October 12, 2016KR BlogEnthusiamsKRReading

Art History in the Kenyon Review: Reading Erwin Panofsky’s “Renaissance and Renascences” from the Spring 1944 Issue

PhD qualifying exams are a grueling rite of passage for graduate students. I took mine in February for a degree in art history specializing in the Italian Renaissance. I studied hard, but on the oral section of the exam I suddenly froze with nerves. I passed, but it had not gone well, and I was upset about it. I wanted, badly, to impress on the second section: an essay to be written in 10 days. From the topic I was assigned, I knew that I would have to say something at least intelligible about the 1960 book by Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art.

I hadn’t intended to, but I read every word of the book. I was enthralled, cast under Panofsky’s spell, even though much recent scholarship has rightly called some of his arguments into question. For a graduate student, reading Panofsky is energizing (this is what art history can be!) and intimidating (how will I ever obtain even a fraction of the knowledge he has?).

As I scrambled to complete my bibliography hours before the exam was due, I stumbled across something unexpected. The second chapter of the 1960 book had, in an earlier form, been published as an article in The Kenyon Review in 1944. Kenyon Review? Why had Panofsky published this in a literary journal that, at the time, only very occasionally published articles and book reviews about art history? The question preoccupied me because, well, I went to Kenyon, and I had been a student associate and an intern at KR.

My question cut in two directions. First: what was the state of Renaissance art history in 1944 that this article would appeal to KR’s readers? Second: why doesn’t Renaissance art history have the same appeal now? For me, the stakes of the answers are high. The question is really about why I came to love art history and the Renaissance in the first place, when I was an undergrad at Kenyon and an intern at KR, and whether these interests can ever again have an important place in discussion across disciplines and outside academia.

“Renaissance and Renascences” in the Kenyon Review

Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, Panofsky is the one art historian who all others must confront, even now, almost 50 years since his death. A prodigious mind with encyclopedic knowledge on many subjects, Panofsky became a prominent member of German academia at a young age (he was chair of the art history department at the University of Hamburg before he was 30 years old). But he was also Jewish, and he was expelled by the Nazis in 1933. He moved to the United States and taught at NYU and then Princeton University and quickly attained a devoted following. Panofsky was a major figure, maybe the major figure, in the development of art history in the United States into, what he called, “a humanistic discipline.” He influenced a generation of scholars in this country, as a Dutch colleague wrote in an obituary to “Pan”: “Almost every publication by young American art historians in the last two decades began with a footnote of thanks for his help.”

“Renaissance and Renascences” began as a lecture delivered to students at the Graduate School of Fine Arts at New York University. Panofsky wrote to KR’s editor, John Crowe Ransom, to ask if he would be interested in publishing the lecture as an essay. Presumably knowing Panofsky’s reputation, Ransom accepted the article sight unseen, and even promised not to change a word!

The article, and the later book, is a rebuke to a growing tide of historians who argued that the Italian Renaissance was not a major shift from the medieval period. Panofsky felt that the Renaissance revival of classical antiquity was a cultural about-face that marks the definitive beginning of the modern era. In the Kenyon Review essay, Panofsky compares the Italian Renaissance with earlier revivals of antiquity, especially the so-called “Carolingian Renaissance” and “twelfth-century Renaissance,” arguing that the “Italian, or main, Renaissance” was entirely different in character from its predecessors.

In other words, it is an academic argument – but it feels grand. Panofsky was the perfect art historian to write to a broader audience. His knowledge is catholic, not limited to art, and he is a vivid writer with an ear for the perfect metaphor. Yes, his thesis can sometimes seem overly neat, but read this paragraph and try not to be impressed by Panofsky’s succinct writing and evocative metaphor:

In sum, the Italian Renaissance looked upon classical Antiquity from a historical distance; therefore, for the first time, as upon a totality removed from the present; and therefore, for the first time, as upon an ideal to be longed for instead of a reality to be both utilized and feared. The pre – Gothic Middle Ages had left Antiquity unburied, and alternately galvanized and exorcized its body. The Renaissance stood weeping at its grave and tried to resurrect its soul… Resurrected souls are somewhat intangible but they have the advantage of being immortal and omnipresent. Therefore the rôle of classical Antiquity in the modern world is a little elusive but, on the other hand, pervasive – and changeable only with a change in the form of our civilization as such.

As I read the Kenyon Review article – not long after the hangover from the passing-comps-celebration was over – I kept daydreaming about the people Panofsky was writing for. They were readers in cutting edge modern literature and literary theory, not specialists in art history. And yet, they must have cared about the Renaissance. It mattered that the Renaissance as an idea was being challenged. Who today would be interested in the ideas Panofsky wrote about that doesn’t regularly attend the annual Renaissance Society of America conferences?

Though you can download “Renaissance and Renascences” on JSTOR, I’m glad I went to the library to find a copy. In the same issue, John Crowe Ransom wrote a short article called “Artists, Soldiers, Positivists.” In it, he responds to a letter “of a kind which frequently comes to the office of this Review” from a soldier, left anonymous, fighting in World War II. The letter is an incredible historical document. “What are we after in poetry?” the soldier writes, “… I find the poetry in Kenyon Review lamentable in many ways because it is cut off from pain. It is intellectual and it is fine, but it never reveals muscles and nerve… [Poetry] must, I feel, promise survival for all who are worth retrieving – it must communicate a lot of existence; an overwhelming desire to go on.”

“The communication is still unanswered; but consider how difficult it is for an editor to find the suitable reply to such a letter,” Ransom implores his reader. He continues:

Should he argue that its author is too much in earnest, and has no right to hold art so strictly to account? It would seem too rude, as well as lacking in understanding, inasmuch as no view of art other than this could suggest itself to a soldier risking his life at the front. Survival is the issue with that soldier, though not merely his own survival. Yet the only reply that could have any validity would have been that the editor, and most of the contributors and readers, were not at the front as the soldier was, and saw little to gain by pretending they were at the front, and felt that a normal literary activity such as they were still trying to maintain could not occur at the front, nor be directed from the front.

I wonder what Panofsky would have thought of this exchange, forty pages behind his article. He was a German academic, exiled from Europe by Hitler’s regime: though he could not claim to be “at the front,” he knew the battleground well. His writing promised art’s survival. Panofsky confirmed art’s enduring importance; he demonstrated how, in art, one could see a cultural shift that defined the modern world.

I had always read this essay as a defense of the Renaissance against incursions from medievalists. That’s what the 1960 book tries to do. But now I saw something else at play in the 1944 article: Panofsky was affirming the importance of the Renaissance as the beginning of the modern era, our era.

Of course study of the Italian Renaissance doesn’t have the same kind of sway among non-specialists as it once did – we don’t need the Renaissance to do the work it did in Panofsky’s time. What we need now is a history that is more multicultural; and a history that has more voices from women. In a recent book, Keith Moxey, a prominent art historian, asked: “Do we still need a Renaissance?”

Another, Rebecca Zorach, suggested that Renaissance art historians should embrace their periphery position: “While many interesting things are still going on in Renaissance art history, and while the Renaissance still has popular appeal (even if it now comes via novels like The Da Vinci Code), the center of gravity of art history as a discipline has shifted elsewhere. Perhaps this might be an opportunity for the field – a chance to speak, paradoxically, from the margins.”

Nevertheless, Moxey’s question is a hard one for an aspiring Renaissance art historian to address. I remember when I fell in love with the Renaissance. I was a sophomore at Kenyon. Walking into those lectures was like walking into a different world. We were taught to look at art with a “period eye,” in other words, to try to see a work of art as it might have been seen in the time it was made. We discussed political history, economic history, social history, but at the center, always, was close analysis of an art object. Those classes taught me how to be analytical and rigorous, and, though it’s a cliché, they taught me how to see. It doesn’t need to be Renaissance art doing this kind of teaching, but for me it was. And I want others who aren’t in the field to feel the same thing I felt as an undergraduate.

As I read Panofsky again, I realize another thing he did extremely well: he held his non-specialist readers to a high standard. He expected that they would engage not just with the art, but also with the culture that made it; and his readers were tasked with considering the implications of the Renaissance on the modern world. Few art historians write like that anymore. Few art historians have the breadth of knowledge to write like that. But that is what makes Panofsky’s work so unique and poignant even now, more than seventy years after the publication of “Renaissance and Renascences.”


 “Renaissance and Renascences” and “Artists, Soldiers, Positivists” were published in the Spring, 1944 issue of the Kenyon Review, volume 6, no. 2.

Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art was published in 1960 by Harper and Row.

On Panofsky’s correspondence with Ransom, see: Marian Janssen’s The Kenyon Review 1939-1970: A Critical History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), pages 148-149.

The obituary mentioned is: H. van de Waal, In Memoriam Erwin Panofsky, March 30, 1892 – March 14, 1968 (Amsterdam: Noord-Hollandsche U.M., 1972).

“Do we still need a Renaissance?” is a chapter in Keith Moxey’s book Visual Time: The Image in History, published in 2013 by Duke University Press.

The Rebecca Zorach quotation comes from her introduction to Renaissance Theory, edited by James Elkins and Robert Williams, published in 2008 by Routledge.