The Haunting of Style: Emanuel Löwy on the “Origins of Visual Art”

In a lecture delivered at the Vienna Academy of Sciences in 1930, the classical archaeologist Emanuel Löwy (1857–1938) sought to excavate the “origins of art” in Greece. His earlier writings had traced the linear and isolated appearance of ancient figural representations to underlying “memory-pictures” that had been reproduced uncritically, before a new “physiological” sense of observation launched the birth of classical art. Similar to children’s drawings, as Löwy argued, at this stage man created images that were suggested by reality but essentially conjured from within the mind. His Vienna lecture probed these very same stylistic features, but on different premises.[1] In this paper it is not the mechanics of the mind, but its irrational anxieties that mobilize objects against evil spirits and thus ultimately propel artistic change.

Fig. 1 The Analatos Painter (attrib.): Proto-Attic loutrophoros, painted terracotta, ca. 690BC, Paris, Musée du Louvre, acc. no. CA 2985, © 1994 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Unlike his earlier research on epigraphy and the “wandering of types” between Crete and mainland Greece, Löwy’s late work was met with little attention. Such neglect may have stemmed from the growing antisemitism among his contemporaries, which in turn also seems to have informed the polemical nature of the lecture. Löwy framed his argument by juxtaposing notions of aesthetic pleasure and decoration commonly found in classicist readings with the sense of threat emanating from much of early Greek art. Some of the more mundane items depicted on these objects, such as grapes, acorns, and laurel, seem to avoid attention, as he points out, while other designs, snakes, lions, and monsters, weapons, warriors, horns, teeth, and glaring eyes, appear unambiguously aggressive. These ominous images would have pervaded ancient material culture, from city walls and buildings to furniture, utensils, clothing, and cult images. In Löwy’s reckoning, they predate not only narrative art, but also geometric abstraction, which he had associated with emotionally innocent “memory-pictures” in his earlier writings. His new emphasis on affect seems to have tapped into anthropological discourses of the time that posited anxiety to be at the heart of culture. Warburg, too, saw “phobic reflexes” at work when the mythic mind first “coined” gesture and expression into image. Similarly, Wilhelm Worringer (1881–1965) considered abstraction a “primeval urge:” by setting absolute shapes against nature’s overwhelming flux, a “great inner unrest” and a general “dread of space” could be pacified.[2]Poised between these two positions, Löwy, however, believed to have uncovered another stratum of the primitive soul preceding abstraction. Here, the prehistoric soul struggles with ‘embodied’ hostile forces rather than a vague sense of spatial oppression. His revived interest in the issue may have been substantiated by new findings in Minoan and Mycenaean archaeology that called classical chronologies into question, as did the shocking ‘naturalism’ of even older paleolithic art. Neither empathetic nor abstract, these hauntingly evocative creations complicated evolutionary accounts of art.

The lecture does not single out specific artworks and is not accompanied by images. However, a particularly striking loutrophoros (fig. 1) from the Louvre, set between the geometric and archaic styles of Greek vase painting, may illustrate Löwy’s argument. The amphora is noted for combining ornament, such as waves, petals, steps, and spirals, with real or fantastic creatures, like snakes and sphinxes, as well as narrative scenes showing dancers and chariots. The vessel would have been used in ritual contexts, for washing the dead or for a bride’s pre-nuptial bath. Now, according to Löwy, the represented animals and individuals hover ambiguously between their original ‘superstitious’ symbolism and a new dramatic eye emerging with Homeric poetry. Earlier in history, magic ritual practices, creatures, and substances had been distilled into apotropaic devices, which later diffused into seemingly decorative patterns. Hence, the applied plaster snakes around the lower neck of the vase reappear schematized in the spirals further down. The zig-zag lines between the chariots evoke snarling teeth, while the round and dotted eyes of the human and animal physiognomies also figure in the wings of the sphinxes and in the perforated handles. These geometric shapes distantly echo animal threat display and aggressive body language. The vase’s decoration in this way sought to deflect harmful influences, as Löwy argued, either to protect from the dead or to ‘purge’ the bride-to-be.

The artistic weaponry of apotropaics was first conceptualized by the German archaeologist Otto Jahn (1813–1869), who identified strategies for averting the evil eye, such as through confusing, shocking, or shaming appearance.[3]These devices commonly operate on the sympathetic principle of similia similibus curenturby picturing that which they seek to disarm. Jahn believed that gorgoneia, obscenities, and other atypical imagery fed by “superstitions” cut across cultural and historical boundaries to survive unchanged even into his own time. Later ethnological and folklorist explorations of the theme, such as byFrederick Thomas Elworthy (1830–1907) and Siegfried Seligmann (1870–1926), continued to map apotropaic powers outside of the course of history. Löwy, on the other hand, argued for a more complex interplay between them and artistic creation that together would have shaped a period style. The sense for abstraction pinpointed by the amphora accordingly did not neutralize ‘superstition,’ but on the contrary intensified its impact. The more linear fashioning of the archaic devices would have sharpened their magical edge, as Löwy underscored. Their ornamental arrangement, hybrid recombination, and multiplication indicates a “tendency to accumulation,” still present in the many attributes and epithets attached to the Olympian gods. Over time, however, such overuse of apotropaics yielded unexpected side-effects. Their original meanings forgotten, these uncanny images invited new interpretations: with “their interrelation determined and differentiated hundredfold,” as Löwy says, “external summation deepened into inner connection” (18–19). Simultaneously, constant repetition at some point blunted the senses to drain even the most potent devices of their powers. Taken together, these two new point of views, personality and narrative on the one hand, the free play of adornment on the other, herald the birth of classicism.

Contrary to Löwy’s earlier study, therefore, here, it is not the observation of nature and the overcoming of the “infantile” mind that remakes art but a flood of images that somewhat inadvertently undoes the primeval spell of anxiety. Similar to Warburg’s “after-life,” Löwy insists that such powers continue to transpire even through the art of his own day, maybe even more so with the return of abstraction in modernity. He writes how “still, many of the shapes, old or new, originating from this thought endure, yet art in its own way still wants to banish spirits, exercise magic” (21). In this account, apotropaic thought is not confined to indigenous or rural ‘superstitions,’ as contemporary ethnology maintained, but reinstated at the very heart of artistic reasoning.

Title image: detail of loutrophoros in fig. 1, image © Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC-BY 2.5


[1]Löwy, Emanuel: Ursprünge der Bildenden Kunst: Vortrag gehalten am 4. Juni 1930. Vienna: Holder-Pilcher-Tempsky, 1930.

[2]Worringer, Wilhelm: Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style.Trans. Michael Bullock. Chicago Ivan R. Dee, 1997, pp. 15–17.

[3]Jahn, Otto: Über den Aberglauben des Bösen Blicks bei den Alten. In: Berichte der Kön. Sächs. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1855, pp. 28–110.


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