Brutalist image as humanist form: Reyner Banham, Erwin Panofsky and the turn to spatio-temporal structures in 1950s histories of (modern) art

Assimina Kaniari

Punctum, 2(1): 60-68, 2016
DOI: 10.18680/hss.2016.0006

The term New brutalism often echoes an architecturally specific discourse, yet the introduction of the term in Britain in the 50s, looking at the example of Banham’s writings from the Architectural Review, seems to take architecture as a starting point only to discuss a variety of art forms as the new location of avant garde art practices. Those included examples from the historical avant-garde to early precedents of British Pop, such the artists involved in the Independent Group. In this context, Banham defended and defined a particular understanding of the ‘image’ as an overarching category connected to the idea of ‘form’, which he then tied to a historiographic discourse on architectural theory, perspective and humanism. Despite the emphasis on form, Banham’s notion of New Brutalism may be read, I argue in this paper, as a polemic against formalist art theory and as a critique on the notion of style as the privileged tool of historical explanation in this context. Drawing largely on his published doctoral thesis supervised by Pevsner as Theory and Design in the first machine age, I would like to suggest that Banham’s 1950s discussions on art and painting as forms of a historical experience was conceived and expressed as a polemic against Pevsner’s notion of style as the site of historical explanation, succession and change from the 19th to the 20th century, from his Pioneers of Modern Design. Unlike Pevsner’s preference for style, Banhman turns to ‘brutalist form’ which he conceives, along with its precedents in avant garde art and contemporary manifestations in a number of artists, not least those associated with the British Independent Group, as an event, a notion which echoes Panofsky’s 1940s spatio-temporal structures. In the final part of this essay I explore this connection further drawing on Panofsky’s famous essay ‘Art History as a Humanistic Discipline’.

KEYWORDS: Reyner Banham, Erwin Panofksy, new brutalism, art historiography
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