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5 - Otto Pächt and ‘National’ Constants in Late Gothic Painting

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 October 2023

Ian Verstegen
Affiliation:
University of Pennsylvania
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Summary

Anyone who takes an unlabelled work of art and defines it as Italian, German or Byzantine is implicitly accepting the existence of constants.

Otto Pächt, The Practice of Art History

If Hans Sedlmayr’s monograph on Borromini stated the outlines of the method of Strukturforschung, its next most impressive articulation came in Otto Pächt’s extensive discussion of the formative principles found in Late Gothic painting in Northern Europe in his ‘Design Principles of Fifteenth- Century Northern Painting’, published in the second and last volume of Kunstwissenschaftliche Forschungen. This lengthy study is just as influential as Sedlmayr’s, and indeed more rigorous and imitable in many ways. It is furthermore methodologically self-aware and usefully stakes out a scholarly way of proceeding that is aware of its competitors, namely Panofsky’s Iconology.

The most interesting and controversial element developed by Pächt was the fruitfulness of using concepts of ‘national’ constants in investigating art history. Pächt argued that in examining the variety of Late Medieval painting in western Europe, he could define distinct ‘constants’ that involved the relationship of figural content to ground. For example, he found that Netherlandish (not Flemish) is characterised by a flat surface, in which figure and ground interlock on the surface. As we shall see, in understanding such a concept everything hangs on what ‘national’ means.

Pächt utilised this theory throughout his long career and it found echoes in his students’ work. Like Sedlmayr’s characterological analysis of Borromini, his method has a speculative and potentially suspicious element attached to it. Pächt was criticised quickly by Meyer Schapiro and while many agree that Pächt practised the method scrupulously, its findings were immediately tarnished (as Pächt himself saw) – a confirmation of the instability of such concepts for those more critical like Schapiro – by the recklessness of those engaged in Kunstgeographie and especially Ostforschung.

Always less objectionable in studies of anonymous ancient art (in the same volume of Kunstwissenschaftliche Forschungen, Kaschnitz-Weinberg’s paper on Egyptian art appeared), the idea of stylistic constants continues to have its adherents, sometime inflected with semiotic theory (which perhaps assures the reader it is entirely ‘conventional’), but for the most part is considered a dead proposition.

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The New Vienna School of Art History
Fulfilling the Promise of Analytic Holism
, pp. 135 - 166
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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