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Riegl, Aloïs

Date born:  January 14,1858

Place Born:  Linz, Austria

Date died:  January 17, 1905

Place died:  Vienna, Austria

Art historian of the medieval and later Baroque areas; seminal member of the so-called “First Vienna School” of art history; key figure for modern methods of art history.  Riegl’s father was a bureaucrat in the imperial tobacco administration in Austria who moved his family to Bohemia and Galacia where the younger Riegl attended a Polish-speaking Gymnasium.  The death of his father in 1873 resulted in his family’s move back to Linz.  Riegl enrolled at the University of Vienna, but eschewing legal studies his father would have wished him to study, he instead pursued philosophy and history courses under Franz Brentanno (1838-1917), Alexius Meinong (1853-1920) and Robert Zimmermann (1824-1898).  From Max Büdinger (1828-1902) Riegl learned a positivist historical method.  He earned a certificate from the Institute for Austrian Historical Research, needed for civil service positions in Austrian archives.  It was in the classes of Moritz Thausing, however, where Riegl learned Morellian “scientific” method of connoisseurship (see Giovanni Morelli).  In 1883 Riegl wrote his dissertation on the Romanesque Church of St. Jacob, Regensburg (manuscript lost).  He joined the staff of the Austrian Museum of Decorative Arts (Institut für Österreichische Geschichtsforchung) and began writing his Habilitation, Die Mittelalterliche Kalenderillustration, in 1889, which examined the Hellenistic tradition in medieval calendar manuscripts. In 1886 he began curatorial training in the Austrian Museum of Art and Industry, succeeding another Thausing student, Franz Wickhoff, in 1887 working for the next ten years as curator of textiles at the Austrian museum.  Riegl’s first two books, Altorientalische Teppiche and Stilfragen: Grundlegungen zu einer Geschichte der Ornamentik, 1891 and 1893 respectively, follow from his work in the museum.  Even in these first books, his interest in theory as well as an interdisciplinary view of art history was evident. Stilfragen gained Riegl an extraordinarius position at the University of  Vienna in 1894.  He continued his interest in common art objects—what were then considered minor arts—in his next book, Volkskunst, Hausfleiss und Hausindustrie, 1894, which employed economic theory in constructing their history.  In 1894 and 1895 he began lecturing on baroque art, a period still largely viewed as decadent, ushering in (together with the work of Cornelius Gurlitt) a new evaluation of the stylistic period.  At Vienna, he and Wickhoff formed what came to be known as the (first) Vienna school of art historical method.  Both scholars approached art empirically, denying the pervasive view that particular periods or media of art (in their cases, late Roman and early medieval) experienced a degeneration of style.  Their treatment of this period elevated it by examining underappreciated genres (carpets and tapestries) and by applying new criteria for its appreciation and analysis.  Riegl’s Spätrömische Kunstindustrie, 1901 and Wickhoff’s Die Wiener Genesis (1903) solidified their reputations in the areas of late and early Roman Empire objects.  The relationship of elements to each other in a work of art—one of Riegl’s methodological fascinations—led him to leave late Roman/early medieval period in order to write about Dutch baroque portraiture.  His Das holländische Gruppenporträt, published in 1902, centered on portrait paintings whose subjects gazed at the viewer.  Once again, he forged a new theory to fit his subject, positing the idea of “attentiveness” to describe the relationship between the viewer and the object (Olin, 2000).  Riegl was at work on a sequel to his Spätrömische Kunstindustrie and other topics when he developed cancer.  His death at age 47 is one of the tragedies of discipline.  His influence was far greater than the students he taught directly, among whom included Hans Tietze. His work on baroque architecture, Die Entstehung der Barockkunst in Rom, was published posthumously in 1908 and his annotated translation of the life of Bernini by Filippo Baldinucci published in 1912.

Riegl is one of the seminal theorists in art history.  His methodology was diverse and appeared to adumbrate various directions adopted by art historians in the later twentieth century, including formalism, structuralism, post structuralism and reception theory.  Riegl’s foundation was the positivism of much of nineteenth-century historiography, i.e., the idea that history progresses to ever higher levels.  His earliest writing demonstrated how carpet artisans of the middle east reinvented the forms of late antiquity into new content that could be immediately understood.  In his book Stilfragen, Riegl used the key notion of surface ornamentation to show artists representing the world through naturalistic or scientific technique.  Riegl adopted this structural symbolism notion from the work of Gottfried Semper while denying the technological determinism of Semper’s writings.  Reaction to Semper’s notion of materialism led to another Stilfragen concept, Kunstwollen, or "artistic will."  Kunstwollen as the force driving the evolution of style was evident to Riegl in both high and low art.  In Spätromische Kunstindustrie, Riegl “rehabilitated” late Roman Imperial art, which his contemporaries had considered a decline in style.  Riegl saw the hard outlines of late Roman artistic production as a development, a way to isolate the background elements from the foreground subject, opening up the way for modern art’s concept of space.  His theory that artistic representation was not of reality, but a representation of the wished for, made much of this neglected art readable.  Illusionistic art, he argued, was only employed when it showed the world view agreeable to the viewer.  Artifacts or even dissolute pictorial representation demonstrated to Riegl the will’s desire for the more spiritual, the combination of what he termed “tactile” and “optical.”  Das holländische Gruppenporträt showed Riegl re-evaluating his method to seriously consider the viewer as a principal in art history. His work built on the philosophical premise of Geschichte der bildenden Künste of Karl Schnaase, the first cultural history of art.   His methodology was both so unique and important that Paul Frankl, in his book on literary sources and theory for late medieval architecture, The Gothic (1960), devoted an entire section to Riegl's theory of "Artistic Volition," the only historian in Frankl's book to have an entire chapter.  The critic Hermann Bahr (1863-1934) noted in his 1919 book on Expressionism that Riegl was the first to recognize art history's subjectivity and that Riegl's approach to older artistic periods liberated contemporary art as well. Wilhelm Worringer also praised him in his important book on modern art, Abstraktion und Einfühlung.  Riegl's Barockkunst in Rom, 1908, celebrates the multicultural influences of the style, and by extension, the multiculturalism of the Hapsburg Empire under which he wrote.

Another groundbreaking area for Riegl was in art conservation.  His years with the K. K. [Kaiserlich-Königliche] Central Commission für die Erforschung und Erhaltung der Baudenkmale (Imperial and Royal Central Commission for Researching and Preserving of Monuments) instilled in him a respect for the object as it existed to the historian today.  His concept of Alterswert (the value of aging and the importance of marks of usage) was outlined in his pioneer work Moderne Denkmalkultus, 1903. The nineteenth century's impulse to make objects prettier for the public by means of "restoring" them was both disingenuous and misleading.  Objects, Reigl contended, should bear the signs of their age. The mantra of "conservation not restoration" was adopted by another monuments preservationist, Georg Dehio.

Riegl also disputed the assertion of Jacob Burckhardt that the historian could place moral judgments to works of art of other centuries. Burckhardt, already no friend of the Baroque era, had famously objected in particular to Bernini's St. Teresa as immoral. Reigl, on the other hand, questioned any historian's ability to be objective when moral issues were at play (Deinhard).

The brilliance of the (first) Vienna school is best demonstrated in the divergent writings of Riegl and Wickhoff.  Udo Kultermann contrasts Riegl, the intellectual, theorist and abstract thinker with Wickhoff, an art historian of a strongly humanist tradition of broad erudition.

Home Country:  Austria

Sources: [literature on Reigl and his methodology is legion.  A few of the important books and articles include:] Dvorák, Max. "Alois Riegl." Mitteilungen der kaiserlich-königlichen Zentralkommission zur Erforschung der Kunst- und historischen Denkmale 3, vol. 4 (1905): 255-76, reprinted in Dvořák, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kunstgeschichte. Munich: Piper, 1929, pp. 279-298; Bahr, Hermann. Expressionismus. Munich: Delphin-Verlag, 1920, p. 72; Sedlmayr, Hans. "Die Quintessenz der Lehren Riegls." Kunst und Wahrheit: zur Theorie und Methode der Kunstgeschichte.  Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1958, pp. 14-34; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene.  Modern Perspectives in Western Art History:  An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts.  New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, pp. 20-1; Deinhard, Hanna. "Review of 'Das Kunstwerk zwischen Wissenschaft und Weltanschauung' by Martin Warnke." Art Bulletin 54, no. 1 (March 1972): 113; Zerner, Henri. "Alois Riegl: Art, Value, and Historicism." Daedalus. 105 (Winter 1976): 177-88; Pächt, Otto. "Alois Riegl." In Methodisches zur Kunstgeschichten Praxis, ausgewählte Schriften. Munich: Prestel, 1977: 141-152, reprinted from the English version of "Art Historians and Art Critics VI: Alois Riegl." Burlington Magazine 105 (May 1963): 188-193; Podro, Michael.  “Alois Riegl” in The Critical Historians of Art.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1982, pp. 71-97; Bazin, Germain.  Histoire de l'histoire de l'art; de Vasari à nos jours.  Paris: Albin Michel, 1986, pp. 159-163, 220; Olin, Margaret.  Forms of Representation in Alois Riegl’s Theory of Art.  University Park:  Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992;   Iverson, Margaret.  Alois Riegl:  Art History and Theory.  Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 1993; Kultermann, Udo. The History of Art History. New York: Abaris, 1993, pp. 163-164;  Metzler Kunsthistoriker Lexikon: zweihundert Porträts deutschsprachiger Autoren aus vier Jahrhunderten. 2nd. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2007, pp. 344-347; Olin, Margaret.  “Alois Riegl (1858-1905)” in Medieval Scholarship:  Biographical Studies on the Formation of a Discipline.  Volume 3.  New York:  Garland, 2000, pp. 231-244; Olin, Margaret. "Art History and Ideology: Alois Riegl and Josef Strzygowski." in Gold, Penny Schein, and Sax, Benjamin C., eds. Cultural Visions: Essays on the History of Culture. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000, pp. 151-172; Elsner, Jaś. "The Birth of Late Antiquity: Riegl and Strzygowski in 1901."  Art History 25 no. 3 (2002): 358-379: Payne, Alina. "Beyond Kunstwollen: Alois Riegl and the Baroque." Witte, Arnold. "Reconstructing Riegl's Entstehung der Barockkunst in Rom." Hopkins, Andrew. "Riegl Renaissances." all in, Hopkins, Andrew, and Witte, Arnold, eds. The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010, pp.1-33, 34-59, 60-89.

Bibliography: [complete bibliography:] Gesammelte Aufsätze. Klassische Texte der wiener Schule der Kunstgeschichte. I. volume 5. Vienna: WUV-Universitätsverlag, 1996; [habilitation:] Die Mittelalterliche Kalenderillustration: ihr Ursprung und ihre Entwicklung bis zur vollständigen Ausbildung der Typen im 11. Jahrhundert . Innsbruck: Wagner, 1889;  Stilfragen. Berlin: G. Siemens, 1893; Die spätrömische Kunstindustrie.  2 vols.  1) Die spätrömische kunst-Industrie nach den Funden in Österreich-Ungarn im zusammenhange mit der Gesammtentwicklung der bildenden Künste bei den Mittelmeervölkern. Vienna: K. K. Hof- und Staats-druckerei, 1901, 2) and Zimmermann, E. Heinrich, ed.  Kunstgewerbe des frühen Mittelalters auf Grundlage des nachgelassenen Materials Alois Riegls. Vienna: K. K. Hof- und Staats-druckerei, 1923; Moderne Denkmalkultus: sein Wesen und seine Entstehung. Vienna: W. Braumüller, 1903;  "Das holländische Gruppenporträt."  Jahrbuch der allerhöchsten Kaiser hauses XXII. Vienna, 1902; Die Entstehung der Barockkunst in Rom. Vienna: Anton Schroll, 1908, English, Hopkins, Andrew, and Witte, Arnold, eds. The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010; Historische Grammatik der bildenden Künste. [published by Karl M. Swoboda and Otto Pächt.] Graz: privately printed, 1966; Burda, Arthur, and Pollak, Oskar, eds.  Filippo Baldinuccis vita des Gio. Lorenzo Bernini: mit Übersetzung und Kommentar. Vienna: A. Schroll, 1912.

Subject's name: Alois Riegl