Fritz Saxl: “Why Art History?”

Fritz Saxl: “Why Art History?”, in: Ibd.: Lectures, ed. by Gertrud Bing, London: The Warburg Institute, 1957, vol. 1, pp. 345-357.

Fritz Saxl, Lectures, ed. by Gertrud Bing, London: The Warburg Institute, 1957, vol. 2, plate 243

In March 1948, only a few days before his death, Fritz Saxl spoke in London in front of students of Royal Holloway College. Throughout his professional life, he had been devoted to issues of teaching art history as well as employing art for the purpose of public education. It is in this context that the lecture poses the programmatic question: ‘Why art history?’

Saxl starts off with an autobiographical anecdote, peculiarly not about his experiences as an art historian, but as a soldier in the First World War, when he stumbled into a stationer’s shop in Northern Italy. ‘On the sadly empty shelves’, he recounts, ‘I found a book of some hundred pages, a manifesto by a group of young Italian artists who called themselves futurists’ (345). Saxl cites the Manifesto dei pittori futuristi by Umberto Boccioni (1910):

We want to fight relentlessly against the fanatical, irresponsible, and snobbish religion of the past, which is nourished by the baneful existence of museums. […]We must draw inspiration from the tangible miracles of contemporary life, from the iron network of speed enveloping the earth, from the transatlantic liners, the dreadnoughts, the marvellous flights furrowing the skies, the darksome audacities of underwater navigators […].

In response to the futurists’ radical demands, Saxl remarks: ‘They called for an atomic bomb – to use the language of our generation – to destroy museums and the heritage of the past.’

Vehicles as images of motion

The fetishisation of all that moves mechanically: steam-powered vessels, aeroplanes, submarines, idolises the vehicle itself as an image, in which motion appears as a process for its own end, being directed only forward and neglecting everything past. Saxl, who had worked with Aby Warburg until he succeeded him as director of his Institute, had to refute such a concept. Though, like the futurists, Warburg too was drawn to the ‘tangible miracles of contemporary life’, he had arrived at opposite conclusions: he envisioned images as vehicles in whose dynamic forms ideas were converted and thus perpetuated from distant pasts up to the immediate present. Before Saxl, therefore, discusses whether art history ‘is really necessary’, he asks whether there can be any art without history, raising in turn the question: what is history in relation to art?

Saxl delegates this problem to an artist and quotes Pablo Picasso, who had denounced the way in which paintings were commonly perceived: ‘We have been tied up to a fiction, instead of trying to sense what inner life there was in the men who painted them’ (346). Pointing away from the sole contemplation of artworks and turning towards the motives of the people who made them, Saxl eventually defines art history not as a mere history of artistic vision but a history of the preconditions of that vision. This project had ‘to link the history of art with other branches of history, political, literary, religious or philosophical’ (353) and ‘the work of art with other historical documents of the period to which it belongs’ (355).

In 1948, Saxl introduces to his audience ‘the school of Warburg in which I grew up’ (355), spelling out methodological characteristics of a type of scholarship that the majority of present-day art historians are familiar with. In that regard, the lecture reads as a historiographical document of a well-known chapter of the formation of the humanities. It may nevertheless prove to be of interest for the research project Bilderfahrzeuge, which explicitly addresses the political dimensions of both migrating images as well as of the methodologies used to study them. For, Saxl, by problematising the futurists’ denial of the past and art critiques’ historical ignorance, emphasises the importance the understanding of history has for the study of art and the significance only a historically informed knowledge of art holds for modern societies; especially since ‘this age of ours is not an age of reason, but a visual age, and many of us are more inclined to draw enlightenment and intellectual pleasure and exultation from images than from the printed or spoken word’ (346).

History of art and art criticism

To illustrate this significance of a historically informed knowledge of art, he turns once more to Picasso, this time not to cite him, but to look at Guernica (1937). He imagines ‘that a historian three hundred years hence […] would just try to understand it as a document of twentieth century artistic vision’ (356). Saxl is certain: ‘how little could his art criticism contribute to the general knowledge of our period!’ However: 

If a scholar of those far-off days, with the help of books and newspapers, were able to identify the subject as the bombing of Guernica he would be in a position to understand the details of the picture, its temper and its style; and he would be in a better position to understand the tension of the pre-war years and perhaps also the methods of warfare leading up to the atomic bomb.

The art historian can only understand the artwork by considering the history of the society in whose context it came into existence; conversely, a society and its history will never be fully understood if one does not concern oneself with its art. This mutual dependence of an understanding of art and history seems fairly obvious. Remarkable, though, is the inherently political significance of the study of a history of art and the corresponding responsibility that Saxl deduces from this intertwined relationship. This finds articulation in the dramatic climax of the insights gained by the ‘fictitious historian of art of the future’: the atomic bomb.

Thus, the argument that started with the futurists’ call for an ‘atomic bomb’, as Saxl paraphrases ‘in the language of our time’, has come full circle. Its arc charges the nuclear weapon with a double meaning, its annihilating force reasoning for art history in a twofold way: as a concrete danger that society has to reflect on at the brink of the Cold War, which can only be done with the help of comprehensive historical analysis and therefore also by interpreting artistic and visual sources; and as a metaphor for the apocalyptic oblivion which the negation of a ‘heritage of the past’, including art history can potentially lead to. As a soldier in the First World War, Saxl himself had witnessed this: to him, who had rescued a library and the concept of cultural memory incorporated in it from certain destruction, ‘the sadly empty shelves’ in the stationer’s shop in Northern Italy describe nothing less than the collapse of civilisation in consequence of the catastrophe of a military conflict among nations.

Addendum: The photograph of Picasso’s Guernica used to illustrate Saxl’s argument was one of the series of photographs by Dora Maar documenting the progress of creating the monumental painting in Picasso’s studio in 1937. 

Cite this blog post
Johannes von Müller (2019, January 21). Fritz Saxl: “Why Art History?”. BILDERFAHRZEUGE. Retrieved May 24, 2024, from

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