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This article appeared in Volume 3 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
Erwin Panofsky. Perspective as Symbolic Form. Translated by Christopher S. Wood. New York: Zone Books,1991. Pp.196. ISBN 0-942299-52-3.
In "Perspectives on Perspective", in the May 1991 issue of SRB. I remarked that Panofsky's important theoretical contribution, "Die Perspektive als 'symbolische Form', " first published in 1927 and translated into French in 1929, had never appeared in English. For those interested (and without French or German) an English version was available in typescript on request from the Warburg Institute. In the fall of 1991 Christopher Woods's new translation was published, with an introduction by the translator, and a sufficient quantity of annotation and illustration to turn a 40 page essay into a 200 page book.
Christopher Wood does not recount the story of this text, nor the motive of the present publication, but he hints that Panofsky may have wished to forget, after about 1945, what he had written in his youth. The title in English lacks quotation marks round "Symbolic Form", and this both dilutes the specificity of Panofsky's debt to Cassirer and assimilates Panofsky to a more general "Formalism". We are not then surprised at the brevity of Wood's discussion of Cassirer in the introduction, nor at the extensive treatment of the less pronounced influences:
Panofsky... was working within a methodological framework built by the early art historical Formalists: Heinrich Wolfflin and, above all, Alois Riegl. This is not an altogether obvious point. For it was not least Panofsky's own (later) scholarly achievements that finally discredited art historical Formalism, indeed helped turn virtually the entire profession against it.
These are contentious matters, and neither this volume nor Silvia Ferretti's Cassier, Panofsky and Warburg (reviewed in SRB May 1991) settles the debate. Had there been a move within the art historical profession from formalism to semiotics or structuralism, we might now be ciEng as the fulcrum Panofsky's citation of Cassirer:
The ultimate basis of the homogeneity of geometric space is that all its elements ... are mere determinants of position, possessing no independent content of their own outside of this relation, this position which they occupy in relation to each other. Their reality is exhausted in their reciprocal relation: it is a purely functional and not a substantial reality.
This is to be found at the very opening of Panofsky's argument, and one can only speculate what might have happened in the profession had not Panofsky so drastically changed his mind. The polemical energy of his iconological studies was, perhaps, directed almost entirely against his younger seM. I take it that the unsilencing of the young Panofsky is a matter of celebration, and of consequence.