The Barbarians and Art History

By Henry Hopwood-Phillips


Eric Michaud’s The Barbarian Invasions: A Genealogy of Art (2015, trans. 2019) provides a compelling account of art history’s origins tagged onto an odd mélange of muddled thinking about late antiquity. It’s a narrative that can be caricatured as “[Walter] Goffart lite,” an outdated, hackneyed sketch of the Germanic invasions that triggered the so-called “Dark Ages” in traditional historiography.

To describe nineteenth-century art criticism as racist is uncontroversial. Most would ground its prejudices in an attempt to play catch-up with various baleful scientific hypotheses. Michaud, however, prefers a subtler approach and detects its original sin: namely, the discipline’s decision to model itself on the life sciences, a project that claimed to name, describe and classify its objects as living beings, assimilating artistic creation to a natural process.

Starting with the unfortunately named Roger de Piles (d. 1709) who—along with most mainstream critics—organized art into schools, Michaud pinpoints several historical junctions at which there was an obvious semantic fettering of taste, manner and style to the idea of a nation. This slow but steady trend meant that by the end of the eighteenth century it had become uncontroversial to claim an artist’s manner hinged on functions (his physique or hand, for instance) that lay within the remit of his ethnos, rather than a component of his personality or formal training.

This new taxonomy based on national characteristics stood on shaky foundations, however. In Michaud’s words, “Was it place of birth that determined the presence of a given painter in a national school or rather the place where an artist worked and expressed his talent? Which habits and customs were prioritized: primary education or later study (often carried out far from the land of birth)?” Where artists fitted within such a framework amounted to a parlor game because sophistry, rather than any fixed principle, governed.

The same issue afflicted nations themselves. As peoples wriggled into various rankings, so the rules of victory shifted. Some reckoned an absence of an ethnic character, which lifted French works into a cosmopolitan gaiety and thereby placed France at the top of the pile. Others believed it was the ability of a nation to bypass history and connect with the tastes of antiquity that bestowed hegemony. As sharp elbows materialized, patriotism ramped up a gear, to the extent that de Piles’ English translator felt able to write that

“Had we an Academy we might see how high the English Genius would soar, and as it excels all other Nations in Poetry, so no doubt it would equal, if not excel, the greatest of them all in Painting.”

Amidst such games (where discourses found themselves probed for metrics that would secure home nations the “correct” grades), some lone wolfs refused to play. Anne Claude de Caylus, for instance, detested the essentialism taking root. He argued that history was so chaotic, mankind so “weak and imitative,” influences and exchanges so fluid and disordered, that claiming any sort of national purity was absurd and puerile.

Yet the puerile proved stubbornly popular in large part thanks to Johann Winckelmann who played a considerable role in establishing an intimate and organic link between a people and its art so that the latter was no longer a social activity but a peculiarly natural function; a necessary expression; an outer form deterministically conditioned by the (ethnic) spirit that animated it. Instead of self-mimesis infecting the individual painter’s work (as Leonardo da Vinci had bemoaned), Winckelmann argued it impaired entire nations.

In such a topsy-turvy world, the artistic schools were, according to Henri Fortoul, reduced to “the various manners in which the different races understand and practice art,” a position that reduced the critic to arguing that Italians, who had historically referred to the Florentine, Roman and Venetian “schools,” had intended to express how city-states were such forceful polities that in art they behaved as homogenous nations. Worse, Giovanni Morelli bizarrely considered Venice (of all cities?!) to have had the “good fortune” to have gone “undisturbed by foreign influences.”

The watchword of these essentialist games was “genius.” Which nation’s genius manifested in what way? Or, more bluntly, whose was superior? Intellectuals scrambled for their nation’s unique contribution to civilization. Most pointedly, Germans clung to the idea that they had invented the ogival principle, an antecedent to Gothic architecture. This was their modern triumph, they insisted; a rigid salute to the Greeks, who they claimed had “invented” taste in antiquity. Such trends mirrored tendencies in the discipline of history where thinkers such as B. G. Niebuhr asserted, “Greece is the Germany of Antiquity,” (which Otto von Bismarck later reversed into “Germany is the Greece of Modernity).”

Greece was renowned as western civilization’s first mover (all its precursors were alien and odd). Who better to ape in the aesthetic sphere? Especially in sculpture, which became associated with the innate beauty of  the Greek race (“large eyes, short foreheads, straight noses and fine mouths” according to Ernst Curtius). Indeed, their chiseled contours were often so good that it made the Germans squirm, forcing them to applaud the execution but insist the Greek had an easy time of it since his subject was so gut-achingly perfect (thanks, as the rather sinister argument ran, to a lack of miscegenation).

Messages like this haltingly (and perniciously) became orthodox. Peoples were reduced to static, uniform entities whose art expressed a single style or genius. With both nations and the arts reduced to passive categories, physiognomic hierarchies were the governing norms for centuries, pitting Caucasians at the top against black folk at the bottom.

It was all very well claiming Caucasians were lords of the dung-heap, but ultimately it was sub-civilizational tensions that ran highest. From the Romantic period onwards, there sprouted an idea that the Germanic strands of European DNA were no longer damnosa hereditas (when compared to its Latin partner) but a boon. The trend climaxed in Oswald Spengler’s theory of “pseudomorphosis,” which described how older cultural strains had a habit of stunting, stymieing and distorting new ones (like new wine in old skins). The Germanics prided them themselves on having flouted this historical pattern.

Elsewhere, Hippolyte Taine argued that the Latin races were superior to their Germanic “crust,” and that it was thanks to their freedom that Europe had been able to produce “great and perfect painting[s] of the human body.” Yet in doing so, the Frenchman fell into Winckelmann’s syndrome, the refusal to distinguish the figures of art from their living models—a habit that was well on the way to becoming a heuristic principle. Indeed, the custom reached comical heights with Edouard Piette who, on the grounds that France’s pre-historic art displayed two consistent forms, farcically claimed the country had once been populated by two distinct races: a (thick, chunky) “steatogyne” i.e. adipose “race”, who enjoyed intermixing with the (thin, lean) “sarcogyne” people.

With imperial projects taking these racial hierarchies seriously, however, academic disciplines increasingly took it upon themselves to rehabilitate chapters of history that made Europeans look like savages. Namely, the barbarian invasions. Out went the traditional view propagated by Giorgio Vasari, who bemoaned that the Goths had “ruined the ancient buildings and killed all the architects.” In came a zivilisation vs. kultur division that framed everything south of the Alps as classical, exhausted, shattered, monotonous, feminine, oppressive, corrupt and decadent, while everything north was cast as romantic, young, virile, strong, masculine, free, innocent and fecund. Whilst, east of the Alps, Slavs—in a mocking coda—were characterized as merely imitative (and therefore irrelevant).

This binary approach might have remained a fairly simple sport had its two main actors, France and Germany, enjoyed stable attitudes about themselves and other cultures. Instead, France oscillated between thinking of itself as a Gallic (i.e. Celtic) arcadia that excelled in Latin civilization oppressed by Frankish warlords, or self-idealizing as a Frankish (i.e. Germanic) patria that made Germans look second-rate. Meanwhile, Germans couldn’t decide whether they were the spirits of classicism reborn (this ties in with the denialism of Alois Riegl, who claimed the barbarization of Roman art had occurred before the Germanic invasions), or forgers of a new civilization.

Christianity suffered in the crossfire. One of the more bizarre claims on the part of the Germanics was that they had forged a Christian civilization in the white heat of the barbarian revolution—conveniently forgetting that the Roman Empire had upheld the faith for over one hundred fifty years before it fell in the West. Jews were also kicked aside as an “artless” people. History itself was a victim: the Renaissance went from being a sign of revival to a symbol of regression, decline and decadence—a signal, in the words of Victor Hugo, of the “pseudo-antique.”

In this petty conflict, the Germanics saw themselves as force, direction and confrontation against the sterile eternity (or eternal sterility?) of classicism; the spear-thrust of an uncowed people against the amorphous globo-blob of Roman government. But several styles didn’t fall neatly into such a neat binary. The Romanesque and to a lesser extent the baroque, for instance, suffered as hybrid forms that could only be ignored or distorted to fit Latinate or Germanic agendas, never appreciated in their own right.

Hegel stood squarely in the pro-Germanic camp, claiming that a people always summed up an Age (no people, he asserted—forgetting the Eastern Roman Empire—had ever been able to lend its name to more than one epoch) and that his era was a German one: “der germanische Geist ist der Geist der neuen Welt” (The German Spirit is the Spirit of the New World). Other Germans (Schiller, for instance) even dared to claim that the Faustian genius of the Germans was superior to the Apollonian plasticity of the ancients, arguing that “the strength of the ancient artist… subsists in finitude” while the moderns excel in everything “infinite” as if all that was holding the Germanic arts back was God’s miserly three dimensions.

Such a superlative survey makes the book worth every penny. The dogmas of the permanence of races, artistic constants and Winckelmann’s syndrome (blurring the distinctions between artistic and living figures past and present) are pulled one-by-one from the shadows and placed beneath the veracious glare of Michaud’s torch. His detailing of each notion’s genealogy reveals that what might have camouflaged itself as artistic commonplace was in fact intellectually dishonest (or at least lazy or complacent). Indeed, the epilogue excels at drawing the net of prejudices even further by noting that the concept of the modern West has shifted from a “geographical and temporal entity to a psychological category. The West is now everywhere… in minds.”

Yet instead of concluding with liberal pieties that might have pleased a PC-conscious audience, Michaud points and winks at how capitalism has not reconfigured or fixed these prejudices but merely flipped them. Instead of destroying the racialist undercurrent, the West has simply attached a positive value—namely, authenticity—to ethnic minorities and therefore commoditized them. This process may now be a positive one (it assigns surplus value; it doesn’t devalue them) but nevertheless its logic is a racist one that hails from an essentialist conception of culture and identity as outlined above. 

If this had been the entire book, few criticisms would be forthcoming. As I’ve warned, however, The Barbarian Invasions possesses an introduction that can be most charitably described as garbled Goffart. Admittedly, it is clear why it exists. A well-meaning Michaud wishes to throw mud at the idea that peoples are hermetically-sealed billiard balls, an idea that has underpinned several racist intellectual and political movements in modern Europe.

However, to write that the barbarian invasions were a “myth” is laughable. Instead of setting out the historical events that concerned barbarian aggression and settlement—which should have quoted lots of P. Sarris, who presents a sound revision of Goffart in Empires of Faith (2011)—Michaud reduces himself to referencing only salacious soundbites of these events, rebutting fantasies not with realities but wild assertions such as “the barbarian invasions were thus in large part a romantic invention.”

When he does bite the bullet, he breaks his teeth. Declarations such as “historians agree on two points: it is no longer possible to consider the groups as homogenous peoples” and “those peoples included very few Germans” are dubious at best, plain wrong at worst. To address the first point, while a certain amount of ethnic fluidity can be attributed to peoples such as the Huns, other groups were culturally homogenous (though highly adaptive), possessed an ethnic core (based on kinsmanship) and, when they settled, often created legislation that clearly addressed their own people as opposed to the Romans. Almost all contemporary literature refers to the Alamanni, Goths, Vandals, Angles, Franks, Lombards and Visigoths as Germanic. It was hardly a catch-all term either, as contemporary controversies swirled and eddied around who exactly the Herules were, and a firm consensus noted that the Alans were not Germanic.

What is at stake here could not be clearer. No matter how unsavoury or mythological one might find later, derivative theories, an author shouldn’t seek to debunk their foundations if they’re ultimately historical truths—even if they’ve subsequently been instrumentalized in bad faith. In other words, just because it is not pleasurable to read about how malign or gullible sorts twisted the fact Germanics formed a cultural powerhouse into a dark hypothesis that flowered into ethnic supremacism, it doesn’t give authors the right to deny the fact that Germanic elites formed a Dark Age icing on the indigenous sponge of what was to become the West.

The Romans, who framed themselves as the sole people (meaning, with a constitution and history), believed the outside world a roiling sea of chaos, a void of wild gentes who couldn’t fathom the similarities or differences they had with their neighbors. Indeed, in avoiding modern pitfalls, Michaud stumbles a little too readily into ancient ditches. The idea that the invading tribes were not aware of being Germanic falls a little too deeply into the trap of Roman ethnography. He is also ensnared into thinking that because the tribal political systems (and their centralized leadership traditions) were relatively young, then the peoples they represented must have been of recent vintage, diverse and opportunistic rather than ancient, organic and relatively homogenous. Again, replacing nasty lies with nice ones.

Michaud, then, has produced a book less of two halves than a book of one and four fifths. Buy it, read it, enjoy it. Just make sure you skip the introduction.


Eric Michaud's The Barbarian Invasions: A Genealogy of the History of Art is available from MIT Press.

Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian, travel guide writer & book reviewer. He is currently writing a book about Constantinople. Follow him on Twitter @byzantinepower.