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Matthew Vollgraff

Research Associate
The Warburg Institute / "Bilderfahrzeuge" project
vollgraff@bilderfahrzeuge.org

About Me

I am a historian of modern Germany, working at the intersection of aesthetics, anthropology, and the life sciences. My research explores how ideas around the irrational, archaic and “primitive” have informed scientific and cultural practices. Drawing on methods from the history of science, media theory, and visual culture studies, my work enfolds the history of this quintessentially German preoccupation within a wider colonial and trans-imperial context. I am also interested in the ways that technologically mediated engagements with nonhuman life and the natural environment have animated modern philosophical and political thought.

I am currently a research associate at the Warburg Institute, University of London, where I am a member of the Bilderfahrzeuge project. I received my PhD from Princeton University in 2019. Originally trained as a Germanist with a background in literary studies, I take an interdisciplinary approach to the epistemic transfers between the arts, humanities and the natural sciences. Below are a few of my major research strands.

The Science of Expression

Based on my 2019 dissertation, my current book manuscript provides the first history of Ausdruckskunde, a subversive science of expressive gesture that developed in early twentieth-century Germany. Through a series of interdisciplinary encounters, The Science of Expression reveals how art historians, philosophers, biologists, psychologists and filmmakers worked together to construct an alternative epistemology of somatic expressivity: a phenomenon that then as now unsettles distinctions between nature and culture, mind and body, human and nonhuman. Drawing on new archival sources and encompassing figures like Aby Warburg, Helmuth Plessner, and Sergei Eisenstein, the book demonstrates how this heterodox inquiry into expressiveness harnessed techniques of scientific rationalization in pursuit of the unalienated experience of bodily knowledge.

Ökologien des Ausdrucks (Ecologies of Expression), a 2022 volume co-edited with Frank Fehrenbach, explores some of the wider methodological ramifications of the science of expression for reimagining the interwoven histories of art and science today.

Anthropology, Aesthetics, Colonialism

More recently, I have been concerned with how the reception and interpretation of non-Western art and artifacts have unfolded in relation to colonial ideologies and institutions. My forthcoming first monograph, The Imperial Childhood of World Art reconstructs the first exhibition of global art history in Germany, organized by the historian Karl Lamprecht in 1914. Situating this exhibition within the wider context of German historical scholarship, scientific racism and imperial world policy on the eve of the First World War, the book revises the genealogy of “global art history” while intervening in contemporary debates around Eurocentrism and the universal museum.

Other texts of mine have addressed topics such as the ethnopsychological analysis of indigenous drawings in German Melanesia, and the art historian Aby Warburg’s interactions with the Bureau of American Ethnology. From 2021 to 2022 I co-convened the working group on Colonial Science in the German Empire at the Consortium for Science, Technology and Medicine. I have been an associate editor of the History of Anthropology Review since 2022.

Nature, Technology, Politics

Another major strand of my research addresses the aesthetic and political roles that nonhuman nature, ecological systems, and organic form have played in twentieth-century Germany. With Gregory Bryda, I co-edited a 2022 special issue of the Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte on Art and Environment in the Third Reich, which brings together scholars from both medieval and modern periods to offer new perspectives on the representation and manipulation of nature under fascism. I have also published on themes from vegetal vitalism in Weimar cinema and philosophy, to the place of anti-Darwinist biology and natural philosophy in the thought of the modernist architect Mies van der Rohe.

Migration as Method: Diffusionism and the Global Politics of Prehistory

During the period between 1890 and 1940, archaeologists and anthropologists developed a common method to model and visualize cultural origins by reconstructing the movements of artifacts, bodies, and customs across geographical space. My current long-term project examines the circulation of this diffusionist method, and the migrationist narratives it helped create, across disciplines and national institutions. Focusing on scholars in Great Britain, Germany, France and the United States, “Migration as Method” shows how their research into global prehistory developed in response to very contemporary motivations and concerns: globalization, nationalism, imperial expansion, capitalist trade networks, world war, diaspora, race and immigration. As I argue, these scientists’ ideas and theories about cultural diffusion and mobility continue to shape the way we navigate questions of national identity and ‘origins’ in today’s postcolonial world, bearing on issues that range from the legacies of genocide to debates over indigenous land rights.

A first iteration of this project was a 2021 essay detailing the history of diffusionist anthropology and cultural morphology in Germany. Together with Frederika Tevebring, I convene the research network ‘Migrating Prehistories’, based at King’s College, London, and the Warburg Institute.

Below are some of my publications. Feel free to send me an e-mail if you would like to get in touch.


Selected Publications


Edited Volumes

Articles

Catalogue Essays

Reviews

Translations