Page 16, 22nd October 2010

22nd October 2010
Page 16
Page 16, 22nd October 2010 — The architectural historian with the spirit of an ant

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The architectural historian with the spirit of an ant

Pevsner: The Early Life


In 1911 Auguste Forel, the Swiss psychiatrist and entomologist, discovered an ant in Venezuela which he named Cremotogaster distans r. pevsnerae after the five-year-old Nikolaus Pevsner. He was a friend of Pevsner’s mother, Annie, and this encouraged Sir Ernst Gombrich, director of the Warburg Institute, to believe that the spirit of the ant entered Pevsner’s soul and made him unimaginably industrious.

Phenomenal industry was a characteristic of Pevsner, cultivated in boyhood and continued for the rest of his life. It enabled him to realise not only the Penguin Buildings of England series of architectural guides, which encouraged the English to study their native architecture on a serious level previously unachieved, but, as editor, the distinguished volumes of the Pelican History of Art. These were combined with a chair at London University, Slade Professorships at Oxford and Cambridge, a lectureship at Cambridge, and conservationist committee work, as well as outstanding achievements in his native Germany before he came to live in England in 1933.

Pevsner became an adopted Englishman but it is the German Pevsner that Stephen Games investigates in this remarkable book and the parallels between the two periods of his life complement each other. Pevsner came from a Russian Jewish background, born in Germany Nikolai Bernhard Leon Pewsner, and he had to devote as much energy to achieve German assimilation as he did later to English; his life was characterised by a conscientious, sometimes dogged, aspiration to belong.

The second son of Hillel (Hugo) Pewsner, a fur trader, and Annie Perlmann, Pevsner was born in Leipzig in 1906 into a family of solid bourgeois comfort touched by high culture. They had come to Germany because it offered the possibility of a better life. The Pewsner’s lived in a 26-roomed flat in a good district and Nikolai was educated at the prestigious Thomasschule, Leipzig’s foremost school. There were few Jewish pupils and most others were drawn from the upper-class elite and the newer upper-middle class like Pevsner’s parents. Annie Pewsner was a cultured feminist; she was musical and took an interest in art and politics, and ran a salon to which intellectuals like Thomas Mann and men from Leipzig University were attracted as well as musicians and writers.

Hillel changed the family name to Pevsner in 1914. Pevsner did not share his father’s bond with Jewish traditions and in 1921 Nikolaus (as he became) converted to Lutheranism, a change on which Games is disappointingly reticent. He implies that this was a pragmatic step, urged by his fiancée, towards assimilation in preparation for a university career, but Pevsner remained a Christian for the rest of his life and described himself as Low Church. It distanced him from Judaism but did not prevent him from experiencing anti-Jewish discrimination during the rise of Nazism and the destruction of his academic ambitions.

He did well at school and in 1920 went on to Leipzig University to read the history of art under the stimulating tutelage of Wilhelm Pinder. Games has researched the academic genealogy of Pinder and other Leipzig art historians and this is as valuable for tracing the evolution of historiography as it is on those immediately concerned with Pevsner’s education. Pevsner was a brilliant student with a quick mind who initially worked in the Mannerist painters of the Italian Renaissance but went on to architecture when he wrote a pioneer doctoral thesis on the Baroque merchant houses of Leipzig. While his school and university education progressed he met Carola (Lola) Kurlbaum, the daughter of a distinguished legal family that included merchants and civil servants. They married in 1923 and this brought him into the solid Protestant professional class and further helped his assimilation into German society.

Pevsner obtained a lectureship at Leipzig where he proved to be an excellent teacher and published widely but went on to become an intern keeper at the Royal Picture Gallery, Dresden, where he returned to the study of the sacred art of the Renaissance. During this period his interests broadened into modern architecture which he combined with conservative politics. He discerned the origins of Modernism in the English Arts and Crafts Movement and its creative energies fulfilled not in Le Corbusier (for whose work he had an antipathy) but in Gropius and the Bauhaus. He believed that they embodied the artistic style of the modern age and, for that reason, were regarded as morally binding. Games attracted criticism some years ago when he disclosed Pevsner’s association with the German right. His draw was nationalistic rather than racial and he saw in Hitler the regeneration of the German nation in which he desired to participate after the Versailles reparations; there was nothing sinister in that. When the Nazis came to power Pevsner was dismissed from his post at Göttingen University for being a Jew. In 1933 he arrived in England and was given a teaching post in the department of commerce at Birmingham University and thereafter made England his home.

Games has written a major, if unillustrated, study of Pevsner but, despite its honesty, it leaves me uneasy. He has researched the development of the Jewish diaspora in Germany as closely as Pevsner’s academic background, in order to place the Pevsner family and their peers’ invidious position at the time of the rise of Nazism. This microscopic attention to detail has been applied to Pevsner himself. Compelling though the fruits of research are, Games sometimes creates the disturbing impression that he is in pursuit of a quarry rather than a subject and that nothing will deter him until he has the victim at bay.

I am looking forward to the second volume of this distinguished biography but, for the sake of a humane man, fear its remorseless precision.

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