Grey Room

Carl Einstein’s History without Names: From Geology to the Masses

Maria Stavrinaki

Henri Breuil at the foot of a large geological section, 1935. Album no. 3, Breuil Archives, Muséum national d’histoire naturelle.


In the 1930s, the art historian and critic Carl Einstein set out to write a different kind of art history. Previously focusing on the art of his own time, authoring dozens of texts on contemporary artists and up to three versions of his opus Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts (The Art of the Twentieth Century, 1926/1928/1931), Einstein changed his approach and attempted to understand society, and the function of art in it, through the longue durée (or, as he put it, die lange Zeit) of art history. He did not cease, however, to immerse himself in the history of the present. Around 1931 or 1932 he compulsively began writing several art history books, none of which he completed. Instead of naming artists in these books, Einstein examined supra-individual visual and social laws. He situated these laws at the origin of art and considered them essential to the making of human history. Then, from 1936 until 1939, he volunteered to participate in the Spanish Civil War. These two decisions were not contradictory. For, as we shall see, Einstein’s presentist approach to history—his antihistoricist conviction, shared by many historians and philosophers of this period and later on, that history is not written once and for all but always depends on the historian’s present—led him both to write his anonymous art histories and to fight in the Spanish Civil War. He was convinced that together these two experiences, one cold and the other ardent, one contemplative and the other active, one detached and the other participatory, were in the process of replacing the modern “I” with a whole and primitive “we.” For Einstein, the primitive “we” necessitated a history without names.