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Modern Theories of Art 2

Modern Theories of Art 2: From Impressionism to Kandinsky

Moshe Barasch
Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Modern Theories of Art 2
    Book Description:

    In this volume, the third in his classic series of texts surveying the history of art theory, Moshe Barasch traces the hidden patterns and interlocking themes in the study of art, from Impressionism to Abstract Art. Barasch details the immense social changes in the creation, presentation, and reception of art which have set the history of art theory on a vertiginous new course: the decreased relevance of workshops and art schools; the replacement of the treatise by the critical review; and the interrelation of new modes of scientific inquiry with artistic theory and praxis. The consequent changes in the ways in which critics as well as artists conceptualized paintings and sculptures were radical, marked by an obsession with intense, immediate sensory experiences, psychological reflection on the effects of art, and a magnetic pull to the exotic and alien, making for the most exciting and fertile period in the history of art criticism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-0905-4
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    In the present volume I shall discuss theories of art that emerged and flourished over the relatively short period of roughly four decades. In general, a marked continuity is characteristic of the theory of art; the heritage of the past lives for a long time. The demarcation of such a brief period in the field’s history, therefore, calls for an explanation.

    Since the mid-nineteenth century, artists and critics, now largely detached from their traditional social and cultural frameworks, have been fully exposed to the quickening pace of general intellectual change. Moreover, as other intellectual disciplines became increasingly concerned with art,...

  5. I Impressionism

    • 1 Introduction: The Crisis of Realism
      (pp. 11-12)

      In May 1867 Edouard Manet made a kind of programmatic statement when he wrote: “The artist does not say today, ‘Come and see faultless works,’ but ‘Come and see sincere works.’” Later in this part (in the chapter on style) I shall come back to the specific meaning of these words. Here we shall only say that when it was made, this programmatic statement that brought up a central problem in the theory of art, was unusual and differed from the issues commonly raised in discussions of art. Does it mark the beginning of a new theory of art? When,...

    • 2 Aesthetic Culture in the Literature of the Time
      (pp. 13-23)

      In the second half of the nineteenth century both philosophy and science contributed, and, as we have seen, formed a comprehensive background to, what might be called the crisis of Realism. The solid world, made of a tangible material substance, seemed to crumble, to slip away, or simply to disintegrate. What remained, it seemed to writers and artists, were only appearances, sensations, something which you could look at for a fleeting moment, but which you could not grasp, hold, or rely on. How did the arts, or culture as a whole, reflect this state of affairs, or this intellectual trend?...

    • 3 Impressionism and the Philosophical Culture of the Time
      (pp. 24-33)

      The utterances of the impressionistic painters and of the roughly contemporary art critics I quoted in the previous chapter have a seemingly narrow, “professional” ring; they seldom refer to comprehensive problems lying outside the work of the painter. One thus easily gets the impression that these artists were intent on stressing the specific, unique nature of the artistic, pictorial domain, detaching it from other domains of experience, reflection, and life. We read of light and color, of tones and brush strokes, and thus of art as isolated from thought and culture as a whole. Considerable contemporary criticism and interpretation of...

    • 4 Science and Painting
      (pp. 34-44)

      In surveying the horizon of late-nineteenth-century intellectual life for developments that may shed some light on the emergence of the impressionists’ views, we shall now briefly turn to science. The evocation of science in a discussion of impressionism necessarily causes one to wonder. How can science, a reader might ask, be relevant to the creation, or even to the explanation, of art? Did the artists, the critics, and the general public who were looking at impressionistic pictures, have any real understanding of the problems and procedures of science?

      We must quite frankly admit that neither the impressionistic artists nor their...

    • 5 Impressionism: Reflections on Style
      (pp. 45-68)

      In the preceding chapters of this part I have attempted to trace some of the central intellectual developments—philosophical, scientific, and literary—that form the broad background to what we call impressionism in painting. We now come closer to the painters themselves. Here the question arises: can we speak of a theory of impressionistic painting in a narrow sense, that is, a theory that deals with the specific problems of impressionistic painting and sculpture? Artistic movements at earlier stages of history, from the fifteenth-century Renaissance to nineteenth-century Classicism and Realism, developed doctrines that were intended to help artists solve the...

    • 6 The Fragment as Art Form
      (pp. 69-78)

      Painting was clearly the main medium in which impressionism scored its most important and most characteristic achievements, and on which it left its major mark. But the influence of the various art movements linked with impressionism was not limited to painting alone. We shall conclude this part with the discussion of a phenomenon principally realized in sculpture rather than painting. It represents the emergence of a new art form. Though this form did not achieve the prominent position held by, say, impressionist color scale or brush work, it shows clearly in which direction the basic developments of the new art...

  6. II Empathy

    • 7 Introduction: An Empathy Tradition in the Theory of Art
      (pp. 81-83)

      In these crucial four decades from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, a further trend emerged in the theoretical reflection on art that became increasingly dominant in early-twentieth-century thought. Strange as it may seem, this trend is difficult to define precisely in a single word or short phrase; no simple label fits it exactly, it does not go under any “ism.” The cluster of ideas and conceptual endeavors of which it is constituted is far more diverse than those making up other contemporary trends in art criticism. These difficulties of labeling are confusing. One...

    • 8 Gustav Fechner
      (pp. 84-92)

      To indicate the particular moment at which the movement we shall attempt to trace in this part first appeared, and also to suggest something of the intellectual situation that formed its original background, it seems appropriate to begin with a discussion of Fechner. Fechner was a student and thinker of unusual richness of interest and complexity of thought; his work shows an exceptional versatility. It should therefore be stressed at the outset that we do not intend to draw a portrait of Fechner the scholar, but only to emphasize some assumptions that, if only indirectly, had a formative influence on...

    • 9 Charles Darwin: The Science of Expression
      (pp. 93-98)

      In the last third of the nineteenth century an old interest and concern attained a significance rarely matched in its age-long history; these decades saw attempts to transform the study of what we call “expression” into a science, and thus to place it on solid rational foundations. To a large extent these attempts facilitated the success of Fechner’s psychophysics, particularly in the aesthetic domain, and enabled the concept of empathy to become a central issue in the theory and explanation of art.

      How we express our emotions and how we grasp and understand the emotions that our fellowmen express—these...

    • 10 Robert Vischer
      (pp. 99-108)

      In the last third of the nineteenth century the issue that artists and critics know as the “problem of expression” came to occupy a central place both in some of the sciences and in the domain of aesthetics. Fechner and Darwin, and the great scientific traditions they represented or initiated, were signs of this profound concern with what to many seemed a newly discovered dimension of existence, the expression of modes of psychic reality. How are emotions manifested, and how is it that these manifestations seem to be instantly understood by spectators? Moreover, how should we account for the strange...

    • 11 Empathy: Toward a Definition
      (pp. 109-115)

      Robert Vischer, as we have just seen, suggested a theory of empathy, though only in very broad and vague outline. He also coined the termEinfühlung, that was soon to become a household notion in the conceptual vocabulary of certain trends in psychology and in the theory of art. In the decades following the publication of Vischer’s dissertation (1873), the theory of empathy underwent extensive development in several fields of study. This dissemination was particularly manifest in several sciences as well as in popular criticism, mainly of literature. It also affected some disciplines that had a bearing, direct or indirect,...

    • 12 Wilhelm Dilthey
      (pp. 116-121)

      Modern art theory’s dependence on psychology, the “science of the soul,” brought about one of the major trends in art criticism of the modern age. As we have seen, in earlier periods, when people tried to understand artistic creation and to judge works of art, they turned for enlightenment to the great cultural traditions and invoked the inherited models rather than concentrate on the description and analysis of what goes on in the artist’s soul and mind. The orientation toward the psychological aspects of art also resulted in a certain shift in the subject matter of art theory. The increasing...

    • 13 Conrad Fiedler
      (pp. 122-132)

      In the last decades of the nineteenth century the idea of pure visibility was much in the air, and found powerful resonance among artists and students of art. Scientists were thought to have discovered the intellectual significance of seeing, as well as the complexity and inherent order of this seemingly simple sensual experience. How is the artist’s domain of vision structured? Though the idea of “pure visibility” may have meant different things to different people and to the scientific disciplines, the common orientation of reflections on this notion seems clear. Interestingly, the abstract character of the concept had almost the...

    • 14 Adolf Hildebrand
      (pp. 133-142)

      The significance of vision in general, and of reflection on what was called “pure vision” in particular, is amply manifested in Fiedler’s thought. Fiedler, as we have seen, was also aware of the wide inner range of seeing; he knew very well that there are different stages in the visual process, between, say, perceiving an everyday object and what he called “pure seeing.” Do we indeed perceive with the same kind of vision an object that is present in front of us and the not clearly defined image of “pure seeing”? He did not suggest an answer. Hildebrand took over...

    • 15 Alois Riegl
      (pp. 143-170)

      The trend in the theory of art that we have been following in the present section reached its fullest expression in work done, and in writings published, around 1900 in Vienna. With Alois Riegl, a historian who was also a theoretician of art, it became one of the formative and permanent influences in twentieth-century reflection on the visual arts. The questions Riegl raised remained a powerful challenge to critical thinking throughout the twentieth century. It hardly needs stressing that ideas originating in the intellectual life of the West as a whole colored Riegl’s work, but the conditions in which his...

    • 16 Wilhelm Worringer: Abstraction and Empathy
      (pp. 171-188)

      A year after Riegl’s death (1905), a young doctoral student, Wilhelm Worringer, wrote a dissertation that, two years later, in 1908, was published as a slim volume (as was customary with many German dissertations at the time) under the titleAbstraktion und Einfühlung: Ein Beitrag zur Stilpsychologie(Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style).¹ At that time, doctoral dissertations were compositions usually overflowing with learned notes and bibliography to display the author’s erudition. Worringer’s book is not a characteristic example of the type. It is a study consisting of highly speculative, wide ranging ideas, unusual in fate...

  7. III Discovering the Primitive

    • 17 Introduction: Conditions of Modern Primitivism
      (pp. 191-198)

      The student who attempts to investigate primitivism in nineteenth-century reflections on art is faced with a strange dilemma. Primitivism, as we know, is one of the oldest concepts of mankind, but at the same time it is conceived as a characteristic of the modern world and its art. How do we understand this apparent contradiction? And what precisely is primitivism anyhow?

      One might expect primitivism to be simple and easy to grasp. In fact, however, few concepts in our vocabulary are more complex and intricate. The notion of “primitivism” calls for explanation at two different levels: at one level, it...

    • 18 The Beginnings of Scholarly Study: Gottfried Semper
      (pp. 199-209)

      A reader familiar with developments in the nineteenth-century reflection on art may be surprised to find Semper’s name in a discussion of ideas concerning the primitive in art. Semper is usually considered a “functionalist,” sometimes even a “materialist.” These characterizations have attained wide currency as a result of Alois Riegl’s critical analysis of his views, mainly in Riegl’sStilfragen, a book that marks a watershed in thought on the visual arts. To a considerable extent these characterizations can be supported by what Semper himself had to say. Yet without attempting to reject such interpretations of Semper’s work and position I...

    • 19 Discovering Prehistoric Art Early Questions and Explanations
      (pp. 210-242)

      Developments in the theory of art have rarely been motivated by what was happening in art theory itself. As we have had ample occasion to see in the preceding volumes, the problems and tasks of art theory were usually posed by events and processes taking place either in the world of the artists or in the society for which their works were made, the world of the spectator. Whatever the exact stimulus to new discussions, it always came from beyond the confines of aesthetic reflection itself. Likewise, conditions and movements in the outside world that determined which way art theory...

    • 20 Understanding Distant Cultures: The Case of Egypt
      (pp. 243-261)

      The attempts made in European thought in the course of the late nineteenth century to understand the nature of primitive art and to come to terms with the riddle of prehistoric painting and sculpture were, as we have shown, often, linked with the study of another subject, early or exotic “high civilizations.” In our own day we think we are fully aware of the profound difference between a genuinely primitive and a highly developed, if exotic, art. Even today, however, the dividing line between the two is not always easily drawn; in the nineteenth century, as today, people were aware...

    • 21 Gauguin
      (pp. 262-271)

      Among the artists who in the late nineteenth century proclaimed the value of primitive art Gauguin is the best known. He was a truly seminal figure. Perhaps no other artist had such an extensive role in disseminating the gospel of the primitive, including primitive art. His message, whether conveyed in images or in words, transmitted directly or by his many advocates, reached not only art lovers, but also large sections of the western world with little knowledge of art and perhaps even less use for it. For almost a century, whenever the subject of primitivism in art was discussed, his...

    • 22 African Art
      (pp. 272-290)

      The sudden appearance of African art, primarily of African sculpture, on the horizon of the European art world and of aesthetic thought at the beginning of the twentieth century is probably the most famous single event in the history of modern primitivism, at least as far as the visual arts are concerned. For the modern mind it came to epitomize that large and complex process, the search for and discovery of the primitive and the aboriginal, and the almost messianic hopes that it would have a miraculous impact on the European mind. In the present chapter I shall briefly relate...

  8. IV Abstract Art

    • 23 Abstract Art: Origins and Sources
      (pp. 293-308)

      “Abstract art” has become a household word in our time. Few terms are so frequently used, and occasionally misused, as the adjective “abstract” in the discourse about the visual arts. The wide popularity of the term, however, does not ensure that we are clear as to its original meaning. Criticism, both artistic and philosophical, while enriching the meanings attached to the concept, has also burdened it with a variety of conflicting connotations that have blurred whatever outlines and clear contours it may possess. To some of these discussions we shall have to return in the course of this part.


    • 24 The Subject Matter of Abstract Painting
      (pp. 309-319)

      Having briefly outlined some of the major sources that nourished abstract painting and shaped the direction of its development, we can now turn to the actual theory behind it. Here again Kandinsky offers the student the major clues in his search, and provides some of the answers to the questions that arise. In turning to the theory of abstract painting, our first question is obvious: what is its subject matter? What does the painting that has no “object” (Gegenstand) represent? To what did the term “abstract” apply in the minds of the founders of abstract painting? Or quite simply: what...

    • 25 Color
      (pp. 320-340)

      The theory of abstract art, unlike other trends in contemporary art, was directly and explicitly concerned with the basic “material” elements of painting, such as line, color, and certain aspects of composition. It is significant that among these basic building blocks of the art of painting, color held pride of place. The importance that the artists and writers who founded the school of abstract painting assigned to color is manifest in two ways: on the one hand, the sheer amount of reflection devoted to color sometimes far exceeds the attention devoted to line and composition; on the other hand, the...

    • 26 Line
      (pp. 341-351)

      The other element in the painter’s work, line, also played a significant part in the examination and reflection of the abstract artists in the first two decades of the twentieth century. To be sure, in purely quantitative terms line seems to have attracted less of their attention than color. Thus, while inOn the Spiritual in ArtKandinsky devoted a whole chapter specifically to the “Effects of Color,” he treated line mainly in a chapter called “The Language of Forms and Colors.” Even in this chapter the main parts were, in fact, devoted to color rather than to line. As...

    • 27 Composition and Harmony
      (pp. 352-370)

      So far we have discussed the concepts and doctrines of color and line, and the particular problems they pose, separately. In this we were, in fact, following Kandinsky and Mondrian. But the founders of abstract painting and of its theory were profoundly aware that the work of art, quite particularly as they envisaged it, was not an accumulation of colors and lines; it was a unified whole. Adding color to line, even if both were expressive, was not sufficient to create a painting. As we have seen, the wholeness or totality of a picture is not defined and often not...

  9. Bibliographical Essay
    (pp. 371-382)
  10. Name Index
    (pp. 383-385)
  11. Subject Index
    (pp. 386-389)
  12. About the Author
    (pp. 390-390)