumental: This book takes extensive texts from the years 1912 to 1935 by an unconventionally great German art historian and critic of early modernism, Carl Einstein – only a few of his writings were accessible to Anglophone artists or scientists – and translates them into development history , accessible and understandable.

A mythology of forms collects 14 texts, not mere extracts, including entire essays and chapters in books, and parallel chapters in revised editions. All help fill out the sense of a formidable critical personality, as linked through penetrating and leisurely introductions. Broadly speaking, the work falls into three parts: (1) Einstein as proclaimer of the view that traditional African sculpture is fine art enough to be a subject of art history (1914-26); (2) his view of Cubism (1923, 1926, plus Cubism in relation to Picasso, 1931, and supposedly Braque, 1934); and (3) Surrealism (1929; 1931) and Klee (1931), along with –only here the categories begin to break—ostensibly more Braque, but finally, without Braque’s works, The Confused Environment of European Culture (1934-35).

Don’t be intimidated by the details; This Einstein had a big driving thought, a kind of activist formalism: that the forms of artworks could cognitively accustom the viewer to reconsider his or her relationship to the surrounding social and political reality. The three major concerns are cumulative, and you have to read the early stuff first for what appears to be repetitive to turn out to be developmental. Fortunately, Haxthausen offers excellent analytically coordinated connective tissue. Think of Einstein as a soloist, often singing the same songs in different arrangements, with Haxthausen’s editorial accompaniment.

In the first part, Einstein sets out to historicize pre-literate African art, relying on the only available evidence, anthropology. (It’s not enough to clear your head of an exotic “other”.) This is where Einstein’s distrust of “ancient” legends comes into play. Desperately looking for something better, he draws on the tribes’ memories of their own migrations: that at least enables art-historical diffusionism. He also brings into play the grand tribalist idea of ​​”totality” (which I suspect is influenced by Russian Suprematism, as a volumetric unit of associated levels). Here it is clearer than elsewhere that a certain trend-setting repetition can mean getting closer to the truth.

Fortunately, Einstein has no antiquarian interest in the vexing question of which European painter was the first to take artistic inspiration from African art. More importantly, totality also plays a role in Cubism – where Einstein favored the intellectualism of Braque over Picasso.

The draft of a long, cubism-inspired letter, written in 1923 by Einstein to Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Picasso’s dealer and the subject of his great Portrait of Daniel Henri Kahnweiler (Art Institute of Chicago) (1910) is typically speculative for Einstein as an art writer. Some don’t like that; but I don’t see the point in art history that isn’t open to speculation, and Einstein is good at conveying it, and Haxthausen is good at conveying it. As someone who believes that Kant is relevant to the shaping of Analytical Cubism (many passages in the Critique of Pure Reason concern the mind’s organization of perceptual diversity in a way that can be compared to the Kahnweiler portrait), I am curious here because Kahnweiler was interested in Kant. 1 What does Einstein Kahnweiler actually say? Something I can at least consider in the context of this view, namely, as Cubist painting shows, “that renunciation of sensation is possible” – which can be both beautifully linguistic and non-metaphorical. A concise cubist self-confidence Einstein has reached the limits of language here, as he himself appreciates.

As Einstein’s perspective expands into the modern world, it may seem odd that he should consider then-contemporary Surrealism to be “romantic” at all. Apart from the fact that gothic, romantic, primitive, not to mention expressionist impulses can be a big deal in German art history at second glance.2 Einstein touches only slightly on the so-called primitive painters of pre-Renaissance Europe (Italian and Flemish), without mentioning the Gothic; but the bigger point seems to be that there is plenty of room in modernity for admirably surrealistic (anti-classical) irrationalities.

There are questions of influence. I have often wondered how the art critic Clement Greenberg, first known as a translator of German, got away as an art historian by simply skipping over the absolutely literal flatness of post-impressionist painting to describe the development of modernism from impressionist flatness to cubist planarity. However, Einstein does just that. On that note, my only criticism of this excellent Einstein anthology is editorial in nature, and possibly related to this post-impressionist point. Einstein was not a fan of non-representational art. Good; but I don’t think he would join today’s fashionable return to the reactionary usage of ‘image’, which is virtually invariant in Haxthausen’s translation.3 Oddly enough, though, Greenberg indulged himself.

The broader, politically speculative atmosphere of the late writings must concern the critic’s personal anxieties and confusion, first a move to France in 1928 to escape nascent Nazism at home, ushering in a period of definitive revisions followed by even greater anxieties about a culture increasingly insensitive to the artistic form that once might have taught it. An art critic who once volunteered to defend his emperor in World War I felt compelled to serve as an anarchist in the Spanish Civil War and dedicate himself fully to the cause of a perhaps more socially just world.

reading A mythology of forms reminded me of my academic mentor Rudolf Wittkower (1901-1971), a Berliner who became an art historian in Einstein’s critical heyday. This was most relevant when Einstein interpreted Cubism as a circumambulation of the object, since Wittkower insisted that the notion of free-standing sculpture, meant to be meaningful from all sides, actually only applied in Mannerism. More generally relevant to Haxthausen’s astute versions of Carl Einstein was Wittkower’s Warburgian feeling that classicism was about a supposedly forever-gone “golden age.” Well, when it comes to that, make Einstein’s – and mine – utopian.


  1. Not discussed by von Haxthausen, but nothing he says disqualifies it.
  2. See my “Raw Art: ‘Primitive’ Authenticity and German Expressionism”, Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics (1982), repr. in J Mascheck, Modernism: Art is relevant in the present (University Park: Penn State Press, 1993), 155-92.
  3. This usage has become anti-modern, pseudo-British and reminiscent of the auction house. It is preferred to “painting” (the painting “that which is painted”) or the picturewhich as an “image” is happy to include African sculptures (“image” cannot be applied to any sculpture except reliefs).

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