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The contribution of émigré art historians to the British art world after 1933



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Béchard-Léauté, Anne-Françoise 


The purpose of this Ph.D. thesis on émigré art historians in Britain is not only to show how alien the concept of art history was to the British before 1933, but also to assess and qualify the subsequent practical and theoretical contribution of art historians who immigrated to Britain. These 93 art historians who immigrated to Great Britain after 1933 had a major impact on the British art world. Yet, apart from a few monographs on Sir Ernst Gombrich and Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, no in-depth study has ever been done on this influx of scholars who changed the - picture of art history in Britain and, by extension, worldwide. Part one is a biographical enquiry based on both archival and historical research undertaken in Germany, work done in various private estates and public archives in Britain - the majority of which have never been utilised before - and interviews carried out both in Germany and Britain. It addresses fundamental issues about lewishness and the arts and gives an overview of the stages of Nazi persecution of art-related professions in Central Europe. It then categorises different groups which emerged in Britain between 1933 and 1945, depending on both gender issues and the intellectual background of the emigres. Eventually, it investigates the settlement of émigré art historians in Britain. This involves an analysis of the reasons which led refugee art historians to choose Great Britain as a first exile country. It focuses on help networks, problems of subsistence in a country where art history was under-developed, internment, the role played in the war effort, "Remigration" and, finally, the institutional acceptance of different emigre art historians by British scholars. The second section of my thesis is theoretical. It investigates the intellectual reaction of the émigrés to the British formalist tradition as well as the encounter of British scholars with the Central Europeans' non-aesthetical input. After emigration, some iconographers tried to steer clear of conventional style analysis, Geistesgeschichte or any other method involving criteria based on nationalistic components. It has been noted that émigré art historians took extreme care to winnow out any ideological inflection from their work by undertaking systematic research. However, a case study of the adaptation of the two most prominent emigre art historians emphasises the diversity in this "ideological withdrawal" and demonstrates that emigration was a key factor in their intellectual development. Pevsner's adherence to Hegelian and nationalistic analysis was transformed into a broader international version so as to escape the ideological debate. On the other hand, Gombrich's rejection of systems is an exacerbated phenomenon of the detachment from Hegelian historiography. This part eventually analyses another factor which had a deep influence on the works of the émigrés, i.e. language. Emigration was an important stage in the development of art history as the transfer to a new language helped clarify the art historical terminology of the émigrés. The third part of this thesis sheds some light on the active role of emigre art historians in Britain. It includes substantial work on the influence of the emigres on the structuring of art historical education, a survey of the emigres' new attempts in museology and a study of the unprecedented input of émigré art historians in art collecting, art dealing and art publishing. This thesis shows the extent of the influence of emigre art historians both in intellectual and practical domains. In the realm of theories, the British art theorists acknowledged a need for a more scientific discipline while remaining very attached to their tradition of "art appreciation", and the same phenomenon applied to their attitude towards art-historical education. In the practical arena, the British art scene was also professionalised through this influx of scholars. This Ph.D. thesis concludes that the post-1933 emigration of art historians professionalised the British art world but that this was achieved through a popularisation of the methods and techniques originally imported by the emigres.






Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Trinity College; British Academy; CNRS.