Viennese art history and Indian art

In 2012, on the occasion of the 150th birthday of Josef Strzygowski (1862-1921), the controversial personality of this long-standing Viennese professor was subjected to a renewed evaluation in conferences. It seems undisputed that Strzygowski not only opened the Eurocentric view of traditional art history far to Asia, but also became influential in the United States of America. His obvious charisma and his openness to new areas and modern media have also stimulated many students to look for their field of work outside of Europe – in many cases long before political circumstances forced them to do so because of their Jewish origins.

An example of this is above all Stella Kramrisch(1898-1993), who received her doctorate from Strzygowski in 1919 with her “Investigation into the essence of early Buddhist sculpture in India” and was invited to Oxford in the same year through the agency of her teacher. In London she not only organized photos about Indian art for the Vienna Institute, but also came into contact with colonial artists such as the first Asian Nobel Prize winner for literature, Rabindranath Tagore, and English theorists such as William Rothenstein. Invited by Tagore to his college in West Bengal in 1920, the young Viennese art historian moved to India, so to speak on behalf of her teacher, who had promised his Indian colleague to help set up an art history institute. Due to the contacts of her Viennese professor with the Bauhaus, Kramrisch was able to organize an exhibition of contemporary art at the Weimar Art School in Calcutta in 1922. On the occasion of the centenary, this intercontinental cultural transfer was honored in 2013 at the Bauhaus Dessau with an exhibition and an accompanying publication, using materials from our institute’s archive.

Kramrisch wrote the English text for the exhibition catalog in 1922 and became the first female professor of Indian art at the University of Calcutta in 1923. The pupil continued to send her publications, now in English, to her professor in Vienna, and in 1932 she contributed the essay “Landscape, Animals and Geometric Patterns in Indian Art” for his commemorative publication. Stella lived in India until 1950 and later in the USA Kramrisch became one of the most important explorers of the arts in India, her estate is now kept in Philadelphia.

But the “Viennese School of Art History” had not only indirect, but also direct influence: as early as 1926, the Islamic-Indian architect Ing. Khwaja Ali Akhtar Ansari was working on the Taj Mahal with Prof. Strzygowski. The part of the illustrations originally attached to the text with original photos and drawings of this dissertation is partially preserved in the photo collection of our institute. The historian Kris K. Manjapra from Tufts University in Boston, who looked in our institute archive for corresponding sources in the Strzygowski estate in 2013 , is also tracing these interesting relationships between Central European and Indian science in the interwar period .

There were also contacts between Austrian and Indian art scholars at the second Vienna Art History Institute and after Strygowski’s retirement. Thus, even after 1934, the Indian publications continued to go to what was now the only Viennese institute. The related letter in the institute’s archives was signed by Rai Bahadur Daya Sahni (1879-1939). Its more famous namesake, the archaeologist and later President of the Indian Academy of Sciences Dr. Birbal Sahni (1891-1949), on the other hand, was with the numismatist of the Kunsthistorisches Museum DDr. Karl Pink (1884-1965) in lively scientific exchange.

Professor Karl Maria Swoboda, who has been teaching at our institute since 1945also dealt with Asian art and tried to bring together the traditions of the two divided pre-war institutes. In 1955 they even asked Prof. Kramrisch in Calcutta for help with the procurement of relevant books. Just recently, Ernst Gombrich’s Indian student Partha Mitter addressed his teacher’s relationship to Indian art in a lecture at our institute (‘ Ernst Gombrich and Western representations of the sacred art of India ‘).

In the last few decades and in the present, there have been and still are lively contacts between our institute and the subcontinent. In 1996, a separate professorship for “non-European art” was set up.Deborah Klimburg-Salter was occupied. Her focus is on Afghanistan, Northern India and Tibet. She has initiated several large research networks and in this context also invited Afghan colleagues to train at our institute. In 2007, Prof. Klimburg was voted Austrian of the Year by the readers of the daily newspaper “Die Presse”.

At the same time, our lecturer Ebba Koch, who is one of the globally recognized specialists for the Taj Mahal, taught . In the monsoon semester (late August to early December) 2013, our former colleague Verena Widorn finally joined the School of Arts and Aesthetics as a Visual Studies Faculty GuestJawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi held a lecture “Material, Methods and Meaning” for master’s students. During an excursion, the Indian students and their Austrian teacher visited the well-known local sculptor Ram V Sutar, and as part of a lecture, Ms. Widorn also talked about Stella Kramrisch and her Viennese roots.

The former chair of Prof. Klimburg was converted into a professorship with the title “Art History of Asia” or specified in 2013.

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