Max Dvořák and the Vienna School of Art History

To mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Max Dvořák the Institute of Art History of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague is staging a conference in 2021 on the legacy of the Vienna School of Art History. Click here for the call for papers.

Max Dvořák (1874-1921) was a pioneer of what has subsequently been referred to as ‘art history as the history of ideas’ (Geistesgeschichte). Where art historians had previously been primarily concerned with the evolution of art’s formal languages (the history of style) or with purely factual information about the production of artworks and the lives of the artists who made them, Dvořák sought to anchor the interpretation of artworks in an understanding of the broader cultural and intellectual currents of their time. He stopped short of espousing a social history of art, but he certainly saw the importance of cultural history for the analysis of works of art. Dvořák has since been criticised for relying too much on vague generalisations about the history of ideas as the background to art, but there is no denying that his essays and lectures, especially those published posthumously in the volume Art History as the History of Ideas (Munich, 1924), were enormously influential on younger generations of art historians, who sometimes argued with each other over how best to preserve his legacy.

Portrait of Max Dvořák by Anton Kolm

Photo of Max Dvořák by Anton Kolm – Wikimedia Commons

Dvořák was also an exemplar of the cultural and political contradictions of the Habsburg Empire. His father, Max (1843-1909) was an archivist at the palace of Roudnice nad Labem, northwest of Prague, for the House of Lobkowitz, one of the oldest noble families of Bohemia. Originally intending to follow his father, Dvořák initially studied History at the recently created Czech-language university in Prague, and his earliest scholarly writings in the 1890s were for the Český časopis historický (The Czech Historical Journal), where he published a number of archival sources. However, in 1894 he moved to the Institute for Austrian Historical Research, where he encountered the chair art history, Franz Wickhoff (1853-1909) (at that time the Department of Art History was a sub-section of the Institute).

In 1904 he habilitated in art history under the guidance of Wickhoff, on the basis of a study of Hubert and Jan van Eyck.[1] In 1905 he was appointed Extraordinary Professor in Art History and also, following the death of Alois Riegl (1858-1905), the previous postholder, General Conservator of the Central Commission for the Investigation and Conservation of Architectural Monuments. His appointment as Associate Professor caused uproar in the conservative German-speaking press and was even debated in the Austrian parliament. It was argued that it was inappropriate for a Slav, who spoke with a discernible Czech accent, to hold such a prestigious post in the oldest German-speaking university (it was founded in 1365). Despite the negative campaign against him, he retained his appointment, and was even elevated to full professor four years later in 1909, when Wickhoff passed away.

Hubert and Jan van Eyck: The Ghent Altarpiece

Hubert and Jan van Eyck: The Ghent Altarpiece, before 1432, St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent – photo: Wikimedia Commons

A focus for resentment amongst German-speaking nationalists at the social and political advancement of Slavic speakers in Austria, Dvořák’s career nevertheless flourished and he became a much admired teacher and public speaker. He was also a loyal Austrian citizen. In 1919, when the Italian government tried to take advantage of Austria’s defeat to appropriate significant parts of the art collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Dvořák published a letter denouncing the willingness of Italian art historians to collaborate in the enterprise.[2] Sir Ernst Gombrich later described recalling the sense of shock at home when his father announced Dvořák’s unexpected death of a stroke, such was the latter’s status as a public figure.[3]

Dvořák’s acceptance and success in Vienna also inspired younger scholars from elsewhere in the Habsburg Empire seeking wider international recognition, and he became important as the teacher of a number of pioneering art historians from the Czech lands and beyond. His students included Zdeněk Wirth (1878-1961), one of the leading art historians in post-independence Prague, Eugen Dostál (1889-1943), the first professor of art history of Masaryk University in Brno, as well as the Slovene Vojeslav Molè (1886-1973) who had a distinguished career at the Universities of Ljubljana and Cracow.  Yet when, in 1918, attempts were made to lure him to Prague in the new Czechoslovakia, Dvořák declined. He had, in fact, already been turned down for a chair in art history in Prague in 1903, and the authorities of the Czech-language university had, it seems, regretted their decision, since they subsequently tried to create a chair for him.[4] However, Dvořák then became established in Vienna and despite the opposition, opted to remain there, until 1921. It is not difficult to guess why he decided to stay; in addition to the fact that his family was settled in the city, Vienna, though diminished after 1918, had artistic and scholarly resources that far outstripped those of Prague. Maybe, too, like many others, Dvořák had an emotional bond to the former metropolis of the defunct Habsburg Empire; in any case, he showed limited academic interest in Bohemian and Czech art, and in some nationalist circles was viewed with suspicion as not being sufficiently patriotic.

In certain respects we may see him as the mirror image of his slightly older contemporary, the architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933). Like Dvořák, Loos, who came from Brno, was born in a place that would, after 1918, become part of Czechoslovakia. Like Dvořák, too, Loos was a prominent figure in the intellectual life of pre-1918 Vienna.

Max Dvořák's grave in Vienna's central cemetery

Max Dvořák’s grave in Vienna’s central cemetery photo: Matthew Rampley

Yet in contrast to the art historian, Loos opted to take on Czechoslovak citizenship. He felt that the new Austrian Republic had little to offer him, a pioneer of modernist architecture. Yet he continued to be active in Vienna and was eventually buried in the city’s central cemetery. Dvořák, in contrast, was buried in Czechoslovakia, in the small border town of Hrušovany nad Jevišovkou, where he died in February 1921 whilst visiting his friend and former student Karl Friedrich Maria Graf Khuen-Belasi. For all the differences between the architect and the art historian they are bound by one connection: Loos designed a mausoleum for Dvořák in 1921, although it was never built.

Comparison of these two figures – and others could be brought into the discussion, too – illustrates the kinds of choices many faced in 1918 when the political boundaries were redrawn. Older identities and loyalties were no longer relevant or possible. In assessing the legacy of Dvořák, the conference will explore not only his intellectual and impact, but also the light he casts on the complex cultural, social and political aftermath of the fall of Austria-Hungary.

Matthew Rampley

[1] Max Dvořák, ‘Das Rätsel der Kunst der Brüder van Eyck,’ in Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhochsten Kaiserhauses 24 (1904) pp. 161–317.

[2] Max Dvořák, ‘Ein Brief an die italienischen Fachgenossen,’ in Hans Tietze, ed., Die Entführung von Wiener Kunstwerken nach Italien: Eine Darlegung unseres Rechtsstandpunktes (Vienna, 1919) pp. 3-9.

[3] Sir Ernst Gombrich, in conversation with Richard Woodfield. I am grateful to Richard Woodfield for this information.

[4] Jindřich Vybíral, ‘Why Max Dvořák did not become a Professor in Prague, Journal of Art Historiography 17 (December 2017).

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/E25GN

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