Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Wölfflin, Architecture and the Problem of Stilwandlung1

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Wölfflin, Architecture and the Problem of Stilwandlung1

Article excerpt

In his Space, Time and Architecture (published in 1941 but read as the Norton Lectures in 1938/39 at Harvard) Sigfried Giedion developed what was to become the orthodoxy of modernist architecture.2 What he was looking for, he claimed in the introduction, were the origins of the new modern style, the conditions which gave it rise and that he intuited came from the mass of anonymous industrial and engineering forms that the 19th century had produced, [fig. 1] He insisted that it was the transition into the forms of the 20th century that attracted him and gave him the insights into what the essence of this new style was. He went on to locate his scholarship-his intellectual debts -and he acknowledged the profound influence of two Swiss historians: Jacob Burckhardt and Heinrich Wölfflin, his Doktorvater. What Giedion credited his two mentors with-one close-by, the other twice removed-were essentially two ideas. One was the conception of Zeitgefühl that he owed Wölfflin; the other, was the concept of culture that he absorbed from Burckhardt who 'first showed how a period should be treated in its entirety, with regard not only for its painting, sculpture, and architecture but for the social institutions of its daily life as well.'3 However, Giedion continued, in addition to the idea of Zeitgefühl, Wölfflin had also led him to a problem that would fascinate him thereafter, the problem of 'how our epoch had been formed, where the roots of present-day thought lay buried'-in other words, to an archaeological excavation of the first glimmers of the new style.4 And to reach this archaeological layer he had turned to Wölfflin whose life-long interest and major contribution, he argued, were the process of Stilwandlung (transition of styles) that he accessed by contrasting epochs the better 'to grasp the spirit' of each.5

Starting with Giedion may seem like backing into the topic. Yet he is an interesting witness, a particularly revealing instance of reception: because he is Giedion, that is, one of the chief proselytizers of modernism in architecture, and because, as it seems, he could use the tools that Wölfflin offered him, attentively and carefully, and was not simply paying him a polite 'filial' lip-service. This connection between a famous critic and a famous historian, one working on modernism the other on the early modern period, raises the question then as to why and how Wölfflin could be useful to Giedion, and, more importantly, what this relevance tells us about Wölfflin. As this essay will argue, such an unlikely link was possible precisely because Wölfflin's own starting point for his reading of Stilwandlung had been architecture and because this particular starting point had played a determining role for his reading of art-making in general. Indeed, as will become evident, Wölfflin associated Stilwandlung with architecture because its discourse offered what he needed, and that was so because at the time it interacted with a host of human-based sciences that could be productively blended with the theories from philosophy and psychology that he was working with.

From Prologomena to Grundbegriffe

Wölfflin's own testimony suggests that Stilwandlung was a fundamental theme for him from the very first. 'Why did the Renaissance end?'6 This simple question was the starting point for his Habilitationsschrift of 1888, Renaissance und Barock^ and what he conceived as the inaugural move in his engagement with the history of art rather than the history of artists. His object was clear: not to describe the development of the Baroque, but to understand its origin.7 As it turned out, this first question produced a life-long search that lent a remarkable unity to Wolfflin's oeuvre. Renaissance und Barock focused on the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque in Roman architecture (as his test case); Klassische Kunst (1899) turned to the transition (or Stilwandlung) from early Renaissance to High Renaissance in painting; Die Kunst Albrecht Dürer's (1905) explored the transition from Gothic to Renaissance (for which he turned to Germany the better to observe this shift); finally, in Kunsthistorische Grundbegriffe (1915) he pulled together the findings of Klassische Kunst with those of Renaissance und Barock and obtained a book that looked at all the media as they transitioned from the Renaissance to the Baroque, 'following step by step the rise of the modern way of seeing'. …

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