Iconology at the Movies: Panofsky's Film Theory

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Thomas Y. Levin on Panovsky's film theory from The Yale Journal of Criticism 9.1 (1996) 27-55 in which a brain in a vat finds itself being chased down a narrow, cobbled street in pursuit of the one believed to deliver it true happiness.


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    Copyright 1996 Yale University and The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights


    The Yale Journal of Criticism 9.1 (1996) 27-55

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    Iconology at the Movies: Panofsky's Film Theory

    Thomas Y. Levin

    In the New York Herald Tribune of November 16, 1936, below the involuntarilyironic headline " FILMS ARE TREATED AS REAL ART BY LECTURER ATMETROPOLITAN," one could read at some length about how "For the first timein the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art the motion picture wasconsidered as an art during a lecture there yesterday afternoon by Dr. ErwinPatofsky [sic], member of the Institute for Advanced Study at PrincetonUniversity [sic]." What made this event so newsworthy, besides the incongruous union of the plebeian medium of the movies with such an austereinstitution and famous art historian, was the rather unusual cultural legitimationof the cinema that it implied. While the study of film continues to this day tostruggle for a modicum of institutional legitimacy within the academy, in 1936the notion of any scholar lecturing anywhere on film (much less this particularscholar speaking and showing films from the collection of the Museum ofModern Art Film Library to an audience of 300 at that particular museum) wasnothing short of remarkable.1 What could possibly have motivated the recentlyimmigrated, renowned art historian and theorist Panofsky to undertake such anexcursion into the domain of popular culture in the form of a lecture entitled"The Motion Picture as an Art"?2

    The canonical account is that Panofsky was approached by Iris Barry in 1934,who was in the process of gathering support for a new Film Department at theMuseum of Modern Art of which she would later become the founding curator.For alongside architecture, which was already being established as adepartment at the MOMA following a highly successful 1931-32 exhibition, themuseum's young director Alfred H. Barr--who himself published articles oncinema in the late 1920's and early 1930's--had also announced in July 1932the plan to establish a "new field" at the museum that would deal with what hefelt was the "most important twentieth century art": "motion picture films."3When, with the help of a $100,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and$60,000 from MOMA trustee John Hay Whitney (who had also been one of themajor financial backers of Gone with the Wind), the Film Department of theMOMA officially opened in June 1935 (initially housed in one room piled high[End Page 27] with films and books in the old CBS building on Madison

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    Avenue), it was also thanks to the engagement of Panofsky, who had agreed tolend his voice to promote what was then considered, as he himself put it, "arather queer project by most people."4 This solidarity first manifested itself inthe form of an informal lecture "On Movies" presented in 1934 to the faculty andstudents of the Art & Archaeology Department at Princeton University andsubsequently published in the Departmental Bulletin in June 1936.5 "And so," as Robert Gessner notes, emphasizing the legitimation function whichPanofsky's text was meant to serve, "the respectability of the front door wasopened." Merely by speaking on film in Princeton and, subsequently, in othercontexts explicitly associated with the fledgling film library,6 Panofsky gave an intellectual (art historical) and cultural (continental) imprimatur to MOMA'spioneering move to establish a serious archival and scholarly center for thestudy, preservation and dissemination of the history of cinema. Indeed, oncethe film department was founded, Panofsky was named as one of the sixmembers of its advisory committee in March 1936, a position he held well intothe 1950's.7

    Panofsky's surprising scholarly interest in cinema is, however, not nearly aspunctual and radically exceptional as it is usually claimed to be. In fact, hecontinued to present his ideas on film in public lectures and in print long afterthe MOMA film library had become a firmly established part of the New Yorkcultural landscape. In 1937 a slightly revised version of "On Movies" appearedunder the new title "Style and Medium in the Moving Pictures" in one of theleading organs of the international avant-garde, Eugene Jolas's Paris-basedEnglish-language journal Transition.8 The "final" version of the film essay, nowentitled "Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures," was not published until1947 in the short-lived New York art journal Critique, whose editors hadprompted Panofsky to substantially rework and expand upon his earlier text.9This significant rewriting of the essay--the one later widely reprinted andtranslated--also occasioned a new round of public presentations. According toone eyewitness account, "Panofsky took such delight in the movies that in1946-1947 he traveled to various places in and around Princeton, to give histalk as a tema con variazioni. He would end by showing one of his favoritesilent films, such as Buster Keaton's The Navigator, which he would accompany with an extremely funny running commentary."10 Furthermore, Panofsky's engagement with the cinema extended well beyond the immediatecontext of the various versions of film essay and included, for example, hisdiscussion of "the 'cinematographic' drawings of the Codex Huygens,"11 his informal address at the first meeting of The Society of Cinematologists (the firstincarnation of today's Society for Cinema Studies) in 196012 and the ensuing correspondence with Robert Gessner concerning what Panofsky referred to asthe "Grund begriffe of cinematology,"13 as well as his not infrequentdiscussions of films well into the 1960's.14 [End Page 28]

    The various manifestations of Panofsky's cinephilic passion are generallyexplained as just that, simply a function of his long-standing love of a mediumalmost exactly as old as he. Indeed, in a rather autobiographical passage from"On Movies" which is subsequently dropped in later versions of the text,Panofsky says as much himself, admitting to the reader that

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    I for one am a constant movie-goer since 1905 (which is my onlyjustification for this screed), when there was only one small anddingy cinema in the whole city of Berlin [...]. I think, however, that few persons are so inveterate addicts as I [...].15

    Seemingly taking its cue from such lines, Panofsky scholarship has cast thework on film as one of his charming "intellectual hobbies and idiosyncrasies"(Heckscher), as a serious excursion on a "frivolous theme" (Lavin) or as anindex of the intellectual freedom afforded the recent immigrant by the muchless stuffy art historical discipline in the U.S. (Michels).16 Motivated at worst byan unreflected high cultural contempt for the cinema, there has thus been--until only very recently--a virtually complete lack of serious scholarly work onPanofsky's film essay in the art historical secondary literature.17 While to somedegree this is perhaps a function of art history's longstanding resistance to thecinema, the failure to engage an analysis of cinema from well within the arthistorical ranks is curious indeed.18 It is particularly puzzling given that the"epochal"19 film essay supposedly "has been reprinted more often than any ofhis other works" and only recently has even been characterized by Panofsky'ssuccessor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Irving Lavin, as "by farPanofsky's most popular work, perhaps the most popular essay in modern arthistory."20

    The seeming incongruity between the film essay's ostensible popularity and itsconsistent scholarly neglect is not only highly symptomatic but, as I shallsuggest, is in fact necessary: Panofsky's remarks on film can only maintain their harmless renown as long as they remain unread. According to aclassically Morellian logic, however, careful attention to this seeminglymarginal and inconsequential moment in Panofsky's oeuvre might wellserve--precisely thanks to its incidental and informal character--to expose theepistemic limits of his project more readily than the more carefully elaboratedworks. As will become clearer below, Panofsky's interest in cinema is anythingbut accidental. Rather, the response to the "movies" betrays unambiguouslythe centrality of a certain model of experience, a privileging of therepresentational, of the thematic and of continuity, all of which are vital toPanofsky's critical, historical corpus even as they demarcate its theoreticallimits. The cinema essay thus turns out to be of great methodologicalsignificance not where one might expect it (i.e., in the context of film studies)but rather in current art-historical debates about the aesthetic-politics of theiconographic project.

    The reception of Panofsky's film essay within the context of film theory is noless curious than that accorded it by art history. On the one hand, despite its[End Page 29] anthological "popularity" in collections of film theory andcriticism, Panofsky's essay is almost completely absent from the canonicalhistoriography of film theory.21 On the other hand, the essay has not sufferedquite the same critical neglect in cinema scholarship as it has in art history,although the very few sustained responses to the text--discussed below--arefar outnumbered by passing references to it in the form of isolated citations.22

  • Thomas Y. Levin - Iconology at the Movies: Panofsky's Film


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