This is an unusual book. The wealth of ideas and the range of documentation it contains would have led other scholars to write a large, heavily footnoted tome. Instead, Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz practiced the utmost economy of means without in the least curbing either the boldness of speculation or the variety of the evidence they wished to present. But then these two authors were at least as unusual as was their joint work. Ernst Kris, born in 1900, was in his early thirties, Otto Kurz, born in 1908, in his middle twenties, when they joined forces. Yet their chronological age obviously contrasted with their maturity as scholars. Both of them had been intellectual prodigies.
Ernst Kris had attended university while still a schoolboy. This irregularity arose from the shortage of coal during the miseries of the First World War and its aftermath in Vienna, when his school introduced a shift system and enabled the precocious pupil to spend the mornings listening to lectures on the history of art. Otto Kurz, during his last years of school, concentrated his extracurricular activities on the avid reading of the Latin writings of German Renaissance humanists, and in fact discovered an unrecorded but telling reference to Albrecht Dürer in one of these recondite texts. Both of them became students at Vienna University of Julius von Schlosser, a man of extraordinary erudition, whom Kurz, in a moving tribute, was later to describe as a person born out of his time. He was less like the head of a modern academic department than like one of the learned abbés of the eighteenth century, happily browsing in old forgotten volumes and talking of their authors as if he had met them in the flesh. Schlosser’s reputation now rests on his still unsurpassed survey of the literature on art (1924) from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century, comprising not only lists of titles but also reflections on the biographies of artists and on the guidebooks of the past. Kris, as a student, earned the author’s gratitude by compiling the index to the first edition of that work. Kurz was later to keep the subsequent Italian editions up to date.
Without this initiation, the book in the reader’s hand could not have been written. But what led Kris to embark on this enterprise of research was connected with a different intellectual adventure. He had joined the department of sculpture and applied art of the Vienna Museum, which housed and still houses the great Hapsburg collections, and had soon turned himself into the leading specialist on Renaissance engraved gems and intaglios on which he published the standard work (1929) at the age of twenty-nine. But such connoisseurship, which gave him an entry to all collections, did not fully satisfy his inquiring mind, particularly since, through his marriage, he had made contact with the personal circle of Sigmund Freud. The first of his publications which brilliantly combined both sides of his interests was an exciting study, in 1932, on the Austrian baroque sculptor Franz Xavier Messerschmidt who had earned a reputation in his time with a large series of heads embodying a variety of character types and facial expressions. The theme was popular in the eighteenth century, but it turned out that the version produced by Messerschmidt could not be explained as a purely intellectual exercise. A psychotic streak was apparent in these grimacing heads, and, following up this clue, Kris found indeed that the master had a record of severe mental illness.
It was through his research into the biography of this Austrian sculptor that Kris came across the problem of this book—the stereotyped anecdotes and legends so frequently told about the artists of the past. Thus Messerschmidt, like Giotto and countless others, was said in an early biography to have been a shepherd boy in his youth, an unlikely story, given his social background. Similarly, the realism of one of his crucifixes had given rise to the rumor—equally frequently encountered—that the artist had crucified his model to depict his agony.
It was natural for Ernst Kris, at this juncture of his life, to look for a collaborator to investigate with him such typical traits in the biographies of artists. He needed help, because he had meanwhile embarked on a dual career. Working his full eight hours in the Museum with incredible intensity, he had also turned psychoanalyst, seeing patients early in the morning and on his return from his job. It was fortunate indeed that he thus encountered Otto Kurz, who had, as it were, been digging his tunnel from the other side of the mountain. He had discovered that a story told by Vasari about the Florentine painter Filippo Lippi was in fact lifted from an Italian noveletta and transferred to the artist whose true romantic escapades may have invited such enrichment. Though he had but recently graduated, Kurz was already known among his fellow students for his near omniscience and his epigrammatic wit. Utterly self-effacing but never obsequious, he combined the qualities of an ideal research assistant and of an uncorruptible critic.
To Ernst Kris, then, is due the profound intuition that the stories told about artists in all ages and climes reflect a universal human response to the mysterious magic of image-making; to Kurz, the ingenuity in tracking down parallels to illustrate and test the ubiquity of these motifs. Take a few paragraphs from the chapter entitled “The Artist as Magician” and admire the wealth of evidence as the argument moves with apparent ease from various Greek interpretations of the myth of Daedalus and his miraculously moving images to passages in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and on to corresponding tales in Finnish and Lithuanian mythology, and after brief references to Pygmalion and Pandora settling down to select, out of various versions current in central and Eastern Asia, a Tocharish legend about the contest between a maker of automatons and a painter.
The reader need not feel embarrassed for never having heard of the existence of Tocharish legends. Only specialists in early Indo-European dialects of Central Asia have. And yet, such mere sampling gives a false impression of the book, which is not at all intended to overawe by a display of erudition. On the contrary. The authors aimed at a new style of scholarly exposition, fully documented but without the distractions of a learned apparatus and footnotes. The difference in type size should suffice to distinguish between the structure of the argument and the supporting material. Neither every surmise nor every known fact should find a place there. The reader will notice again and again that a trend of thought is merely indicated rather than spelled out. Exciting vistas open up, but we are not to linger and explore them, for we must not lose sight of the main aim of the book—the establishment of links between the legend about the artist and certain invariant traits of the human psyche which psychoanalysis had begun to discern. Yet these central issues, as the authors stress in their joint Preface, were only to be hinted at occasionally and aphoristically. Kris did not want to commit Kurz, who was and remained basically a historian, beyond his chosen field. He rightly felt that he could and should expound these more technically psychoanalytic results under his own name and on his own responsibility. He did so in a lecture given to the Psychoanalytic Society in Vienna in October 1934 and published a year later in Imago, the journal of which he had become an editor. (It forms the basis of chapter 2, “The Image of the Artist,” of his Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art.)
If proof were needed that Ernst Kris had thus established an important connection between psychological theory and the creative imagination, it can be found in the address Freud und die Zukunft, which Thomas Mann delivered on the occasion of Sigmund Freud’s eightieth birthday in 1936. The great novelist there paid tribute to this paper, which Kris had sent him and in which Mann found a sympathetic echo of the motif of role-playing which had deeply engaged him in his biblical epic Joseph and His Brothers. Turning to this book the reader will find the notions singled out by Thomas Mann in the concluding words of the last page—the notion of the influence the stereotype has on the artist’s own life. It is all there, but as a sheer concentrate, encapsuled in a few lines of allusive prose. But is this not true of the whole book? It was only on rereading it after forty-four years that I discovered how much more there is here on every page than meets the eye.
I had joined the team when I was to assist Ernst Kris in another project which grew out of his interest in the magic power of art—a study of the history and function of caricature—while Otto Kurz was meanwhile to collect material on a major work relating to the prohibition of images in various religions and cultures. Naturally I was deeply moved to see how cordially the two had mentioned me at the end of their Preface to this book, though I really cannot remember having made any contribution to their ideas or research. What I do remember was the zest and pleasure which pervaded the atmosphere whenever I visited them after their joint sessions. There was much laughter and mutual banter as Kris would tell me about some out-of-the-way lore Kurz had got hold of, without wanting to incorporate it because enough was enough. Nor can I ever forget the deep concern which Kris showed for his younger collaborators which led him to find positions for us in the days overshadowed by the rise of Hitler.
Our mutual friendships outlasted exile. Ernst Kris, after a stay in England, settled in New York to become the respected authority on psychoanalytic theory and an admired teacher till his death in 1957. Kurz, on the recommendation of Kris, had joined the Warburg Institute, to which this book is dedicated, and after its emigration from Hamburg to London he remained there throughout his life as the indispensable librarian and scholarly oracle of that institution of learning. He died in 1975, having revised this book for a second edition by bringing the bibliography up to date and adding a number of footnotes.
E. H. Gombrich