Carl Einstein's Negerplastik: early twentieth-century avant-garde encounters between art and ethnography

Neumeister, Heike M. (2010) Carl Einstein's Negerplastik: early twentieth-century avant-garde encounters between art and ethnography. Doctoral thesis, Birmingham City University.


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The thesis focuses on the work of the author and critic Carl Einstein (1885 -1940), a key figure in the history of early twentieth-century art and literature. Introducing new archival material from the Berlin Ethnological Museum, the British Museum and a number of other sources, it offers a thorough re-examination of the circumstances and cultural practices that shaped Einstein's antagonism towards the itinerant `primitivism hubbub' and contemporary prejudice, and retrieves what is his most incisive intervention into the discourse on art and primitivism: his book Negerplastik (1915).

Reconnecting Negerplastik to Einstein's early art-criticism in the context of pre-1914 German Kulturpolitik and in the often highly competitive circles of the intellectual avant-garde, the thesis investigates his hitherto neglected role in staging the first two exhibitions in Germany which, during 1913, presented African sculpture alongside avant-garde painting - and Picasso's Cubist work - at the Neue Galerie in Berlin. In what is described as a `visual turn', it analyzes Negerplastik and its audaciously modernist visualization of non-western sculpture, and argues that by making the ethnographic 'curio' an object of theory Einstein, as it were, 'invented' the aesthetic category of African art.

The thesis brings together material that, although embedded in the period's documents and chronicles, has largely gone unnoticed. Yet evidence, such as the critical reaction to Einstein's 1913 African exhibitions, his letters to his friends Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Ewald Wasmuth, or the material gathered between 1925 and 1930 for a joint project with the British Museum's keeper Thomas A. Joyce is central to understanding the historical significance of Negerplastik and Einstein's ethnographic encounter. Ethnography provided the basis for some of his most compelling art-critical texts in the journal Documents. It informed the development of his concept of an Ethnologie du blanc which transgressed academic disciplines and epistemic tradition, and engendered a 'visual turn' that, by leaving the images to do the work of language, operated as Einstein's `silent' critique of modernist sculpture. The thesis concludes by contending that, between 1916 and 1918, Negerplastik served as catalyst, and matrix, for a number of avant-garde reconfigurations of African sculpture in which the objects' photographic framing re-confirmed this sculpture as art. It addresses aspects of Einstein's role within the discourse on art and cultural difference, which - despite the now sizeable secondary literature devoted to him - have not been sufficiently examined.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
January 2010Completed
Subjects: CAH20 - historical, philosophical and religious studies > CAH20-01 - history and archaeology > CAH20-01-01 - history
CAH25 - design, and creative and performing arts > CAH25-01 - creative arts and design > CAH25-01-02 - art
Divisions: Faculty of Arts, Design and Media > College of Art and Design
Doctoral Research College > Doctoral Theses Collection
Depositing User: Richard Birley
Date Deposited: 20 Jul 2017 08:53
Last Modified: 12 Jan 2022 16:50

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