Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
The Schmooze

Erwin Panofsky, Example in Letters and Life

The much-anticipated spring publication by Harrassowitz Verlag of the 5th and final volume of the correspondence of German Jewish art historian Erwin Panofsky is a cause for celebration.

Devoted to the years 1962-1968 (Panofsky died in the latter year at age 75), it goes far to explain the continuing influence of the noted Hannover-born author and teacher. Panofsky’s still-available brilliant studies, such as “Meaning in the Visual Arts” from The University Of Chicago Press; “Studies in Iconology” from Westview; and “The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer” from Princeton University Press taught generations of art lovers new ways of looking at paintings. Yet beyond the books he wrote, Panofsky’s warmth, humanity, and humor made him an unforgettable friend and colleague, as the Harrassowitz volume, consisting of letters mostly written in English, amply proves.

Unlike the often waspish, catty snobbery of art historian Bernard Berenson (born Valvrojenski to a Lithuanian Jewish family), Panofsky’s wit was charmingly self-deprecating, referring to himself in a 1962 letter to the

Austrian Jewish art historian Otto Pächt as an “author whose works largely consist of typographical errors.” In 1965 he writes to his friend Meyer Schapiro about an upcoming series of lectures: “I feel like a super-annuated singer who is no longer sure whether he will or will not be able to hit the high C once more.”

Panofsky was so appreciated for his japes that it seems appropriate that one appendix of the Harrassowitz book is devoted to what he labeled as “old jokes” and “shrewdnesses” (Gewitztes). Among these is a gently teasing description of the dry Byzantinist and medievalist Kurt Weitzmann, a rare uncongenial colleague of Panofsky’s, as “Icon get them for you wholesale,” playing on Weitzmann’s main claim to fame, as a scholar of icons at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai. Also mentioned is a recollection by Abraham Pais, the Dutch Jewish physicist and biographer of Albert Einstein, to whom Panofsky once confided: “Children should neither be seen nor heard until they can quote Virgil in Latin.”

Beyond the amusing content, these letters also underline Panofsky’s rare qualities, especially in posthumous notes to his widow Gerda. In 1968 the eminent German Jewish musicologist Edward E. Lowinsky, author of “Music in the Culture of the Renaissance and Other Essays”, writes to recall Panofsky’s love for Mozart’s music, and adds:

To me [Panofsky] was the revelation that a scholar could be as true a genius as an artist.

Engage

  • SHARE YOUR FEEDBACK

  • UPCOMING EVENT

    SKY & SCULPTURE

    Hybrid: Online and at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

    Oct 2, 2022

    6:30 pm ET · 

    A Sukkah, IMKHA, created by artist Tobi Kahn, for the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan is an installation consisting of 13 interrelated sculpted painted wooden panels, constituting a single work of art. Join for a panel discussion with Rabbi Joanna Samuels, Chief Executive Director of the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan, Talya Zax, Innovation Editor of the Forward, and Tobi Kahn, Artist. Moderated by Mattie Kahn.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.