Julius Lange: A (Classical) Art Historian in a Small Country

In the little volume, Classical Heritage and European Identities: The Imagined Geographies of Danish Classicism (2019), we presented a brief history of Danish classical archaeology. Our main focus was fieldwork and especially the excavations at Bodrum (ancient Halikarnassos), so much was obviously left out. An important figure that we didn’t cover was Julius Lange (1838-96), who was professor of art history at the University of Copenhagen, but who first trained as a classical philologist.

In the introduction to his most well-known work, Billedkunstens Fremstilling af Menneskeskikkelsen i dens ældste Periode indtil Højdepunktet af den græske Kunst (The Depiction of the Human Form in Visual Art from the Earliest Period to the Zenith of Greek Art) (1892), Lange presents some interesting reflections on the parameters of archaeological/art historical research in Denmark in the late 19th century. This was before the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek opened its doors in 1906 and certainly also reflects the long process of re-defining the Danish nation-state after the defeats of the 1864 war with Prussia. I here provide a rough translation (pp. 5-6):

The Task and the Approach

When an art historian in a small country is not content with synthesising what the large countries accomplish in science, but wants to make an independent contribution to its development, he is badly placed. By a new contribution to science, one typically means an exhaustive as possible treatment of a specialty – meaning art history, a single grand artist or a single people’s art in a specific period. But what a small country like Denmark itself contributes in terms of art historical topics that have a universal point of view is not much….

To immerse oneself in the world historical development of art that at any time has been decisive for art in the small country itself, one lacks great study material within its borders – the rich museums or those monuments of the past that designate stages on the road of global evolution [“Verdensudviklingens Vej”]. If one has the opportunity to travel a lot in the world, one is aided to a certain degree, but in the actual research [“Specialforskning”] in a specific country’s art – for example, that of Italy, the Netherlands, or France – the foreigner will easily come up short against the children of the country itself – unless he wants to become an expatriate. The large nations have in addition their mighty institutes for archaeological and historical research that are so important to larger, scientific undertakings.

Yet, the position in a smaller country is not entirely without its advantages too. Here the principle of the division of labour is felt less fiercely; the researcher is less bound to his specialty and can devote more study time to the principal cases that it involves and carry all specialities. He has an easier task of pursuing a point of view that appears to him to be true and fruitful, even it has not penetrated the work of the leading nations. When he is thoroughly at home with the material of his topic, he is more free in choosing other methods and viewpoints than those that are common (even sometimes very despotically common, even if many in their quiet minds are in doubt about their validity); he does not need to waste time or work on discussions of every utterance on every topic. While he has the advantage of being able to draw on what science has achieved elsewhere, his lonely position helps to discard much that does provide true progress. Nor is he excluded from cultivating specialities, although he must use them in a different way and in a different meaning than usually.”

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