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. 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!