Cover image for The Vienna School of Art History: Empire and the Politics of Scholarship, 1847–1918 By Matthew Rampley

The Vienna School of Art History

Empire and the Politics of Scholarship, 1847–1918

Matthew Rampley


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296 pages
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18 b&w illustrations

The Vienna School of Art History

Empire and the Politics of Scholarship, 1847–1918

Matthew Rampley

“This is the most commendable art-historical text to come my way in a long time, a major intellectual achievement on all fronts. Very much to his credit, Rampley writes in gracefully lucid language, something that cannot be said about many scholars attracted to this material.”


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Matthew Rampley’s The Vienna School of Art History is the first book in over seventy-five years to study in depth and in context the practices of art history from 1847, the year the first teaching position in the discipline was created, to 1918, the collapse of Austria-Hungary. It traces the emergence of art history as a discipline, the establishment of norms of scholarly inquiry, and the involvement of art historians in wider debates about the cultural and political identity of the monarchy.

The so-called Vienna School plays the central role in the study, but Rampley also examines the formation of art history elsewhere in Austria-Hungary. Located in the Habsburg imperial capital, Vienna art historians frequently became entangled in debates that were of importance to art historians elsewhere in the Empire, and Rampley pays particular attention to these areas of overlapping interest. He also analyzes the methodological innovations for which the Vienna School was well known. Rampley focuses most fully, however, on the larger political and ideological context of the practice of art history—particularly the way in which art-historical debates served as proxies for wider arguments over the political, social, and cultural life of the Habsburg Empire.

“This is the most commendable art-historical text to come my way in a long time, a major intellectual achievement on all fronts. Very much to his credit, Rampley writes in gracefully lucid language, something that cannot be said about many scholars attracted to this material.”
“Matthew Rampley’s recent study The Vienna School of Art History: Empire and the Politics of Scholarship, 1847–1918 presents an interesting corrective to simplistic definitions of ‘German art history,’ for it investigates the effects of a multilingual discipline upon institutional discourses. His arguments move the methodological problems analysed in Frank and Adler’s collection right into the heart of European politics by offering a thorough and sustained interrogation not of the methods per se, but of the relationship between the idea of scientific method and liberalism.”
“The first quality one might expect in yet another book on [this] subject would be a fair and consistent referencing of . . . secondary literature. With The Vienna School of Art History: Empire and the Politics of Scholarship, 1847–1918, Matthew Rampley fulfills this expectation meticulously; indeed the latter quality pervades the work as a whole, deftly managing a large body of information and complex thought within what is not an overly long book.”
“Matthew Rampley’s status as one of the foremost scholars of the historiography of art is on full display in this meticulously researched and detailed account of the rise of the first Vienna School of art history. . . . Rampley’s book is a necessary corrective and addition to the existing scholarship on the Vienna School.”
“Most art historians know a little about the Vienna School of art history, and many of them have read a couple of essays from that formative period, especially those by Riegl or Dvořák. Yet none, I wager, has ever attempted to envision an entire social and intellectual biography of this complicated and contradictory culture that spawned the serious beginnings of the history of art. A learned historiographer to the core, Matthew Rampley has accomplished just that feat. Packed with erudition (not to mention endnotes!), this hefty text (in more ways than one) serves to provide telling episodes from early German-speaking art history across the imperial Habsburg map.”
“Matthew Rampley’s lucid book is the first truly synthetic study of the first Vienna School of art history, one that does a magnificent job of placing the school in the context of the cultural politics of the late Habsburg Empire. Drawing on a wealth of sources in many of the Empire’s languages, Rampley shows how the school’s most famous members—Alois Riegl, Max Dvořák, Josef Strzygowski—fit into a much richer and wider set of debates about modern art, monument conservation, the West’s relationship to the Orient, the meaning of the Baroque, and the relationship between German-speaking Austria and ‘the rest.’ Especially original and important is Rampley’s focus on art-historical controversies on the Empire’s peripheries. This is a crucial book, not only for scholars interested in the historiography of art history, but also for specialists in Habsburg cultural history.”
“The Institute of Art History at the University of Vienna was, up until the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a state apparatus affiliated in purpose to the Institute of History and the Imperial Royal Central Commission for the Research and Preservation of Architectural Monuments. In this important study of the practices of the art historians from the dual monarchy’s various regions, Matthew Rampley focuses on the ideological tensions generated by their work. Imperial demands for unity conflicted with nationalistic demands for independence. Furthermore, Vienna itself was the site of competing interests and demands epitomized in the existence of two art-historical institutes, led by Max Dvořák and Josef Strzygowski. Rampley’s book is essential reading for the study of the politics of art-historical debate, displaying both its complexity and its internal contradictions. Its particular strength is its wide-ranging coverage of original source materials drawing attention to the work of hitherto marginalized art historians, both in Vienna and across the empire.”
“The ideas and writings of the early members of the Vienna School laid the foundations for modern art history. Matthew Rampley’s wide-ranging, comprehensive, incisive, and entirely lucid account of the origins and heyday of the great Viennese art historians is a breakthrough work and will doubtless become an invaluable resource.”

Matthew Rampley is Chair of Art History at the University of Birmingham.


List of Illustrations



1 Founding a Discipline: Liberalism and the Idea of Scientific Method

2 Questions of Method: From Positivism to the History of Spirit

3 Beyond Vienna: The Growth of Art History Across the Habsburg Monarchy

4 An Art History of Austria-Hungary? Patriotism and the Construction of National Historiography

5 Baroque Art and Architecture: A Contested Legacy

6 Vernacular Cultures and National Identities: The Politics of Folk Art

7 Readings of Modern Art: Historicism, Impressionism, Expressionism

8 Between East and West

9 Saving the Past: Conservation and the Cult of Monuments

Epilogue: Continuity and Rupture After 1918





This book is a study of the practice of art history in Vienna and Austria-Hungary between 1847, when Rudolf von Eitelberger was appointed the first dozent (junior lecturer) in the subject, and 1918, the year the Habsburg Empire collapsed. It traces the emergence of art history, the establishment of norms of scholarly inquiry, and the involvement of art historians in wider debates over the cultural and political identity of the monarchy. It is the product of an extended period of reflection on art history in Habsburg central Europe. One of my first published articles was on Alois Riegl, with whom I had first become acquainted as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of St. Andrews in the early 1990s, when he formed part of a course in historiography that I taught. Since that time the scholarly landscape on the Vienna School of art history has undergone enormous transformations; twenty years ago the literature on the subject was modest, and that available in English was even more limited. Access to primary sources was a significant problem. Aside from a few reeditions in the 1960s and 1970s, the writings by the major representatives of the Vienna School were out of print and difficult to obtain. This was doubly the case with editions in English, which consisted of Riegl’s “Late Roman or Oriental?” (a critical essay on Josef Strzygowski’s Orient oder Rom?), Late Roman Art Industry (a questionable translation of Riegl’s Die spätrömische Kunstindustrie), and an edition of Max Dvořák’s History of Art as the History of Ideas.

The situation has since changed dramatically; a turning point, perhaps, was marked by the publication in 1992 of Margaret Olin’s monograph on Riegl, Forms of Representation in Alois Riegl’s Theory of Art, and of an English translation of Riegl’s Stilfragen (Problems of Style). The importance of Riegl was confirmed the following year, when Margaret Iversen’s monograph on him appeared. The translation of Stilfragen was the first of a number of important English editions of works by Riegl and other Viennese art historians, and new translations continue to appear. This has paralleled renewed efforts in Austria to publish new critical editions of work by Vienna School scholars. The advent of online digital libraries and archives, providing access to historic primary texts, has increased still further the availability of primary materials. The renewed publication of works associated with the Vienna School has been accompanied by an exponential increase in the volume of scholarly research on the subject. At the time of writing, the library of the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in Munich, which has arguably the most extensive holdings, listed sixty-seven items on Riegl alone published since 2000, in languages as diverse as Croatian, German, French, Italian, Slovak, and English.

Despite the appearance of such a volume of commentary and analysis, the literature on the Vienna School remains curiously partial and incomplete. It is partial inasmuch as by far the greatest degree of critical attention has been devoted to Alois Riegl, with other figures, not least the “founder” of the Vienna School, Rudolf von Eitelberger, languishing in relative obscurity. In many respects this situation is easily explicable; given his contributions to scholarship on textiles, ornament, the applied arts of late antiquity, monument protection policy and theory, folk art, Baroque art and architecture, together with his methodological innovations, Riegl was by far the most consistently original art historian working in Vienna between the mid–nineteenth and mid–twentieth centuries. At the same time, however, the heightened interest in Riegl—which can at times come close to a fetishism of the author figure—produces a restricted vision of the discursive dynamics of Viennese art history. A prominent example of this phenomenon can be seen in the treatment of Franz Wickhoff and Alois Riegl’s conflict with Josef Strzygowski over the origins of early medieval art. This dispute has largely been viewed in terms of the political differences between the individuals concerned, but this view underplays the fact that they were reprising a decades-long debate over European identity and the place of Austria-Hungary in Europe, a debate that continued long after the personal antagonism between these authors had been forgotten.

This book therefore gives less prominence to Riegl than usual in accounts of the Vienna School. My intention is not so much to rehabilitate neglected art historians, such as Moriz Thausing, Albert Ilg, or even Franz Wickhoff (who is usually only discussed in relation to the dispute with Strzygowski or his part in the furor raised by Klimt’s Philosophy frieze), as to shift the focus away from exposition of the conceptions of individual authors and toward larger-scale themes that preoccupied art historians in Austria-Hungary.

In many respects, therefore, this book diverges from the approaches that have characterized most accounts of the Vienna School. It examines the novel ideas and methods explored by individual art historians, but it is concerned less with method per se than with the situational logic and the ideological and institutional factors that shaped art-historical practices in Austria-Hungary from the 1840s until its demise, in 1918. It is thus primarily a political and social history of the discipline, rather than an account of its intellectual evolution, and stands apart from interpretations by commentators such as Michael Podro, who have located the Vienna School in a discursive tradition preoccupied with the philosophical legacy of Kant and Hegel. Riegl has loomed large in such readings, starting with Stilfragen, which made a decisive break with the legacy and influence of Gottfried Semper. Within this framework, the other significant component of Riegl’s thought was his notion of the Kunstwollen (variously translated as “art drive,” “artistic volition,” or “will to art”), and ever since Erwin Panofsky’s essay on the topic in 1920, commentators have wrestled with the philosophical meaning and scope of the term. A similar preoccupation has been visible in the reception of Riegl’s intervention into monument conservation and protection; his famous article on the cult of monuments has been the object of interest primarily due to its attempt to posit a theory of historicity, including an evolutionary typology of treatments of history. This has in turn been taken up and revisited in the light of contemporary concerns with time and with the experience of time in the Viennese fin de siècle.

The originality of Riegl’s thinking is not in question, but such accounts tend to diminish other factors; the essay on the cult of monuments was one of many articles Riegl wrote on monument protection, the predominant themes of which were not the theoretical issues mentioned above but rather the role that monument protection and conservation had to play in the cultural politics of contemporary Austria-Hungary. It has to be seen alongside his critique of the nationalistic ideas of heritage expounded by the German art historian Georg Dehio and the restoration projects undertaken in, for example, Cracow or Split to “restore” the artistic and architectural heritage of Polish Galicia or Dalmatia in line with local nationalist and religious visions of the past. Riegl’s meditation on the cult of monuments was only one of many other contemporary publications on the same topic, in a state that had long sanctioned historicism as an official visual style but that tentatively supported Secessionism and progressive artistic currents as part of its program of cultural modernization.

Much writing by Vienna School art historians thus revolved less around questions of methodology and more around ones of aesthetic, historical, and political value. Viewing art history in Austria-Hungary in this light allows the role of other authors to come into consideration. In comparison with Riegl, figures such as Eitelberger, Thausing, and Ilg, for example, were not pioneers of art-historical method, but they played an equally important role in laying out the parameters of inquiry and in intervening into wider public debates about artistic tradition and the cultural heritage of Austria-Hungary. The same applies to Max Dvořák, who, although one of the most prominent and influential art historians working in Habsburg Vienna, has attracted a surprisingly small body of commentary, having been dismissed by one observer as responsible for a genre of art-historical writing that “verged on the popular, the sensational and the grandiose.”

At the heart of these deliberations lies the fundamental methodological question of how one should write a history of the Vienna School. As Michael Podro has asked, “What kind of commentary are we to construct upon a literature . . . if we no longer believe in its theories?” One approach has been to identify specific conceptual and theoretical issues with a contemporary resonance and reread them in relation to the interests of the present. Hence, the fact that Riegl had written extensively on the applied arts, for example, led some commentators in the 1990s to mention him when constructing the genealogy of the emerging field of visual studies. However, a number of alternative paradigms that also diminish the focus on the individual author present themselves. One of the most important is institutional inquiry, first explored by Heinrich Dilly. Combining elements of Foucauldian discourse analysis with concrete historical research into specific institutions, Dilly has examined the institutional framework that shaped the emergence of art history as a discipline. Although interest in the author figure has persisted, Dilly’s model has been taken up by a number of important studies, including Lyne Therrien’s analysis of French art history, Hubert Locher’s study of art history in Germany, and Donald Preziosi’s work on the interlinking of art history and the exhibitionary and museological complex of the modern European state.

This book adopts a broadly similar approach, viewing the emergence of art history in Austria-Hungary in the context of the institutions where it was taught and where research was undertaken. These included, primarily, the University of Vienna and the Museum for Art and Industry in Vienna, where many art historians, most notably Riegl, started out on their scholarly careers. It also considers the role of other institutions. These include the imperial-royal Central Commission for the Investigation and Conservation of Architectural Monuments (k.k. Central-Commission zur Erforschung und Erhaltung der Baudenkmale), the Ministry of Culture and Education, and other museums and societies that formed the institutional matrix that sustained the development of art history as a professional discipline.

While central to the investigation, analysis of the institutional setting of art history is nevertheless limited in scope without an equal degree of attention to the wider political, ideological, and social context of the Habsburg Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although some studies have begun to explore this dimension, it remains surprisingly understudied except in outline. Studying the Vienna School in the light of its social and political background raises the obvious question of how that background should be constructed. One of the most influential accounts of the culture of the later Habsburg Empire has been that of Carl Schorske, who attributes the extraordinary flowering of late nineteenth-century Viennese intellectual, artistic, and cultural life to the failure of liberalism. Accordingly, Schorske has interpreted Secessionist culture as a form of Oedipal revolt against the material, economic, and intellectual values of the mid to late 1800s. On this reading the failure of the liberal bourgeoisie to shape the political direction of the Austrian state in any substantial way resulted in either an aesthetic withdrawal from public life or its counterpart, the rise of the right-wing nationalism, populism, and anti-Semitism of Karl Lueger’s Christian Social Party. Fritz Ringer’s account of Germany during the same period provides a compelling parallel, in which the political disenfranchisement of the bourgeoisie under the authoritarian regime of the Wilhelminian Reich resulted in a retreat into scholarly learning and culture (Bildung) as a compensatory gesture, accompanied by an aestheticized distancing from social and political life.

Schorske has offered a persuasive thesis that could in principle also be applied to the Vienna School; Eitelberger, the liberal “father” of Viennese art history, who played a central role in the formation of key imperial cultural institutions in the 1860s and 1870s and whose historicist orientations epitomized the artistic and aesthetic values of those decades, was followed by the generation of Wickhoff and Riegl, whose work was much more sympathetic to contemporary art. Moreover Lueger’s art-historical equivalent could be found in the figure of Strzygowski, whose strident ressentiment toward the Viennese scholarly establishment drew from the same ideological and political well as Lueger’s Christian Socialism.

This story of generational and ideological conflict is suggestive, but it presents a partial account. As Pieter Judson has recently emphasized, German liberal culture proved surprisingly resilient, and while the rise of the mass politics of the right and the left clearly challenged its position, it survived as an ideological position till the collapse of the Empire in 1918. Moreover, Schorske masks important continuities in political, social, and cultural life. The art historians Eitelberger and his successors, for example, were all united in their loyalties to the Habsburg state; his pupil Albert Ilg explicitly declared his allegiance to the monarchy and berated those of his contemporaries who lacked a sense of Austrian patriotism, while Riegl and Dvořák were highly critical of the nationalist ideologies—German as well as Slav—of the decades preceding the outbreak of the First World War. In addition, the putative political alienation of the fin de siècle generation posited by Schorske has to be tempered by the fact that the government gave considerable support to Secessionism. As Jeroen Bastiaan van Heerde has demonstrated, state sponsorship for Klimt and other artists was generous precisely because of the international character of their work, which presented an image of Austria-Hungary as a progressive cosmopolitan state.

The greatest limitation of Schorske’s study, however, and of the publications that emerged in its wake, is its excessive focus on Vienna. Thus, even if his interpretation is accepted, it arguably applies only to a small cultural elite based in the metropolis; its value for an understanding of the complex cultural dynamics of the wider monarchy is restricted. A similar criticism can be made of research into the historiography of art. Few studies of the Vienna School have paid attention to its place in the wider context of central Europe. Where comparisons have been made, they have mostly been made with art historians in Germany. It is of course undeniable that art historians in Vienna belonged to a larger German-language scholarly community that encompassed Germany and Switzerland, but they were also situated within the multilingual context of the Empire. Specifically, art historians had to contend with the gradual decline of German as the lingua franca of art-historical scholarship and with the rise of scholarly communities writing in Czech, Polish, Croatian, and Hungarian, many of whom studied in Vienna but then later came to challenge its intellectual hegemony. This challenge saw its most extreme form in the bitter exchanges in Prague between Czech and German Bohemian art historians, in which academic appointments and entire institutions were assimilated to wider political disputes, but it occurred elsewhere too.

This study sets art-historical writing against this background, considering how Vienna-based art historians responded to the increasingly fractured intellectual and cultural life of the late Habsburg Empire. In this context, the work of art historians in languages other than German remains woefully underinvestigated, and when it has been investigated, the research has largely been undertaken by scholars writing their own national histories of the discipline in Czech, Polish, or Croatian, which, for linguistic reasons, have hardly reached wider international audiences. While not presenting a detailed global account of art history across Austria-Hungary, this study nevertheless explores this broader context and analyzes its implications for an understanding of the practices of Vienna-based art historians.

Foregrounding the larger political and cultural contexts of Austria-Hungary invites the obvious question regarding this book’s methodological and conceptual framework, especially given the limitations of Schorske. One of the most important recent developments in Habsburg studies has been the application of postcolonial theory to the analysis of the relations between Vienna and the “peripheries” of the Empire and between the Empire’s differing minorities. This has proved enormously productive in the interpretation of the Empire’s intercultural dynamics and of the way that a variety of cultural practices and discourses, including art history, sustained the quasi-colonial and imperial attitudes of the Viennese intelligentsia as well as its political class. As one of the great European powers, Austria-Hungary could be compared with France or Britain in its treatment of its subjects. Although it had no overseas colonies, many of its minorities struggled to achieve recognition of their national aspirations; thus, while the revolutionaries of 1848 had much in common with their liberal counterparts elsewhere in Europe, many were also driven by a nationalist agenda that sought greater political and cultural recognition. The most dramatic expression of this impulse was the failed Hungarian revolution, which embraced the cause of Magyar self-determination and, ultimately, independence. Conversely, for many in Vienna the image of the various minorities of the Empire, especially those in the eastern and southern extremities of Galicia, Bukovina, Dalmatia, and Bosnia, differed little from the image those in London or Paris held of the colonial subjects in Africa or India.

The popular travelogue of 1876 From Semi-Asia: The Land and People of Eastern Europe, by the novelist and journalist Karl Franzos, encapsulated the beliefs of many Viennese about the picturesque but “backward” cultures and inhabitants of the eastern “fringes” of the Empire. For their part, members of many of the minority cultures—including Franzos (1848–1904) himself, born to Jewish parents in the “peripheral” eastern province of Bukovina—exhibited a complex array of attitudes and identities, ranging from mimicry of Vienna and imperial rule to ambivalence and even clear opposition. These attitudes can also be seen in the writings of art historians of the various minority cultures. Some openly identified with the legitimizing ideology of the Habsburg Empire, while some were strongly committed to an oppositional stance and used art history as an instrument for resisting “Austrian” (or “Hungarian”) cultural dominance. Still others remained attached to the notion of a distinctive identity—and to the “rediscovery” or invention of a separate national artistic tradition—while nevertheless holding on to the Empire as providing the best political settlement possible. Recent work in this area has identified the extent to which many actors saw no contradiction between the promotion of a distinctive national identity, on the one hand, and loyalty to the emperor, on the other, whom they saw as the protector of their rights against the putative predations of other minorities.

Parallels with the other European empires are suggestive, but Austria-Hungary was nevertheless different. Although its peripheral regions functioned as semicolonial territories—the only proper colony was Bosnia, which came under Austrian administration in 1878—the analogy with other European states has to be treated with caution. As Andrea Komlosy has argued, the relation of center and periphery was multilayered. After the Compromise (Ausgleich) of 1867, in which Hungary was granted near autonomy except in military and foreign affairs, the monarchy had two political centers: Vienna and Budapest. Moreover, while Vienna may have been an economic, cultural, and political center, Budapest, and indeed Hungary, were economic peripheries. In contrast, Bohemia, which was a political “periphery,” was economically and educationally one of the most advanced crown lands of the Empire. Galicia had, after 1868, substantial local political autonomy, and although economically tied to Vienna in certain respects, it also enjoyed a substantial degree of local control over its economic resources, in particular oil.

There was also no single dominant national group; German language and culture occupied a hegemonic position, but the monarchy continuously resisted German nationalism. Austro-German liberals dominated the government and the legislative program during the 1860s and the 1870s, but thereafter the government, under Count Eduard Taaffe, ruled by means of support from the so-called Iron Ring, a coalition of Czechs, Poles, and conservative Austro-Germans. While the Empire did not recognize national groups as collective bodies, this did not amount to official systematic discrimination against individuals of particular linguistic or ethnic backgrounds, even if many individual Germans regarded the Slavs or the Romanians as culturally inferior.

Patterns of cultural, economic, and political influence and dominance were also not uniform, and the three did not necessarily always coincide. Although the Italians were economically privileged, Italian nationalism, dominant in Trieste, was elsewhere suppressed, like all other nationalist movements. In Dalmatia Italians formed the cultural elite, but the monarchy saw itself as protecting the other inhabitants of the region from Italian domination. The Hungarian administration, nervous about the fact that Magyars were a minority in the Hungarian lands, sought to “Magyarize” its other minorities, with increasing vigor after 1867, but among the Vienna elite there was no shortage of criticism of this policy. It was counterproductive, it was argued, since it fueled grievances and oppositional identification on the part of the minorities.

Such considerations highlight the caution that needs to be exercised when applying a postcolonial framework tout court to the analysis of culture in the later Habsburg Monarchy, but they also point to the complex patterns of belonging, identity, and difference shaping the matrix within which the discipline of art history emerged. This book is an attempt to trace the development of art-historical thought as it was played out against such political and sociocultural factors.