Artibus et Historiae no. 48 (XXIV)

2003, ISSN 0391-9064

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MARILYN PERRY - Philipp P. Fehl: Artist, Scholar, Humanist, Witness

His legacy resides in a long and distinguished list of art historical publications, in thousands of witty and melancholy drawings, in the microfiches of the Fondo Cicognara, and in the enjoyment of art he inspired in his students and friends. He also entrusted to us an indelible testimony of the inhumanity of Nazi Europe.

In person, he was distinguished by a quick, nervous, ironic intelligence, an engaging warmth, a sense of humor. He spoke English with a vast vocabulary and the accent of his native Vienna, absorbing ideas and parsing them with broad learning and brilliant asides. As an artist he thought in images and metaphors that enlivened his conversation and sharpened his memory. He wrote as he spoke, with wit and passion. He was never dull.

Such were the gifts that he brought to his art historical scholarship. He approached the art of the past with a very particular esprit — at once inquisitive and respectful, learned and playful, practical and yearning. An early and favorite example is a piece on the Concert Champêtre in the Louvre wherein two fashionably dressed young Venetians make music in the countryside, oblivious of two barely draped nude women nearby. Was this chivalrous? Or even decorous? His interpretation was simple, elegant, and poetically true — that the beauty of their music evoked the nymphs of the place, who are seen by us, through the wonder of art, but not by the gallant musicians who hear only their song.1

Time and again, in his long and dedicated life as an art historian, he opened our eyes to the unexpected beauty and meaning of even the most familiar works of art, drawing attention to the rocks beneath the feet of the gods (representing their home on Mount Olympus) on the Parthenon frieze, Dürer's woodcuts as illustrations of text, Veronese's impassioned defense of art in front of an Inquisition tribunal, or the playful heraldry on Bernini's Baldacchino in St. Peter's. His studies led him to Michelangelo's Vatican frescoes, Titian's Flaying of Marsyas, Rubens's Venus Verticordia, the capricci of the Tiepolos, Canova's lost statue of George Washington in the North Carolina statehouse, and World War I propaganda posters. He wrote books on classical monuments, the wit and decorum of Venetian art, and, in his final gift to us, the sculptural art of mourning in the great tombs that define the solemnity of St. Peter's — all in an inimitable literary style that invites the reader along on a journey of discovery of beauty and morality, of sorrow and compassion and delight in the company of the great artists. To review his bibliography is to marvel that one man could encompass and explore so many realms of art in one lifetime.3

Philipp Fehl's life was governed by paradoxes, which he welcomed and even cultivated. He once explained that he preferred art history to history because it is "more true" — i.e., that the artist's imagination transcends the merely factual and lifts us to a realm where we can see and experience the consequences of actions, and perhaps become better for it. It bemused him, as a Jew, to find himself engaged in explicating the greatest examples of Christian art a parallel, perhaps, to the way that Renaissance artists found insights in pagan subjects. Most of all he enjoyed the fact that he was himself an artist, and that his scholarship stood in service to the intentions of artists who could no longer speak for themselves.

Even his art was paradoxical, a unique world filled with beaked Mozartian characters (he did not like to call them birds) in 18th-century dress who confront the joys and tribulations of life with good-humored determination. They may be found, alone or in company, making a long journey in a barren landscape to a distant gallows or graveyard, or, perchance, chasing a runaway balloon or a butterfly. They have time for gentle pleasures — the flowers of springtime, a jug of wine, a narrow bed in a small room with a candle to read by — or they fret with frustration at beginning a painting or writing the first page of a book. Almost always they are accompanied by the artist's commentary, in the form of a caption that commiserates "On First Reading 'Alas, Poor Yorick'" or rejoices "Eureka!" at the
invention of the umbrella. Always they engage the viewer with an image that at once takes us out of and into our own joys and sorrows.4

So great was Fehl's respect for the art of the classical tradition and the literature that nurtured it, that he devoted many years of his life to propagating the work of two earlier historians of art, the Dutch savant Franciscus Junius the Younger (1591-1677) and the Italian bibliophile Count Leopoldo Cicognara (1767-1834). The Literature of Classical Art, Junius’s massive lexicon of references to art and artists in Greek and Roman texts, was translated and edited for modern use by Keith Aldrich and Philipp and Raina Fehl.5 His wife Raina, a classical scholar, was also his partner in the Cicognara Library Project in the Vatican Library, of which he was Editor-in-Chief at the time of his death. Impelled by the rarity, value, and general inaccessibility of the Fondo Cicognara — more than 5,000 volumes on art and related subjects collected and catalogued by Cicognara in the early years of the 19th century — Fehl organized a joint project of the Vatican Library and the University of Illinois to reproduce the entire collection on microfiches, with an updated catalogue. Thus he spent his last years in the heart of Rome, immersed in the first modern library of the history of art. Now nearing completion, the Cicognara Library microfiches offer art historians around the world immediate access to the humanistic sources that underlie their discipline.6

Central to his existence, a darkness that influenced his awareness of light, was his personal heritage as a practicing Jew who had come of age in central Europe in the full fury of the Nazi cataclysm. Deeply conscious that he had been spared when millions of others had not, he recognized a responsibility to record what he had seen. Three essays in particular are major contributions to the literature of memory of the period — The Ghosts ofNuremberg, an assessment of his experience as a young U.S. interrogator of the Nazi war criminals; Life Beyond the Reach of Hope, a memoir of the conditions of Jewish existence immediately before the war; and Mass Murder, Or Humanity in Death, a meditation on the Holocaust and the representation of mass murder in art.7 He wrote as a witness, not to delineate the horrors but to try to understand them, and to commemorate the simple humanity of those who were lost, along with a way of life that had endured for centuries. In the same spirit, to remember and if possible care for the cultural evidence of lives and communities erased forever, he and his wife founded the International Survey of Jewish Monuments (ISJM), which continues its work today.8

Many of the themes and preoccupations of Philipp Fehl's life came together in its last phase in Rome. Sheltered in the Fondo Cicognara of the Vatican Library, virtually in the shadow of Michelangelo's dome of St. Peter's, he returned to a subject with which he had lived throughout his long scholarly
pilgrimage — the role of sculpture in praising and mourning the dead. From the tender memorials of Greek stelae and the Roman cult of heroes, explored in his doctoral dissertation for the University of Chicago,9 he had moved in later essays to the funerary sculpture of Michelangelo, Bernini, Canova, and Harriett Hosmer. Now he walked, almost daily, through the greatest shrine of Christian art, considering the celebration of temporal power and spiritual hope in the tombs of the Popes in St. Peter's. As his work became known, all of the foreign institutes in Rome, in a singular tribute, invited him to present a circuit of lectures on the papal and princely tombs that would look at the entire subject for the first time. He did not live to complete the scholarly book, but the Unione Internazionale degli Istituti di Archeologia, Storia e Storia dell'Arte in Roma are to publish the lectures, in their vivacity, as a guide to the basilica.10 He will remain our Cicerone.

"The Hidden Genre: A Study of the 'Concert Champêtre'
in the Louvre", Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,
XVI, 1957, pp. 153-168.

A bibliography of Philipp Fehl's writings was published by the
Historisches Institut beim Österreichischen Kulturforum in Rom
(Istituto Storico Austriaco presso il Forum Austriaco di Cultura a
Roma) in: Philipp P. Fehl. Kunsthistoriker und Künstler
(Philipp P. Fehl. Storico dell'Arte e Artista), ed.
by Richard Bösel, Rome, 2002, pp. 103-117.

Philipp Fehl taught the history of art at the University of Chicago
(1951-54), the University of Kansas City (1952-54), the University
of Nebraska (1954-63), the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill (1963-69), and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
(1969-90), in addition to a number of visiting appointments at other

The bibliography cited in note 2 also lists catalogues and
exhibitions of his drawings. A website commemorating the art of
Philipp Fehl has been created by his daughter Katharine Fehl:

Franciscus Junius the Younger, The Literature of Classical Art:
I. The Painting of the Ancients
, London, 1683. II. Catalogus
Architectorum, Mechanicorum sed praecipue Pictorum, Statuariorum…
Rotterdam, 1694. A critical edition and translation by
K. Aldrich, Ph. Fehl, and R. Fehl, University of California Press,
Berkeley, California, 1992.

Initiated in 1988, the Cicognara Library Microfiches Project is
funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, which has sponsored the
distribution of the microfiches to selected European institutions
and the cataloguing of the titles for modern bibliographic access by
the National Gallery of Art Library. Further information about the
Cicognara Library Project is to be found on the website:

Full titles of the articles: "The Ghosts of Nuremberg",
The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 229, no. 3, March 1972, pp. 70-80;
"Life Beyond the Reach of Hope: Recollections of a Refugee,
1938-39. With a Postscript on Hope and the Humanities: Recollections
of an Art Historian", Exile and Displacement, ed. L.
Enzie, Peter Lang, New York, 2001; and "Mass Murder or
Humanity in Death (Reflections on Dürer's "Martyrdom
of the Ten Thousand" and Breugel's "Massacre of
the Holy Innocents"), Theology Today, XXVIII,
1971, no. 1, pp. 52-71.

For the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, see their website:

His thesis was published as The Classical Monument: Reflections
on the Connection between Morality and Art in Greek and Roman
, New York University Press, New York, 1972.

The proposed title is Monuments and the Art of Mourning: Tombs
of Popes and Princes in St. Peter's.

The research for the
scholarly text has been deposited with Fehl's files in the
Exil Archiv of Die Deutsche Bibliothek in Frankfurt am Main.

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