Ursula Hoff: from 1930s Hamburg to art historian in a “kangaroo-infested habitat”

We have written previously about art books donated to the University Library by Professor Jean Michel Massing. One resulting addition is a slight 1935 doctoral thesis from the University of Hamburg on Rembrandt’s influence on 18th century England. The author was Ursula Hoff from London, under the supervision of Erwin Panofsky (one of the most influential art historians of the 20th century) and Fritz Saxl (equally well known as the director of the Warburg Institute and instrumental in moving it from Hamburg to London in 1933). The examiners at her oral examination in May 1935 were the less well known Werner Burmeister and Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich. In this post I will look in more detail at the people behind these names and the connections between them. It’s a fascinating story with many twists and turns.

I was curious as to why someone from London would have been studying at a German university in Nazi Germany. However, although Ursula Hoff (1909-2005) was born in London, her parents were German and she grew up in Hamburg. She began to study art history at the University of Hamburg in 1930. At that time the Art History department  was flourishing, with links to the Warburg Institute set up by Aby Warburg, and building a reputation in the new field of iconology. Panofsky was Professor and Saxl was a lecturer – his own dissertation in Vienna had been on Rembrandt so he was well placed to supervise Hoff.

The rise to power of the Nazis in 1933 and new laws led to significant change in the department. Panofsky was dismissed and emigrated to the United States while Saxl resigned immediately before he could be dismissed, and moved to London along with the Warburg Institute in late 1933. Burmeister, a specialist in the Brick Gothic architecture prevalent in northern Germany, took over as head of department and set out to run it according to Nazi principles.

Many years later one of Ursula Hoff’s fellow students, William Heckscher, by then in his 90s, gave a fascinating and lengthy interview as part of an oral history project (transcript here) in which he remembered Burmeister among others. He stated that Burmeister’s face had been shot when he was a young soldier in World War One, leaving him horribly disfigured, and that Panofsky had treated him badly so that when Burmeister ended up in charge it was time for revenge and he took it out on people who had been Panofsky’s favourites. Burmeister was certainly a loyal Nazi – he was one of the German academics who in November 1933 signed a vow of allegiance to Hitler (UL copy donated in 1934: Bekenntnis der Professoren an den Universitäten und Hochschulen zu Adolf Hitler und dem nationalsozialistischen Staat)

Cover featuring 1985 portrait of Ursula Hoff by John Brack

Ursula Hoff’s father’s Jewish heritage meant that the family left Hamburg in 1933 and moved to London. She was able to continue working on her doctorate (facilitated perhaps by the fact that Fritz Saxl had also moved to London) but had to return to Hamburg in 1934-5 to complete her work and to undergo the compulsory oral examination. In his 2009 portrait of Hoff, The Outsider (S950.c.200.1372), Colin Holden gives a vivid impression of what she was up against:

“Of the two who conducted her oral examination, Werner Burmeister was overtly hostile, condemning her thesis because of what he detected as the clear influence of Panofsky … the categories by which he was assessing it were the racial theories of Nazism. If that were not frightening enough, he conducted the interview dressed in his SA (brownshirt) uniform.”

Holden goes on to suggest that Hoff’s return to Germany and her statement of thanks to her two supervisors (both by then intellectually and racially discredited) demonstrated some bravery, emboldened (perhaps misguidedly) by the possession of a British passport. This she referred to herself in a 1981 oral history project interview, saying “I had British nationality by that time, so they couldn’t object to me in any sort of way in Hamburg.”

However difficult her brief return to Germany was, Ursula Hoff’s doctorate was granted and she was able to go back to London where she gained some research and curator work in various musuems. In 1939 she sailed to Australia to work as secretary to the principal of the University Women’s College in Melbourne. Then in 1943 she landed the job of Assistant Keeper of prints and drawings at the National Gallery of Victoria, the first curator in any Australian gallery with a doctoral degree, there being no fine arts schools in Australia at that time.

Heydenreich, the other examiner of her thesis, had himself studied under Panofsky at Hamburg, and in contrast to Burmeister was probably trying to keep alive the iconological tradition and support Panofsky’s students. However, William Heckscher’s aged memories of Heydenreich were that he was a “stinking Nazi” who had threatened him with the concentration camp because he had “collected money for a Jewish girl” (this was Ursula Hoff who he described as “a girl of immense gifts” see p. 124-125 of interview transcript). After the war, Heydenreich became the first director of the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in Munich where he remained until retirement in 1970.

An interesting side story is that in 2012 the manuscript of Erwin Panofsky’s habilitation thesis on Michelangelo, submitted in 1920 but never published and long believed lost, came to light in a basement safe at the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte. It would appear that the manuscript had come to be in Heydenreich’s possession but nobody else had known about it. Panofsky’s widow, Gerda, had certainly not known to look in Munich, having looked but failed to find it in Hamburg. Once found, the manuscript was edited by Gerda and published in 2014 with an introduction and supplemented by a full facsimile of the manuscript (S950.c.201.531).

The comprehensive volumes of Erwin Panofsky’s correspondence (400:9.c.200.22-26, 26a) reveal that in 1954 he wrote to William Heckscher, then in the art department at Iowa State University, about Ursula Hoff, answering a question about likely support for her to come to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, his own institution. While stating that he had the greatest respect for her, he was also sceptical:

“Interesting though her projects are, it would seem equally impossible to finish one of them within one year outside her permanent, kangaroo-infested habitat, and equally impossible to finish it there, and these very objections would also make it difficult for me to recommend an application for membership here should such an application be made… in good conscience I could not say that a membership, if granted, would lead to tangible results as long as her permanent job is in Melbourne. And, on the other hand, the permanence of this very job would be a precondition for application. The only solution for her would seem to be to find a permanent job in a more civilized environment first; but how to do that I do not know.”

In fact Ursula Hoff stayed at the National Gallery of Victoria for more than 30 years, rising to the position of Deputy Director. In the 21st century she continues to be remembered and held in high esteem in Australia – there is an Ursula Hoff Institute, annual lectures held in her honour and an annual essay competition organised by the Print Council of Australia in partnership with the Ursula Hoff Institute to write an original research essay that considers an aspect of Australian print culture over the past 50 years.  She herself also bequeathed funds to the University of Melbourne to establish an annual fellowship for the study and promotion of prints held in the print collections of the University of Melbourne and the National Gallery of Victoria.

Katharine Dicks

Further reading

 Other publications by Ursula Hoff in the UL

  • “Meditation in solitude”, Journal of the Warburg Institute, vol. 1, no. 4, 1938, pp. 292-294 (online on JSTOR), her first scholarly article
  • Charles I : patron of artists (1942, S400:9.b.9.7), her first book in English
  • Masterpieces of the National Gallery of Victoria (1949, S405:1.a.9.2)
  • Goethe and the Dutch interior (1972, Uc.8.4610)
  • The National Gallery of Victoria (1973, 400:05.c.95.336)
  • European painting and sculpture before 1800 (3rd ed. 1973, S950.c.9.908)
  • The art of Arthur Boyd (1986, 9400.a.1159), widely regarded as the definitive text on this Australian artist

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