John Brack<br/>
<em>Portrait of Dr Ursula Hoff</em> 1985<br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
152.5 x 122.0 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Felton Bequest 1985 (AC9-1985)<br/>

Ist das Alles?


I have been devoted to Ursula Hoff ever since I met her at a time when both of us were engaged in graduate studies in the Department of Art History in Hamburg. We shared in common our being German and German-speaking. But there were also marked differences. While Ursula was – by birth – a British subject, I had spent my formative years in the Netherlands, which means that I learned a great number of languages and their literatures by translating them into Dutch, while the sciences, which mostly eluded me, supplied their terminology in the same language. As a result our relative distance from things Germanic yielded an unexpected bonus: when Hitler came to power we vanished – like other lucky ones – from German-speaking lands and were more than ready to settle in new surroundings and to come to terms with the discipline imposed, upon our speaking and thinking, by the English language. 

Until the advent of the National-Socialist regime, we had the most stimulating teachers to guide us – above all, Erwin Panofsky, undoubtedly the ‘Einstein of the Humanities’ of our age. ‘Pan’, in the early 1930s, was young, and could be both generous and acerbic. When I pleaded with him to admit me, a mere beginner, to his prestigious seminar course, he stared at me, one eyebrow raised, and said: ‘Aber das Maul halten!’ – ‘But you must keep your trap shut!’ I pleaded for permission to give at least a mini-report and suggested, when I saw that he was weakening, ‘Just ten minutes.’ Panofsky: ‘Eight.’ When the time came, I presented my eight-minute report on the influence of pseudo-Egyptian hieroglyphs on the art of the Renaissance. There was a moment of silence, and then Panofsky’s voice: ‘Ist das Alles?’ 

We had the chameleonic Karl von Tolnai (Charles de Tolnay-Tolnagy) who was undoubtedly the foremost connoisseur of Michelangelo, but who also taught an unforgettable seminar on Dutch minor landscape masters of the seventeenth century (of which the Hamburg Kunsthalle, where we were located, had a large number of splendid examples). The fascinating and enigmatic Hans Liebeschütz who dealt with transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and was so shy that he lectured most of the time with his back turned on his audience. Edgar Wind was a magician with words; he had spent a long period in America where he earned much-needed money by hand-colouring black and white films; he also taught at a Manhattan high school – ‘the best way to learn to overcome stage-fright’. Then there was at the Bibliothek Warburg the vivacious Austrian Fritz Saxl. An antipode in many ways to Erwin Panofsky; he contributed to our studies a superb knowledge of the art and literature of the Middle East. We were often informal guests at the Panofskys’ apartment, where we met and worshipped Dora Panofsky who was, year in, year out, deeply (though only passively) involved with her husband’s work (until, at the age of sixty, she broke the cocoon and emerged as a fully-fledged, splendid and productive art historian with some two decades worth of incisive publications ahead of her). 

All of those guiding us, directly or indirectly, transmitted to us, whether intentionally or not, the results of their own research, mostly in statu nascendi. The pest of ‘assignments’, of ‘survey- courses’, of ‘tests’, and of ‘grading’ had yet to be invented! Our teachers were, to different degrees, members of the so-called Warburg Circle. Aby Warburg had launched the method of Iconology with a famous twenty-minute lecture delivered in Rome in 1912, at the very threshold of the First World War. The ghastly war interrupted the systematic building up of Iconology as a discipline. Instead, German and French art historians, throughout the conflict, devoted valuable time to sterile polemics, discussing the when and where of the genesis of the Gothic style, thereby showing the obvious: that patriotism and scholarship do not mix very well. The young Erwin Panofsky, the learned Frenchman Emile Mâle, the Dutch sage J. G. Hoogewerff, more or less simultaneously yet independently of each other, spearheaded the science of Iconology as a legitimate and indispensable part of Kunstgeschichte in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Pictures and sculptures were no longer regarded as examples of stylistic development but also, and that is at the same time, as outgrowths of the interaction between literature and art. 

This Warburgian trend (which since then has asserted itself internationally) was, however, as far as Hamburg was concerned, by no means and at no time a fad that to the slightest degree narrowed down our unhampered choice of research topics. On the contrary: where doctoral theses were concerned, Panofsky gave his students an enormous freedom of choice. Ursula Hoff wrote her imaginative dissertation on Rembrandt and England; others wrote monographic studies on artists or on monuments, on beggars in art, on the ruins of Rome, and no end to it. This free choice was considered an essential part of the ultimate achievement. The ‘candidates of Philosophy’, as we were somewhat incongruously called, endeavoured to follow the high aims set by their docents. And now as the years have passed, and long after our teachers have left this earth, do we, their former students, hear – as we struggle to formulate the results of our strenuous search for nova reperta – that voice from the dark: ‘Ist das Alles?’ 

Common sense = nonsense 

I am fully aware that it is tempting to see the pre-Hitlerian past of German intellectual life through a kind of golden glow. Hamburg established its university in 1920. The reflections of our astonishingly brief didactic period which we observe in the work of the successful disciples of the Warburg Circle are anything but uniform, so that if at this point I intend to throw light upon one aspect of the scholarly approaches that were opened up to us I am far from claiming my ideas about the historical past as generally being shared by my former co-disciples at Hamburg. I only hope that Ursula Hoff will accept some of my theories as being echoes reverberating a shared past. 

Throughout my life as a teacher and student, I have tried to show, and in the first place to understand, that one won’t get anywhere in humanistic, and that is historical, research by applying common sense. The constantly shifting observations which, in our own lifetime, compel us to revise what once we may have considered unalterable tenets, should be sufficient to alert us to the fact that the changes, affecting layer after layer of the uncountable events which in their totality constitute history, impose upon us ‘the one duty we owe to history: to rewrite it’ (Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist). 

If one stays, as I try to do, within the confines of Western European history, one deals with forever-reverberating echoes of the past. One is confronted with an infinity of strands which interconnect the past with the present. Warburg, indeed, stressed the continuity of classical influences (for which he and his disciples used the German term Nachleben). He also studied the way in which classical motifs were transformed before they were appercepted to fit within a different cultural ambience. He taught us to turn from generalities to a careful observation of particulars. He admonished his students never to forget that ‘le bon Dieu est dans le détail.’ And I, being a disciple of his disciple, have increasingly felt the need to pay attention to my own petites perceptions and to discover the far-going mischief done by people who like to approach everything via their common sense. This is what Erwin Panofsky had to say in the early 1930s: 

dass die Deutung eines schwer erklärbaren weil ‘allegoriebelasteten’ Kunstwerks gerade dann am wenigsten Aussicht auf Richtigkeit hat, wenn sie dem ‘unverbildeten Menschenverstand’ besonders ‘natürlich’ ‘zwanglos’ und ‘psychologisch verständlich’ erscheint. 

[that the interpretation of a difficult to analyse work of art, because it is allegorically weighted down, will show especially then the least chance of being correct, if it appears to the sound common sense to be ‘natural’, ‘effortlessly clear’, as well as ‘intelligible from the psychological point of view’.] 

Let me, in the following, adduce a few examples of what I mean by stating in a somewhat simplistic way that ‘common sense = nonsense’. 


(a) The visitor to Stratford-upon-Avon will naturally be drawn to visit Anne Hathaway’s cottage and garden, where lavender shrubs stretch above the surrounding hedge. What did she and William Shakespeare need lavender for? Here is the historically likely answer: St Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1178) advised as follows: ‘Man, by smelling lavender (which has no value when eaten) can get rid of his lice.’ According to an English herbal of the time of Shakespeare (who in using the phrase ‘hot Lavender’ seems to suggest that it had a soothing effect on men of middle age), lavender is a ‘simple with specific vertues to combat falling sicknesse, inducing sleep and, in general, for cleansing and drying corrupt humours.’ This, I would suggest, brings us close to Anne Hathaway’s intentions when cultivating lavender in her garden. 

(b) What Anne Hathaway put between her linen was catnip rather than lavender. William Turner (d. 1586) praised the medicinal virtue of valerian, and added: ‘Some vse to lay the roote amonges clothes/to make them smell swete.’ 

(c) Tastes change with the times. We thus find, for example, in the sixteenth-century Hunstanton Household Booke, a reference to sparrows as a rare delicacy. The Mermaid Tavern may well have attracted Shakespeare and his friends by having that delicious sparrow-paste on its menu. Its consumption, however, entailed certain risks. Bartholomaeus Anglicus, in his thirteenth-century De rerum proprietatibus, cautioned: ‘Auis [viz. passer] siquidem est multum calida & libidinosa. vnde eius caro frequenter in cibum sumpta, est libidinis excitatiua [The sparrow is a full hot bird, and lecherous, and the flesh of them if taken exciteth the carnal lust] (according to a sixteenth-century translation of book XI, chapter xxxii; this sexual association was, obviously, clear to Catullus’s Lesbia). 

(d) Johann Sebastian Bach, who brought the organ fugue to unknown heights, the undisputed master of counterpoint, the master of musical rhetoric in his Inventions and in the Musikalische Opfer, in which latter Quintilian was, as it were, set to music, was – more or less in secret – a lover of Italianising arias. Bach loved ‘die schönen Dresdener Liederchen’, which in that city were performed under the guidance of Johann Adolf Hasse (1699–1783) – a great musician who was admired by Gluck and who influenced Mozart. These melodies, so alien at first to Bach’s contrapuntal tastes, apparently exercised a strong attraction on him – to the extent where Bach turned to his oldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, and coaxed him to accompany him on weekends to Dresden. We have this on the good authority of Bach’s earliest biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749–1818, who in 1802 published his Ueber J. S. Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke. Für patriotische, Verehrer ächter musikalischer Kunst, Leipzig). Here we have a petite perception from which we may learn that commonsense assumptions can frequently be misleading. Forkel, an honest witness who was personally acquainted with J. S. Bach, laments Bach’s frequent journeys from Leipzig to Dresden. He describes them as merely an ‘innocent joke’. Forkel sums up by saying that Bach would never have divulged this to any outsider, convinced that Wilhelm Friedemann (who was then about fourteen years of age) was mature enough to know what was great in art as against what was merely pretty and pleasing (was in der Kunst gross und was blos schön und angenehm war); the Bachian trips of musical enchantment can be dated around the year 1723.1See Eduard Reeser, Dezonen van Bach, Amsterdam, n.d., p. 5. 


Common sense demands that an impeccable feeling for style in deportment rejects signs of imperfection. With such assumptions we barricade ourselves against the praise some of the greatest artists bestowed upon the unfinished work of art – the non finito; the literature on this topic is overly rich.2I would list here with emphasis, Werner Körte, Das Problem des nonfinito bei Michelangelo, Römisches Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte, VII, 1955, p. 293; J. A. Schmoll, editor of a symposium, s.t. Das Unvollendete als künstlerische Form, Berne and Munich, 1959, 183 pp. (60 plates); Jurgen Schulz, ‘Michelangelo’s Unfinished Work’, Art Bulletin, LVII, 3 (Sept. 1975), pp. 366–73 (with a vast bibliography). 

(a) For the cult of imperfection we hear in a Middle English text that ‘Hector is said to have “stotid” a little’; there are many references to lisping (‘it became him wonderfully well’) and someone in Chaucer had ‘a very becoming lisp’. A stammering knight is praised for having ‘plate feete’.3See W. C. Curry, The Middle English Ideal of Personal Beauty, Baltimore, 1917, especially p. 72 f. 

(b) Every nation has the right to create and worship its own heroes. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ideally fits this role. When he was at the height of his power and influence, and when among his many court assignments he was manager of the archducal stage at Weimar, an actor by the name of Karsten travelled all over Germany with his trained poodle. Dog and master appeared in a play called Der Hund des Aubrey de Montdidier. Goethe, deeply concerned about the dignity of his office, refused permission to let Karsten appear on the Weimar stage. Karsten wrote to the Duke of Weimar who happened to be crazy about dogs; Goethe protested, saying that a live animal on his stage would be artistically degrading. The Duke ordered the play to be performed, and Goethe, deeply hurt, left Weimar and went to Jena, from where he tendered his resignation. In April 1817 the Duke made himself Intendant.4See Albert Bielschowsky, Goethe: Sein Leben und Seine Werke, vol. II, Munich, 1904, pp. 478 f. 

(c) Sir Thomas Beecham conducted Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall in London. In the first act ‘soldiers and workmen gather as the factory girls, smoking cigarettes, come out of their factory at noon. Among them is Carmen’. To enliven the scene, a donkey was driven by his master across the stage. All went well until, on one occasion, the donkey defecated onto the stage. At this, Sir Thomas turned to the First Violin and whispered, ‘I knew he was an actor – I didn’t know he was a critic’.5See Neville Cardus, Sir Thomas Beecham: A Memoir, London, 1961. 

(d) On 1 October 1808 Napoleon took the opportunity to meet Goethe, a meeting, if we can trust Goethe’s biographer, in which Europe’s ‘two greatest men’ confronted each other. The Emperor fairly but harshly criticised the poet and dramatist. As Goethe approached Napoleon, the emperor exclaimed: ‘Voilà un homme!’’ I believe the words were well-chosen and anything but flattering, for those were also the words uttered by Pontius Pilate as he faced Jesus ‘as he came forth, wearing the crown of thorns’ (St John xix:5).6See Albert Bielschowsky, Goethe II, Munich, 1913, pp. 316 ff. Pilate may well have had a short poem by Catullus (CXII) in mind, in which the poet ridicules an unknown ‘Naso’ with an intricate succession of ‘multus’: ‘Multus homo es, Naso’ [‘Naso, you are quite a man’]. In the year 1865 a life of Christ appeared under the title: ‘Behold the Man!’ (attributed to Sir John Seeley); when Prince Bismarck referred to Disraeli with the words: ‘Der alte Jude – das ist der Mann’ (1878), we may wonder whether he had Goethe – Napoleon – Pilate in mind? 


A vademecum is a book or any object to which a person of distinction may be attached for any appreciable length of time. I have yet to find a comprehensive summing up of such items and their masters. The discovery of a vademecum is in most cases a chance encounter which, by its unpredictability, may make this a worthwhile yet hazardous pursuit. A few examples must suffice: Amant in the Roman de la Rose, read the Somnium Scipionis on retiring for the night; the Duc d’Arenberg took his head of Laocoön on his journeys – a typical exemplum doloris, he thought it was the Head of Christ; Ludwig van Beethoven loved Ovid’s Metamorphoses and he asked for them shortly before he died; Bernard Berenson was accompanied life-long by a book that did not exist – The Rise and Decline of Form – a book he wanted to write and which he always talked about; Eginhard, in his Vita Caroli (chapter xxiv) indicated that Charlemagne enjoyed reading the books of St Augustine, and ‘especially those that go under the title of The City of God (‘praecipueque his qui De civitate Dei praetitulati sunt’). Winston Churchill, when ‘writing history himself … thought he was imitating [Daniel] Defoe’s “Memoirs of a Cavalier”.’7See Times Literary Supplement, 9 March 1973, p. 258. Churchill always had close on hand Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Macaulay’s History of England, Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics. Descartes owed a vademecum to memory, a poem which came to him in a dream on 10 November 1619 ‘and changed his whole life’: ‘Est et Non’ [‘to be, or not to be’] (it had appeared in a Corpus poetarum of the year 1603; as by now we know, Hamlet’s monologue is nothing but an academic disputatio ad quodlibet titled: ‘Esse aut non esse, haec est quaestio’), etc. 


For lack of evidence I vociferously doubted Man’s landing on the Moon; my Dean, innocent target of my wrath, was an intelligent physicist. He pointed out to me that scholarship can only operate if there is a rational modicum of trust in the validity of facts with which we operate; he quoted to me Nils Henrick David Bohr’s observation that Truth should be defined as ‘something that we can attempt to doubt, and then perhaps, after much exertion, discover that part of the doubt is unjustified’. Bohr once said to his students: ‘Every sentence I utter must be understood, not as an affirmation, but as a question.’ Finally, at a seminar at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, the same Bohr addressed the famous physicist Pauli: ‘We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct. My own feeling is that it is not crazy enough.’ 

It would lead too far if I would try even to highlight the fascinating history of Truth as the ultimate aim of Virtue [‘non est (Veritas) virtus sed obiectum vel finis virtutis’, St Thomas of Aquinus, Summa Theologiae II.2.qu. 109, art. 1, concl.1]. Cusanus, who in his work so often points at modern ways of thinking, said in his 1440 De docta ignorantia (I, iii): ‘quod praecisa Veritas sit, incomprehensibilis’ [But what precisely truth might be remains incomprehensible]; and we encounter once more the same sense of uneasiness in Erasmus of Rotterdam’s witty remark to Vives (Allen, 1530): ‘Aliud scribebat calamus, aliud volebat animus’ [My pen wrote something at variance with what I had in mind]. 

As we know, Plato wished to subject the arts to the dictates of the City State. Art, capable of changing man, must never be emancipated. Plato’s apprehension was justified in a sense by radically new tendencies in the art of his time, changes that overtook art in the transition of the fifth to the fourth century: a heightening of psychological awareness, a softening of the style in sculpture (the softer forms introduced by Praxiteles as compared to Phidias), a new brush-technique applied to vase painting, and, finally, the illusion created by a new discovery of depth by means of perspective devices. The result of all this is a diminishing of the ‘Sacred Fear’ which governs the soul and prevents it from excesses – the ϑεῖος φόβος. Edgar Wind, in the early 1930’s, when he was our teacher, summed up those ideas about the interrelationship of Truth and Art in a brilliant and as it seems woeful neglected essay, ‘Θεῖος Φόβος Untersuchungen über die Platonische Kunstphilosophie,’ in Zeitschrift für Aesthetik und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, XXVI, 1932, pages 343–373. In it he deals principally with Oscar Wilde’s essay in the form of a dialogue on The Decay of Lying (variously subtitled ‘An Observation’ and ‘A Protest’). ‘Lying and poetry are arts – arts, as Plato saw, not unconnected with each other – and they require the most careful study, the most disinterested devotion … ’

What in essence we get is Wilde’s exhilarating advocacy of the artful use of lying, while lashing out at ‘the careless habit of accuracy’; the gifted young liar, whom Wilde has in mind, will either fall into the careless habits of accuracy, ‘or take to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed … ’

He speaks of ‘an unhealthy and morbid faculty of truth-telling, for he begins to verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation in contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are so lifelike that no one can possibly believe in their probability.’8Zeitschrift für Aesthetik und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, XXVI, 1932, pp. 343–73. Perhaps the most valuable insight transmitted by Oscar Wilde’s Lying is that ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.’ 

William S. Heckscher, Department of Rare Books, Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey (in 1988).


1          See Eduard Reeser, Dezonen van Bach, Amsterdam, n.d., p. 5. 

2          I would list here with emphasis, Werner Körte, Das Problem des nonfinito bei Michelangelo, Römisches Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte, VII, 1955, p. 293; J. A. Schmoll, editor of a symposium, s.t. Das Unvollendete als künstlerische Form, Berne and Munich, 1959, 183 pp. (60 plates); Jurgen Schulz, ‘Michelangelo’s Unfinished Work’, Art Bulletin, LVII, 3 (Sept. 1975), pp. 366–73 (with a vast bibliography). 

3          See W. C. Curry, The Middle English Ideal of Personal Beauty, Baltimore, 1917, especially p. 72 f. 

4          See Albert Bielschowsky, Goethe: Sein Leben und Seine Werke, vol. II, Munich, 1904, pp. 478 f. 

5          See Neville Cardus, Sir Thomas Beecham: A Memoir, London, 1961. 

6          See Albert Bielschowsky, Goethe II, Munich, 1913, pp. 316 ff. 

7          See Times Literary Supplement, 9 March 1973, p. 258. 

8          Zeitschrift für Aesthetik und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, XXVI, 1932, pp. 343–73.