Sketches on the science of style

Pevsner on Art and Architecture
February 21, 2003

Christopher Woodward looks at the UK's best-known architectural historian.

Britain's best-known architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, was born in 1902 in Leipzig, where he studied and gained his doctorate. He worked first as assistant keeper in Dresden's art gallery, then as lecturer in medieval and later art history at the University of Gottingen. He left Germany for England in 1933 and gradually established himself in journalism, art and architectural history. From 1942 until 1959 he was lecturer in the history of art at Birkbeck College, London. He was then appointed professor of the history of fine art, holding the chair until 1967. While at Birkbeck he was also, on separate occasions, Slade professor of fine art at both Cambridge and Oxford universities.

The gift that Pevsner and his fellow émigrés, such as Rudolph and Margot Wittkower and Ernst Gombrich from Vienna, brought to England in the 1930s was rigorous continental art history. Of the various schools of German art history, rather than Aby Warburg's anthropological approach, Pevsner inclined to the "scientific". Motifs and usages common to a group of art objects are identified and classified; together these motifs constitute a capitalised Style. Styles succeed one another and, while they both represent and are products of their times, they can be discussed quite independently of the social, economic and cultural circumstances in which they emerged. While this method may now be regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned, it did require its practitioners to look closely at their material, and Pevsner's extraordinarily developed ability to see, observe, record and describe his material was one of his greatest strengths, and a reproach to many of today's scholars and critics whose material is primarily textual.

The radio talk has all but disappeared, confined now to the intervals of concerts broadcast on Radio 3, but in the 1940s it was a staple of the BBC's Reithian mission, and transcriptions were duly published in The Listener . The present volume is a selection of the transcriptions of just over half of the 100 or so talks Pevsner is known to have given on the BBC Home Service and Third Programme between 1945 and 1977. The first, "The rise of academies", broadcast on the Home Service, lasted 14 minutes. It was characteristically polemical, describing the establishment and history of the Royal Academy and criticising its failure to encourage the bold, young and new. The subsequent talks demonstrate Pevsner's extraordinary range of interests and knowledge of architecture: "Goethe and architecture": "King Ramiro's churches"; "Baroque painting in Italy" and, dealing with theory rather than object, " Reynolds' Discourses ".

Set in this mélange are four more substantial groups of talks, including the series of seven meaty Reith lectures broadcast in 1955 and published separately in 1956 as The Englishness of English Art . Here, for once, while discussing the possibility of identifying national characteristics in art, Pevsner allows his usually simple and moralistic testing of artistic production against the Zeitgeist to engage with very Hegelian contradictions. Rather than an emergent property or a set of characteristics, the Zeitgeist figures as the culture in which disputes must be engaged. Elsewhere and repeatedly the simpler version predominates, the version parodied by later scholars, often his former students. Pevsner berates the architects of the Victorian period for what he terms their "historicism": their failure, compared with their engineer colleagues' success, to shape up to the brisk demands of the spirit of the age. This did not stop him, however, from championing the work of Victorian architects such as William Burges, William Butterfield and George Edmund Street, and from becoming founding co-chairman of the Victorian Society in 1958.

Two of the most poignant talks record the crumbling of Pevsner's framework of 20th-century architectural history. In "The return of historicism", given in 1961, he reacts to the outbreak of wilfully plastic architecture that was blossoming across the US and Europe. He is particularly baffled and more than a little irritated by Eero Saarinen's curvilinear bird-shaped TWA Terminal Building in New York of 1956-62, and by James Stirling and James Gowan's aggressively angular Leicester University Building, 1959-63.

If there was a culprit for what Pevsner saw as a revival of expressionism, then it was the maverick Le Corbusier who in 1955 completed the pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp. Five years later, in the 1966 talk "The anti-pioneers" and on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the first publication of his Pioneers of Modern Design , Pevsner had begun to resign himself to the work of younger scholars such as his Birkbeck pupil Reyner Banham, whose Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) had first shown that the unitary style of the modern movement in architecture had far stranger and more complex origins than Pevsner and his contemporaries had allowed. Pevsner, though, felt jaunty enough in his talk to offer a sketch of an alternative history to his own in which modern architecture was portrayed as a short-lived aberration that had stifled the development of art nouveau and expressionism.

These were not essays but talks, and much of the contrived conversational tone survives in their transcription. If any original recordings still exist, a generous publisher might have included a few of them on a CD-Rom.

The present volume is a selection rather than a complete edition; while it does not aspire to scholarly apparatus, this is surely what the material deserved. Such an edition could also have told readers whether the various small errors in the text were, perhaps interestingly, Pevsner's own, or if they were inexcusably introduced by the editor or publisher.

Christopher Woodward was formerly senior lecturer in architecture, University College London.

Pevsner on Art and Architecture: The Radio Talks

Editor - Stephen Games
ISBN - 0 413 71220 6
Publisher - Methuen
Price - £20.00
Pages - 357

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