The following interview was originally printed in the February 27, 2010 issue of “Gateway”.
You’ve taught at Pratt for 26 years. What do you hope to pass on to your students?
Above all, I hope students leave my class with a love of earlier art that may be different from their own and a curiosity to learn more. I also would like to foster an appreciation of sustained thoughtful engagement with the ideas behind art and an awareness of the layered complexities that determine artistic intentions and interpretations.
Your research focuses on 19th century German art. What drew you to this topic?
I became interested in this area because of its obscurity. Very little research had been done among English-speaking art historians because few read German fluently. What little I initially knew— paintings by Caspar David Friedrich and Adolph Menzel—encouraged me to discover more. Because of my background in classical music, I already admired German culture, which I wanted to extend to knowledge about the visual arts. Even today, few schools teach this subject.
You’re writing a book on the printmaker Max Klinger.
My work on Max Klinger focuses on his activity as a graphic artist during the 1870s and 1880s and his contribution to German modernism. The book is based on articles I have written that contextualize his prints and drawings within developments of Wilhelmine culture—especially science and the social sciences. Chapters are devoted to Klinger and
evolutionary biology, psychology (he was fascinated with hypnosis and dream interpretation), anthropology and mythology, and sociology (issues of urban crime and prostitution). Much of the material comes from the popular visual culture of his era.
You participated in several of the events commemorating the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth last year.
My publications on Darwin, which began in the 1990s, investigate his impact on nineteenth-century German and Austrian artists through the writings of Ernst Haeckel, Germany’s leading evolutionary zoologist. I have always been drawn to interdisciplinary topics and to understanding how artists (and art historians), as laymen, make use of difficult scientific information. In the case of Haeckel, science was also integrated with religion and spiritualism. For the
recent 2009 anniversary, I’ve published essays on Haeckel, Gustav Klimt, and Alfred Kubin for an exhibition catalog at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt; on German art, evolution, and Schopenhauer for an anthology on Darwin and visual culture; and have given a paper on the Viennese art historian Alois Riegl for a Darwin symposium at the Courtauld
Institute in London.
You once curated an exhibition on Pratt. What’s most intriguing about Pratt’s history?
What I found to be most striking about Pratt’s early identity in the 1890s was its holistic nature. The school’s motto was “unity in diversity,” and this led to an integration of art with a social mission and a curricular emphasis on interconnectedness between art, art history, the applied arts, and art education. Pratt’s required introductory course on composition was premised on the belief that principles of good design, and an understanding of color and form, undergirded all art. Those very same ideas were emphasized in the recent Bauhaus exhibition at MoMA.
What do you do for fun?
My family would say, “what fun?” I love to cook, watch movies, read mysteries, and root for the Yankees.