“Offering pleasures to the eye”: Max Semrau’s Kunst des Altertums (1899), its illustrations, and art history’s ignorance toward reproduction

Friedrich Tietjen

In 1899, Paul Neff published a new edition of Die Kunst des Altertums (The Art of Antiquity), newly revised in its entirety by Max Semrau, professor of art history at the University of Breslau (now Wroclaw). This was the first of four volumes foreseen for the twelfth edition of the Grundriss fur Kunstgeschichte (Outlines of the History of Art), one of the most important introductions to art history to appear in the second half of the nineteenth century.1 The first edition of the Grundriss, published almost four decades earlier by Wilhelm Liibke, then professor of architecture at the Berlin Bauakademie, had received many positive reviews. Revised editions followed thereafter at intervals of only a few years, and with each edition the Grundriss grew, successively expanding from the original 743 pages to a total of 934 pages by the eleventh edition of 1892. By then, the total print run amounted to 62,000 copies in Germany alone while translated editions were also published and circulated in England, the US, Sweden, Denmark, and other countries. Much of the success of the Grundriss was attributed to Liibke’s talent as an author who reached out in his texts to an audience of non-academic readers, enabling them to become familiar with the history of art with little effort.3 But of no less importance were the numerous illustrations in the book. Already the first edition contained 349 wood engravings printed within the running text, a practice authors and publishers had only recently embraced for books on the history of art.4 As with the text, the number of illustrations in Liibke’s Grundriss increased with each new edition—with 709 wood engravings, the eleventh edition of 1892 had more than double the number of illustrations in the first edition. Nor did such growth cease with the twelfth edition. In his foreword, Max Semrau calculates: “Compared to the corresponding section of the eleventh edition [i.e. that on ancient art], this first volume grew by 101 pages and 146 illustrations; about 240 illustrations were redone”.5

These “redone” illustrations indicate the most conspicuous change to accompany the twelfth edition. Of the 408 illustrations in Semrau’s Kunst des Altertums, more than half were still wood engravings, some of which had featured continuously in each edition since the first one. Of the circa two dozen illustrations derived from zincotypes after pen and ink drawings, some replaced wood engravings with similar motifs. But the major change on the one hand was the introduction of two chromolithographic plates, the first of which—depicting the polychromy of a Doric temple printed lithographically in at least nine colors—was showcased as a frontispiece. The approximately 150 halftone prints, however, are continuously visible among the other black-and-white illustrations. Other than the wood engravings and the zincotypes they do not appear as black lines printed on white paper, but as tonal images built

Offering pleasures to the eye 167 from different hues of gray.6 The change in illustration methods for the new edition of the Grundriss did not go unnoticed: “The enormously refined reproduction techniques offer pleasures to the eye that had been hitherto unachievable”,7 exclaims an anonymous author reviewing the complete edition in 1904.

With other words: Liibke’s last edition of the Grundriss offered a somewhat homogeneous graphic design, even though the wood engravings differed in their appearance as some would only consist of outlines (used, for instance, for Egyptian murals, cross sections of buildings, and similar technical explanations) while in particular prominent works of art were represented in many details. Compared to it, the illustration of Semrau’s edition is hybrid in more than one respect: At least three (five, if the plates are included) processes of reproduction are used through the whole book. And these reproduction processes differ greatly in their production: For wood engravings, an original drawing after a work of art—sometimes the original, but more commonly, a print or a photograph—was manually translated into a printing block; for zin-cotypes, a black-and-white drawing was photographed, the negative then projected on a sheet of zinc covered with bitumen or dichromated gelatin, and after washing the unexposed parts away the exposed metal was etched away to receive a printable relief. But it was only with the autotype that a photographic image could be translated into a relief printing plate. For this, a second photographic processing similar to that for making zincotypes was employed. Here it is a halftone negative that is projected through a glass screen with a fine grid etched in it, and as a result the hues of gray are broken up into a pattern of smaller or larger dots. After the metallic plate is etched these dots transform into a surface that can be relief-printed, and when the resulting image is looked at, the black dots again merge into hues of gray.

When the first volume of Semrau’s Grundriss was printed, the autotype was relatively new; as a medium for illustration it had been in broad use for only a decade. Many of the autotypes lack contrast, and their appearance is sometimes blotchy. Moreover, the autotype process was not only used to translate photographs of works of art—about 20 of them are based on larger drawings of reconstructions of buildings or of maps, and the change in format makes small inscriptions vanish into tiny dots. In any case the autotype presents itself as a medium that has its difficulties with representing details. Under these circumstances the enthusiasm of the critics about Semrau’s new edition of the Grundriss and its illustrations is astonishing. Where did it come from?

In his foreword, Semrau claims he was involved in selecting the illustrations; it remains unclear, however, whether he chose the objects to be depicted or the reproductions itself. The heterogeneity both in quality and in process, however, suggests that the criteria for this selection were quite arbitrary. While the eleventh edition was illustrated entirely with wood engravings, there seems to be no apparent rule as to why the wood engraving was retained here for certain subjects while the halftone print was used to replace others. The availability of printing blocks will have had some influence on the matter. As can be seen from the signatures and the different treatment of the plates, many of the wood engravings and the autotypes were compiled rather from various sources, most prominently perhaps from the publisher’s archive; only a fraction will have been produced specifically for the Grundriss edition and later also be used for other publications.8 The resulting graphic design leads to some awkward juxtapositions. The Florentine Niobe, for instance, is reproduced as a rather dark wood engraving while the figure of one of her sons from the same group of sculptures is printed on the facing page as a pale and partially retouched autotype (Figure 13.1). The two reproductions also differ in perspective and scale. But probably these discrepancies were of little importance anyway, as the illustrations are referred to only superficially in the text, and this is hardly surprising; for although the original text of 1860 was meant to be revised for the twelfth edition, ultimately, save for a few details, it was not. Conversely, the simple wood engraving of Niobe’s head used to illustrate the original text was no longer considered adequate.9

In terms both of their appearance and of their connection to the text, the illustrations in the Grundriss are unlike those of the atlases so paramount to science in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They are neither of large format nor meticulously drawn or reproduced. And though the wood engravings often emphasize contours while lacking tonality, the halftones have little in common with the, often, detailed photographic prints distributed by companies such as Alinari, Hanfstaengl, and Adolphe Braun. The mediocre quality of the illustrations makes them poor replacements for the real thing. The Grundriss offers not a “compilation of working objects”, as in the atlases’ illustrations,10 but a gallery of art historical mug shots in the form both of engravings and of photographs—the individual works of art are recognizable, but the reproductions often enough are not exactly flattering.

The Grundriss is by far not the only introduction to art history to feature such an eclectic mix of reproductions. Likewise dealing with the art of antiquity, the first volume

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Figure 13.1 Anonymous: Wood-engraving and autotype after photograph (undated). Source: Wilhelm Liibke and Max Semrau, Die Kunst des Altertums (Stuttgart: P. Neff, 1899), 240-241.

Offering pleasures to the eye 169 of Anton Springer’s Handbuch der Kunstgeschichte (Handbook on Art History)11 was published as early as 1898; its methodical approach was radically different to that of Lübke’s Grundriss, but it was illustrated in the same way. The same applies to publications addressing a more scholarly audience, such as August Baumeister’s Denkmäler des klassischen Altertums (Monuments of Classical Antiquity),12 which was published more than ten years prior to Semrau’s Kunst des Altertums and sometimes featured graphic and photographic reproductions in the same spread.

This heterogeneity of illustration in the Grundriss and similar publications is an example of how photography-based reproduction media started replacing graphic media between 1865 and 1905, a period Estelle Jussim has so aptly dubbed “The Forty Years’ War of the Media”,13 and which left wood engraving virtually dead as a means of illustration, and various halftone processes predominant in the field. But before and even during this period of war, a peaceful co-existence of graphic and photographic media was the rule rather than the exception in the illustrated literature, as the borders dividing them were in any case blurred. To accelerate the printing of reproductions had been one of the driving forces in the pre- and early history of photography. Nicephore Niepce’s heliography after a portrait engraving of the Cardinal d’Amboise was an experiment in the technical reproduction of graphic images; and if he had had the pewter plate of the View from the Window at Le Gras etched the same way as the portrait of the cardinal, Niepce could have pulled graphic prints from it. In the course of the nineteenth century, graphic and photographic techniques were hybridized in many ways to overcome their respective shortcomings. As early emulsions were barely sensitive to colors other than blue and violet, photographs taken directly of paintings were dull; thus, for his collection of masterpieces from the Dresden Gallery, Franz Hanfstängl reproduced the lithographs he had drawn and published between 1835 and 1852 yet claimed that he had in fact photographed the original paintings (Figure 13.2).14 Profiting from the ease of changing the size of a print with little more than a basic knowledge of optics as well as from the abundance of graphic reproductions, notable and unknown photographers would use engravings for the same purpose, and publish reproductions of many different works of art in Carte de visite and other formats. For photoxylography, the surface of a wood block was coated with an emulsion and then exposed to a negative; after developing, the engraver would work through the photograph as if it were a drawing. Processes similar to Niepce’s heliogravure were employed to translate black-and-white drawings into plates for either relief or intaglio printing. Even the halftone plates required not only the experience and attention of highly specialized workers but often enough also manual and graphic interventions—as can be seen in the reproduction of Niobe’s son, where retouching was necessary to sharpen the outline of his leg. Until the end of the nineteenth century, dozens if not hundreds of hybrid processes involving both graphic and photographic techniques were invented and used with varying degrees of success.

Among German art historians, the merits and setbacks of the two different methods of reproduction had been a subject to debate since the mid-nineteenth century. Authors such as Moritz Thausing defended engraving on the grounds that photography with its equal treatment of both accidental details and artistic intentions would make it difficult to grasp the main idea of a masterpiece while the artist, e.g., an engraver, could consider the relative importance of all parts and thus faithfully translate its character.15 Others such as Bruno Meyer favored photograph, arguing that the interventions of an engraver would falsify the original, thus reversing the argument

Franz Hanfstaengl, albumen print after lithograph (undated). Source

Figure 13.2 Franz Hanfstaengl, albumen print after lithograph (undated). Source: Franz Hanfstaengl, ed., Die vorzüglichsten Gemälde der königlichen Gallerie zu Dresden (Dresden: Sachs. Cob. Goth. Hofrath, 1860), unpaginated.

Thausing and others had used and mocking those who would confuse a bad etching with the work of art it was meant to represent.16 Both positions, however, implicitly agree that the reproduction should be virtually invisible or imperceptible as in both cases it should convey an impression of the original or, at the very least, the intention of the artist. The mediality of a reproduction, thus, was of interest only insofar it served this purpose. Such debates were essential to the use of reproductions in teaching and research, where large format prints and slides were employed; and they likewise played a role in the production and illustration of scholarly books and portfolios.17 Thus, for publications such as the Grundriss, or even for more scholarly books and journals, the opposition “artistic translation vs. mechanical objectivity” could tacitly be set aside as long as the interference of the medium could be ignored and the steady increase in text be matched by that in illustrations. When it came to the mass production of images in print, the quality of their reproduction seems to have been of less importance than the use per se of such images, preferably in large numbers—even if their purpose was to adorn the text rather than to formulate a visual argument.

As in the case of the halftone print, the implementation and success of a process depended not on the aesthetic quality of the reproductions it provided, but on the

Offering pleasures to the eye 171 ease of its operability, on the quantity of pictures it could reproduce, and on its costeffectiveness. Thus, in the context of illustrating books such as the Grundriss, halftone printing had but little to do with the reproduction supposedly true to the original and presented to readers for their autonomous examination. Printed with black ink on white paper in the same way as the surrounding text, the halftone print melted into this, becoming an integral part. As an illustration it did nothing more than support the author’s argument. Its epistemic surplus lay elsewhere—in its sheer profusion. Even if reproductions of this sort are dull, evince no common treatment of their subjects, and differ in execution and relative size—or even if, despite all these differences, they are used to suggest, for instance, that a certain style is the result of a coherent progress—they convey one insight that text alone could not: that art in the very first place has intrinsically to do with difference. In the Grundriss this potential remained unused, as the illustrations are rarely, if at all, discussed in detail or explicitly referred to by the authors.

In 1924, the Kunst des Altertums was published as the first volume of the sixteenth edition of the Grundriss. Three years later, volumes on the art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were printed for the seventeenth edition, but the other two foreseen were apparently never published. This slow demise of the Grundriss more than 60 years after its first edition was most likely caused, however, not so much by the poor quality of the reproductions but by its text. The empathetic and sometimes dramatic interpretations of Liibke, Semrau, and others, their focus on styles, and their ignorance of cultural history as a necessary background to art history had come to seem outdated not only in academic art history circles, but also among their target audience, namely, educated readers of the middle classes; for they who were familiar now with modern aesthetics, with expressionism, cinema, Bauhaus, and New Objectivity, would rather turn to publications such as Richard Hamann’s Geschichte der Kunst (History of Art) for a general overview. First published in 1932, this book contained more than 1,000 illustrations on nearly as many pages, mostly halftone autotypes after photographs.18 Hamann’s methodical approach to the history of art differed fundamentally from that of Liibke and Semrau, for inasmuch as he strove for objectivity rather than empathy his overriding preference for the photographic means of reproduction was to be expected. Yet these autotypes, too, are of a mediocre quality in comparison with original prints from either negatives or engravings, let alone the fact that they are mostly rather small, sometimes scaling down large works of art to images the size of a big stamp (Figure 13.3). In the case of both Liibke-Semrau’s Grundriss and Hamann’s Geschichte, the autotype was chosen not because its graphic quality was superior to that of wood engravings but for a rather banal reason: if the clichés were not already available, they could easily be produced, since by that time the process had become a standard practice in the printing industry.

The case of the Grundriss is but one example of the difficulties many art historians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century had with the reproduction of works of art in general and photography as a medium for that purpose in particular. At the same time, it is proof of their relative indifference as to which processes were used to reproduce a work of art. As long as the reproduction bears a sufficient resemblance with what it is meant to depict, medium specificities can be overlooked for the sake of an imagined faithful translation of either the artists’ intentions or the work of art, or of both. In this understanding, the reproduction is no more than a signifier of the original with no value in itself. Thus, the specific quality of the autotypes of Semrau’s Grundriss was not any

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wenigsten ab vorbildlich empfinden würden: ein stark |>ojtrithaft gegebener Römertyp. der bei der geistigen Beschäftigung nicht allzu ergriffen ist. vielmehr an eine nach außen hin würdig wirkende Haltung denkt, sehr beamtenhaft, mehr ein Steuereinnehmer, der Ein« tragungen in seine Akten macht, als ein christlicher Apostel. Man denke sich, wie verheerend eine solche Kunst die deutsche beeinflußt hatte, wenn sie wirklich als das verstanden worden wäre, was rie war. und sich dennoch durchgcsctzt hätte. Wir dürfen annehmen, daß dieser ideal gewandete Typus den Deutschen dieser Zeit nicht ab etwas Gleichgültiges, sondern ab etwas sehr Fremdes, sehr Bedeutsames erschien (wie heute Wilden Frack und Zylinder). Da« gewöhnlich Menschliche, das Alltägliche in diesen Darstellungen ging ihnen nicht ein. weil sie cs nicht suchten Wir haben Beweise dafür. In der Abtei St. Philibert in Tournus wurde ein Fächer ab kirchliches Gerat zu kultischen Zwecken benutzt, der Darstellungen aus Virgils Eklogen enthält, bukolische Szenen voll sentimentaler läcbespocsie in einem malerischen, landschaftliclicn Stil und in einer flüchtigen, liederlichen Arbeit, die der karolingische Nachahmer,

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Ein anderes Beispiel, eine Elfcnbcinplatte mit der Darstellung der Frauen am Grabe (Abb. 229). Vorbild konnte eine altchristlicbe sein, wie die der Münchener Sammlungaus dem 4. Jahrhundcrt(Abb.7. S. 19). dos typische Beispiel für spätantike, szenisch räumliche Darstellung, in der «las Landschaftliche trotz aller Raumverticfung doch immer Abbreviatur bleibt, Kulisse, vor der die Figuren den Vortritt haben. In den Figuren aber rind in edler, getragener Weise zarte Regungen menschlicltcr Teilnahme stimmungsvoll vorgetragen. Auch «Icr Engel ist Mensch unter Menschen, teilnehmend und fühlend. Im karolingischen Werk werden Fmur» g«*« /0./л

Figure 13.3 Anonymous: autotypes after photographs (undated). Source: Richard Hamann, Geschichte der Kunst (Berlin: Knaur, 1932), 222.

epistemic surplus but their sheer number and their easy availability for illuminating the book. By and large ignored in the text (for whatever details were addressed in relation to a specific work of art, they remained barely discernible in the reproductions), the numerous illustrations served to formulate a visual argument in parallel to the text that remains the main medium of interpretation. The ignorance, however, comes at a price. Subcutaneously the massive amount of reproductions undermines the character of each original work, suggesting that the latter is merely one link in an endless chain of works, thus robbing it of its uniqueness and disruptive potential. The coherence generated by this history of art strangely corresponds with the heterogeneity and arbitrariness of the reproductions. The pleasures to the eye the anonymous critic was delighted about may very well have been the result of blindness.


  • 1 Ultimately, the twelfth edition comprised five volumes, not four, published successively at short intervals. For this chapter I limit my observations mainly to the first volume, Kunst des Altertums.
  • 2 The eleventh edition was the last to be edited by Lübke; he died in 1893.
  • 3 "Mein Gesichtspunkt bei der Arbeit war, dem gebildeten Leser zu einem tieferen Verständniss der Kunst und ihrer Werke zu verhelfen,... ihm den historischen Verlauf der Kunstbewegung in übersichtlichem Grundrisse zu zeigen, zugleich aber das Hauptgewicht

Offering pleasures to the eye 173 durchweg auf das Ewiggültige, wahrhaft Schöne zu legen”. Wilhelm Lübke, preface to Grundriss der Kunstgeschichte (Stuttgart: Ebner & Seubert, 1860), VI f. Orthography as in the original.

The first edition of Franz Kugler’s fundamental Handbuch der Kunstgeschichte (1842) contained no illustration, unlike the third edition (1856). Likewise, the first volume (of nine) of Schnaase’s Geschichte der bildenden Künste (1843) contained no illustrations; wood engravings were first featured in the opening section of the second volume (1850). “Der vorliegende erste Band zeigt, mit dem entsprechenden Teile der elften Auflage verglichen, eine Vermehrung des Umfangs um 101 Seiten und der Illustrationen um 146 Nummern; ca. 240 Abbildungen wurden neu hergestellt”. Max Semrau, preface to Grundriss der Kunstgeschichte, vol. 1: Die Kunst des Altertums (Stuttgart: Neff, 1899), VII. Space is too limited, here, for a detailed description of the halftone process, but its core feature, in my eyes, is the dual application of the photographic process. This supposedly double dose of objectivity and the absence of human intervention set it apart from manual and semi-manual processes of reproduction—even though the clichés did in fact require quite a bit of manual input.

“Die enorm verfeinerte Reproduktionstechnik hat es ermöglicht, dem Auge früher in dieser Form unerreichbare Genüsse zu bieten”, Archiv für christliche Kunst. Organ des Rottenburger Diözesan-Kunstvereins 22 (1904): 122.

Unfortunately, not much research has been done yet on the trade in printing blocks in the late nineteenth century. However, it was clearly common practice to use the same printing block for different publications. It also appears that wood blocks were reproduced as gal-vanotypes for the earlier translated editions of the Grundriss, since the illustrations there differ minutely from those in the German editions.

Both the wood engraving and the autotype of the Niobids were featured in the twelfth edition. The wood engraving in the first edition was later replaced by a slightly more elaborate one, which was also used in the eleventh edition.

Loraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007), 27.

Anton Springer and Adolf Michaelis, Handbuch der Kunstgeschichte, vol 1, Das Altertum (Leipzig: Seemann, 1898).

August Baumeister, ed., Denkmäler des klassischen Altertums (Munich/Leipzig: R. Oldenbourg, 1885).

Estelle Jussim, Visual Communication and the Graphic Arts. Photographie Technologies in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Bowker, 1974), 17.

Franz Hanfstaengl, ed., Die vorzüglichsten Gemälde der königlichen Gallerie zu Dresden. In photographischen Abbildungen nach den Originalen herausgegeben von Franz Hanfstängl (Munich/Dresden: 1860).

See in more detail Dr. M. Th. [i.e., Moriz Thausing], “Kupferstich und Photographie”, Zeitschrift für Bildende Kunst 1 (1866): 287-294.

Bruno Meyer, “Die Photographie im Dienste der Kunstwissenschaft und des Kunstunterrichtes”, Westermanns Illustrirte Deutsche Monatshefte XLVII (1879); 196-209, 307-318.

For a more detailed account of these debates, see Katharina Krause, “Argument oder Beleg. Das Bild im Text der Kunstgeschichte”, Bilderlust und Lesefrüchte. Das illustrierte Kunstbuch von 1750 bis 1920, eds. Katharina Krause, Klaus Niehr and Eva-Maria Hanebutt-Benz (Leipzig: E. A. Seemann, 2005); 27-42.

For the genesis of Hamann’s Geschichte der Kunst see Ruth Heftrig, Fanatiker der Sachlichkeit. Richard Hamann und die Rezeption der Moderne in der universitären deutschen Kunstgeschichte 1930-1960 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2014), 93 ff. Heftrig discusses the selection of four color plates for the first edition, but not the production of the black-and-white autotypes. For Hamann’s views on photography, see Angela Matyssek, Kunstgeschichte als fotografische Praxis. Richard Hamann und Foto Marburg (Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2009), esp. 125 ff. However, photographs here, as in most other cases, at least implicitly are understood as being not autotypes but prints from negatives.

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