Erwin Panofsky and Art History, Part Two

ERWIN PANOFSKY (1892-1968)

Part Two: The System of Meaning: Art History as Symbolic Form

Like the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Erwin Panofsky considered social acts to be not natural but linguistic forms, which are cultural, and thus subject to human interpretation. As a social act, any work of art is a cultural artifact, and, as such, must function as a means of communication with its public and act as an object of visual language. This language speaks, as it were, through symbolic codes or a system of writing through pictures, called “iconography.” “Iconography,” Panofsky stated, “is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form.” But the road to iconography was a long one, a journey through turn of the century attempts to put philosophy on the same certain basis as science.

Panofsky, as a student of Aby Warburg, was also the heir to late nineteenth-early twentieth century thinking that attempted to combine idealism and scientific thinking into a new absolute philosophy. In fact, Ernst Cassirer, one of the mentors for Panofsky, had begun his career in the philosophy of science. The copious writings of Panofsky can be situated squarely in this philosophical tradition and his philosophical take on art history was part of his effort to make of art history a solid “humanistic discipline” that was grounded in a solid epistemology. The art historian, as noted in the first part of the posts on Panofsky, staked out territory that separated his approach to art history from that of Heinrich Wölfflin, who stressed period styles, and from what art historian Christopher S. Wood in his preface to Panofksy’s 1927 Perspective as Symbolic Form, called the “homemade concept” crafted by Alois Rigel: Kunstwollen, or artistic will or volition.

Indeed in his famous 1940 essay, “Art History as a Humanistic Discipline,” Panofsky began by comparing the humanist to the scientist, but the comparison was challenged when it had to be acknowledge that unlike the scientist who confronted a static mindless object, the art historian worked with a work of art, a product of Kunstwollen. As Panofsky asked, “How, then, is it possible to built up art history as a respectable scholarly discipline, if its very objects come into being by an irrational and subjective process?” According to Wood, Panofsky attempted to salvage Riegl and to re-locate artistic creativity in Ernst Cassirer’s neo-Kantian idea of “symbolic form.” As Panofsky stated in “On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory: Towards the Possibility of a Fundamental System of Concepts for a Science of Art” (1925),

The ultimate task of a science of art, namely, the determination of Kunstwollen, can only be achieved in the interaction of the historical and theoretical modes of observation.

Previous art historians had followed either Kantian or Hegelian abstract structures and explained art in terms of formal categories. Alois Riegl, for example, worked in Hegelian dialectics by analyzing art within binary categories of internal-external, haptic-optic, and coordination-subordination, which he considered to be the deep structures of the work. Riegl considered the engine of this system to be Kunstwollen, which is a bracketing device that allows the study of art to be a study in form. Panofsky attempted to address the neglect of the meaning of art objects, by stating in his 1920 essay, “The Concept of Artistic Volition,” that, “Artistic products,” “are not statements by subjects, but formulations of material, not events, but results.”

To develop his concept of iconography, Panofsky drew together a number of philosophical ideas, replacing the notion of Kunstwollen with Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and used neo-Kantianism to analyze art through a priori categories. Ernst Cassirer’s symbolic forms are deeply spiritual, but their embedded meaning is attached to a concrete and material sign. Panofsky moved from the level of form to the level of structure by understanding that artistic perception was a special case of cognition. His most famous case study is his study of perception when he examined Renaissance perspective as symbolic form. Perspective as Symbolic Form, his most explicit revelation of the impact of Cassirer and neo-Kantian thought was a very impactful essay buttressed with extensive and erudite footnotes was a legend for those not fluent in high German until it was translated into English in 1991.

For Panofsky, perspective is an example of a “will to form” that was an unnatural invention of a particular period of time, the Renaissance. The symbolic form functioned at the structural level and the Renaissance version of perspective is comprehensible only for the modern sense of organized and structured space. Panofsky asserted that perspective is a form of thought and that thought is culturally bound to a place and time, a position of relativism that rested uncomfortably with the desired transcendence of symbolic form. The essay suggests that perspective is part of a change in world view, the shift in point of view from the infinity of religion where Earth is the center of the universe to a heliocentric world based on science. According to Panofsky, referring to perspective,

This formula also suggests that as soon as perspective ceased to be a technical and mathematical problem, it was bound to become al all that much more of an artistic problem. For perspective is by nature a two-edged sword: it creates room for bodies to expand plastically and move gesturally, and yet at the same time it enables light to spread out in space and in a painterly way to dissolve the bodies.

Experience or Welt is associated with Space as Experience and this experience is expressed in a linear fashion as a pictorial device in painting. For example, modern Western art based itself upon science, emulating the mindset of newly discovered humanistic values in the Fifteenth Century. Developed by architects to both measure and to map virtual space, “perspective” was an artistic language that was a sensuous and an intellectual (aesthetic) manifestation of a culture and its needs. Thus, following the thinking of his colleague, Ernst Cassirer who considered art to be a symbolic form, and perspective, for Panofsky, becomes symbolic form.

In 1951, Panofsky expanded upon this notion of symbolic form as a way of thinking that permeated an entire culture in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, which precisely compared the way in which cathedrals were conceived and the way in which ecclesiastical literature was organized. Pierre Bourdieu, the French theorist, profoundly influenced by Panofsky’s idea of symbolic form, wrote in 1967 “Postface to Erwin Panofsky Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, of the Gothic imagination as a specific form of thought that produced buildings whose designs concretized and expressed the form of thought symbolically. Bourdieu used his own term, “habitus,” or an affinity among supposed different objects, to explain the existence of a mindset “..though which the creator partakes of his community and time, and that guides and directs, unbeknownst to him, his apparently most creative acts.”

As a form that symbolized a society’s desire to master territory and to understand space, perspective is a formal system that exhibits a system of relationships or formal principles that underlie the mental structures of the Renaissance. A Marxist, therefore, would have insisted that perspective reflected the new world of commerce that required mathematical measurement of all things. But there is another way of interpreting perspective as a symbolic manifestation of cultural cognitive structures. These structures produce a certain way of seeing the world that depends upon deeper formal codes of knowledge. Perspective painting originates in the human intellect as an artificial convention of seeing. This Renaissance way of seeing is a canon of representation that is also the history of how a culture thinks and sees. Panofsky takes up a task elided by Saussure, the problem of the diachronic aspect of language as a particular culture that expressed itself in a certain fashion through art forms at particular times.

Although perspective was uniquely a Renaissance invention of necessity, five hundred years later, we are still convinced that we “see” in perspective and we still draw “realistically” in perspective, still using the devices invented by Brunelleschi and Alberti. But Panofsky undermines the apparent “naturalness” of perspective. The Renaissance invented an equilibrium between the subject and the object and linear perspective is simply a necessary abstraction for practical empiricism and solves the problem of how to reproduce three dimensions on a two dimensional plane. The abstraction of the system is manifested through the artificial construction that keeps the object within certain spatial limits. The system depends upon a single, stable, and immobilized eye and does not recognize infinity. The space is mathematical and produces an adequate reproduction of an optical image. Representation takes place within a closed interior space or a hollow body or box that increased in its scope with the invention of the vanishing point that expresses infinite space (without depicting infinity). Perspective is the mathematical realization of an image of space.

Symbolic forms may manifest themselves as the deep structure of works of art, as habits of cognition. Panofsky discussed perspective as “symbolic form” in that perspective is not natural but artificial and needs to be understood within a cultural system that is an expression of an era.The new symbolic form comes about as the result of a Hegelian agonistic resolution of conflicts. Historical change is a series of syntheses, but for Panofsky, art will move in a schema of advances and reversals, rather than thesis and antithesis. In other words, art will recoil and reverse direction and abandon previous achievements. Today, the work of Panofsky is still prevalent in art history but is usually employed clumsily and superficially, with most adherents to his methods limiting themselves to a simplistic reading of symbols without understanding the complex network of relations that allow the symbols to function and ignoring the cultural context that engendered these symbols. Nevertheless, art history can claim the distinction of being the first humanistic discipline that responded to the linguistic claims of structuralism.

Symbolic forms are the deep structures of thought, functioning as an épistémè. But works of art manifest aspects of for example how people in Medieval times, such as Panofsky’s 1934 essay on the Arnolofini Wedding as an example of “disguised symbolism,” and the art historian needed a method to interpret the (superficial) visual codes. Panofsky, impacted by the semiotic work of Charles Sanders Peirce, organized visual language into 1. The pre-iconographical analysis, or what he terms “practical experience,” which is the primary, natural or factual expression which, when seen, must be subjected to 2. An iconographical analysis, or “knowledge of literary sources,” which decodes the image into conventional meaning. But this conventional meaning is part of a vaster system, a world of symbolic values that must be investigated through 3. an iconological analysis, a “synthetic intuition,” which is a study of the culture that produced the initial sign. Unlike iconography, which requires the viewer to know literary sources, themes and concepts and the history of visual types, iconology requires to the spectator to be conversant with the history of cultural symptoms that are essential tendencies of the human mind–the prevailing Weltanschauung. As Panofsky stated,

…as our practical experience had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, objects and events were expressed by forms (history of style); and as our knowledge of literary sources had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, specific themes and concepts were expressed by objects and events (history of types); just so, or even more so, has our synthetic intuition to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, the general and essential tendencies of the human mind were expressed by specific themes and concepts. This means what may be called a history of cultural symptoms–or symbols in Ernst Cassirer’s sense…

Iconography is not merely a decoding of symbols, not only an identification of icons; iconography reveals the basic attitudes of a nation, of a period, of a class or of a religion. The icon developed by the society is qualified by the artist’s personality but the symbolic values expressed must ultimately be manifestations of an underlying principle or structure. Iconography as a method of interpretation is an act of synthesis, in the Kantian sense, a putting together of identification or analysis that leads to interpretation. The recognition of the icon presupposes familiarity with the themes and concepts of the culture and its historical conditions. This synthesis takes place at the iconological level or third level where the cultural symbols are also the intuitions of the human mind.

To state Panofsky’s approach to art in Kantian terms, he has put forward a new theoretical manifesto. There are a priori categories that are independent of experience and are purely intellectual and are transcendental. Time and Space are antithetical and must be balanced into a unity that is art. This unity (symbolic form) or sinn is the intrinsic meaning of the art of a period and this unity spans the usual distinction between form and content. Painting in perspective, in other words, is a desire to order the world in a certain way. Between form and content is a middle ground: symbolic form, a concept derived from Ernst Cassirer, which is the sole object of Panofsky’s study.

The first part of the series discusses European philosophical ideas while third and final post on Erwin Panofsky will describe his system of iconography.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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“The Origin of German Tragic Drama,” 1925, by Walter Benjamin


(The Origin of German Tragic Drama), 1925

by Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin’s Ursprung des deutschenTrauerspiels utilized a thought floated by Marx, that all art would become “allegorical” as a result of commodification and of its transformation into a fetishistic object. In this notoriously difficult book, Benjamin foregrounded allegory as the structural underpinning of the Baroque épistemé. Originally intended as his Habilitationsschrift, or an academic manuscript, submitted to the faculty of a German university as the necessary prelude for being accepted as a Privatdozent. Once accepted into the university fold, the Privatdozent has the right to lecture on whatever topic s/he desires. On the surface, the submission was exemplary. Benjamin had made all the right moves: he found a long neglected area of culture to investigate—German Baroque tragic drama—-and analyzed this obscure topic with exemplary and labyrinthine thoroughness.

However, after being passed among departments, this complex tome was summarily rejected by the traditional academics at the university in Frankfurt. The Ursprung was an uneasy but innovative work—ahead of its time in its willingness to combine exacting research with poetical interpretation. The major complaint against this book from its main reader was that it is impossible to study the spirit of an age, but forty years later, Michel Foucault would do just that in his Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) when he studied the notion that each era had its own system or theory of knowledge.

But beyond the question of how or whether “knowledge” was a social construct, there were larger problems with the Ursprung. In resurrecting an almost forgotten art form, Benjamin actually challenged the prevailing belief that the “Classical” was superior to the “Baroque.” It seems clear that he had read or was familiar with the work of the art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin: Renaissance und Barock (Renaissance and Baroque) (1888), and Die klassische Kunst (Classic Art) (1898, and Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Principles of Art History) (1915). Wölfflin treated the Baroque as a co-equal of Classical, as simply another style and not as a “decline” from the Classical. However, as the prompt rejection of Benjamin’s thought experiment on the Baroque would suggest, the ideas of Wölfflin were still not accepted among those favoring classicism as the epitome of any form of art.

For a century, Germans had preferred the “classical”, that which the poet Göethe had called “healthy” to the Baroque or the early version of the Romantic which was therefore “unhealthy.” The Baroque had long been considered to be a decadent version of the pure Classical and its obscure manifestations in Germany were of little interest to anyone, but Benjamin, who revisited this manifestation for his Habilitationsschrift. In a time when academics worked within disciplinary confines that were strictly limited and patrolled, Benjamin was writing an interdisciplinary work, crashing through the room divides between studies of German culture, art history and aesthetics. The writer looked through a prism that incorporated Jewish mysticism from the Kabbalah.

Of course art history is in many ways a Jewish discipline, a life-long Yeshiva school, where art is endlessly rewritten and debated. However, art history, like any other religion or belief system, has its rules and its areas of conventional wisdom. In his excellent introduction to the Ursprung, George Steiner noted that Benjamin’s manuscript found its way into the hands of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), author of Studies in Iconology in 1939. According to Steiner, Panofsky did not view Benjamin’s work favorably. Steiner posited that Benjamin could have found a home with the group of scholars in Hamburg, Panofsky and Ernst Cassirer, Neo-Kantians, and Aby Warburg, the cultural historian in what became the Warburg Institute.

But Benjamin was probably too eclectic in his methodology even for this group and the moment passed and Warburg was dead by 1929 and Panofsky in America by 1933. Benjamin gave up on academics and spent the rest of his life as a free lance writer and radio broadcaster. Here, in short articles and lectures on the radio, Benjamin could roam free, indulging his wide range of interests as a literary and cultural critic. “Criticism,” he said, “should do nothing else than uncover the secret predisposition of the work itself, complete its hidden intentions…”

For Benjamin, the power of interpretation was the power of the idea and he sought a synthesis between philosophical abstraction and aesthetic concreteness. Using the idea of the dialectic, he thought that the universal would be revealed through that which was particular or in comparing the overall structure to the insignificant detail. Benjamin sought the detail, an element thought unworthy of intellectual effort. In contrasting the Classical to the Baroque, Benjamin is able to isolate certain defining characteristics: the symbol is the characteristic property of the Classical mind and the allegory is the characteristic property of the Baroque way of thinking.

Allegory, like the Baroque, had been considered a decadent form of symbolism. Symbolism, in its purity, idealized and subdues the material object, totalizes its meaning and signification. The allegory, in contrast, is a sheer hemorrhage of significations that disrupt meaning and coherence. This surplus of signification called “écriture” by later French writers, contrasted the purity of speech (the Classical) to the impurity of writing (the Baroque).

For the modern reader The Origin of German Tragic Drama is a difficult slog and the best advice one can give to skip over the obscure theatrical productions that languish (deservedly) in obscurity and to seek the fragments of insight from Benjamin. The writer contrasted the Classical Hero in Greek tragedy who is silent in his suffering, in his tragic and unspeakable fate. In his inability of speak, this hero become superior to the gods and thus transcends not just the deities but also history itself. But the Baroque hero is mired in history that is natural and not timeless. This hero must be noble so that his fall will be from a high place, suggesting that his suffering is more of a social humiliation than a preordained tragedy from a fatal flaw. The Classical tragic hero wrestles with the inextricable workings of Fate but the Baroque hero is but one character amid a larger cast who—not gods—are his fellow actors.

Therefore, according to Benjamin, “tragic drama” is not “tragedy.” Tragedy is about mourning. Tragic drama is about melancholy. as Like Sigmund Freud in a paper, On Mourning and Melancholia, which had been delivered in 1917, Benjamin separated “mourning”—classical tragedy form “melancholia”—tragic drama. Indeed, Benjamin identified Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, as melancholy. If the Classical is that which is timeless and transcendent, then its eternal life must be contrasted to the historicism and decay of the Baroque. If the Classical is that which is whole, complete, and self-sufficient, the Baroque is a mere collection of those left-behind details, fragments of a melancholy cult of decay. Benjamin forces the reader to examine these fragments, these “found objects” of the Baroque allegory.

Although Benjamin used the Hegelian notion of the dialectic to study an obscure and devalued topic, Baroque theater in Germany, Benjamin’s thinking was greatly influenced by Surrealist strategies for discovering the “marvelous.” The marvelous was a mental state that resulted from the isolation of the object, resulting in defamiliarization and the shock of defamiliarity on the part of the now-dazzled viewer. The frozen object is estranged from context and is freed to take on new meanings.

Like the Marvelous, the allegorical discourse is characterized by doubleness; the object is expressionless and yet possesses unbridled expression. The object is purged of mystified immanence and is capable of multiple uses. In its plurality, the frozen object can contain and radiate a bricoulage of elements, and because the allegory lays bare its devices (demystifies), the visual figure defeats symbolism. Symbolism, by its very nature, “disguises,” as Erwin Panofsky would say, but Allegory ostentatiously displays its construction. But its meaning is de-centered and refuses to submit to the totality of structure.

Benjamin connected allegory to the death of symbol and to the decline of aura in commodity production. He linked the atomizing of the objects to Baudelaire’s observation of commodity culture where objects become abstracted and acquire an arbitrary status. The commodity exists as fragment, ambiguous and ephemeral, and becomes fetish. The object become overwritten, a palimpsest bearing unconscious traces of its aura and authenticity, neither of which exist, except as trace. The object is reinvented as an emblem by Renaissance scholars and became the stylistic principle of Baroque art. Rather than symbol, the emblem is code, pictorial codes or “thing pictures” (dingbilder) or a rebus, as Freud would have expressed it. The allegorical form, however, is capable of capturing historical experience, which is why Postmodern Critical Theory would be so interested in Allegory.

Art, for the Critical Theorist, must be grounded in history. Aesthetics attempts to turn an object into radiance and to transform exaltation into transcendence. This process of aestheticizing the object idealizes the work but in a negative fashion, for the memory or history of the object is transfigured into a “sentimental glow”. Allegory, in contrast, is not radiant and extinguishes, along with light, the false glow of totality. Allegory admits that history is ruins and acknowledges the transitory nature of things. The allegory, lodged in history, is beyond (idealized) beauty. The allegorical form is petrified and frozen in the landscape of history, destroying aesthetics. The governing law of aesthetics is not totality but antinomy and the dialectic is used as a mechanism of reversal of extremes.

Allegory depends upon conventions, which may be cheapened and degraded. Allegory is a gathering, a collection of things, a combination of references that are assembled through a law that combines scatteredness and collectedness. The arrangement of these collections is slack. The most important allegorical figure is the fragment, which is imaged by an architectural ruin, ravaged by time. For Benjamin, it was important to acknowledge that history was a ruin, in a state of decay, for history could be appropriated and idealized or aestheticized.

The Origin of German Tragic Drama brings together a number of tendencies in Germany at the early stages of the Twentieth Century. Benjamin noted that Göethe, the Classicist, rejected allegory. In his epic essay, On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, German poet, Friedrich Schiller was correct in understanding his friend, Göethe, as being “naïve” in that the older poet was immune from history and created art from an internal force. The “sentimental” artist, however, is more akin to Benjamin’s allegorical maker, who makes it very clear that an allegorical object is being put together through an act of bricolage.

It is important to note that the mechanics of the allegory are not concealed or, as Brecht would have it, “naturalized”. The assemblage that is allegory is always grounded in the truth. Schiller’s sentimental artist may have mourned the loss of innocence and may have suffered from alienation but this artist is deeply connected to the history of his/her period. Karl Marx pointed out that in an era of commodification, it would be the fate of art to become allegory. That is, art, in becoming commodified would loose its “halo” and in its unsacred condition could be appropriated and turned into a fetish.

Art as allegory is alienated art. The allegorist is thus both elegiac and satirical, but Benjamin foregrounds the condition of mourning and melancholy, pictured in ruins. And yet, like Charles Baudelaire, Benjamin is torn. He mourns the loss of the Old Paris, but like a Baudelarian flâneur, strolls through time and collects fragments or “remnants” and recombines them into an excess of writing. Benjamin’s writings were very metaphorical, as though he turned to the past to express the future. He understood Baudelaire’s metropolis as a manifestation of space within which new technologies were displayed as spectacle.

In an age of secular spectacle, fashion would be king and anything could be fashion, which is the ultimate form of “false consciousness” and cultural distraction. Benjamin is fascinated with death and that which is dead, the corpse. Once the object becomes a fetish and is alienated from social production and social use, it becomes fashion and is worshiped as a commodity. The fetish is inorganic as opposed the corpse, which is organic.

Feeling that European culture was in a condition of crisis, Benjamin’s gaze is Janus-like. He understood the past could only exist as ruins and that its fragments would only be displaced into the present as fetishes. The future was even more bleak and marked by a mourning for the past. The future could never be authentic; art could only be allegorical; and Baudelaire as the quintessential poet-critic exemplified the only stance of the artist that of an observer of the spectacle, alienated and enlivened only by cynical commentary. Although we can read his literary action as allegorist in The Arcades Project, the work of Benjamin was re-read by postmodern critics and philosophers as portents of Postmodernism.

The arbitrary and nostalgic piling on of historical traces torn from the fabric of time, decontextualized and overwritten by the present, while retaining the trace of the past would be the prime strategy of postmodernism. The Frankfurt School philosopher, Theodor Adorno, who survived Benjamin, would complete the setting of the stage for Postmodernism. Critical Theory would be developed in its contemporary form after the Second World War, in the wake of the Holocaust. “There is no document of civilization, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” Walter Benjamin prophetically remarked in his essay On the Concept of History of 1937.

Benjamin’s insight that a dislocated history could be nostalgically fetishized for the Nazi cause, that art would become allegory and could be fetishized as propaganda seemed both prophetic and tragic. All that he feared came true. Towards the end of what would turn out to be his only book, Walter Benjamin wrote,

Allegory goes away empty-handed. Evil as such, which it cherished as enduring profundity, exists only in allegory, is nothing other than allegory, and means something different from what it is. It means precisely the non-existence of what it presents. The absolute vices, as exemplified by tyrants and intriguers, are allegories. They are not real and that which they represent, they possess only in the subjective view of melancholy; they are this view, which is destroyed by its own offspring because they only signify its blindness.

And then he concluded,

In the ruins of great buildings the idea of the plan speaks more impressively than in lesser buildings…Others may shine resplendently as on the first day; this form preserves the image of beauty to the very last.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Hegel and His Impact on Art and Aesthetics


Hegel and his Impact on Art and Aesthetics

Like any aesthetician, G. W. F. Hegel does not get involved in any particular movement or style or work of art, but, that said, he was very definite about the kind of art where Beauty could be found. Like Emmanuel Kant, Hegel brings art and freedom together and anticipates the idea of art-for-art’s sake. For Hegel, the Idea is always opposed to Nature. The mind is contrasted to the mindlessness of matter or nature. The mind creates art, which gives an idea to nature. This idea is the unity of the externality or objectivity of nature and the subjectivity or personal vision of the artist. As with Kant, the spectator of the work of art is as important as the art maker for Hegel. Beauty in art is the emanation of the Absolute or Truth through an object. Beauty can be shown only in a sensuous form called the Ideal, which transcends the Idea to become a special form. Like all of Hegel’s triads, nothing is lost: nature and idea are the Other to one another but together they create an organism, the work of art.

The contemplative mind strives to see the Absolute. In order to see Beauty, this detached mind must transcend nature. By freeing itself, the mind perceives the spiritual content of the work of art, which must also be free in order to be Beautiful. Kant insisted that the higher form of beauty had to be free and independent and Hegel followed suit. Hegel insisted that, to manifest Beauty, art must expel all that is external or contiguous or unnecessary. Remember, in Hegel’s system, each part of the triad must be “pure” and can contain only its dialectical opposite. For art to reveal Beauty is to reveal Truth, which can only be pure. This is why art can never imitate nature, which is, mindless and irrational. Nature must be reversed with its antithesis, the idea, which brings about the inner unity necessary for spiritual content: nature, idea, spirit = art.

If art must be free, then art should show, not just Beauty and Truth, but Freedom itself, which is the property of the free mind. Hegel, true to his age, is a child of Neoclassicism and, like many Germans, was looking back to a Golden Age when human beings were free. Part of being “modern” is being un-free. Society has demands, which are placed upon people who have lost their sense of wholeness and self-actualization. Thinking along the same lines as Friedrich Schiller’s “alienation,” Hegel felt that his own age was a diminished one. Therefore, the artist should take subject matter from the past, a heroic age populated by characters that were free of the social restrictions so prevalent of the industrial age.

Ancient peoples, Hegel assumed could determine their own destinies and could make their own lives on their own terms. While the current times were particular to the modern period, the primeval era could manifest life in its universal and essential form. By stripping the process of living down to its basics, one is nearing the first cause of life, the logic of existence in which one is in the process of becoming. One can “become” only if one is free, linking the rational with the free to the universal. Hegel explained art’s predilection for the depiction of the high-born because those individuals are free, assuming that the lower classes are unsuited to being represented because, being subservient to their masters, they can never be free and therefore, never universal. Stripping away the elitist assumptions that princes are preferential to peasants as subject matter in art, it is possible to note that Hegel was insisting that the artist attempt to reach the universal through art.

But Hegel was a also creature of history. The idea of “princes” should not be taken so literally in the modern era, an era badly suited to the classical art of the past. Hegel understood that the antique forms were indissolubly linked to their own time. Greek and Roman sculpture expressed the ideal in universal poses of repose, rather than with active poses linked to a particular action. But in the modern age, the new society did not lend itself to rest and repose, which could be found only in the spirit of the artist or in his personality. The modern age has come to realize that any hope of freedom or infinity is impossible and the human mind has no escape, except into itself. The new subjectivity of the spirit produces a new kind of art in which the artist imprints him or herself upon the art. the result is Romantic art which is the art of modern Europe. Unlike ancient art which needs the sensuous manifestation of the classical statue, Romantic art gives rise to an independent spirituality or mind which leaves behind its traces as sensuous remnants. It then logically follows that sculpture is not the appropriate receptacle for the spirit of the Romantic artist. Clearly, Hegel could not conceive of a form of sculpture that was allowed to transcend its traditional role of starting with and then transcending nature into idealism. Sculpture was, despite its attempt at perfection of form, too bound to the “real.”


Painting, in its two-dimensional flatness, is the most suitable manifestation for the spirit, mind, and personality of the artist. Painting is appearance, rather than actuality or matter and, as a mental process of the artist, is subjective. The external world is allowed to enter into the subjective world of art because concrete reality is transformed through art. Hegel allows for the ugly, the grotesque, suffering and evil in Romantic art as the other necessary element in his dialectic. Beauty must contain ugliness, just as Truth conceals Lie, and for reconciliation to take place beauty and ugliness must be reconciled into a concrete unity that is a higher form of Beauty, which is also Truth.

Although Hegel’s ideas on art and aesthetics were inspiration for those who believed in “art-for-art’s-sake” or the avant-garde, his deterministic philosophy was politically very retrograde and repressive. There is another way to view Hegel’s “princes.” As with his colleague at the University of Berlin, Johann Gottleib Fichte, Hegel believed that Germany’s destiny was to become the dominant power in Europe, due to the forces of history, which had passed England and France and had progressed to Germany. A snob and a social climber, the consummate academic ego, Hegel was enamored of power and, during the French occupation of Germany, was thrilled by Napoléon. Like Fichte, he believed that Germany was a chosen nation and that it had the moral right to pursue its hegemonic dominance ruthlessly with “absolute privileges over all others. It should behave as the spirit willed it and will be dominant in the world…” With Hegel, war and dominance as historical tools of historical progress entered into European thought. Because his philosophy was based in history, Hegelian aesthetics also impacted upon art history and art criticism. The basic structure of art history has followed his model of successive and contrasting movements.

The history of art has been told as a succession of conflicting styles by Heinrich Wölfflin and as a tale of successive and contrasting movements by history based upon formalist models. The ancient produced the modern, the universal produced the particular, the timeless produced the contingent and modern art is the synthesis of these conflicting forces. As a synthesis, Romantic art must be independent and begins to exist on its own. Hegel’s aesthetics inspire the theory of the avant-garde: thesis, antithesis, synthesis—Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, and so on. One avant-garde movement, assigned the positive position, opposed another avant-garde movement, the negative or counter position, resulted in a dialectic, which pushed art ever forward and towards an absolute of purity. The result of the influence of Hegel, art criticism, especially under the American art writer, Clement Greenberg, was model of artistic progression from representation towards abstraction. By using the avant-garde and its oppositional stance as the engine of change, art history in the Twentieth Century has been Hegelian in structure.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Podcast Episode 8: Formalism and Romanticism



What is the impact of methodologies of art history upon the recounting of the history of art? A methodology is a way of telling or constructing the past. This act of re-construction is, in fact, as Hayden White expressed, “a tropic of discourse.” However, a trope can be so completely absorbed into the accepted discourse of received wisdom that it become invisible. When the actual documented history of art is filtered through the invisible trope, this lived history is reshaped according—not to events or to objects—but to the trope itself. In the 1980s, the familiar methodology of formalism, which had presented a very particular account of Romanticism, was challenged by a new method, one which stressed the social and historical context for artistic production.

This podcast delineates the connections between the art historical methodology of Formalism, as developed by Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1947), and the concept of Romanticism. Romanticism was the movement in which the concepts of painting changed from “academic” to “modern.” Until New Art History reintroduced the importance of context, the approach of “art history without names” reigned supreme. How did the uneasy mix of history and methodology change the history of art? What recent corrections were made to retell the history of art history?

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One” and “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One,” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
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This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

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