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Building New Bridges - Bâtir de nouveaux ponts

Jeff Keshen
Sylvie Perrier

15 – The Evidence of Omission in Art History’s Texts

Katherine Romba

Texte intégral

1Historians have long sought the assistance of written texts when examining the visual and material evidence of a culture, considering what is said in the writings of the time to be an important indicator of pertinent issues, themes, and perspectives regarding the object.

2Art historians are no exception. They have looked to artists and architects - like Wassily Kandinsky and Le Corbusier - as well as to theorists and critics - like Charles Baudelaire and Clement Greenberg - for elucidation of the content and meaning of art and architecture. In addition, the rise in archival research has taken art historians beyond conventional, published accounts like the treatise or manifesto to such documents as personal correspondence and annotated manuscripts in their search for greater insight into artistic works.

  • 1 This and other approaches can be found in the journal Word and Image, established in 1985 as “a jo (...)
  • 2 See Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960).

3Although these interpretive texts often occupy a privileged place in the art historian’s research, their role as direct indicators of meaning has not gone unchallenged. Some art historians have been spurred by critics such as Roland Barthes to treat the language of images as distinct from that of a written text, and have explored the slippery relationship between the two.1 Others have explored the mediated nature of the text, its capacity to misrepresent the intentions of the artist or the impressions of the observer, and the fissure between theory and actual practice.2

  • 3 See Maria A. Schenkeveld’s Dutch Literature in the Age of Rembrandt: Themes and Ideas (Amsterdam a (...)
  • 4 See Dell Upton, “Form and User: Style, Mode, Fashion, and the Artifact” in Gerald L. Pocius, ed., (...)
  • 5 See Jules David Prown, “On the ‘Art’ in Artifacts” in Pocius, ed., Living in a Material World), 14 (...)

4In addition, the work of some historians of art and material culture has compromised the status of the interpretive text as an important source of evidence altogether. Some, influenced by the integration of semiotics into the field of art history, treat the image itself like a text, and analyze it using written works not as sources or explanations but as linguistic parallels, comparing the visual language of paintings to the literary styles of the time.3 Others have moved the focus away from artistic intentionality and placed it instead on the meaning projected by an object’s consumers, users, and observers, and have concomitantly shifted the focus from the artist’s explicatory text to the evidence offered by field studies and by physical cues taken from the art or artifact itself.4 Finally, still others who study artifacts have posited a distinction between art and artifact, asserting that while the intended meaning of an artwork can be elucidated in the artist’s explanatory writings, the unconsciously embedded meaning of the artifact must be revealed through other means, such as through the visual metaphors communicated by an object.5

  • 6 Unlike some historians who continue to comb the archives for new revelatory texts, these historian (...)
  • 7 Alina Payne, “Reclining Bodies: Figurai Ornament in Renaissance Architecture,” in George Dodds and (...)

5Since the 1990s, a new approach to the interpretive text has emerged. With this recent approach, the written text remains an important indicator of meaning; however, now the text’s importance resides not with what is said but with what is omitted - or, more precisely, what lacks verbal articulation in explicit, literal terms. Historians take as the crux of their project the issue of why certain topics that are patently significant to the art under consideration have been excluded from the interpretive texts.6 For example, Alina Payne, in her recent essay “Reclining Bodies: Figurai Ornament in Renaissance Architecture,”7 poses the question of why the figurai ornament so prominent on Renaissance architectural facades “escapes” Renaissance architectural theory and “disappears into some form of collective blind spot[?]” By examining the literary tradition of Renaissance architectural theory, she deduces that this omission stems from the fact that Renaissance architectural theory takes as its literary model Vitruvius’s famous architectural treatise De architectura. Vitruvius, an architect of the Roman empire, omitted ornament from his text, claiming that it was the concern of sculptors and painters, whose responsibility it was to dress the architectural framework in suitable ornament. Also impacting Renaissance theory was classical rhetoric, which Vitruvius himself found germane to the principles of architecture and which thereafter had a long history as a model for architectural theory. Classical rhetoricians had treated ornament as a distinct area of literary investigation worthy of its own “body of theory and critical vocabulary,” and Renaissance architects followed suit, separating out discussions of ornament from their own writings on architectural “composition,” presenting ornament as its own internally cohesive endeavour.

6Payne asks if this omission from architectural theory truly means that Renaissance architects failed to consider figurai ornament - including the caryatids, masks, terms, and reclining bodies of the façade - an integral part of their architectural designs. Using a formal analysis of the Renaissance facade, Payne argues that this reluctance on the part of architects to discuss ornament actually evinces a separation between theory and practice, and belies the actual integrated nature of ornament within the entire architectural vision. Payne claims that the figural sculpture plays an integral role in the architectural project by expressing symbolically the tectonics of structure. Thus, the sculpture “could and did slide between the artificial barriers” constructed by the architectural theory.

  • 8 Frederic J. Schwartz, The Werkbund: Design Theory and Mass Culture before the First WorldWar (New (...)
  • 9 Ibid., 2.

7Frederic Schwartz similarly considers an investigation into the omissions of art theory a key to better understanding the constructed nature of the text. In The Werkbund: Design Theory and Mass Culture before the First World War,8 Schwartz takes as the object of his investigation the collaboration of artists with industry in Weimar, Germany, and takes as his prime texts the writings of one of the premiere proponents of this collaboration, Walter Gropius, the founding director of the Bauhaus school of design. He questions why Gropius focuses his writings merely on “the production of commodities,” with a “willful blindness to the rest of the object’s life: its distribution, exchange and consumption[?]”9 Schwartz claims that to answer this question one must examine an earlier body of theory on art and industry, that of the Deutscher Werkbund, an association of artists and industrialists, to which Gropius’ writings were in many ways merely a conclusion. The Werkbund, the first major German artistic institution to recognize mechanized production as capable of artistic merit, produced a body of theory that gradually transformed the framework of the theoretical discourse to suit its aims. Gradually dropped from discussion were troublesome issues like the alienation of the workers, who were relegated to an industrial division of labour, and the estrangement of the consumer, who no longer knew the source of the goods. Terms like “industry” which still carried ambivalent messages for the future of artistic design were replaced with more neutral jargon like “technology.” Not only Werkbund art theorists but also cultural critics and sociologists colluded in this effort. By the late teens and 20s, when Gropius was writing his Bauhaus manifesto and pedagogical statements, the discourse on art and industry had been cleanly stripped of its unsavoury attributes. When Gropius wrote of a new design approach combining “technology and art,” he was contributing to an existing mythology of industrialization, in which industry was a new, praiseworthy system of production based on standardization, functionality, and objectivity.

  • 10 Wigley, White Walls, xv.
  • 11 Ibid., xxi.

8As one final example I will turn to the work of architectural historian Mark Wigley. Wigley takes as his text the historiography of modern architecture, and, as his object, modern architecture itself. In his book White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, Wigley points out that the ubiquitous white wall of the 1920s, which has become inseparable from modern architecture’s identity, is rarely mentioned in the history of this architecture. Rather than provide some elucidation on modern architecture’s penchant for the white wall, the histories tend to focus instead on modern architecture’s new technology and functionality. He says that the white wall is “almost always looked at in passing, lightly, obliquely, held in the periphery of the discourse, if not the blind spots that occupy its center.”10 To locate the reason for this omission he deconstructs the historical narratives of modern architecture that have appeared since the 1930s. Like Schwartz, he attempts to trace textual biases and boundaries back to their original formation, and finds that the theories and manifestos by architects of the 1920s already showed the seeds of the historiography’s discursive framework. The modern movement in architecture was already portrayed as a style of cohesion and permanence due to its secure foundation in function, objectivity, and technology, and was contrasted to the fleeting “fashionable” styles of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wigley also discovers that popularizing texts on architecture - books written for a lay audience - provide some of the most telling accounts, for they articulate what the professional literature will not: that although modern architecture’s austere white uniform contributes to a compelling sense of order and unity within this new architectural movement, certain pitfalls accompany the white surface, particularly the possibility that the omnipresent layer of paint will be associated with the superficiality and trendiness of fashion. Wigley concludes that “ignoring [the white wall] is one way of ignoring the internal contradictions that are at once the source of the strength of the architecture and the point of its greatest weakness.”11 Wigley claims that the historians of modern architecture, who often took a personal interest in promoting this architecture, attempted to “efface” the white wall because it was too closely associated with that which was considered unstable, evasive, or even regressive-fashion and the superficiality of the surface.

9These three historians - Payne, Schwartz, and Wigley - have ultimately examined different material and achieved different conclusions, and yet the crux of each project is the same: identifying and interpreting textual omissions in order to achieve a better understanding of the constructed nature of the meanings attributed to art and architecture. The purpose of this essay is not to advance one historian’s particular methodology over another but rather to expand generally on the validity of the “unarticulated” as compelling textual evidence.

10As the preceding scholarship shows, blind spots in a text can ostensibly result from a variety of factors, including the structural or epistemological constraints of a theoretical discourse, as well as an attempt to represent a consistent ideological position. Alina Payne contends, for example, that the content of Renaissance architectural theory, ideally a reflection of architectural concerns, was shaped by the authority of both Vitruvius and antique rhetoric. Frederic Schwartz posits that Walter Gropius’ pedagogical theories of design for the Bauhaus were just as much an expression of his own vision as they were Gropius’ adoption of an ideological position and discursive framework already formulated by Werkbund theorists. And Mark Wigley argues that the historiography of modern architecture subscribed willingly to the propaganda originally put forth by the architects of the 1920s and to their obfuscation of one of modernism’s exposed weaknesses.

11To identify which factor or factors contribute to a textual omission, historians have, of course, examined closely the text itself. What is being said and what is not? But to ultimately gain perspective on why an omission occurs and what it means, historians have expanded the reach of their research beyond both the text and the object. The factors which contribute to textual omissions often only come to light when one situates the text in a broader context, when one examines the larger discourse within which it operates, or the political, economic, social, or cultural thought of the time, or even the biographical details of the text’s author. Alina Payne, for example, investigates Renaissance architectural theory’s reception of Vitruvius and classical rhetoric to gain a better perspective on the Renaissance architect’s blind spots. Frederic Schwartz examines an earlier discourse on industry and art as well as sociological texts for perspective on Walter Gropius’ theory of design. And Mark Wigley turns to popular texts on architecture to locate what the professional literature has cautiously omitted from its own theory.

  • 12 Payne, “Reclining Bodies,” 108.
  • 13 Ibid., 112.

12Although these approaches to interpretive texts continue to put textual sources in the foreground of historical research, some scholars have combined verbal and non-verbal evidence with successful results. Alina Payne, for example, ultimately resorts to a more traditional tool of art historical research, a formal analysis of the art object itself, in order to more securely identify the intended role of Renaissance sculpture within the composition of the architectural facade. Examining the manner in which figurai sculpture like standing and reclining nudes interact with the architectonic framework, she concludes that this sculpture was not intended to be original art in its own right, as is often the case with the religious statues found in the niches of Gothic facades, but rather was ornament created specifically to enhance the architecture, decorative devices which “allowed texture, light, shade, and movement to enhance the tactility of the architectural elements of the facade.”12 Specifically, the organic forms of the sculpture provide accents to the structural composition, like accentuating the swelling of a column, “and so enhance the carrying message of a pilaster or the heavy inert weight of a pediment.”13

13Using some of the strategies adopted in the aforementioned case studies, I examined in my PhD dissertation the texts by some well-known theorists of modern architecture, such as Hermann Muthesius, as well as by some important though now obscure writers, like Joseph August Lux. My area of research was German architectural theory from the Wilhelmine period (1890-1918) and specifically that theory which describes and analyzes the growing role of industrial materials in architectural design. The launching point of my investigation was the question of why this architectural theory lacks any substantial response to contemporary cultural criticism, which described at length industry’s pernicious role in artistic culture.

  • 14 Hermann Muthesius, Style-Architecture and Building-Art (Santa Monica: Getty Center for the History (...)
  • 15 Friedrich Naumann, “Die Kunst im Zeitalter der Maschine,” Schweizerische Bauzeitung XLIV, no. 10,( (...)

14My research began with establishing exactly what the architectural theory did say about industrial materials. During the Wilhelmine period, the majority of the architectural discourse on new materials focuses on iron - the first major industrial building material - and the changes it effects on architectural aesthetics. For instance, Hermann Muthesius, one of the most famous spokesmen for the Deutscher Werkbund, saw “new principles of design” and “expressive modern form”14 embodied in the engineered iron structures of bridges, railway terminals, and exhibition buildings. Friedrich Naumann, another founding member of the Deutscher Werkbund, claimed that “the new iron constructions are the greatest artistic experience of our time,”15 and Joseph August Lux, an editor and writer on the arts, predicted that “a new architecture is in the coming, the architecture of iron, which imparts to the modern age its stylistic character.”

15The fact that early modern architects and theorists would envision iron as effecting great formal and aesthetic change is not in itself odd. What does stand out as unusual however is that the architectural theorists – self-appointed protectors of German culture-would neglect to respond to growing debates on industrialization, and appear to be, on the whole, dismissive of the notion that industry and mechanized production could cause greater cultural alienation, even though such a view was in high circulation at the time.

16Sociologists like Georg Simmel and Werner Sombart, cultural critic Julius Langbehn, and British art reformers like John Ruskin and William Morris (whose writings had been translated into German since the turn of the twentieth century) had all well explored the notion that industry could be a major impediment to a direct, authentic expression of culture. For these writers with cultural concerns, industrial materials and industrial production ran afoul of traditional notions of cultural expression, whose standard was still the handcrafted works of premodern society. The fact that industrial materials were no longer accessible to the tools and hands of the artist and artisan, and that factory production consisted of a division of labour, suggested to these theorists that the object produced would no longer satisfy the conventional standards of cultural expression, which included the personality of the maker, the traces of human engagement, and the inner spirit of the people.

  • 16 Joseph August Lux, Ingenieur-Aesthetik (Munich, 1910), 2.
  • 17 Naumann, “Die Kunst im Zeitalter der Maschine,” 113, 115.

17As a response to this critical literature, one finds from the architectural theory only glib assurances, like Joseph Lux’s statement that “the general public should view the work and progress of technology not as an impediment to culture, but rather as a tremendous bearer of culture,”16 or blithe repudiations, like Friedrich Naumann’s enthusiastic claims that “all our [modem] culture is made from iron hands” and that “the character of the period is found in the technology of metal.”17 In an attempt to better understand this curious stance taken by the architectural theorists, I began a more rigorous examination of the cultural criticism itself. Had it definitively rejected the cultural role of industry, as I had originally thought? Or, conversely, had indeed the architectural theorists completely repudiated the cultural criticism? Would I be able to discern a deeper discursive relationship between the two bodies of theory?

18This latter assumption was, in fact, proved correct: the more closely I read the cultural criticism, the more I detected a pronounced and sophisticated response to it by architectural theorists. In their promotion of iron, the architectural theorists had refuted the conclusions of the cultural critics by immersing iron in a rhetoric of premodern values, presenting this industrial material in terms of the very subjectivity, personality, and feeling promoted in the cultural literature.

19The strategy taken up by architectural theorists was one of bypassing a conspicuous stance against the cultural criticism in favour of a more subtle and insidious approach. What to the historian of the twenty-first century may at first appear to be architectural texts with egregious omissions are upon closer inspection actually vigourous articulations of a position, whose effect on an educated Wilhelmine audience would not likely have been lost. Indeed, the greater one’s familiarity with the cultural writings of the day, the greater one’s ability to perceive what the contemporary reader would have experienced: a text whose subtle yet compelling rhetoric portrayed industrial materials and industrial production as continuing to possess the values of premodern cultural expression. By infusing their discussion of industrial aesthetics with the poignant terms and symbols associated with the erstwhile, crafted arts, the architectural theorists in fact portrayed iron as a medium of pre-industrial cultural values. These texts, which surely would have appealed more to the heart than to the mind, provided the hope - however irrational - that iron would be no less than stone and wood a material of such premodern cultural ideals. Far from being sources of alienation, industrial materials would be direct, intimate expressions of German culture.

  • 18 Muthesius, Style-Architecture, 90-91.
  • 19 Ibid., 79, 92.

20For example, in 1902 Hermann Muthesius made the following claims regarding industrial production: “The existence of the tool is certainly a given of our culture. The machine is, however, only an improved tool,” and “The machine must be, like every improved tool, a blessing rather than a curse for mankind.”18 Such statements appropriate the poignant premodern symbol of the tool, as portrayed by socio-political writers like Karl Marx, who described the tool in Das Kapital as a natural, organic extension of the handcrafter. Marx contrasted the tool to the machine, which had subjugated factory workers, making them its own appendages. Muthesius’ confident portrayal of the machine as merely an improved tool also drew on the strident, premodern visions of British art reformers like John Ruskin, who had characterized the tooled material as expressing - as he phrased it in The Stones of Venice - the “personality, activity, and living perception” of the handcrafter. Muthesius transposes the premodern symbolism of the tool into the service of modern industry in order to portray the machine and its products as capable of expressing human engagement. For example, he concludes that industrial structures like the iron bridge - far from being culturally mute and impregnable - have a “modern sensitivity recorded in them,” express the “audacity and power of the human spirit,” and “mirror the sensibility of our time, just as the richly acanthus-laden cannon barrel did the seventeenth century or the carved and gilded sedan chair the eighteenth century.”19

  • 20 Georg Simmel, “Persônliche und sachliche Kultur,” Neue Deutsche Rundschau 11, 7, 3rd and 4th Quart (...)
  • 21 Georg Simmel, “On the Concept and the Tragedy of Culture,” in Georg Simmel, Georg Simmel: The Conf (...)

21Not only the symbols but also the normative ideals of premodern society played an important role in this rhetoric. In his book Ingenieur-Aesthetik, Joseph August Lux applied the typically premodern quality of personal expression to industrial forms. By the time of the book’s publication in 1910, sociologist Georg Simmel had already expounded repeatedly on the cultural implications posed by industry, in particular the loss of a sense of the artist’s personality. For example, in his essay “Persönliche und sachliche Kultur” (personal and objective culture), published in 1900,20 Simmel contends that the more the methods of labour are divided and mechanized, “the less the personality of the labourer can be expressed through them, the less the hand of the labourer can be recognized in the product.” By way of contrast, Simmel argues that the machine affects the product not as “an individualized personality but only as the executor of an objective, prescribed task.” A decade later, Simmel continues this notion, claiming that art “has such an immeasurable cultural value precisely because it is inaccessible to any division of labour, because the created product preserved the creator to the innermost degree.”21

  • 22 Lux, Ingenieur-Aesthetik, 52.

22Joseph August Lux seems to respond directly to Simmel himself when he claims regarding modem engineering, “It is a false belief that objectivity (Sachlichkeit) leads to impersonality (Unpersönlichkeit). On the contrary. Objectivity itself allows for far-reaching personal differentiation.”22 In fact, Lux claims that the contemporary carriage house, containing a whole range of modern vehicles, is a veritable “portrait gallery.”

23This leads me to another type of omission - an omission that is actually a coded message. Sometimes the operative question is not why something was edited out, but rather how language has been manipulated to include layers of meaning. As is the case with true omissions, several factors can lead to this encoding. As the texts of Hermann Muthesius and Joseph August Lux have shown, some writers must have wished to defy clear logic and appeal instead to the emotions, biases, and hopes of the reader. Such a strategy was a savvy recourse by the authors of the Wilhelmine architectural theory, for German sociologists and British art reformers (among others) had laid out in compelling detail the drawbacks of industrialization for society and culture. Through countless leaps in logic, using the poignant symbols and language of pre-industrial production, these architectural theorists were able to portray industrial materials as the new sites of premodern cultural values.

  • 23 Madan Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism (Athens, Georgia: Unive (...)

24To say that a text has been encoded suggests conscious intention on the part of the author. However, the unconscious agency of the author can be implicated as well. Another possible interpretation of textual omissions, not illustrated here, uses the tools of psychoanalytic theory and posits the notion that the unconscious plays a determining role in the composition of a text. Particularly useful for historians in this respect may be Jacques Lacan’s work, which contends that the unconscious communicates in a disguised linguistic form. In order to outmaneuver the censorship of the Ego, the unconscious articulates its desires using literary devices such as metaphor and metonymy rather than literal meaning.23

25Whether by identifying blind spots or encoded meanings, historians of “omissions” have developed a new means of interpreting familiar texts. Although this approach has changed the types of questions asked regarding a text, the answers are in many ways familiar. They continue to tell historians more about the creator’s perspective and intentions as well as about the meanings ascribed to cultural objects over time and by various people and groups. They also continue to highlight the mediated and constructed nature of these meanings. In this way, the evidence of “omission” is merely a new approach to a larger, established project of discerning what interpretive texts say, how, and why.


1 This and other approaches can be found in the journal Word and Image, established in 1985 as “a journal of verbal/visual inquiry.” For Roland Barthes’ position on the relationship between word and image, see in particular his essay “The Rhetoric of the Image” in Stephen Heath, trans., Image, Music, Text, (London: Fontana/Collins, 1977).

2 See Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960).

3 See Maria A. Schenkeveld’s Dutch Literature in the Age of Rembrandt: Themes and Ideas (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: J. Benjamins, 1991).

4 See Dell Upton, “Form and User: Style, Mode, Fashion, and the Artifact” in Gerald L. Pocius, ed., Living in a Material World: Canadian and American Approaches to Material Culture (St. John’s: Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1991), 156-69.

5 See Jules David Prown, “On the ‘Art’ in Artifacts” in Pocius, ed., Living in a Material World), 144-155.

6 Unlike some historians who continue to comb the archives for new revelatory texts, these historians have turned to familiar textual sources with a fresh eye. As historian Mark Wigley describes it: “Rather than bring new archival material to the surface, it is a matter of looking at the evidence lodged in the public record, sitting right there in front of us, nestled between the lines of the all too familiar literature.” Mark Wigley, White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), xv.

7 Alina Payne, “Reclining Bodies: Figurai Ornament in Renaissance Architecture,” in George Dodds and Robert Tavernor eds., Body and Building: Essays on the Changing Relation of Body and Architecture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002).

8 Frederic J. Schwartz, The Werkbund: Design Theory and Mass Culture before the First WorldWar (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

9 Ibid., 2.

10 Wigley, White Walls, xv.

11 Ibid., xxi.

12 Payne, “Reclining Bodies,” 108.

13 Ibid., 112.

14 Hermann Muthesius, Style-Architecture and Building-Art (Santa Monica: Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities 1994), 79.

15 Friedrich Naumann, “Die Kunst im Zeitalter der Maschine,” Schweizerische Bauzeitung XLIV, no. 10,(1904): 113.

16 Joseph August Lux, Ingenieur-Aesthetik (Munich, 1910), 2.

17 Naumann, “Die Kunst im Zeitalter der Maschine,” 113, 115.

18 Muthesius, Style-Architecture, 90-91.

19 Ibid., 79, 92.

20 Georg Simmel, “Persônliche und sachliche Kultur,” Neue Deutsche Rundschau 11, 7, 3rd and 4th Quartets in 2 Bd. (1900), 700-712.

21 Georg Simmel, “On the Concept and the Tragedy of Culture,” in Georg Simmel, Georg Simmel: The Conflict in Modem Culture (New York, 1968), 45-46; originally published as “Der Begriff und die Tragödie der Kultur,” in Georg Simmel, Philosophie der Kultur: Gesammelte Essais (Leipzig, 1911), 245-77.

22 Lux, Ingenieur-Aesthetik, 52.

23 Madan Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 9.


Currently completing her doctorate in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Her dissertation examines expressions of modern cultural identity in German architectural theory. An article related to the work in this anthology will also appear in the Rutgers Art Review

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