The Holbein Exhibition of 1871 – An Iconic Turning Point for Art History
Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte (DFK), Paris
The Holbein exhibition of 1871 is particularly famous for playing a pivotal role in the so called Holbein controversy, involving two versions of the Madonna of Jakob Meyer zum Hasen by Hans Holbein the Younger. Following a widespread opinion among later researchers it was only thanks to the exhibition that art historians were able to determine which of the two pictures was the original Holbein painting, thus putting an end to a long and agitated dispute between scholars and artists. This rather sensationalist interpretation is supported by a series of premieres associated to the exhibition: “the first time that Old Masters were transported across frontiers for the purpose of being exhibited” (Haskell), the first-ever survey of museum visitors, the first congress of art history, the first art historical press release etc. Organized in the midst of the events following the Preliminary Treaty of Versailles, the exhibition was highly politicized. Holbein’s Meyer Madonna, at that time Germany’s most celebrated painting, was a projection screen for national politics – but the significance of the exhibition goes much further. The Holbein controversy is a key event for art history as an academic discipline. Despite attracting considerable attention in the history of academia, the explosive nature of this controversy has since been relativized. Previously unconsidered archival documents, source texts and numerous reproductions prove that the question of authenticity was not even the focus of the debate. The main challenge of art history was not to identify the original work, but rather to recognize the beauty of the copy itself. Therein lies the impact of the Holbein exhibition: the presentation was a complex montage including originals as well as copies and reproductions, arranged for visual comparisons, redefining not only connoisseurship but first and foremost new forms of image criticism. The exhibition was a public milestone in a series of attempts to visualize art history.