Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 11, 2018
Heinrich Wölfflin Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Early Modern Art Trans Jonathan Blower 100th Anniversary Edition. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2015. 368 pp.; 122 b/w ills. Paperback $34.95 (9781606064528)

Wölfflin and the Promise of Anonymity

From a certain perspective, it is unclear why art history needs a new translation of Heinrich Wölfflin’s The Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Early Modern Art. There are a range of other foundational documents of the discipline that have yet to receive even a first hearing. Moreover, the M. D. Hottinger translation of the text is in print and widely available, and retains much of the elegance, if not the letter, of Wölfflin’s  prose. I gather, too, that readers of the new hundredth-anniversary edition are hardly gravitating to the famous descriptive categories of the Linear and the Painterly; Plane and Recession; Closed Form and Open Form; Multiplicity and Unity; and Clearness and Unclearness. So what is it that still draws readers to this text one hundred years later? What makes this text foundational for our discipline, what keeps it at the center of our concerns, does not lie with the descriptive categories but with the theoretical principles that make those categories necessary and sustainable for Wölfflin.

In his finely calibrated introduction to the Principles of Art History, Wölfflin offers an anecdote recorded by Ludwig Richter about four painters who “undertook to paint a section of the landscape” and “not to deviate from nature by so much as a hair’s breadth” (83). According to Wölfflin, “although the model was the same, and each of these . . . painters kept to what their eyes saw, the result was nevertheless three quite different pictures, as different from one another . . . as the personalities of the three painters” (83). If for Richter the point of the episode was to show the depth to which personality runs in a painter’s practice, then for Wölfflin the point was to show the opposite: that an artist carries a “mode of perception”—something definitely not personal—with him wherever he goes. Wölfflin makes this point a few sentences later when he reflects that even though these artists see strong differences between them, “to us those three Tivoli landscapes would probably seem quite alike at first, namely Nazarene” (83, original emphasis).

Over the course of the introduction, Wölfflin takes us through an ever-widening lens of stylistic categories, from individual style to school, to country, to the style of the race or nation, and ultimately to period style. By the end he comes to the “crux of his investigation,” the discovery of “the mode of representation as such [Darstellungsart].” “Every artist,” he writes, “finds certain preexisting ‘optical’ possibilities, to which he is bound. Not everything is possible at all times. Seeing as such has its own history, and uncovering these ‘optical strata’ has to be considered the most elementary task of art history” (93). We can begin to see already that the Principles of Art History might better be described as the Principles of Visual Culture, where the historian’s task is the excavation of certain buried modes of seeing the world, a mode of seeing that is inscribed in any and everything produced by a culture at a moment in time, art being simply a localized instance of a much larger perceptual modality. By the logic of this argument, it is unclear why Wölfflin felt the need or desire to focus on artists at all. Art history as a discipline—or rather its amorphous merger with visual culture—has finally taken Wölfflin more seriously than he was willing to take himself, and rid itself of artists, dissolving them in the lukewarm bath of the “visual.” The challenge remains for those committed to the Wölfflin picture of visual culture not only to expunge the artist but to expunge any lingering notion of quality or value beyond popularity. What else, after all, could define a mode of perception other than its sheer ubiquity?

In other words, nothing could be more misleading than the suggestion, by Evonne Levy in her new introduction to the volume, that Wölfflin’s study has been systematically “pushed aside” by the history of art, and that “with the rise of poststructuralist theory and visual culture studies, Wölfflin’s Principles might seem doomed to fade into irrelevance” (34). It would be more persuasive to say Wölfflin’s Principles has entered the very DNA of the humanities at large. The second introduction, by Tristan Weddigen, puts the matter squarely when he writes that Wölfflin’s “concepts can be reapplied almost normatively to all potential visual objects,” a procedure Weddigen rightly calls “morphological” (56). As Wölfflin observed early on, a mode of seeing—a Gothic one, for instance—can appear in a shoe just as well as in a cathedral, perhaps even more clearly in a shoe, a point that underlines his commitment to both “schemata” and, more broadly, an “art history without names.”

Nothing is more basic to Wölfflin’s project than the loosely Kantian, loosely Hegelian articulation of historical modes of seeing. He uses an array of phrases to describe it, including the substratum of concepts, visual schema, the mode of perception, the representational form, a priori forms of representation, and the form in which the living is seen. Simply put, it is the “form” of seeing that defines Wölfflin’s so-called formalism. (How, we should ask at this point, does this notion of form as mode of perception, and not an expression of artistic intent, relate to the best-known instances of formalism in the hands of Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Alfred H. Barr, and Clement Greenberg?)

What should be clear above all about Wölfflin’s formalism is that it is meant to inscribe difference into the visual field, a difference that remains inaccessible to even the best-trained, best-educated viewer in the encounter with past art. Thus the editors’ commitment to pedagogy raises far more questions than it answers. What actually is the pedagogical function of understanding seeing as a historical phenomenon? Weddigen, I think, puts the matter right when he says that “there is a history of seeing—in other words, that every epoch sees things with its own eyes—[and this] affects the art historian too. While the art historian has to try and reconstruct how works of art were intended to be seen, Wölfflin finds his contemporaries all too inclined to see everything in a painterly way because they are imbued with impressionism” (56). So what exactly are art historians to do about this? What could they do with this assertion? Weddigen tersely notes that “it is not clear how Wölfflin conceived the necessary self-critique of the art historian” (57). Weddigen nonetheless presumes that Wölfflin was invested in the project of self-critique, that his aim was to “disentangle the author’s own mode of seeing from the historical ones” (57). No doubt that is true, but to what end? Was he searching for a connection with the past, a “complete identity” between one’s own mode of seeing and historical ones? Or was he closer to viewing communication as something that never occurs except at the level of fiction? One can acknowledge the difference between one’s own painterly mode and another’s linear mode, and it would require self-critique to achieve that, but the product is not a relation to the other mode but a skeptical encounter with otherness, the recognition of the “completely different” (310).

Wölfflin fleshes out the differential understanding of “mode of perception” when he describes it as the “entire worldview of a people,” a worldview that expresses a “different orientation toward the world” (317, 97) and, most strikingly, we are told one should “always [be] under the assumption of a totally different system of structure [immer unter der Voraussetzung eines ganz andern Struktursystems]” (310; translation modified). But why and how and on what basis should we “always assume” that? What ontological conditions require this assumption of difference? While Wölfflin sometimes describes this “different structure system” as like “speaking a different language,” he insists that no matter how fluent we may be in the structure, the past “currents” we encounter will “necessarily bring in things not understood and that remain alien [Dauernd-Fremdes].” On this account of language, one embraced by his onetime student Walter Benjamin, Wölfflin conceives it as something that bears meaning in itself, rather than as the bearer of meaning. This is why he can speak of a “southern imagination” that one could “no longer understand, that is, experience” (316). So, one might ask, what do we really do when we look at art of historically remote origin and—more to the point—why do we repeatedly undertake this labor of sheer difference and non-comprehension?

All of this raises the substantial question of the pedagogic value of the Principles. At times Wölfflin suggested the book could serve as a kind of empathetic tool, as though one could enter into the mode of perception of artists in the past. “It takes practice to see paintings as linearly as they want to be seen,” he wrote. “Good intentions alone are not enough” (124). But there is no level of practice that will allow one to see in the way that the painter saw. I do not mean, of course, a kind of telepathic or transfusional or history-denying empathy with past works. I mean the kind of connection that occurs when one says about any form of address from another that one has reached a kind of understanding (provisional and temporary and contingent and open to mistake as that might be—but binding, nonetheless).

It is important to see that Wölfflin offers no argument as to why we should “always be under the assumption” that the past expresses a “totally different structure system.” There are some profound assumptions that go along with Wölfflin’s ontology of difference. First, that we, as contemporary viewers, inhabit a mode of perception whether we know it or not; second, that people in the past inhabited a different mode of perception from ours; third, that our mode of perception is “totally different” from those in the past; and fourth, that once those past modes of perception change, we can describe them but never “experience” them again.

Finally, it is worth noting how Wölfflin’s differential ontology compares with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s similar but crucially different account of historical understanding. As Wittgenstein put it (rather poetically) in Culture and Value, “The light shed by works [in the past] is a beautiful light, but it only shines with real beauty if it is illuminated by yet another light [in the present].”1 In other words, for the past to bear meaning, or to bear full meaning, requires an act of engagement in the present to bring that past to life. The work, on this account, does not exist as a work until or unless it is activated (not created) in our current awareness. Along this line we might note the difference between Wittgenstein’s notion of the “dawning of an aspect”—when our light makes visible the formerly dim lights of another—and Wölfflin’s geological and stratified notion of the “crystallization form [wherein] a new side of the content of the world comes to light” (310). For Wölfflin, when one optical stratum is uncovered, other lower strata are partially or fully occluded. Indeed, the possibility of full occlusion of the past stands as a continual threat or—better—promise within Wölfflin’s system. If, for Wölfflin, the “most elementary task of art history” was the revelation of past modes of perception—the shocking encounter with a past we can never really understand—then the current task of art history might be to loosen the grip of Wölfflin’s skepticism.

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch, ed. G. H. Von Wright with Heikki Nyman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 26.

Todd Cronan
Associate Professor, Art History, Emory University