Beyond the Infamous Pears

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Why it is that formalism leads nicely in to the area of iconography

Riegl and Wolfflin were the most influential formalist art historians. They liked showing how artwork is embedded in culture, whilst still being attentive to specific artistic character; thus, both historians were acutely aware of how their epoch managed to shape accounts of the past.

The thing about art history is perhaps summed up by Wolfflin in his version of people believing only what they want to believe: “we only see what we look for, but we only look for what we can see”.

Hence, like Hegel and the connoisseurs, the formalists wanted to identify an underlying principle. One that explains why art is historically specific, and another why historical transformations take place.

Herein lyeth the so-called ‘hermeneutic problem’ which has plagued the art scholarship world; thus, the formalists figured they had a solution: Wolfflin and Riegl used scientific research, instead of explaining the problem away with some mysterious universal spirit or individual creativity!

Essentially, they were projecting research about our visual capacity and sensory perception, on to the paintings and artwork of the past.

As vision develops for the human race and becomes more sophisticated – like everything in life – so does individual perception progress, as we grow up.

Thus, children are much more narrow than adults (especially in terms of perception) and the scientific research on this has been put to great effect; children definately see things differently and learn to see things as they learn about everything in life and this helps us interpret art, explaining stylistic change over time.

The idea of this history of vision was challenged after the First World War. Attention to individual figures before turning to spatial clues, then became a conception where all the elements were processed at once.

Wolfflin and Riegl decided all elements in a visual field are processed simultaneously. This included non-Western art in their mature understanding of artistic vision; however, many others thought it not to be changes in the mode of vision – sensory perception – but how the symbolic function of art was changing!

Formalists were criticised though, for extending present interests that were fashionable in the twentieth-century to those of other times. This didn’t seem right because Germans and Italians had very different ideas about artistic vision; it was embedded in two very different cultural regimes, and many thought this had greater weight than the physiological make-up of human beings, developing over time.

Ernst Gombrich came to England (as many art historians avoided Nazi Germany) and no-one was better placed to asses the shortcomings of Riegl and Wolfflin – than Gombrich – with his comprehensive accounts of culture.

Gombrich joined the Warburg Institute where traditionally they focused on the symbolic meaning of art. After the war, the psychology of perception was flavour of the month as ideas moved away from stimuli of vision, and towards the mental operations of the perceiver; a new era in doing art history had clearly begun.

Gombrich decided that formalists were quite mistaken. He had a caricature on one of his books in 1955, showing Egyptian art students, drawing a model shaped like a frontal figure on Egyptian architecture; this was ridiculing the idea of artists seeing their culture (and the world) any differently to the rest of us, and shows ironically how easy it is to watch Riegl and Wolfflin shaping what they in fact saw, by their own underlying beliefs.

Gombrich did respect Wolfflin and Riegl, but his counter examples to their ideas suggested that the formalists were stylistically homogeneous. Gombrich said Riegl disregarded certain areas when the dates never suited, and many of the patterns that fit Riegl’s phenomenon were ancient and mentioned really as late antiquity, hardly giving the theory the consistency required at this level.

Gombrich criticised Wolfflin’s account of Renaissance art. He said it was very sweeping to suggest both Raphael and Leonardo represent the classic style, when actually they contrast heavily: Florentine Madonna or Battle of Ostia contrasts with Last Supper and Battle of Anghiari. Thus, there is such a vast difference between Titian and Velásquez; formalism doesn’t fit snuggly into these ideas about period styles the way Riegl and Wolfflin suggested.

Many have defended the formalists even though they based speculative accounts on developing vision with empiricism rather than verifiable data. Gombrich however, said that really the formalists only saw what they were looking for, and looked for what they could see!

Gombrich was more dependent on pictorial traditions available to the artists themselves: media, technology, patrons wishes, and public expectation. These were just as important – he thought – as the artist and his or her perception of the world; thus, Gombrich decided that many an artist would proceed by trial and error.

There is also the circularity of formalists. Riegl talked of attentiveness in Dutch art compared to the democracy where it was made, yet it was that society in the first place that produced the works he chose so carefully to examine. Wolfflin does the same and finds a change in temperament in society as one cause of change in Renaissance style, with the change in artistic vision on top; however, his evidence is drawn from the artworks themselves, so for instance the gait of women changed in the artwork from Ghirlandaio to Raphael, but it wasn’t unusual for women to change clothes and be depicted differently at different times of the day.

It was the Marxist critics who deplored the lack of specific conditions causing change. For example, Venus of Urbino by Titian was seen as negligent; Wolfflin suggested that the naturalism of the picture was insignificant when the notion of beauty is observed.

The suggestive position of the hand, for instance, draws attention to the genitalia rather than hiding it, so what then outranks what, the gesture or classic norm of beauty?

If the social function of the picture is paramount then the contemporary setting suggests that Venus here isn’t just about mythology and perhaps about the occasion of marriage.

Vasari read the painting that way (Venus is love within marriage personified, the dog is a symbol of fidelity) however, the patron had already been married five years when he commissioned it, meaning it is possible that commissions were not necessarily wedding gifts but high class pornography or indeed something else.

Riegl’s suggestion that Dutch portraiture expresses democracy in Holland is again is odd. The militias in many of the group portraits had to maintain order, often drawn from wealthy sections of society and in Night Watch the men actually paid to appear in the picture and brush shoulders with the captain who rose up to become mayor of Amsterdam; this hardly suggests equality the way Riegl would have it.

Riegl and Wolfflin did however attempt to write art histories beyond simply a set of facts. This suggests still that while their accounts were highly specific, they were moving in the right direction, but the larger changes over time still posed a challenge to art historical scholarship.

They also considered art by paying attention to the wider cultural context with regard to stylistic change when many said otherwise and provided perhaps the most plausible theories for this. It was their successors who separated formalism from the wider culture, thus formalism does highlight some key areas in artworks.

Art history is a key discipline that unlocks many other views on the world. But, how cultures themselves as independent entities progressed through change (as did the art work contained in them) still remained a little unresolved.


Jane Eyre Lowood Thornfield Hall Gateshead Charlotte Bronte Edward Rochester John Reed

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Jane Eyre. An Autobiography. This is the full title which was originally published under the pen name Currer Bell in 1847.
At a time when women were treated as second class citizens and expected to do as their men folk wished,Jane Eyre must have seemed like an impressively resolute and independent figure.
Beginning in Gateshead, Jane is an orphan living with the Reeds when she is ten. She doesn’t get on with her cousins and is locked in the red room. Finally, arrangements are made for her to go to Lowood School as she is so unhappy in Gateshead.
In Lowood the school is filthy and the children are sick with typhus, while the family who run it live in luxury, though eventually this put right. Lowood is a school for children who have lost one or both parents.
Jane eventually teaches at her school Lowood, before applying for a job as a governess at Thornfield Hall where Edward Rochester falls from his horse calling her a witch.
Rochester has adopted a French girl on his travels and Jane Eyre is her governess. Rochester wants Jane to go with him to the South of France but she refuses and vanishes in the middle of the night. She falls in love with Rochester but her morality means she won’t be his mistress and won’t return to him until his insane wife is dead.
Jane moves on and gives a false name when John Rivers takes her in so that Rochester cannot find her. When her uncle dies, Jane inherits the Reed fortune and very nearly goes with St John to India who wants to marry her too.
Jane instead returns to Thornfield where the place has been razed to the ground by Mrs Rochester – the mad wife has burnt the place down. Edward Rochester lost a hand and an eye trying to rescue his wife, who died jumping from the roof.
In this happy ending Jane marries Mr Rochester and Edward regains enough sight to see their first born child. Lightening strikes the tree the night before Jane’s wedding and this is one of many gothic motifs in the book reflecting a scene from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The Bronte family moved to Haworth in 1820 when Mrs Bronte died and her sister Elizabeth took charge of the six children.
John Reed, Jane’s cousin who bullies her is compared to Caligula, the Roman Emperor and tyrant who ruled with such cruelty.
Rebecca, written by Daphne Du Maurier, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and for which Laurence Olivier won an Oscar, was inspired by Jane Eyre!

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Alois Riegl

Alois_Riegl

When it became time to formalize art history

Alois Riegl (1858-1905) in a way is the mirror image of Heinrich Wolfflin when you think they both saw art history as a history of vision!

There did seem to be an Anglo-American preference in art historical scholarship to Wolfflin however; Riegl’s work never really seemed to get translated.

There were two main reasons for this: firstly, Wolfflin revised his assumptions about the motor of stylistic change, thus, his history of vision appeared more flexible than Riegl’s; secondly, the wonderful system of pairs developed by Wolfflin, had begun to be realised as such a useful tool (devoid of any complicated underlying theory) so Riegl was criticised for his more general categories that of course were dependent upon theoretical assumptions.

However, Riegl’s analysis rose up for three main reasons in the end:

Firstly, it was Riegl’s interest in late antiquity (when others saw this in decline) thus, Riegl decided late antiquity embodied great significance, meaning subsequent European art clearly relied upon it. This contrasts with Wolfflin because he claimed that the Classical period was the epitome; Riegl refused to believe any one period set the normative ideal for others to be measured against.

Secondly, Riegl would never rank art or differentiate between high and low, thus ornament or group portraiture (which traditionally had been neglected) he found just as revealing of the period style as priceless works from the canon.

Thirdly, he put huge amounts of weight upon the viewer, and the mental activity required to trace the development in art from actual works of art themselves.

The main difference between these two formalists – Wolfflin and Riegl – is their external circumstances. Wolfflin initially found this of prime importance, but later favoured autonomous development; Riegl argued agianst material and technical requirements helping stylistic change, and said it was internal with motifs developing by his notion of Kunstwollen – essentially interconnectedness, variety and symmetry.

It is very clear that Riegl’s art history was about changes in the psychology of vision, thus his Kunstwollen idea was exactly this. It was very much a dynamic drive, directed at the artistic ordering of the perceptual world; his main area was the way that subjects grasp the objective world as a vision in art.

The way in which this shaping of the artworld took place, however, seemed to be heavily bound up with the world-views of the age.

His use of Kunstwollen shifted. Beginning as an internal development of form, it moved to arts autonomy and became the idea of capturing specific artistic models of representation developing perceptually in the social world.

Riegl developed his method or art history in a diametrically different way to Wolfflin: Wolfflin used Empathy Theory as the solution to the problem of change in style then changed it for vision development; while Riegl himself, found the benefit of Empathy Theory much later on when he decided that the mind synthesized an increasing range of elements, thus Riegl noted the distinction between tactile and optical perceptions which was influenced by Empathy Theory.

Riegle saw the development, from ancient Egyptian to Roman antiquity, like a change from tactile to a more optical / three dimensional perception of figures in space.

Hence, the rhythmic organization of forms, the patterning of light and darkness, must certainly have invoked the analysis of other empathy theorists.

Riegl in his final piece of work embraced the main focus of empathy theory. He icorporated the idea of attentiveness, which transcended the idea of immediate emotional responses to sense data; hence, attentiveness went beyond subjective emotions, and became the essential state of mind, devoid of any emotion.

This explains portraiture in Holland. There was a preference, perhaps because the paintings exist only in terms of the mental representation of the subject / sitter; portraiture hasn’t changed that much over the years – particularly not the way the rest of art has – and portraiture is quite unique for that reason.

Riegl’s kunstwollen explained the autonomous development of art forms. It was the way art was represented in the perceptual world; people in antiquity represented the objectively by isolating elements in art.

Relating these elements of individuality to surrounding space, light and colour was subjective, but huge for appreciation of Western European art.

The subjective does become more objective as Renaissance moves to Baroque and then Modern art, but Riegl still saw Impressionism as far too subjective.

Riegl’s vision of artistic development did largely ignore external causes though and this is one limitation, thus he was independent of any spiritual progress but his ideas certainly kept there place.

Riegl was continuously at odds with this subjective / objective struggle for expression in artworks, where the objective world is replaced by an alternative realm; if this was defined by an artist in his or her own terms, it was never easy to interpret.

Riegls history of art

Alois Riegl began with ornaments. By tracing style changes regarding the development of forms (even though ornaments represented nature) he managed to find links in a historical chain of events that showed development of style; thus, by venturing back to Ancient Egypt right through the Middle Ages and over long periods of time, he studied many decorative artworks, pieces of architecture and relief, broods and glass vesselling, and indeed the Pantheon.

It was the Arch of Constantine in AD 312 that marked the beginning of a decline in art. However, Riegl argued that the north face, showed the expression of a new phase in vision, of art; it is supposed to illustrate perfectly the kunstwollen of the period with this change.

Early Egyptian art had firm contours and was very tactile rather than being optical; ancient Greek art seemed to present more movement but was part of the same tactile continuum.

In Roman relief, however, like the Arch of Constantine, Riegl suggests this is different:

Individual figures for instance, strive toward spatial isolation from the common plane. But the outline of figures can appear deeply undercut; thus, it was invariably the law for any relief, to maintain obvious tactile connection, even if it was through the figures.

When the formal tactile connection is lost (or falls apart) there are light figures and dark spatial shadows. This evokes some colourisation, and the impression is symmetrical; however, the tactile plane is interrupted and often obscured.

Riegl concluded that figures in ancient art were consistent with the religious views at the time. They were consistent with scientific views as well; in Classical antiquity, therefore, the entities exerted pressure upon each other, like the figures in the relief, but in late antiquity individual forms were of mutual external isolation.

Once the connection between individual entities had been made, light and shade between figures on the relief meant pictorial expression was given to this force; the conception of deep space arose and then prevailed in Europe.

Optical values of spatial relationships ruled for Riegl. He apprehended the objective world in subjective vision and this was a further step towards describing the development of different types of portraiture in Holland.

The thing about Dutch art was that it wasn’t so much defining material relationships in the world. Psychological interaction relating the figures at a moment in time was just as important; thus, in contrast to Renaissance painting it was not the depiction of action, but the inner life of figures drawing the viewers attention.

The objectivity of Dutch group portraiture, according to Riegl, resides in the people. They are mostly being presented as independent from each other, and from the viewer.

Riegl identified three stages: firstly, the period 1529-1566 had group members that are individual and connected by objects or gesture and coherence, generated externally by the viewer; secondly, 1580-1624 had internal coherence of togetherness, as figures are shown in a particular space or time; thirdly, 1624-1662 it reaches the culmination point, when figures have attentiveness not in the picture, and viewers must complete the image by themselves.

In Rembrandt’s picture The Night Watch for example, it shows the company getting their marching orders, and Riegl suggests there is more action. The troops are busy getting ready and this is different to the usual Dutch group portraiture, thus, they almost march towards the viewer; and this inner coherence, followed by the completion of the action, makes it clear to Riegl in the image that the colour is meant to inform us that the figures are about to move in our direction.

The concentrated ‘attentiveness’ in Dutch paintings (which does not submerge individuality) were for Riegl, like the High Renaissance was for Wolfflin using the pairs. Riegl like Wolfflin figured that a history of vision with changes in perception, motivated stylistic change in art, and this was seen as pushing the thresholds out a little further than connoisseurship and Hegelian art history!


Peter Pan Wendy Darling Wendy House Jm Barrie Great Ormond Street Hospital Neverland Lost Boys

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This play by J. M. Barrie became Peter and Wendy seven years later. It is the story of a boy who can fly and his adventures with Wendy Darling, Tinker Bell, The Lost Boys, Captain Hook and Tiger Lilly on the Island of Neverland.

Wendy is “beginning to grow up,” but Peter refuses to do so. Basically she is Peter’s girlfriend and the name was unheard of until this play arrived.

Tinker Bell is a fairy who mended pots like a real tinker and always sounds like a bell, tinkling away.  The Lost Boys fell out of their prams in Kensington Gardens and have been lost by their nannies ever since. There are no lost girls because girls are much too clever to get lost in such a way!

Tiger Lilly is a princess in charge of a tribe of Indians on the Island of Neverland. She is nearly kidnapped and killed by Captain Hook, but Peter Pan saves her.

Captain James Hook is the antagonist and the villainous pirate captain of the Jolly Roger. He is the arch enemy of Peter Pan, who cut off his hand. This hand was eaten by a crocodile that follows Hook around but has also eaten a clock which is continuously ticking inside him, so Hook knows the crocodile is there.

Listening to Wendy being read her bedtime stories in Kensington, Peter is caught and loses his shadow. She helps him find it and he invites her to Neverland with her brothers.  When they fly over, Wendy is blown out of the sky by a cannon ball fired by a Lost Boy. She recuperates in a small house Peter builds for her called a Wendy House, as it has now become known.

After their adventures, Peter and Wendy return to her mother’s, where she adopts the Lost Boys. Peter refuses to be adopted and flies away, while Wendy is at her window asking him to remember and come back for her. He promises to return every spring.

J. M. Barrie wrote a final chapter some years later, when Wendy is grown up with a daughter of her own. Peter returns and takes Wendy’s daughter Margaret to Neverland on a similar adventure.  This additional scene is not often performed in the play.

Sir James Matthew Barrie was a Scottish writer and dramatist who left the royalties of Peter and Wendy to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. One of his brothers, David, died as a young boy – never to grow old – and gave Barrie the idea for his fictional character, Peter Pan.