Art of the matter

June 10, 2010

I am grateful to the architectural historian James Stevens Curl for his overwhelmingly positive review of my book, Pevsner - The Early Life: Germany and Art ("From Bildung to buildings", 3 June). However, in his criticism of Pevsner's later architectural writing, he fails to make clear that a substantial part of the book concerns Pevsner's education and emergence, not as a historian of architecture, but of art.

The book looks in some detail at what the teaching of art history meant in Weimar Germany, at its inflamed (specifically anti-French) political context, and how Pevsner felt he fitted into this story.

In particular, it looks at the way Pevsner first began to take notice of contemporary art in his role as assistant on the Dresden International Art Exhibition of 1926 and, simultaneously, as the (very conservative) new art critic of the Dresdner Anzeiger, one of the town's two daily papers.

It was this engagement with the contemporary that stretched what had, until then, been Pevsner's preoccupation with "bad" Italian Renaissance art - the art that he and others came to call "Mannerism", and that he combatively defined in opposition to the looser definition of the Baroque (by, for example, Hans Rose in Munich).

It was also this diversion of his postdoctoral work that forced him to take a position on the Modern, a complicated navigation that left him awkwardly praising Walter Gropius as the model for the 20th century, but only for Gropius' pre-Bauhaus, indeed his pre-1914, buildings (of which there were only two). This has always been misrepresented by observers who have only known Pevsner's English writings. The fact is, while Pevsner was still in Germany, what he liked most about modern architecture was its late-Wilhelmine buildings with their sloping roofs, not the white cubes of 20 years later.

In my view, this is the core of the work.

As for Curl's small objection to the book's colloquialisms and my belief that "scruffiness goes with creativity and long hair", he fails, again, to tell the reader that his objection relates specifically to personal remarks I make in the introduction, not to the body of the book, and that these remarks come laced with self-mockery.

Stephen Games, London.

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