Title: Touch and See: Image Analysis and Aesthetics in the Art Theory of Aloïs Riegl, Heinrich Wölfflin and Wilhelm Worringer
Other Titles: Touch and See: Image Analysis and Aesthetics in the Art Theory of Aloïs Riegl, Heinrich Wölfflin and Wilhelm Worringer
Authors: Ionescu, Vlad
Issue Date: 27-Apr-2012
Abstract: This project researches the issue of visual analysis in the work of Aloïs Riegl, Heinrich Wölfflin and Wilhelm Worringer. This overview is organized on two panels: a) an implementation of the conceptual frame to be developed and b) a formulation of the subject and goals of the projectImplementation of the conceptual framea) Riegl’s art theory revisited:Riegl’s art theory unfolds on two panels: a/ it is a project for a philosophy of art and culture and b/ a system of visual analysis. The first panel: his art theory examines the relation between artefacts and the culture from which they emerge. Here ‘culture’ refers generically to the active human imprint in shaping the passive nature as the implementation of specifically human values (aesthetic, ethic, economical, religious, etc). Culture is thus approached in opposition to nature. While both man and nature exercise a creative function, according toRiegl man is in a constant creative contest with nature (Wettschaffen mit der Natur). Each artefact is perceived in its cultural density, i.e. it is the ‘relief’ whose cultural ‘background’ determines its form. Plastic arts are related to the crystallization of energies and tensions that cultures promote. This is the context for his concept of Kunstwollen. The relation between man and the exterior world materializes itself in every age in a certain specific form that delineates the Kunstwollen of the age. Kunst in Kunstwollen has to be read as Plastic (or Artefact) and Wollen as volition (anonymous), not will (as a personal act). The term designates an impersonal drive materializing itself in different objects. Similar aesthetic characteristics (that visual analysis designates) appear on all plastic creations of an age.Each age has its own Kunstwollen, hence art history known no decline. This implies a contextualization of the judgment of taste. Misinterpretations of artistic form happen when one evaluates a work accordingto standards of taste belonging to another art historical period. His critique is double: firstly, one has to contextualize an artwork within the Kunstwollen it belongs to and, secondly, distinguish it from the judgment of taste we apply to it. The latter is singular and often based on a strict set of attributes that make an object beautiful or ugly. The former is a visual analysis that has to extract the stylistic ideals of the age it represents. Riegl: “Modern taste cannot positively conceive Kunstwollen directed towards ugliness and non-animation” and “the aim of the fine arts is not completely exhausted with beauty and animation” (Spätrömische Kunstindustrie, 11) Each age has its own art, or better said, its own specific relation to the world. Corollary to this statement: each artistic form is brought into a closer relation to a broader context. Late Roman Kunstwollen accepts the “ugly” (shapeless) because it sees it as an interval of beauty, just like evil is privation of the good. This forms the sketch of a philosophy of art and culture where cultural products point to each other, where the density of plastic art and the written discourse, the ethics and the poetics of an age are materialization of a common Kunstwollen.Needless to say, this type of analysis is even more required in our contemporary heterogeneous culture. Can we still speak of a “common” Kunstwollen that arts nowadays materialize? According to Riegl, in modernity visual arts develop towards increasing subjectivity. Are we still part of this dimension? Is subjectivity (of vision and presentation[1]) still really an issue for current visual arts? Does not Riegl’s system of visual analysis that is diachronic have to be confronted with a synchronic approach? In other words, is there even a question of development in arts or this system of dichotomies that Riegl and Wölfflin create has to be implemented synchronically, in the individual work? The second panel refers to visual analysis as the history of the line. Art theory’s status is that of a science analyzing images through a conceptual apparatus. This visual grammar delineates stylistic characteristic and refers them to the broader historical context in which they appear. Does it require a Nahsehen or a Fernsehen, is it haptic or rather optic[2]? What is the relation between the depicted figure(s) and the depiction of space?And, within a larger philosophical interpretation: what is the relation between the formal characteristic and the Weltanschauung to which the image belongs? For Riegl, each historical period develops a different formal approach in expressing itself through visual means (figurative presentations, ornament, use objects, etc) and visual analysis deals with the how (and not with the what) of presentations. It the possibilitiesthat appear in the correlation of these basic visual elements: line and colour, plane and space. In this sense Riegl introduces a visual semiotic that is worth considering. Each image belongs to a certain artistic age and each Kunstwollen recreates time and again a new equation based on a few elements: line and colour on the plane or in space. This line is sometimes “tactic”, delineating a self-enclosed object, focusing on its material unity, suppressing space (Egyptian art), sometimes it is “optical”, colouristic, subjective, invitingspace relations between objects (modern art). According to Riegl, the delineation of space marks the evolution of art: its presentation moves between the close space of the Renaissance and the modern, infinite space. In our interpretation, Riegl’s and Wölfflin’s apparatus aims at an approach of form as the unfolding of the line on the plane and in space. Their concepts account for the history of this line, tactic or optic, objective and moving towards an increased subjectivity. In this interpretation the line is the central term in modern art theory; it is the notion in reference to which all transformations are approached. But is the “line” as material circumference of the correlate (Umriß) still an issue for current arts? The subject and goal of research: visual grammar The bulk of the literature on the aforementioned theoreticians accounts mainly for their art historical input. On one side, our interpretation concentrates on the conceptual apparatus they introduce and stresses its critical value for visual analysis. Their conceptual dichotomies prove a valuable tool for this scope. Riegl, Wölfflin and Worringer establish a pre-structuralist grammar of visual arts (Riegl writes 10 years before Saussure). They propose a style analysis that for long has been undermined in aesthetics and counterbalanced in art theory by the iconographical approach. A systematic reading of this visual grammar forms the first chapter of the project. On the other side, another chapter interprets Riegl’s art theory as a philosophy of art and culture. These are the two aims to be reached in a systematic (rather than art historical) analysis of their work. These two sections form the first part of the project. A second part discusses the 20th century interpretations of these art theories (Henri Maldiney, Deleuze). While visual analysis functions for the aforementioned art theoreticians as a study of form in terms of dichotomies, their philosophical interpretation employs their concepts to approach form as an intensity that questions figurative representation. Both share the idea that art is to be studied for its form.Riegl (Historische Grammatik der Bildende Künste, 1897-1899) and Wölfflin (Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe, 1915) develop a structural “grammar” of visual arts to account for the change of form in art history. This “grammar” works on the basis of a series of dichotomies. In Riegl these are: abstract –organic, tactic – optic, close view – distant view, Wille – Empfindung. In Wölfflin: classic – baroque, dermalerische – der zeichnische, plane – recession, closed – open form. These are stylistic polarities across which artistic form develops. They all relate to the unfolding of the line throughout the history of arts and its relation to space. Does that mean that this apparatus is dated when it comes to non-figurative (“abstract”) arts? Or are the latter the very materialization of these dichotomies?Deleuze is on the other hand interested in the intensities that art uses to challenge the stability of figurative artistic expression. In his interpretation (in the line of Maldiney), form is an issue of the intensity of a sensation, of an energy that (de)stabilizes presentation. In a last step, the following question is raised:taking in consideration the complete openness of form in current artistic practice, the wide-range of technique that it incorporates and its divorce from established forms (painting, sculpture), what kind of “grammar” can still approach it?
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: TH
Appears in Collections:Tutorial services, Institute of Philosophy
Centre for Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy
European Centre for Ethics
Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science

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