Monday, 8 September 2014

Scholars and their Intellectual Resources: Document Spotlight from the Metropolitan Museum Herzfeld Archive

I am writing today to share an announcement and some related thoughts about the utility of archival resources for the study of Samarra and Islamic art.

First the announcement:
The Department of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is very happy to announce the online release of the first series of drawings from our portion of the Ernst Herzfeld Papers. For readers who may be new to the subject, Ernst Herzfeld was a German archaeologist who held the first large scale excavations at Samarra between 1911 and 1913. His archive is now dispersed, much like the Samarra Finds themselves, between several institutions, chiefly the Archives of the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C., the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
In August, the Met placed over 150 drawings of monuments in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Egypt made by Herzfeld and a small number of drawings made by his colleague Carl Theodor Brodführer online in a searchable database. Herzfeld published some of these drawings in articles and books, but an equal number represent alternate or pre-publication forms of the drawings and some are unpublished altogether. Researchers can access the material through the Met’s Watson Library Digital Collections Website, where a finding aid detailing the contents of the Islamic Department’s papers is also available. The Department of Islamic Art intends to eventually publish all of its holdings and next in line are Herzfeld’s watercolors and line-drawings of architectural ornament from Samarra, so stay tuned! Here is the link to the documents currently online:

Along with the announcement, I wanted to take the opportunity to spotlight a group of documents from the first released series that I found to be particularly interesting. Needless to say, there is much of interest in the Herzfeld Papers. Many drawings, for example, document buildings that have been altered or even destroyed, providing valuable data on endangered cultural resources. Others are simply beautiful to look at in and of themselves. Herzfeld’s talents as a trained architect come through strongly in his meticulous renderings of ornamental details and his analytical sections and plans. The group of drawings I want to showcase, however, is neither particularly pleasing to the eye nor contains information about a specific monument or object. In fact, they do not illustrate Herzfeld’s findings at all, but rather document Herzfeld’s interest in the work of another European scholar.

Ernst Herzfeld Papers, Metropolitan Museum of Art, eeh444

Ernst Herzfeld Papers, Metropolitan Museum of Art, eeh606

Ernst Herzfeld Papers, Metropolitan Museum of Art, eeh608

Ernst Herzfeld Papers, Metropolitan Museum of Art, eeh605

The four pages shown above are torn from an 8 x 12 cm notebook. Each contains a sketch of a vegetal motif along with Herzfeld’s shorthand notes and references to page and figure numbers. All are copied from the same source: a book written by the Viennese art historian Alois Riegl (d. 1905), entitled Stilfragen.

Stilfragen, often translated to English as Problems of Style, was published in 1893 to much acclaim. Its subtitle, Grundlegungen zu einer Geschichte der Ornamentik (Laying the Groundwork for a History of Ornament), speaks to Riegl’s ambition to encourage a new type of art history that focused on vegetal ornament: the flowing vines and blossom motifs found on column capitals and the spaces between figural scenes on Greek vases that his colleagues had largely ignored. Riegl’s theories have received a great deal of scholarly attention over the last two decades, and for more information about him and his intellectual milieu I will point readers to Margaret Olin, Forms of Representation in Alois Riegl’s Theory of Art (University Park, PA, 1992), and Jaś Elsner, “The Birth of Late Antiquity: Riegl and Strzygowski in 1901,” Art History 25 (2002). Both offer excellent analyses of Riegl's scholarship and its impact.
In addition to opening up a new field of inquiry for the discipline, Riegl’s Stilfragen also made what was at the time a bold argument: that both the Islamic arabesque and its Western-European counterpart were descended from the Greek acanthus motif, which was in turn descended from the Egyptian lotus. Throughout the text, Riegl used line drawing illustrations like the ones Herzfeld copied onto his notepads above to demonstrate the links between different vegetal elements from disparate Mediterranean artistic traditions. The result was a dense but powerful argument for the origins of an important ornamental style.
A glance at Herzfeld’s publication of the vegetal ornament from Samarra is enough to show that he was inspired to achieve a similar goal. In his Wandschmuck der Bauten von Samarra und seine Ornamentik (Berlin, 1923), Herzfeld classified the architectural fragments bearing vegetal motifs found at the site by style and, within style, by motif. Each pattern recieved a detailed formal analysis. Herzfeld's work was not simply a catalog of his finds but rather an attempt to describe the nature of the city's architectural ornament and make a case for its historical and geographic origins.
I am not the first to point to the importance of Riegl’s ideas to Herzfeld’s methodology or to the study of Islamic art in general (see Barry Flood’s essay “Faith, Religion and the Material Culture of Early Islam,” in the exhibition catalog for Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, for example). However, the evidence from the archive is significant as tangible proof of what sorts of topics sparked the interest of Samarra’s first major excavator. These documents also raise several questions of interest to Samarra studies: What did Herzfeld himself believe about the way that architectural ornament evolved over time? What about Riegl’s work particularly interested Herzfeld or resonated with his aims as an archaeologist? And most importantly, how might these ideas have affected the way that Herzfeld excavated and published the Samarra Finds?
In her article “Between East and West: The Wall Paintings of Samarra and the Construction of Abbasid Princely Culture” (Muqarnas vol. 25), Eva Hoffman asks similar questions about Herzfeld’s analysis of Samarra’s wall paintings, examining the intellectual context in which the material was published along with the resources available to Herzfeld at that time. The items spotlighted here and the light they shed on Herzfeld's intellectual background suggest that her line of inquiry might be fruitful for the carved stucco from Samarra as well.
Such archival snippets allow us to understand some of the intellectual resources Herzfeld had at his fingertips when processing and publishing his own archaeological finds. They thus provide insight not only into the history of Islamic art, but also into the history of the history of Islamic art.

Matthew Saba
Mellon Curatorial Fellow, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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