Max Loehr and the Study of Chinese Bronzes: Style and Classification in the History of Art
Max Loehr (1903–1988), the most distinguished historian of Chinese art of his generation, is celebrated above all for a 1953 art historical study of Chinese bronzes that effectively predicted discoveries Chinese archaeologists were about to make. Those discoveries in turn overthrew the theories of Loehr’s great rival Bernhard Karlgren (1889–1978), a Swedish sinologue whose apparently scientific use of classification and statistics had long dominated Western studies of the bronzes.
Revisiting a controversy that was ended by archaeology before the issues at stake were fully understood, Robert Bagley shows its methodological implications to be profound. Starting with a close reading of the work of Karlgren, he uses an analogy with biological taxonomy to clarify questions of method and to distinguish between science and the appearance of science. Then, turning to Loehr, he provides the rationale for an art history that is concerned above all with constructing a meaningful history of creative events, one that sees the intentionality of designers and patrons as the driving force behind stylistic change. In a concluding chapter he analyzes the concept of style, arguing that many classic confusions in art historical theorizing arise from a failure to recognize that style is not a property of objects. Addressed not just to ancient China specialists or historians of Chinese art, this book uses Loehr’s work on bronzes as a case study for exploring central issues of art history. It will be of interest to anyone concerned with the analysis of visual materials.