Two-day conference, anticipating the 300th anniversary of Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s birth in 2017, seeks to reframe the antiquarian and historian who wrote the script of obsessive German philhellenism.

The Transalpine Fantasy of Modern Paganism
The Transalpine Fantasy of Modern Paganism

Deutsches Haus at NYU, the NYU Department of German, and the Department of History at NYU present the conference "Johann Joachim Winckelmann: The Transalpine Fantasy of Modern Paganism." Thursday, December 8 – Friday, December 9 at Deutsches Haus (42 Washington Mews, at the corner of University Place), New York, N.Y.

This conference, anticipating the 300th anniversary of Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s birth in 2017, seeks to reframe, reassess, and generally defamiliarize the antiquarian and historian who wrote the script of obsessive German philhellenism. Goethe, awed by Winckelmann, reasoned that the Prussian aesthete, son of obscure artisans, must have succeeded in paganizing himself already in Germany, before his arrival in Italy at the age of thirty-seven (exactly Goethe’s age when he crossed the Alps). Nietzsche blamed Winckelmann for failing to penetrate to the Dionysian depths of Greek art and culture, but at the same time hesitated to dismiss the demonic scholar who surely knew that his vision of an impossible harmony of freedom and desire was a bold fantasy and for that reason indispensable:

Winckelmanns und Goethes Griechen, V. Hugo’s Orientalen, Wagners Edda-Personnagen, W. Scotts Engländer des 13. Jahrhunderts—irgend wann wird man die ganze Komödie entdecken: es war Alles über alle Maassen historisch falsch, aber—modern, wahr! (Fragments, 1887-88)

The conference hopes to recover this elusive author as a riddle. Winckelmann asserted the absolute artistic primacy of the beautiful body sculpted in marble at a moment when already two centuries of art theory had established painting as the paradigmatic modern European medium, as it would remain into the nineteenth century and beyond. He held up classical Greek sculpture as the time-transcending paragon of artistic expression and yet has been credited with creating the template of modern art historical method, which supposedly explains every art form as a product of local circumstances. He met the exacting standards of the antiquarian scholarship of his day, compiling a descriptive catalogue of the engraved gems in a great private collection and, in his magnum opus the History of Ancient Art (1764), offering remarks on Greek costumes and footwear on the evidence of statuary. But the taste for fact did not interfere with his critical appreciations, even open expressions of erotic admiration, of the sculpted body. Winckelmann’s language of desire runs like an underground river through the discursive terrain of German idealism.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann brought the philosophical values of the German Enlightenment to bear upon the antiquarian opportunities of eighteenth-century Rome for the purpose of elaborating in fantasy the mental mapping of a vividly invented Greece. His life and death (in Habsburg Trieste, at the geographical overlapping of the German, Mediterranean, and Slavic worlds) framed the future cultural encounter between north and south in the later enlightenment and romantic epoch. Winckelmann alerts us to an irresolution at the heart of the cultural project of the ancien régime and speaks to some of the manifold transformations that, as Robert Rosenblum long ago noted, radically complicate the relation between neoclassicism and the enlightenment.


Josh Billings, Princeton UniversityWhitney Davis, University of California - Berkeley

Gabriele Guercio, independent scholar
Katherine Harloe, University of Reading
Brooke Holmes, Princeton University
Christopher Johns, Vanderbilt University
Marika Knowles, Harvard University
Catriona MacLeod, University of Pennsylvania
Erika Naginski, Harvard Graduate School of Design
Peter Miller, Bard Graduate Center
Andrei Pop, University of Chicago
Alex Potts, University of Michigan
Nicola Suthor, Yale University

Events at Deutsches Haus are free of charge. If you would like to attend this event, please send us an email to Space at Deutsches Haus is limited; please arrive ten minutes prior to the event. Thank you!

Johann Joachim Winckelmann: The Transalpine Fantasy of Modern Pagansim is a DAAD supported event.

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Robert Polner
Robert Polner
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