Where it was that Heinrich Wolfflin managed to regain form
Heinrich Wolfflin (1864-1945) was sure of two things: firstly, that a systematic history of art was built upon the foundations of the psychology of perception; secondly, that artworks have their own formal language which is made up of a set of oppositions, called pairs, that structure the art of all ages.
Although it is clear that the appearance of art changes dramatically through time – Renaissance is very different to Impressionism for instance – certain categories do persist: compositions that are either closed or open, unified or multiple in conception, relatively clear in their presentation or do they evoke obscurity?
Wolfflin’s categories will probably now live forever, because they compare pictures together in the most common sense of ways, using dual projection, to contrast images side by side.
Describing the Raphael painting Miraculous Draught of Fishes which is housed in the V & A: the biographers might talk about feelings of loneliness and abandonment; the connoisseurs might talk of the individual aspects; while Wolfflin moved away from these to an understanding of the picture as a whole.
Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1515). Oil on canvas, 399 x 319 cm. Victoria & Albert, London
Details in Raphael’s masterpiece relate to counterparts elsewhere in the picture. For example, the shapes in the landscape create pictorial purpose, the lines follow clusters of figures organised in groups, and each part of the painting contributes to the stylistic character of the total image, in a manner that is greater than the sum of the parts. The emphasis on the relationship between formal elements is largely down to Heinrich Wolfflin, it has become one of the most credible ways of doing art history, and is known as formalism.
These famous pairs / fundamental characteristics, that were designed by Wolfflin always stayed the same, but his ideas about what causes art to change definitely did not.
Wolfflin decided from analysis of architectural forms, that we read the proportions according to our own body posture and mood. However, this was based on the assumption that the perception of the viewer was universal, rather than historically situated; the other problem was he couldn’t (yet) explain why a particular age, should choose certain stylistic principles over other periods, from history in art.
First, Wolfflin looked at bodily feeling from one period then another, e.g. a Renaissance hand was firm with articulated feeling, while a Baroque version was often more solid, heavy and restless.
Not only did Wolfflin think that feeling in art changed, but that it was responsible for changes in fashion and other spheres of life as well. Trying to find the cause of these changes was the problem to be addressed, but if it was thought to be a change in bodily feeling, that meant a change in style, was there not more too it?
Hence, he decided that purely artistic forms of vision, must change independently from feelings and other states of mind, thus many factors condition a new style in art; this is supposed to explain the transformation from Italian Quattrocento to Cinquecento art, where a new ideal of beauty was beginning to express itself.
Visual evidence in the picture by Raphael (above) suggested to Wolfflin that the gait of women changed from a stiff mincing walk to a tempo more akin to anandante maestoso.
This change of feeling however, wasn’t the only cause of the new style of art. The suggestion was that new pictorial forms came about, because of an independently occurring development in vision.
Wolfflin thought artistic vision improved in the sixteenth-century from the fifteenth-century. He thought artistic vision (which orders the chaotic mass of sensory perception) was better equipped for integrating a greater variety of perceptual phenomena, as it happens, in the sixteenth-century. Biologically, we were improving!
By the application of common beliefs about perception to these periods, Wolfflin was saying, the viewer could grasp greater variety, and more effectively: a picture as a unified whole.
This meant the viewer was presented with more clarity, thus the change in style was an improvement in technique and there are reasons. They belonged to the conditions; the mode of representation, for instance, such as the visual possibilities available to the artist.
The main area though is vision. Vision itself has a history, and by revealing the visual strata in paintings, it became hugely important to art historians like Wolfflin, thus he managed to provide a general set of descriptive terms – pairs – that captured forms visually in art; forms of an epoch. He has become quite famous for this!
Wolfflin argued, that when reading forms of expression, our state of mind makes the false assumption, that the same expressive methods are always available; he did believe both external and internal modes of explanation are justified.
Certain forms of beholding do pre-exist, then develop, but this depends on circumstances.
The forms of visuality according to Wolfflin are universally applicable; they are capable of describing the development of pictorial forms in different ages, countries and periods.
Although different forms dominated at different historical moments, they are still universally applicable, and operate in a cyclical fashion, moving from classical simplicity to baroque complexity.
This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout Western art history, thus, once the cycle has started, it runs its course; however when it reaches a state of complexity how does art return to adopting simplicity once again?
It cannot (apparently) be explained by art’s internal development, hence it is the wider and external factors that come into play helping Wolfflin with this problem.
He decided there was a return to the linear mode of vision around 1800; hence, this was part of the whole reappraisal of human values, culminating in the Romantic movement, which did respond to wider social change; thus, this was to set art history on the path to a new cycle of internal development.
Wolfflin then shifted his focus once again, and looked not just the cyclical ways of seeing, but partly the dependence upon racial difference between Northern European and Mediterranean people, and the affect this had.
This was part of his life long struggle in trying to identify the ultimate causes of historical change.
The age Wolfflin lived in had lost all senses of style in his opinion, and lacked any cultivated form of the Renaissance; he had an elitist aestheticism point of view, thus Empathy Theory was not dependent on classical learning but sensual projection and offered a conception of aesthetic experience; his history of artistic vision was motivated by a response to external social developments, rather than the logic of any internal argument, but the problem still lay in where to point the finger at ultimate causes.
Wolfflin and his art history
In order to demonstrate stylistic and historical shifts, we were given Wolfflin’s way of doing art history, using his now very famous and timeless ‘Pairs’ which everyone comparing paintings will at some time use.
Wolfflin’s method is essentially comparative, and it begins by using pairs of images, that each embody a different set of visual principles.
Photography helped by showing slides, side by side, for comparison. He drew out characteristics, but colour and texture were neglected in the analysis as was originality, thus, his categories for stylistic description were ridiculed by his colleagues to begin with.
Wolfflin loved the features of classical art: moderation and form, simplicity and noble line, stillness of soul, and gentleness of sensibility.
He figured that if we take the opposite of each of these concepts, it would help explain the substance of the new style – the Baroque!
Wolfflin proceeded by describing changes in style using these pairs of opposites, from one era to the next.
Wolfflin studied the stylistic change of Roman architecture over time. He defined the opposites of ‘moderation and form, simplicity and noble line, stillness and gentleness’ and used the terms ‘painterliness, grand scale, and massiveness in tension with movement’.
Wolfflin, thus was clearly interested not so much in the style changes due to the functional requirements of the buildings he studied, but, in showing the emergence of the first set of his principles. Then, from the High Renaissance he was able to use them on the work of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Andrea del Sarto.
In contrast to Quattrocento art, the clarity of presentation at the apex of High Renaissance, unifies a variety of visual elements. Then after 1520 Wolfflin saw artistic decline, thus, subsequent generations of artists began competing and striving for effect rather than style.
Wolfflin spoke of a generation of eclectics, using multiple theories about art, thus it was only with a new attention to nature taking place that a revival of the principles of classic art came in the ‘Germanic North of Italy’ and Wolfflin clearly had Venice and Titian in mind with this.
When he saw formal properties in art, Wolfflin identified the most systematic and comprehensive way of providing (in generally descriptive terms) a way to capture the development of artistic vision, across countries and ages; and this has been emulated ever since.
Because the properties embedded a cycle, Wolfflin saw them to be repeated over and over again, thus, restarting conveniently whenever the external conditions suitably arose; hence, he spent a lot of time comparing sixteenth and seventeenth-century art, across many European countries, using his five oppositions:
linear / painterly
plane vs. recession
close or open
multiplicity v unity
absolute or relative clarity
For example, this is how they work.
By comparing Venus of Urbino (1538) by Titian, to the Toilet of Venus (1648) by Velazquez, it is possible to elucidate the contrast between ‘multiplicity versus unity’ which is the fourth set of pairs, above. Wolfflin was adamant that when a picture showed one of the categories it must also show the others on its side of the table; meaning that all artworks that have linear aspect, will also display plane, closed, multiplicity and absolute, to a lesser or greater degree; but, no painterly, no recession, no open, no unity or relative clarity!
Titian,Venus of Urbino (1538). Oil on canvas, 119.20 x 165.50 cm. Uffizi, Florence
Velazquez, Toilet of Venus (1648). Oil on canvas, 122.5 x 177 cm. National Gallery, London
Linear vs. Painterly –
On the one hand, both paintings have firm outlines, and both include material objects, however, each picture has a different emphasis placed upon the appearance of the world; the atmosphere is shifting. Wolfflin says there is clearly a contrast between the Renaissance work of Titian, and a similar painting by Velasquez from the Baroque period, more than a hundred years after. The figures in the early painting could be cut out, but the later one has the figures bound with other motives. Titian’s lady has a rhythm alone, whilst Velasquez completes his lady with what is added to the picture.
Plane vs. Recession –
The difference is identifiable, if looking at the three dimensional space at the back. Titian orders everything parallel so we read from side to side like a book; however, Velasquez pulls us into the background, zig-zagging our gaze from the centre outwards, thus her back is turned so we follow her glance from her perspective into the mirror and all around thereafter.
Closed vs. Open –
How the picture appears to the viewer in relation to itself. In Titian’s version the viewer must be around eye level with the woman looking down, thus the space is clearly defined – box like – for the viewer to confront in a very open manner almost like you could climb in and wander around. Spatial indication is absent in the Velasquez, hence it is very closed; thus, Wolfflin points out you are tempted to stand to the right to see the woman’s frontal reflection in the mirror and we could almost peek around the Velasquez one secretly speculating about the various parts of the painting, adjusting our viewing position, unlike the Titian which is hardly an attempt to be discrete.
Multiplicity vs. Unity –
Wolfflin tries to emphasize how Titan’s figure appears self sufficient in form, made up of clearly articulated parts, thus there is a variety in the painting like a dog, a cat, maids, pillows and a window all clearly visible; together, they are a unified whole. There is almost something hidden in the Baroque, disguised as Velasquez shows, perhaps behind the curtain.
Absolute vs. Relative Clarity –
Similar to the first pair, these show the difference between optical effects giving the subject precision, and painterly techniques for atmospheric effect. Titian’s brushstrokes are used to evoke the textual difference between the silky sheets of the bed and the smooth skin of the woman; Velasquez on the other hand, is much less concerned with material illusions, and instead employs subtle changes in tone and colour, which register the almost imperceptible change in the angles of the surfaces, and which consequently capture the reflection of light.
Using Wolfflin’s set of pairs, his descriptive terms can help us draw out an enormous range of observations in paintings, and this provides an ideal framework to delve deeper into the meaning, and cause, of change in art history!
Nota. - So verführerisch Wölfflins fünf Kategorienpaare erscheinen, man wird sie doch rein pragmatisch diskutieren müssen. Denn auf einen philosophischen Über- oder besser Unterbau wie die Kant'sche Kategorientafel müssen sie doch verzichten. Kants Kategorien waren eine halbe Sache. Er erklärt nicht, versucht nicht einmal zu erklären, wo er sie – bei ihm sind es vier mal drei – her hat, weshalb es genau so viele und nicht mehr und nicht weniger sind. Er hat gesucht, gesammelt, versucht, hin und her erwogen, manches verworfen, und dies ist eben übriggeblieben. Denn dass er sie auf eine irgend vertretbare Weise 'aus der Erfahrung' induziert hätte, kann er nicht glauben machen; und dass er sie aus logischen Prämissen deduziert hätte, gibt er gar nicht vor. Man weiß schlechterdings nicht, wo sie herkommen und wer oder was sie in die Welt gesetzt hat. Tatsächlich markieren sie die Grenze, an der Kant selbst bei seiner transzendentalen Herleitung des tatsächlichen Bewusstseins der Menschen aus den urspünglichen Handlungsweisen der Intelligenz Halt gemacht hat. Er hätte weitergehen können, sollen, J. G. Fichte hat es an seiner Stelle getan, um schließlich bei der Tathandlung des 'sich-selbst-setzenden' Ich anzukommen (hinter die man tatsächlich nicht weiter zurück kommt). Darauf führt er freilich nicht 'die Welt' zurück, sondern – da folgt er Kant – nur unsere Vorstellungen (Erfahrungen, Begriffe, 'Bilder') von der Welt, denn die sind alles, was wir von der Welt kennen. Aber er führt sie aus ihnen zurück, das, was wir 'von der Welt wissen', ist das faktische Material, in dem er das absichtsvoll anschauende Subjekt freilegt. Das ist die erste, 'analytische' Strecke der Transzendentalphilosophie. Die zweite, 'synthetische' Strecke führt wieder zurück und rekonstruiert daraus das tatsächliche Bewusstsein; und unterwegs mag man, wenn man will, auf einer Wegetappe die 'Kategorien' wieder antreffen! Irgendetwas Vergleichbares hat Wölfflin nicht unternommen. Wieviel seine fünf mal zwei Kategorien taugen, muss die Betrachtung an den Werken immer neu erproben. Sie dogmatisch der Betrachtung vorausschicken darf er nicht; aber eben das ist ihm wohl von Kritikern immer wieder nachgesagt worden. JE