Artibus et Historiae no. 79 (XL)

2019, ISSN 0391-9064

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HORST BREDEKAMP - Bernini’s Bees – Picasso’s Bulls. On the Death of the American Art Historian Irving Lavin (1927–2019) (pp. 9–10)

World renown art historian Irving Lavin, born in 1927, perhaps held the most prestigious chair in art history: the professorship established by Erwin Panofsky at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In the last volume of Panofsky’s correspondence, Lavin emerges as the preeminent talent of his generation, and it was thus only logical that after he had obtained his doctorate in 1955 and his professorships at Vassar College and New York University he was appointed as Panofsky’s successor in 1973. His defining research areas were the classic fields of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque, and above all the artists Donatello, Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Bernini. In particular, the work on Bernini has found an advancement by Lavin, which will endure.

In Hamburg, Lavin has made himself immortal as a Bernini specialist. Georg Syamken, curator of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, noticed a bust that had been in the depot of the Hamburger Kunsthalle as a work of the nineteenth century for several generations. When, in 1984, he voiced the suspicion to Lavin that it was a Baroque sculpture, Lavin was able to prove that it was the portrait of Cardinal Peretti-Montalto: a work of the young Bernini. The brilliance of the connoisseurship had been demonstrated precisely.

But Lavin’s research goes throughout the history of art and back to late antiquity. He authored fundamental publications on fifth- and sixth-century Tunisian floor mosaics, on the Duomo in Florence, on the architecture of the Baroque opera house. Then there is the great book on artistic exploration of the Song of Songs, together with his wife Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, an equally eminent art historian. And he continued to work to the end, as the following article testifi es.

Lavin was a highly influential and also argumentative scholar. He has played a similarly important role in American art history organizations like the College Art Association (CAA), as well as in the World Association of Art History, the Comité International d’histoire de l’Art (CIHA). Especially the latter was of special concern to him. He always stressed that the art history of the German-speaking world had in a way a leading role for the international repute of the field until the National Socialists put an end to it. Numerous Jewish art historians had to emigrate and the ties to international research were severed. For Lavin, who like his wife Marilyn was of Jewish origin, the standards devised by German immigrants remained an even higher benchmark. Among them were Richard Krautheimer and Ernst Kitzinger, with whom he studied as well as Horst W. Janson, who represented a concept of art history as a general visual history. On several occasions Lavin told what it meant for him as a student to have been trained by Janson to take fire hydrants and telephone poles as serious components of gestalt analysis and to perceive the entire environment as one Bildtheater that art history must accept and interpret.

Lavin eyed deconstructionism and the theoretical elaboration of art history suspiciously not, as many believe, because he wanted to preserve a conservative art history, but because he considered this tradition to be more topical and avantgarde than what presented itself as a new art history in the 1980s and 1990s. Those who were lucky enough to be invited to receive a scholarship from the Institute for Advanced Study, were able to experience that rigorous research could also be understood as an act of liberation. Lavin neither cared for conventions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art or for the borders of near and far. It was memorable, with which pride he explained the American educational institutions with their civic commitment, and at the same time appreciated everyday culture in its authentic value. Anyone who raised their eyebrows over mass culture revealed to Lavin a curiosity that is the necessary elementary determination of all research. His commentary on Panofsky’s essay on the grille of the Rolls Royce contains his own methodological legacy. His essay on Picasso’s bulls is a similar masterpiece, presenting a parforce ride through the entire history of art from cave painting to contemporary art. His passion for collecting focused equally on the work of Bernini yet also on the toaster, that curious micro-architecture whose inner glow is often disguised by sophisticated containers.

A close friendship connected him with Frank Gehry, with whom he travelled again and again through Europe. The interior of Gehry’s Berlin DG-Bank at the Brandenburg Gate, that appears as if spanned by a mighty fabric sculpture, originated from the hoods of monks in which the sculptor Claus Sluter had cloaked the mourners at the tomb of Philip the Bold around 1400. On one of their travels, Lavin had introduced Gehry to the figures of the monks, who was deeply touched and excited by the interplay of stone and matter.

Irving Lavin was the living example of the incorporating powers that the Hamburger Warburg Library had developed in relation to the most various methods and fields of research. When, by the initiative of colleagues in Hamburg, and here in particular Martin Warnke, the opportunity arose to repurchase the building of the Warburg Library, Lavin became a strong advocate for this initiative. With his death, that occurred after a short, serious illness at the age of 91, the international research community and, in a special way, the tradition of the exiled art history of the German speaking world loses a historical – professionally as well as personally broadly radiating – icon.




(Translated from the German by Uta Nitschke-Joseph)

A cut version in German appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 9 February 2019, p. 11.

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