Edgar Marcel Wind (1900–1971), historian and theorist of art and culture, was born in Berlin on 14 May 1900, the son of Maurice Delmar Wind, a well-to-do Argentinean merchant of Russian Jewish origin, and his Romanian wife Laura Szilard. Wind grew up in a cosmopolitan and polyglot environment.
From 1906 to 1918, Wind attended the Kaiser-Friedrich-Schule in Charlottenburg, and also benefitted from his father’s remarkable library.
In 1918, Wind enrolled at the University of Berlin, where he studied classics, philosophy and art history under the supervision of Adolf Goldschmidt. There, he also attended the lectures of the Protestant theologian and social historian Ernst Troeltsch and the neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer. On one occasion, Wind travelled to Munich to attend a lecture on Rembrandt delivered by Heinrich Wölfflin.
In 1919, Wind spent a term at the University of Freiburg, where he attended the lectures of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and another term at the University of Vienna, where he attended those of Julius von Schlosser, Josef Strzygowski and Max Dvořák. In the same year, Wind moved on to the University of Hamburg, where he wrote his dissertation under the supervision of Erwin Panofsky (becoming his first pupil) and of Cassirer, who in the meantime had become a professor at that university.
In 1922, Wind obtained his doctorate with a thesis titled Ästhetischer und kunstwissenschaftlicher Gegenstand. Ein Beitrag zur Methodologie der Kunstgeschichte, examined by Panofsky and Cassirer. Wind published only a portion of his dissertation, which contained a theory that he would later develop. In his thesis, he argued that in an aesthetic judgement there are no objective criteria. He also pointed out that a work of art is created for a purpose, which should be understood if the artwork is to be fully appreciated. In his thesis, Wind’s break with formalism was not yet complete; however, he was already raising questions about the postulates on which formalism rested. After achieving his doctorate, Wind returned to Berlin and set to work preparing the paper required for his habilitation.
In 1924, Wind met Aby Warburg for the first time in Hamburg, after Warburg had been decommissioned by the Kreuzlingen clinic. In March, Wind left for the United States, where he remained until 1927.
In 1925, after briefly teaching French and Mathematics in New York high schools, Wind was appointed Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he remained for two years. During this time, he acquired a knowledge of, and an interest in, the American tradition of pragmatist philosophy, which had a considerable effect upon his later reflections. Relevant in this sense were his readings of the works of Charles Sanders Peirce. At this same time, Wind published a series of articles and reviews on philosophical topics. During this first American period, he met his first wife, Ruth Hatch, to whom he was married from 1926 to 1934.
In 1927, Wind returned to Hamburg, where he met Warburg for a second time. Warburg was so impressed by Wind that he stated: ‘Ich vergesse immer daß Sie [Wind] ein geschulter Kunsthistoriker ist; Sie haben es ja so nett mit dem Denken’ (‘I always forget that you are a trained art historian. You know how to think so nicely’). At the end of 1927, Wind became Warburg’s personal research assistant at the Bibliothek Warburg. Although Warburg died two years later, the relationship played a decisive part in Wind’s intellectual path.
In 1930, after Warburg’s death, Wind delivered a lecture on Warburg’s concept of Kulturwissenschaft at the Congress of Aesthetics, organised by Cassirer and Warburg. This paper, titled Warburgs Begriff der Kulturwissenschaft und seine Bedeutung für die Ästhetik and published the following year, is Wind’s first attempt to reconstruct the significance of Warburg’s research. In 1930, following the completion of his Habilitationsschrift Das Experiment und die Metaphysik, Wind became a Privatdozent at the University of Hamburg. The subject of his inaugural lecture was Untersuchungen über die Platonische Kunstphilosophie. Fundamental here is Wind’s notion of embodiment – the conceptual relationship between a pragmatist revision of Immanuel Kant and a Warburgian understanding of the symbol. This is one of the ways in which Wind reinterpreted Warburg’s notion of Pathosformeln. In this period, Wind’s interest in art coexisted with his research on the philosophy of science.
In 1931, the Warburg Institute organised a series of lectures on England und die Antike, in which Wind presented a talk.
In 1932, Wind reworked the lecture he gave in 1931 at the Warburg Institute and published it in Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg with the title Humanitätsidee und heroisierte Porträt in der englischen Kultur des 18. Jahrhunderts. The text, which is based on the philosophy of David Hume, deals with the rival schools of portraiture headed by the eighteenth-century English painters Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Making full use of his philosophical training, Wind examined the theoretical presuppositions of both artists and placed their works in their historical context.
In 1933, soon after Hitler came to power on 30 January, Wind was dismissed from his post at the University of Hamburg. Due to Nazi antisemitism, the removal of the Bibliothek Warburg from Germany became an urgent necessity, and Wind played a decisive role in negotiating the transfer of Warburg’s library to London. At first, Fritz Saxl succeeded in finding a second home for the library in Leiden, but the funding available could not guarantee the transfer. In June, however, Wind was introduced in London by his relative Ernest Franklin to a network of supportive figures, including Philip Hartog, C. S. Gibson (Secretary of the Academic Assistance Council), W. G. Constable (Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art) and Denison Ross (Director of the School of Oriental Studies). Soon after, Samuel Courtauld offered financial support to move Warburg’s library to Thames House in London and maintain it for three years. In this period, Wind met Maurice Bowra for the first time. Afterwards, Wind also met Isaiah Berlin in London, who, together with Bowra, helped him to establish the chair of art history at the University of Oxford in the 1950s.
In 1934, Wind became Deputy Director of the Warburg Institute, a position that he held until August 1939, and Honorary Lecturer in Philosophy at University of London, University College (now University College London). In this period, the Warburg Institute organised a series of lectures on broad themes, first at Thames House and then at the Imperial Institute building. For example, Niels Bohr delivered a talk on ‘Some Humanistic Aspects of the Natural Sciences’, and Johan Huizinga lectured on ‘The Cultural Function of Play’.
In 1937, Wind became founding editor with Rudolf Wittkower of the Journal of the Warburg Institute, in which he published his first iconographical studies of Renaissance works of art. In this period, he began to work on Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura and on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, respectively. These studies contributed to the relationship between religion and anthropology, and are in line with the work The Golden Bough by the Scottish social anthropologist and folklorist James George Frazer.
In 1939, Wind accepted the changing of the journal’s title to the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes and the accession of T.S.R. Boase and Anthony Blunt to its board of editors. Wind continued to work as an editor of and contributor to the journal until 1942. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Wind went on sabbatical leave to St. John’s College, Annapolis, in the United States, at the invitation of Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr, two scholars whose reforming approach to education he sympathised with. Soon after his arrival in the United States, Wind gave three lectures at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library in Washington, DC. After the fall of France, he received a cable from Saxl, Wittkower and Gertrud Bing, asking him to remain in the United States in the interests of the Warburg Library.
In 1940, Wind held the temporary position of Lecturer at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and gave the Trowbridge Lectures on Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo at Yale University. In this period, he also held lectures at numerous other institutions, including the Frick Collection, Harvard University, Columbia University, Princeton University and Chicago University. In 1940, Wind met Margaret Kellner, the daughter of the physicist G. A. Hermann Kellner. She became his research assistant, and they married in 1942. As his literary executor after 1971, she played a pivotal role in the posthumous publication of Wind’s papers.
In 1941, Wind held a course on English art at the Pierpont Morgan Library.
In 1942, Wind studied the mythological paintings of the Jarves Collection, and was invited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to deliver the lecture series ‘The Tradition of Symbols in Modern Art’. In these lectures, Wind applied his historical method to twentieth-century art, including the works of the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew. In the autumn, Wind became Professor of Art at Chicago University. Here, he assisted the Chancellor of the University, Robert Hutchins, in developing experimental and interdisciplinary approaches to teaching as part of the newly founded Committee on Social Thought.
In 1944, Wind left Chicago University to take up the temporary position of Neilson Research Professor at Smith College, Northampton, MA. Meanwhile, he continued to work on Michelangelo’s lost designs for the Julius Tomb and the Medici Chapel.
In 1945, Saxl arrived in the United States for the first time with the purpose of finding support for his project of an encyclopedia of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Wind shared Panofsky’s concerns about this project, and openly expressed his doubts about the direction of the Warburg Institute. The two scholars disagreed over academic projects, staffing policy and the hierarchical structure that the Warburg Institute had adopted after its incorporation into the University of London. After a long discussion with Saxl, Wind severed his old link with the Warburg Institute. Correspondence with Kenneth Clark at the time of Saxl’s death in 1948 reveals shared concerns that the Warburg Institute would inevitably become ‘an ordinary learned body’, while ‘Warburg himself used to feel that certain phases of his work might not be at their best if they became codified in an orthodox fashion’. Wind believed that his decision to stay true to the idea of Kulturwissenschaft by resigning from the Institute would have had Warburg’s approval, relying on his own sense of their particular closeness in approach and understanding.
In 1948, Wind became an American citizen. At Smith College, he held a series of lectures on Plato and the Platonic tradition, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Renaissance and Reformation iconography (considering, for instance, Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald and Hans Holbein), and eighteenth-century English art. He worked on Raphael for his Colver Lectures at Brown University, and wrote a rough draft on Raphael’s School of Athens, dealing with the philosophical sources of the fresco. He also published a controversial article on the Feast of the Gods by Giovanni Bellini, and wrote more extensive drafts for his work on the theological sources of Michelangelo’s opus, on which he published three articles.
In 1949, during the summer, Wind spent several weeks in Europe. Starting from this year, he gave occasional readings for the BBC’s Third Programme.
In 1950, after completing a text on the revival of Origen in the Renaissance, Wind went to Rome and remained there until September 1951. During this period, he wrote the first draft of a 121-page typescript on Raphael’s School of Athens, which he never published.
In 1951, in Rome, Wind met Bowra (the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford), who invited him to teach art history at the University of Oxford.
In 1952, Wind held three radio broadcasts on Leonardo da Vinci for the BBC’s Third Programme. The first lecture was dedicated to mathematics and sensibility, the second to The Last Supper and the third to Leonardo as a physiognomist. The transcripts of these lectures were published in The Listener without his knowledge or approval.
In 1954, Wind was invited to give the Chichele Lectures at All Souls College, University of Oxford, and chose as his subject ‘Art and Scholarship under Julius II’. The talk dealt with Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s paintings in the Stanza della Segnatura and on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, respectively.
In 1955, Wind was appointed Professorial Fellow at Trinity College, University of Oxford. Here, he fulfilled the difficult task of establishing a new discipline – art history – in a conservative institution. In order to promote a cultural and historical approach to the study of art, as distinct from the curatorial perspective of the Ashmolean Museum, Wind established a new department with its own research library. He gathered a noteworthy collection of books – including many early editions – which, together with his own personal library, subsequently became the Wind Reading Room in the Sackler Library. The artist Ronald B. Kitaj, who studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts from 1958 to 1961, was one of those who attended and was inspired by Wind’s lectures at the University of Oxford. Kitaj showed Wind his drawings and was in turn introduced by Wind to Warburg’s serpent ritual lecture. Kitaj acknowledged the ‘very great influence’ that Wind had on his artistic career.
In 1957, Wind gave three lectures on Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee at the Taylor Institution. In October, he held an Inaugural Lecture titled ‘The Fallacy of Pure Art’ at the University of Oxford. In this paper, he exposed his conception of art history. Wind argued, probably following Nietzsche, that the interweaving between art and life is a crucial point in art history. According to Wind, the task of the art historian is to show how things that lie outside art can explain art itself, in a way more satisfying than any use of analogues.
In 1958, Wind published Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance. In this book, he elucidated the obscure Neoplatonic mysteries that inspired some of the greatest artworks of the Renaissance. He showed that some Renaissance artists were deeply influenced by the symbolism of Neoplatonic philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. He contended that Pico had used a hieroglyphic imagery so that the divine subjects and secret mysteries would not be rashly divulged. An abiding question in the book is whether Renaissance artists really had a deep knowledge in philosophy and theology. Wind’s main idea in the book is that texts and images are clarified through comparison. For this reason, he investigated the works of Botticelli, Titian, Raphael and Michelangelo in comparison with texts such as Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), Achille Bocchi’s Symbolicae (1555) and Pierio Valeriano’s Hieroglyphica (1556), which relate philosophy, literature and images.
In 1960, Wind delivered a more developed version of his first lecture on Leonardo da Vinci at the Royal Institution. Unfortunately, he never realised his planned book on Leonardo. In the same year, Wind published an essay on the Ten Commandments, which he identified in the Ignudi painted in the Sistine Chapel. He identified the source for these figures in the Biblia vulgate istoriata, published in 1471 by Niccolò Malermi. In 1960, Wind was invited by the BBC to deliver the Reith Lectures, which raised a broad series of discussions.
In 1963, Wind published his Reith Lectures as a book with the title Art and Anarchy, in which he summarised his lifetime thinking. In Art and Anarchy, Wind investigated the causes and effects of the marginalisation, mechanisation and mass distribution of art in contemporary society. He analysed the polarities of ‘art for art’s sake’ and art engagé, and deplored the dissociation of the artist from the learned patron and the transformation of the work of art into an object of ‘interest’. All these trends, he argued, have served to tame the anarchic energies of art and dilute the imaginative forces of both artists and their audience. In Art and Anarchy, Wind chose Raphael’s School of Athens as an example of a work of art whose aesthetic enjoyment is greatly furthered by an understanding of its content and inner meaning. According to Wind, our appreciation of Raphael’s School of Athens is heightened if we possess a knowledge of the classical and Renaissance sources on which the figures are based. In this sense, he argues, the painting itself shows how texts were understood in the Renaissance. When the Reith Lectures first appeared in The Listener, and as a book thereafter, they aroused debate and criticism from art historians, who were not inclined to accept the relationship between religion, anthropology and images.
In 1965, Wind was invited to deliver the British Academy’s annual lecture. For this occasion, he presented an important part of his study on the relationship between Michelangelo and theology. The theme of the conference was the prophets and sibyls in theSistine Chapel. The text was published in the same year. The paper contains an account of the sibylline tradition in the Renaissance and an original interpretation of the Ignudi, which Wind conceives as angels. This paper, together with his earlier works on the Ten Commandments and the legend of Noah, was part of a project that Wind did not complete, which focused on the relationship between painting and theology in the Renaissance.
In 1967, Wind retired and left the chair of art history at the University of Oxford. A revised and expanded edition of Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance appeared in the same year.
In 1969, Wind published a short book on Giorgione’s Tempesta, a project that had been in his mind for twenty years. In this book, he offered an original explanation of the painting, according to which it illustrates a pastoral theme. The painting, Wind argues, is a poetic allegory that draws on a few well-attested Renaissance symbols, juxtaposed in an evocative way. The book also contains many reflections on Renaissance humanists and on the vanity of learning. It is a sort of ideal testament in which Wind seems to rethink his intellectual path. In the same year, a new edition of Art and Anarchy appeared.
In 1970, Wind visited Italy for the last time.
In 1971, he published a harsh review of Ernst Gombrich’s Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography. This was his last, definitive tribute to Warburg, who was perhaps the main muse of his research.
Wind died in London on 12 September 1971.
The significance of Wind’s intellectual legacy is still to be studied. It is above all the investigation of his archive – which contains unpublished texts of his courses, notes, projects and a very important correspondence – that is one of the tasks that scholars should undertake today. The Edgar Wind Journal wishes to be a first contribution in this direction.