Author: Matthew Vollgraff

Specters of the Primitive. A Review in Three Parts

Perhaps the true appeal of what was once called “primitive art” lay not in its exoticism but in its apparent lack of historicity. For many European artists, as Meyer Schapiro perceived in 1937, the art of indigenous peoples had accrued “the special prestige of the timeless and instinctive, on the level of spontaneous animal activity, self-contained, unreflective, private, without dates and signatures, without origins or consequences except in the emotions.” The singular modernity of the avant-garde depended, in other words, on the correspondingly derelict nonmodernity of the primitive.

Temporal Lesions: Warburg Draws the Brain

In the spring of 1892, the young Aby Warburg impetuously abandoned what he saw as the “aestheticizing” excesses of art history to pursue a career in the hard science of medicine. In the end, his medical studies at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin lasted only a single semester; yet as would only become clear much later, this phase of study left a deep impression upon his thinking. Following the lectures of the psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus – a pioneer of the experimental study of recollection and forgetting – Warburg was initiated into the state of the art of contemporary neurological research, including the problem of cerebral localization.

Barbara Wittmann: ‘Bedeutungsvolle Kritzeleien. Eine Kultur- und Wissensgeschichte der Kinderzeichung, 1500-1950’

There is no dearth of scholarship on modern artists’ reception and appropriation of children’s drawings, but Wittmann’s book tells a decidedly different – and more ambitious – story. Employing an interdisciplinary approach informed as much by the history of science as by the history of art, the author sets her sights on the operative function of the children’s drawing within the discourses, practices and institutions that shaped modern childhood as such. By addressing a wide range of social and scientific contexts – from experimental psychology to progressive education, from intelligence testing to psychoanalysis – the author reveals the diverse and often contradictory ways in which these fields implemented the children’s drawing both as an object and an instrument of knowledge.

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