Panofsky̕s Nose

1827: “Look at that ugly dwarf! What a long nose he has…” 2011: “We found a short, gnome-like man with large eyes and a large nose… ” Sounds all too familiar? In an exclusive essay for the Jewish Voice, Gerda Panofsky brings to our attention pervading anti-Semitic prejudices and clichés in literature and academia about her late husband, the art historian Erwin Panofsky…

The nose is quite literally the most prominent feature of the human face. For that reason, it is nearly always damaged on the Greek marble statues excavated at archeological sites. Byzantine emperors neutralized their rivals and disqualified them from ruling by blinding them and cutting off their noses. Napoleon is said to have shot the nose off of the Sphinx with a cannonball during his Egyptian campaign of 1798/99.

While the lack of a nose is a denigration, it is considered no less a flaw to have too large a nose. In Wilhelm Hauff’s fairy tale Zwerg Nase (“Little Longnose”) from 1827, an evil witch casts a spell on the 12-year-old Jacob. “Everywhere he goes he hears the people cry, ‘Look at that ugly dwarf! What a long nose he has, and how his head is buried in his shoulders, and the swarthy ugly hands!’ […]. Jacob had been transformed into a hideous midget.” His nose appeared even more grotesque in relation to his shrunken body. Since the 1820s, obnoxious caricatures of Jews as wrinkled creatures with abnormally long noses had been flourishing.
Less than a century later, the stereotype of the Jew as small in stature and long of nose was expanded with another epithet – “old.” George L. Mosse (The Jews and the German War Experience 1914-1918) has demonstrated how in WWI the youthful hero of Apollonian beauty and manliness was being propagated as a German cult image. This Siegfried archetype was steely, radiant, and muscular for whom the representatives of the “old” people of the Jews served as a perfect foil.
In German literature from this period, even young Jews usually have “old” faces. “Finally, the concept of beauty and eros which symbolized the ideal German confronted a Jewish stereotype which was its opposite: small and puny, ill-proportioned and with shambling gait”, says Mosse.
The 1920s then supplied us with pseudo-scientific justifications for these prejudices which aided the National Socialists in building support for their persecution of Jews. In 1930, the third edition of Rassenkunde des Jüdischen Volkes (Racial History of the Jewish People) by Hans F. K. Günther (1891-1968) was published in Munich (initially printed in 1922 and 1927). In a twist of fate, Günther was not only an exact contemporary of the art historian Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) and – like the latter – earned his doctorate in 1914, but Günther too hailed from Freiburg im Breisgau where he held a professorship at Panofsky‘s alma mater from 1940-45.
In fact, such anti-Semitic clichés are still in circulation today. With astonishment one read the Emeritus Professor of Art History at the University of Hamburg Wolfgang Kemp’s (born in 1946) comments in his review of Vol. 5 of Erwin Panofsky Korrespondenz 1962-1968. His review, entitled “Briefspenden für die Ordensgemeinschaft” (“Letters Donated for the Order”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, No. 133, Thur. June 9, 2011), once again trotted out the hollow metaphor of the “old” Jew, “Ein altersmilder König der Kunstgeschichte” (“An age-mellowed king of art history”; a headline for which the FAZ editors were responsible) and “In diesem Band ist Panofsky alt geworden” (“In this volume, Panofsky has grown old”). Well, yes, objectively speaking, the year 1962 had ushered in the eighth decade of this Jewish scholar’s life. Subjectively speaking, however, someone who up until the very end of his life was teaching graduate seminars at the prestigious universities of Princeton and New York, who delivered series of public lectures, who embarked on research trips to Spain, Italy, Sweden, Holland, and France and who, in addition to more than a dozen articles, wrote such substantial works as Tomb Sculpture (1964) and Problems in Titian (1969), could hardly be dismissed as “old.”
Yet in the context of the other attributes used by Kemp, “old” smacks of something supremely disagreeable, “Wir sollten damals also zu Panofsky wallfahren […]. Wir fanden einen kleinen, gnomenhaften Mann mit großen Augen und großer Nase” (“Thus at that time [in 1967] we were supposed to make a pilgrimage [to Munich] in order to see Panofsky […]. We found a short, gnome-like man with large eyes and a large nose”). There it is again, the stereotype of the Jew with the disproportionate nose and eyes, rendered doubly contemptible by the pleonasm “short, gnome-like.” In German, gnome is a synonym for dwarf (see Hauff). According to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm‘s German Dictionary “gnomenhaft” (“gnome-like”) means “klein, ältlich, runzelig” (“stunted, oldish, and wrinkled”). Hence Kemp’s ridicule of Panofsky matches the defamatory propaganda which depicts the Jews as a race of senile and dwarfish people with big noses. In truth, Panofsky had luminous eyes and a perfectly normal nose.

Gerda S. Panofsky is an art historian. She lives and works in Princeton. This is an abridged version of her original article

Photo Credit: JVG

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