Charles W. Haxthausen

“Bescheidener Beginn”: Carl Einstein’s ‘Afrikanische Plastik’

While Einstein’s Negerplastik is the best known and most widely discussed of all of his writings on art, his Afrikanische Plastik is one of his most neglected, even in the specialized Einstein literature, and today it remains unknown to most scholars of African art. Published six years after Negerplastik and one year after the appearance of that book’s second edition, Afrikanische Plastik has been called his “amends” for the “ridiculous scholarly flaws” (Sebastian Zeidler), the sins of omission and commission that marked Negerplastik. Writing to his painter friend Moïse Kisling, Einstein described Negerplastik as “something quite theoretical. The second volume will be more explanatory; in it I play the nice ethnographer.” Certainly Afrikanische Plastik offers a more concrete discussion—more scholarly than theoretical, more ethnographic than stylistic—of African art than its famed predecessor. And although it illustrates fewer objects than Negerplastik, the works, nearly half of them from museums, are of consistently higher quality.

In contrast to his first book, in which Einstein made not a single reference to any of the illustrated works, the text of Afrikanische Plastik consists largely of his commentaries on individual objects. With discussions of the migration of styles and motifs and references to the ethnographic literature, it is the most “art-historical” of Einstein’s writings—perhaps because of his stated goal, a “bescheidener Beginn” toward legitimizing African art as an area of art-historical research. While much of its ethnographic information has become dated, Afrikanische Plastik nevertheless remains a historiographic landmark and foreshadows important aspects of Einstein’s later writings.

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Charles Werner Haxthausen promovierte 1976 in Kunstgeschichte an der Columbia University, New York (Titel der Dissertation: Paul Klee. The Formative Years). Von 1975 bis 1983 war er an der Harvard University als Assistant Professor, dann als Associate Professor für Kunstgeschichte und Kurator des Busch-Reisinger Museums tätig. Von 1985 bis 1993 war er Associate Professor für Kunstgeschichte an der University of Minnesota. Ab 1993 war er Professor für Kunstgeschichte, Williams College, seit 2007 Robert Sterling Clark Professor. Seit Juli 2016 ist er emeritiert.  Charles Haxthausen ist Autor zahlreicher Publikationen über moderne und zeitgenössische Kunst und Kunstkritik. 2002 gab er The Two Art Histories. The Museum and the University heraus. 2012 war er Kurator der Ausstellung, Sol LeWitt: The Well-Tempered Grid, Williams College Museum of Art. Carl Einstein. Refiguring Visuality, eine kommentierte Auswahl von Einsteins Schriften über Kunst, wird 2018 beim Verlag der University of Chicago erscheinen.