History and Theory of Fine Arts - Course Proposal

The Crest of the University of Auckland in New Zealand features three Kiwi birds.

The Crest of the University of Auckland in New Zealand features three Kiwi birds.



There is nothing necessarily mysterious - or unnecessarily difficult - about the study of the fine arts. As for any other subject, years of serious study are required before one can Master even a small part of its total scope. Such an intensive approach, however, is definitely not envisioned as a part of this course. In fact,it would be frankly impossible in Auckland at the present time.

But it is possible to present to the first year student at the University of Auckland, by way of an introduction, the scope of the history and theory of the fine arts, as a field of study. This can be done clearly, convincingly, and reasonably comprehensively within the period of an academic year. As this course would be at stage one, no previous knowledge or training in the fine arts can be assumed.  But from the first lecture the student will begin to look. After a while he will begin to see... and this is the beginning of understanding.

The appeal of this course will be to the general student, and not exclusively to those who intend to specialise in the study of art or architecture.  It is intended to provide a general but basic introduction to art and architecture, so that with no other formal training the student will be able to live in a richer and more meaningful relationship to the world around him, and in particular to those works of art and architecture - both past and present - with which man has in turn enrichened the world.

But in addition, the content of this course will provide students with a solid foundation for studio work in the fine arts and for scholarly work in any area of the humanities. Certain aspects of this course will inevitably relate to other specific fields of study, e.g. history, mathematics, psychology or English. However, the most important points of reference will always be actual works of art and architecture. These will be presented primarily through the medium of 35mm photographic slides, shown as essential parts of almost every lecture, This visual emphasis will be augmented by the use of photographic reproductions (especially in the tutorials) and by visits to the museum and local art galleries.

The structure of the actual course is fairly simple.  Following this Summary is a list of 15 'topics'. The last two of these are special problems which are explained more fully on Pages 11 and 12. The other 13 topics form the core of this approach. Each topic represents an essential aspect of the study of art history. No introductory course could omit one of these topics and still claim to be coherent and comprehensive. By the same token, no intro­ductory course could hope to go into any single topic as profound­ly, or in as much detail as an advanced seminar or graduate course might. Obviously, the danger of oversimplification must be avoided. However, there will be at least 3 hours of lecture and one hour of tutorial, or a minimum of 4 hours in which to discuss clearly and concisely the main issues concerned with each of the 13 topics. This should allow for a fair presentation to be made on the level of an introductory course.

Some of these topics will be investigated more fully than others, Generally these will be topics more closely connected with the pure visual aspects of art and architecture, and these lectures will be richly illustrated with slides.

I believe this visual emphasis to be very important - in the last analysis of more immediate and fundamental importance than theoretical and strictly scholarly considerations. There exists now, with the Faculty of Fine Arts, a collection of some 3,000 35mm slides, many in colour, of painting, sculpture, architecture, graphic art and the "minor arts". This could be expanded in effect by borrowing, for certain lectures, slides from the collection of the School of Architecture. But to meet the requirements of an increased number of lectures for this course, the collection would have to be approximately doubled in size. The important thing is that there does exist already a good basic collection of visual material. Furthermore, a system of filing and cataloguing is being worked out for this slide collection, which in addition to fulfilling the needs of courses in the history and theory of the fine arts, will ensure its widest and most efficient use by all members of the University staff.


1.     Art history as a field of study and its historical background. Consideration of the general scope and limitations of the field.

2.     What place art and architecture should have in the context of a University. The position of the artist and the architect in society as well as in the University, historically considered. The fundamental importance of the fine arts in civilisation as a whole.

3.     The creative act. The significance of creative ideas and intuitions.

4.     The nature of the work of art itself. Investigation of the many materials and forms of artistic expression.

5.     A survey of problems relating to the act of perception (as related to the fine arts). Consideration of how we actually experience works of art and architecture. The nature of the aesthetic experience.

6.     Art criticism. Certain basic problems of dating, attribution, authentication of works of art and forgeries. Consideration of some aspects of the "art market". How one actually goes about purchasing - or selling - a work of art.

7.     Art criticism II. Problems of aesthetic evaluation and comparison. Changes of taste and fashion; absolute vs. relative standard of value. Non-scholarly literature on the fine arts.

8.     Historical and theoretical considerations of "style" as the principal analytical concept for the study of the fine arts. The many different interpretations of the term "style" and their uses.

9.     Stylistic analysis of specific works of art and architecture. Style as expressed by the individual, the group, the nation and the historical period. The relationship of style to other events of the times.

10.   Discussion of several different approaches to art history and their respective theories of style. The uses of these theories in widening our understanding of art.

11. Brief survey of bibliographical materials pertinent to the study of the history and theory of the fine arts.

12.    Study of selected writings by artists and architects themselves in the light of their own artistic achievements. Excursus on the uses and dangers of such primary source material, including notebook and letters.

13.    Brief introduction to the study of aesthetics. The pertinence of aesthetics to art history and a survey of historical connections between the two fields. Introduction to some important contemporary ideas in aesthetic thought.

14.    The interrelationship of the fine arts with other fields of study.

15.    The position of architecture with respect to the other fine arts.


The course will be composed of three lectures and one tutoriaL per week. The general approach of these lectures will be based on the following:

1.       The first lecture that is concerned with any of the above topics will introduce that topic, along with the related visual material.

2.       The second lecture will develop the topic with reference to particular works of art or architecture.

3.       The tutorial will discuss the reading assignments and serve as an opportunity for clarification of any questions arising from the reading or from the lectures.

4.       The third lecture( or the last lecture to deal with the topic, if more than one week is spent on it) will attempt to:

a.     Restate and sum up the topic,

b.     Propose a solution or alternative solutions to the related problems,

c.     Mention in particular any new contribution to understanding of the problem that might have been made by a student,

d.     Indicate directions for further _enquiry and private study.

The consideration of some topics may extend over a period of several weeks in which case each lecture or tutorial, apart from the introductory and final lecture, would cover selected aspects in greater detail or explore wider implications of some problems.

Two papers will be required. One of these will be historical (emphasising theoretical or historical considerations), the second will be analytical (emphasising primarily visual or stylistic considerations).


Prescribed reading for History and Theory of the Fine Arts I will comprise selections from the following texts:

C. Baudelaire      The Mirror of Art
C. Bell            Art
G, Holt           A Documentary History of Ar•t
J. Maritain        Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry
E. Panofsky        Meaning in the Visual Arts
M. Phillipson(ed)  Aesthetics Today
E.   Pound           A B C of Reading
H. Wolfflin        The Principles of Art History

Possible selections from the following will also be prescribed or recommended:

P. Klee            Pedagogical Sketchbook
S. Langer          Problems of Art
B. Shahn           The Shape of Content
F.   L. Wright       On Architecture

Most of the books mentioned are available in inexpensive paperbound editions which the student would be expected to purchase. This will cost him very little more than the purchase of one hard-cover textbook.  Many other books for recommended reading and for further study are currently in the fine arts section of the Main University Library or in the library of the Faculty of Fine Arts, but of course these collections will have to be expanded.

Generally the above mentioned texts are published also in hard covers and are available in the various Auckland Libraries.

It is hoped that other articles or selected passages from difficult to obtain books can be made available to the class in mimeographed form,



The initial lectures will serve to familiarise the student with what is to be covered by the course, and how that will be approached.  But because the scope and intent of a course in the history and theory of fine art will be, in most cases, entirely new to New Zealand University students, the process of orientation implies something much more thorough than a mere survey of the course calendar. The subject of these lectures will be the field of study of art history itself. This need not be an abstract historical account. Art history is relatively young as an academic subject, having been developed primarily in Germany during the nineteenth century. Although it is by now quite respectable in most countries, there are still many questions about the extent of the field of study which remain open or undecided.  It is to these living issues that the student will be directed.   The prescribed reading will be: Erwin Panofsky "The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline", and "Three Decades of Art History in the United States" both of which appear in Meaning in the Visual Arts by this scholar, who is one of the greatest living art historians. The first essay is a brilliant introduction to the field and the functional similarities that exist between universities in New Zealand and America make the observations of the second essay relevant.

2.     One of the very first problems to be considered will be the place of the artist and architect in the academic community and in the world. "Why have artists or architects at all?" or, if you must then "why study them in the University?". Another aspect of this is the problem of what position art and architecture themselves should occupy in these respective contexts.

Some excellent discussion of these problems is contained in the Charles Elliot Norton lectures for 1957, delivered at Harvard University by the contemporary American artist Ben Shahn, and published as The Shape of content, which will be the recommended reading.

3.   Ben Shahn's book provides a lucid transition to problems of the nature of the creative act. Prescribed reading on this topic will consist of selection from Jaques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts for 1952. This is a profound and often demanding series of lectures, but it is extremely important and the passages selected should not go beyond the capacities of the average beginning university student.

4.    After this consideration of the "essence" or "source" of art must come a fuller investigation of the nature of the work of art itself.    There is a vast literature on this topic, but I feel that Clive Bell's book, entitled simply Art and first published in 1913 is still one of the clearest, most convincing and most honest. It will provide a point of reference for a survey of problems connected with this topic, A series of lectures will then discuss the rich variety of materials and forms and artistic expression. This will be a survey of all of the important media of painting, sculpture and graphic arts, of the materials of architecture and of the many "minor arts".

5.     Having (hopefully, by this time) come to some sort of understanding about the nature of the work of art itself, the emphasis will shift to considering works of art and architecture as objects of historical investigation. One of the most fundamental problems in any approach to a work of art is the very act of perception. A great deal of research on perception is being done currently in other fields in addition to art history, e.g.psychology, physiology, psychophysics, optics. Here a survey of new and recent publications by men such as James J. Gibson, Rudolf Arnheim and Edwin Land might be verY stimulating and informative. Directly related to this are problems of how we perceive and experience architecture. This might be an excellent opportunity for a guest lecture to be given by another member of the university faculty. There is a great need for students to have - at least - an introduction to the problems of perception.

6.       The next question which faces the art historian is that of art criticism. The critic may be primarily concerned with authentication of the work of art; but, together with the art historian he must consider the related problems of dating and attribution. As popularly understood, criticism implies also the assessing or valuation of a work of art in monetary terms. This aspect is of only incidental concern for the professional historian, but it does not seem right that, therefore, it should be neglected altogether. For instance, it will be of immediate concern to the student who may eventually go on to do museum work; and indeed any student may become involved with this sort of commercial Question when he considers the purchase of a work of art. Thus, it seems fitting to include discussions to familiarise the student with the "art market", auctions, dealers, transport procedures, insurance, the borrowing and lending of works of art, gallery and museum procedures and related issues. This could
be of immense practical value even though the discussions would have to be brief and basic to fit within the scope and intent of the course.

7.      "Criticism", strictly speaking however refers to the aesthetic evaluation of a work of art. Whether conscious­ly or unconsciously this is done by every art historian in defining the object of his historical investigation. When this is a conscious process, it can be done more intelligently and with far less danger of resorting to sheer subjectivism. The student will be encouraged to develop a critical apparatus for himself. One of the best models of this kind is Ezra Pound's A B C of Reading. That Pound's subject matter is poetry and not the visual arts is not important, since the emphasis is upon the structure of a critical apparatus and the function of criticism. In still another course, however, criticism refers to articles and reviews, journalistic or semi-journalistic, and usually non-professional, writing on the fine arts. There is a relevance of this to art history which should not be over­looked although perhaps it is best considered in historical perspective. Some of the finest examples of criticism are to be found in the writings of Charles Baudelaire. Selections from his essays in criticism published as The Mirror of Art will be read in conjunction with visual analyses of the art with which Baudelaire was concerned, particularly the painting of Ingres and Delacroix.

8.       At the core of the subject of art history is the theoretical question of "style". This is the principal analytical concept for a scholarly and historical approach to the fine arts, and as such, deserves to be, itself, rigorously analysed. Among the most important writings on style are those of Heinrich Wolfflin, The Principles of Art History, Meyer Schapiro, "Style" reprinted in Aesthetics Today, and an extremely valuable article by James Ackerman, 'A Theory of Style" in the Spring 1962 Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. There are many "Styles" in art. These and the term 'style' itself must be clarified.

9.    The next section of the course, which may extend ovel several weeks, will relate the seminal concepts of these scholars to specific works of art and architecture. These works will be grouped and examined with reference to the individual styles of the artists or architects and with reference to the ways in which they manifest traits common to a group, nation, period or central theme. ±or example, a lecture or series of lectures might be devoted to the concept of the Renaissance. Examples of major historical styles will be discussed in detail.

10.      Further considerations of the study of the fine arts will lead the student to examine the philosophical implications of various approaches to the history of art and architecture. Far from being idle speculation, this investigation should supply the student with a rigorous but fair apparatus, or guide, with which to assess the relative utility and value of contributions to the literature of the field. Reading will include selections from the writings of Heinrich Wolfflin, Alois Riegl .and Erwin Panofsky. This will be augmented by some as yet unpublished material on problems in the study of Chinese art.

11.    As in any other field, it is vital for the student of the history and theory of fine art to learn, very early in his university career, precisely what sort of study materials are at his disposal, and what are the most efficient ways in which to use them. An integral part of this course will be a survey of current books, articles, periodicals, catalogues and museum publications. The use of standard reference works such as the Art Index, the various biographical dictionaries and many other more specific studies will be explained also.

12.    Problems relating to the handling of primary material will be outlined. Writings and comments by artists and architects themselves will be of particular interest. The excellent anthology compiled by Elizabeth G. Holt will serve as a guide, but with references also to Goldwater and Treves, Artists on Art, and to publications of letters and notebooks of particular artists, e.g. Leonardo da Vinci, Eugene Delacroix, Paul Klee or Frank Lloyd Wright.

13.     This will lead the student to theoretical considerations of art and architecture generally related to the field of aesthetics. Within the scope of this course, only a very brief survey of the most interesting ideas of the past, and of the most important ideas of today can be undertaken. As a complement to Miss Holt's historical approach, Aesthetics Today, edited by Morris Philipson,provides many stimulating theoretical statements. No introductory course in art history could neglect aesthetics altogether, although the approach here must be a simple and modest one.

14.     One of the most significant and fascinating results of contemporary thought is a new approach to the very old problem of interrelationships between and among the fine arts and the liberal arts. A series of lectures grouped round this central theme might deal with poetry and painting for example, or art and mathematics, or Gothic architecture and Scholasticism. The amount of time which could be devoted to these lectures would depend largely on how effectively the previous and more essential topics had been covered.

This and the following series of lectures will be intended to bring together the several topics introduced throughout the year.

15.    Architecture is one of the fine arts that has been most concerned with this problem of interrelationships. Here it would seem to merit special attention as a unifying conclusion to the introductory course in the history and theory of fine art. Both theoretically and in actual practice, architecture has brought together the various visual arts. This last series of lectures will consider such complexes as Chartres Cathedral and Versailles. Also it will deal with the work and thought of the great modern architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Louis Kahn, who have been intimately concerned with both the complex interrelationships of the fine arts and with the larger issue of the importance of all the arts in the life and future of mankind.



Each lecture will deal with a specific problem in the History of Art.  Specific works on artists, analysis and characterisation of coherent periods. The tracing of certain important ideas.

As did the introductory course, History and Theory of the Fine Arts I, this will comprise three lectures weekly and one tutorial. However instead of having each week oriented toward one topic, or toward one aspect of a topic, the lectures for this course will be more independent. While it is unreason­able to define the specific content of the lectures at this stage, there is, nevertheless, a general program which they will follow and which will serve as the unifying structure for the whole course.

An initial series of lectures will present certain high points in the history of art and architecture; those masterpieces without some knowledge of which no man in the Western world could really claim to be educated. For example, there will be lectures on the Parthenon and on classical Greek Sculpture of the Fifth Century B.C., and others on the buildings of Imperial Rome, the frescoes of Giotto, the great cathedrals of French Gothic architect­ure, the sculpture of Donatello and Michelangelo, the Sistine Ceiling, the paintings of Rembrandt, Velasquez and Pablo Picasso. These masterpieces will be in many different media and from many different periods of history, the criterion for selection being their outstanding aesthetic significance. Generally the lectures will be independent of each other, and will each deal with a specific work or with the work of one man or with several works of art in one particular context. No attempt will be made to establish necessary connections between the various lectures, nor to emphasise the chronological relationships of their contents, although these relationships may indeed exist.

The next series of lectures in the course will constitute a survey of the different 'periods' in the history of art and architecture.  There have come into use many terms relating to more or less coherent periods, such as "Renaissance", "Gothic", and "Baroque".  It will be the aim of these lectures to help the student decide which of these terms are of use as meaningful concepts, and under what conditions or with what limitations they can be used meaningfully. The tutorial meetings will be extremely important as opportunities for discussing freely some of the opposing viewpoints on these issues.

The prescribed reading will consist of selections from the writings of scholars or critics that attempt to present fairly both sides of an issue, if they exist in a reasonable form. The discussion will lead inevitably to considerations of a more strictly historical nature. History is after all, not a series of clearly demarcated periods, but a vast continuum of events; and the art historian is most usually concerned with the relationships between various periods, and with the influences between particular artists or works of art. There will be several lectures at this point that deal with issues o2 historical significance, or problems of continuity and change.   These will concern mostly large scale phenomena, such as the decline of the art of the ancient world and the rise of the early Christian Art, or the decline of the Middle Ages, or Art and the Industrial Revolution.

The final part of the course will investigate more specific historical 'problems, which can be classified into three groups: technical, iconographical and stylistic. The technical problems are usually clear and concise in their formulation, even if definitive solutions may not exist. Some examples are the invention of oil painting, the travels and technical influence of Byzantine mosaicists, the invention of concrete and its architectural use, or the problem of ancient book illumination.

Iconographical problems will cover such things as the changes in the tradition of visual representation of the Nativity, or of the Crucifixion, the halo in Christian and Buddhist art, or personifications of the Virtues and Vices. Often quite surprisingly studies of this sort will give the student new understanding or new insight into a period of history or into his own tastes and beliefs.

The group of problems relating to the history of style is of the utmost importance in the context of the study of art history. It will be the main component of the course History and Theory of the Fine Arts III. Thus it is reasonable that this course conclude with a strong section devoted to these problems, both by way of summing up what has been covered in the course of this year and as an introduction to the next year's studies for those who choose to go ahead, provided that such a course on the third level eventually becomes available. In an effort to relate these lectures on style more closely with the technical and iconographical approaches, however, they will deal with typological rather than individual or unique problems. Investigation will be made into some of the basic modes of representation: questions of mimesis (to-day or in ancient Greece), of abstraction (in pre-historic cave drawings, in Byzantine mosaics or in the Twentieth century) or of Neo-Classicism (in the age of Augustus, in the early nineteenth century, or in the Ming Dynasty).

After finishing the first and second year courses in the History and Theory of the Fine Arts, the student should have a thoroughgoing understanding of the fundamentals of the subject, coupled with the breadth and scope that are necessary for any really significant study of the humanities.

Historical consideration of the role  Architecture has played in bringing about the unity and interrelationship of the Fine Arts.

This course will be concerned primarily with a series of intense investigations connected with problems of style. A fact of great significance is that most of our concepts relating to style derive from considerations of architecture. Ever since Jacob Burckhardt and Heinrich Wolfflin, historians and art historians have looked first to architecture as a source for their analytical notions. Since then, however, the discipline of art history has grown so much that the strict dependence upon any one of the fine arts has long been obviated.  Nevertheless, architecture does hold a special place among the fine arts for the historian, as the investigations of this course will substantiate and explain.

The student will have been introduced to problems of style in both the History and Theory of the Fine Arts I and II, so its categorisation in terms of individual or personal style, group, national and period styles, will not be unfamiliar to him. This categorisation indicates the structure of the course.

The first series of lectures will consider stylistic unity as manifested in the work of one man e.g. Chagall, Gaudi or Brancusi, where the chronology is relatively unimportant; then cases where there is a clear stylistic progression, e.g. Michelangelo or regression e.g. Munch or Horta.; and finally architects or artists like Picasso whose work encompasses many styles with no obvious pattern of causality, but with intriguing though complex inter­relationships.

The next series of lectures will follow the same general pattern but on the level of a particular group or "movement". Relatively coherent groups like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or the Bauhaus and movements like "De Stijl" or "the International Style" will be investigated in order to discover those stylistic features which enable us to class their separate members together.

The larger problems of national or ethnic styles lead to investigations with more historical perspective. Is it possible, for instance, that there are stylistic congruencies between the German art of the late Middle Ages and that of the early 20th century? Are there stylistic concepts that are peculiarly English or French? The distinctions between Greek and Roman architecture may be examined, or the slow and subtle stylistic development of Egyptian sculpture. Considering problems of period style, a Series of lectures might investigate the implications of "Gothic Style" in architecture and in other visual arts, with references also to music and literature.  The idea of the Gothic might then be traced down through the centuries, to the rise of the Gothic Revival or Neo-Gothic in England around 1750 or to the Auckland University Tower.

There are many problems that could be handled on the level of a period style, and it is quite possible that in succeeding years the courses would consider different ones. The reading assignments and the topics for tutorial discussion would depend largely upon the particular subjects chosen for lectures. The only changes in the conduct of these meetings would be a greater emphasis and demand upon the student's own creative scholarship. By preparing material for the tutorial in this way, the student could take advantage of his own interests apd capacities in a related field which would then be of benefit to the class as a whole.

Upon completion of the three years of study, the student should have excellent preparation for graduate work in the field. Those who are selected for an Honours year or perhaps eventually those who study for a Master of Arts degree, would be able to conduct more intensive research on specific problems. They will probably find that they are constantly using what they have learned in all three years of the course. The technical and introductory material learned in the first year is not only used then, but continues to be used throughout the student's university career. This is true with respect to any second and third year courses, although it will be more true if the student decides to continue with his study of the history and theory of the Fine Arts. After an Honours year, or even after completing a third year course, the above average student should find no difficulty in performing excellently at any University in Europe or America while pursuing a higher degree in the History of Art or Architecture, Of course, there will still be much that is Unknown to him, and in a way, his education will not really begin until he experiences first hand some of the works of art and architecture about which he has been reading and which he has seen projected on to a screen. But by following this general plan, the student should have a firm command of that which we can teach him.

Of particular use to the student who desires to continue with the study of art history will be a knowledge of modern languages, German, French, and Italian, but especially German. Obviously any other courses in general history will be of great importance as will be a solid knowledge of English literature and command of the English language. But really profound under­standing of any particular discipline will more than compensate for many small failings in others, even if they are in this one.

Kurt von Meier
June, 1962