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About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term for any approach to the arts, whether theoretical, critical or historical, that emphasizes the autonomy or primacy of formal qualities. In the case of painting, these qualities are usually understood to be compositional elements such as line, value, colour and texture: they can be distinguished from technique on the one hand and content on the other. Because compositional elements can be considered and enjoyed independently of the way in which a picture evokes the visible world, tells a story or expresses philosophical ideas, some formalists have argued that representation of any kind is incidental to art. They may be answered by those who insist that formal values, when elevated to objects of primary interest, in fact perform a kind of representation. The difficulties involved in the use of such terms helps explain why formalism has met with resistance in recent decades; at the same time, the issues that it attempts to address are so fundamental to art that it is bound to arouse perennial interest.

The origins of formalism are deeply rooted in ancient thought, in the belief for example that the universe is governed by numerical relationships, or in the notion of form as the intelligible quality of things, imposed upon or inherent in matter. Even in antiquity such ideas were applied to the arts: Aristotle understood art (techne) as a shaping process analogous to the processes of nature, while Vitruvius distinguished the design (lineamenta) of a building from its material existence. These applications were developed during the Renaissance. The humanist philosopher Benedetto Varchi, in a lecture (Due lezzione, Florence, 1550) on one of Michelangelo’s sonnets, defined the task of the sculptor as the drawing-forth of the ‘actual’ from the ‘potential’ being. In the Enlightenment, with its concern for the psychological nature of knowledge, there arose the notion that the experience of a work of art as a work of art was neither purely sensual nor purely rational and that an ‘aesthetic’ experience could be distinguished from other kinds of experience. If in looking at a picture we are moved to religious insights, for example, we are not experiencing the picture aesthetically. Kant, on the other hand, in his Critique of Judgment, formulated the possibility of ‘adherent’ as well as ‘pure’ beauty and admitted that beauty could be a symbol of the good, that aesthetic experience could thus have a resonance in the realm of morality. Friedrich Schiller, pushing Kant’s ideas towards Romanticism, emphasized the spiritually therapeutic nature of aesthetic experience, its capacity to reconcile the conflicting aspects of human nature and even to be an instrument of social and political reform.

Modern formalism evolved during the late 19th century and early 20th. An important impetus was given to this development by aestheticism, a broad-based cultural movement, in large part a reaction against the ills of modern industrial society. The literary and artistic movement known as Symbolism also played a part by emphasizing emotional expression above objective representation and stressing the integrity and autonomy of the work of art as object. The German essayist and critic konrad Fiedler, who was inspired by Kant, developed a formalist theory that was adapted and popularized by his friend, the sculptor adolf von Hildebrand. In Britain, similar ideas were broadcast in a more flamboyant fashion by James McNeill Whistler. The idea that a painting must succeed as an arrangement of compositional elements before it could succeed as representation was also central to the art of the Post-Impressionists and is found in a variety of forms in the writings of their critical supporters. Such ideas served the liberating impulses of Modernism, helping, as in the case of Kandinsky, to open the way for abstraction. They also informed much of the criticism that subsequently popularized ‘modern art’, most notably in the writings of roger Fry, clive Bell and herbert Read during the first half of the 20th century. Later, the American critic clement Greenberg developed a formalist definition of modernism in painting that was highly influential until the mid-1970s. In the meantime, formalism had also had a profound effect on the discipline of art history. Bernard Berenson, for example, invoked Hildebrand and Fry in giving a theoretical framework to his connoisseurship. The Viennese scholar alois Riegl and the Swiss heinrich Wölfflin each sought to develop a systematic approach to the history of art that would, among other things, define the historical evolution of style as an autonomous and necessary process. Riegl made use of the notion of ‘artistic will’ (Kunstwollen) to establish the distinctive formal features of works of art as the products of something other than technique. Wölfflin believed that, ideally, the history of art could be written ‘without names’, that it could be reduced to purely impersonal and necessary processes. Although the conceptual foundations of these systems were soon disputed, they have continued to serve as points of reference for such scholars as Wilhelm Worringer, Hans Sedlmayr and Otto Pächt (1902–88). Wölfflin’s critical terminology survived the obsolescence of his system and still enjoys currency even in the English-speaking world.

Robert Williams
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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