15 December 2015

German-speaking art historians who changed Britain's scholarship - Ernst Gombrich and his fellow scholars

A  couple of months ago a student asked who were the most influential art historians during my years as an under-graduate student at Melbourne University. My answer: Aby Warburg, Erwin Panofsky, EH Gombrich, Nikolaus Pevsner and Adolf Katzenellenbogen. If I had thought a bit longer, I would have added Otto Kurz, Fritz Saxl and Rudolf Wittkower. All trained at German-speaking universities!

Friedrich Saxl (1890-1948) was born to an intellectual Viennese Jewish family. He studied art history & archaeology in Vienna where he met the scholar-art historian Abraham Warburg. In 1913 Saxl joined the Warburg Library in Hamburg as the librarian, and was guided by Warburg's art history methodology. Saxl specialised in the baroque era in Vienna, then in the medieval period. After WW1 Saxl became a lecturer for Hamburg Univ­ersity. In 1923 Saxl and another Warburg exponent, Erwin Panofsky, jointly authored an important study building on Warburg's principle of pictorial themes migrating to intellectual realm.

Saxl foresaw the Nazi catastrophe for Jewish scholars, esp­ec­ial­ly for those institutions intimately connected with Jewish found­ers like Warburg. He gave fellow Viennese Jewish art histor­ian Otto Kurz a position as librarian when Kurz was banned in Aust­ria. Saxl himself con­tracted with Samuel Courtauld to move the War­burg Library, on loan, to the Courtauld Institute at the University of London in 1933. At the same time, other Hamburg scholars who were connected with the Warburg followed. Saxl, now a fine British art historian, was thrilled when the Warburg Institute was officially made part of the University of London in 1944.

The Story of Art
written by EH Gombrich
published by Phaidon Verlag London

Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) was born in Hannover in a mining family and grew up in Berlin. He was another of the great German Jewish art historians whose academic career was halted with the rise of the Nazi regime. Luckily for Panofsky, by 1934 he was teaching at both New York University and Princeton University in the USA. Natur­ally Gombrich knew Panofsky and believed his work was pivotal in the study of iconography.

Frankfurt born Adolf Katzenellenbogen (1901-64) studied art history at Hamburg under the outstanding art history lecturers Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl. His 1933 doctorate, written under Panofsky, was on medieval iconography. Katzenellenbogen moved to Konstanz University, re­searching the influence of theology on medieval iconography. His liberal polit­ical views and his Jewish religion resulted in his being locked up at Dachau in 1938. Through the intervention of an important Swiss art collector, Katzenellenbogen was freed and escaped to Britain in 1939. There he published two important mono­gr­aphs on medieval iconography, under the auspices of the Warburg Ins­titute. Through the support of Professor Panofsky, Katzenellenbogen later secured important academic positions in the USA.

Rudolf Wittkower (1901–1971) was another clever German Jewish art historian who was an expert in Italian Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture. He and his wife moved to London in 1933 to escape the arrival of Nazi Germany that same year. He taught at the Warburg Institute, University of London from 1934-1956, was appointed professor at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1949. His theory of Palladian proportions was very significant.

Fritz Saxl - Eine Biografie 
by Dorothea McEwan, 2013 
Has the book been published in English?

Ernst Gombrich (1909–2001) was born into a very sophisticated Jewish family in Vienna who converted to Protestantism before Ernst was born. His father, Karl Gombrich, was the vice-president of the Disciplinary Council of the Austrian Bar and the rest of the family was highly musical. His mother, Leonie Hock Gombrich, had been a concert pianist who studied with Anton Bruckner and socialised with Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler and Johannes Brahms. Ernst's sister was a pupil of violinist Bronislaw Huberman, later leader of the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra.

Gombrich became a student at Vienna University in 1928 where he studied under the Vienna School art historians like Hans Tietze. What illustrious circles he mixed in - Gombrich's Viennese colleagues also included Otto Kurz, who years later taught with Gombrich at the Warburg Institute.

This young man emigrated to Britain in 1936 where a museum curator introduced Gombrich to Fritz Saxl. Saxl as we noted was the director of the War­burg Institute, the institution that Saxl ran after arriving from Hamburg. Saxl assigned Gombrich a two-year research fellowship in 1936! Ernst’s Czech wife Ilse Heller was a pianist who gave up her concert career and moved instead into teaching. They had one son who became a professor at Oxford.

Gombrich assisted his parents to escape Vienna in 1938 shortly before the beginning of WW2 erupted. And as soon as the Holocaust fully under way in Nazi-passionate Austria, Ernst started acknowledging himself as an Austrian Jew. His first 15 years in Britain were not easy: for several years, as a restricted alien, he struggled to look after his young family and his parents. The flight from Austria and the war years slowed his career in art history but in one way he was fortunate - his WW2 service was spent at the BBC Monitoring Service at Evesham, intercepting and translating foreign radio broadcasts. On returning to the Warburg in 1946 as a senior research fellow with Fritz Saxl, he held various research and teaching posts until becoming its director. Amazingly he took the Warburg post at the same time that he was London University's professor of the history of art.

Ernst Gombrich
at his beloved Warburg Institute
Woburn Square, London

My favourite publishing house in Vienna was Phaidon Verlag, founded in 1922 by Fritz Ungar, Dr Bela Horovitz and Ludwig Goldscheider. They became pioneers of the international book edition with large print-runs, starting with works on literature, philosophy and history. Phaidon's large-format art books started in 1936 with fabulous plates. Given the German Anschluss of March 1938, Phaidon Verlag had to be quickly re-established as an art book publisher in London by Unger’s former partners. The Story of Art (1950), our key text as undergraduate students, was commissioned from Gombrich by Dr Bela Horovitz! This was a one-volume survey of the history of art that was republished in many languages.

Gombrich was appointed to the Slade Chair at Oxford University during the early 1950s and then as Professor at Univ­ers­ity College London. When Gombrich became director of the Warburg in 1959, he reorganised the institute, encouraging its scholars, especially Rudolf Wittkower, Hugo Buchthal and Otto Kurz, to teach as well as research. His career continued as the Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge, then Professor at the Royal College of Art, 1967-1968 and finally as Professor at Cornell University from 1970. What a career!

When Gombrich died in 2001, he was declared the most eminent art historian and lecturer since WW2, for under­graduates, specialist scholars and for a wider public. The Story of Art has been the introduction to the visual arts for students , while his major theoretical books, Art and Illusion (1960) etc, have been pivotal for professional art historians.

The Gombrich family home
Briardale Gardens Hampstead
note the English Heritage blue plaque, 2015 

No exceptions had been made in German and Austrian universities if Jewish parentage was involved, however celebrated the scholar. And what a terrible price those men and their families paid, not to mention the German-speaking students who had lost their learned art history lecturers. But British universities, galleries and art institutes gained the best art history minds of the decade. I can confidently say that Gombrich studied under, worked with or taught every famous art historian who left Germany and Austria for the safety of Britain!!

Many thanks to the Dictionary of Art Historians and to The Guardian obituary, written by Michael Podro in Nov 2001.


Leon Sims said...

I had that book - and I've sent your post to our son Andrew who is now living in Berlin. Love your work.

Mandy Southgate said...

It was indeed a catastrophe. I think people underestimate the cultural aspect of a pogrom / genocide. We saw it in Bosnia and we're seeing it now in Syria and Iraq. Thank goodness that these people found an intellectual home in Britain.

Hels said...


Your son is one, very fortunate man!

One of my sons (the one who lives in Europe) is passionate about history and reads widely; the other son won't read anything that is not about technology.

Hels said...


*nod* I despair that refugees fleeing from genocide will never find a safe haven anywhere :(

Germany is virtually the only nation allowing tens of thousands of refugees to survive and hopefully thrive in 2015. Perhaps Germany learned from WW2 when its best and brightest citizens were lost through either exile or death.

Student of History said...

The Warburg Institute became famous in Hamburg and then even more famous in London. Aby Warburg must have saved a lot of important lives and careers.

Mandy Southgate said...

I think it's exactly that. They cannot bear to fall in the wrong side of history again.

Hels said...


In Hamburg Aby Warburg had been interested in a philosophical and interdisciplinary focus in art history as far back as the Edwardian era. This wonderful man was joined by Saxl, Panofsky, Edgar Wind and everyone else, decades before those scholars had to flee Nazi Germany.

Thank goodness for the Warburg Institute in London!

Philip Wilkinson said...

I'm still grateful to the person who answered my teenage question, 'Can you recommend one good introduction to the history of art?' with a recommendation of Gombrich's great survey. The Story of Art opened my eyes, in all kinds of ways. Later it was Nikolaus Pevsner whose books became my various Bibles: the great German who taught us Brits (and the rest) about our culture, especially English art and architecture. Life wasn't easy for him during the war either. He got to the UK, to be interned as an enemy alien for a while; eventually he was let out and most of his family joined him. One daughter failed to escape Germany but survived if I remember correctly, discreetly impersonating a Gentile. I still consult the Buildings of England volumes (simply 'Pevsner' to all who are interested in these things) almost every day.

Hels said...


we come across learning in the most varied (and often strange) ways. I didn't remember Pevsner until I read his 1936 book "Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius". This was the first time I had seen William Morris, Art Nouveau, Voysey and Charles Rennie Mackintosh _combined_ with Frank Lloyd Wright, Adolf Loos, Walter Gropius and Otto Wagner. What an eye opener, especially for a Bauhaus fan like myself!