Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

'Thus We Forever See the Ages as They Appear Mirrored in Our Spirits': Willhelm Worringer's Abstraction and Empathy as Longseller, or the Birth of Artistic Modernism from the Spirit of the Imagined Other

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

'Thus We Forever See the Ages as They Appear Mirrored in Our Spirits': Willhelm Worringer's Abstraction and Empathy as Longseller, or the Birth of Artistic Modernism from the Spirit of the Imagined Other

Article excerpt

So we may advance the following proposition: the simple line and its further development in accordance with pure geometrical rules must offer the greatest possible delight for people disturbed by the unclarity and confusion of phenomena. Because here the last scrap of contingency and independence in life is erased, here the highest, absolute form, the purest abstraction has been attained; here is law, necessity, where otherwise everything is ruled by the caprices of the organic.1

(Wilhelm Worringer, 1908)

In their search for purity artists were compelled to abstract the natural forms that concealed the plastic elements, to destroy the natural forms and replace them with art forms. Today, the idea of the art form is as outdated as the idea of the natural form ... Concrete art, not abstract, because nothing can be more concrete, nothing more real than a line, a colour, a surface. 2

(Theo van Doesburg, 1930)

Thirty years on from William Rubin's controversial exhibition Primitivism in 20th Century Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1984), the question of the role and siting of non-European art has acquired a new relevance through the globalizing tendencies in art history. At the heart of the debate back then were the objects that Rubin had enlisted to back up his thesis of the affinity of 'tribal' and modern art. Rubin's concern was to show that European artists and those non-European artists dubbed by modernism as primitive were driven by similar aesthetic premises and a similar attitude of mind.3

This glossed over not only the extent to which formal aesthetic solutions of non-European art had been appropriated by European artists, but above all the intellectual-historical conditions that had made first the primitivist self-image of the European avant-garde possible.

Bound up to an imagined other, the appropriation of non-European art at the dawn of the twentieth century seemed to mean at first glance its inclusion in European art. But what it actually spelt was its de facto exclusion, as Rubin's critics have shown.4 An exclusion that was based on a paradox: Modernism, with its endeavour to tame and subdue nature, was dedicated to progress - while constantly longing for an other with an allegedly pristine self, yet instantly holding this selfsame other at a distance during the process of appropriation. 5

As Frances S. Connelly has shown in her study The Sleep of Reason, 6 this primitivist figure of thought had developed since the Enlightenment in the shadow of a mode of thinking bound increasingly to rationalism, and can be spotted long before the appropriation of non-European art by the avant-garde at the beginning of the twentieth century. According to Connelly, it was this that made the artistic appropriation of the other possible.7

There were many attempts in the waning nineteenth and early twentieth century not only to present the artefacts that had been shipped from the colonies in exhibitions, but also to site them theoretically, taxonomically, and institutionally.8 One of the early attempts in the twentieth century to integrate non-European art into the art discourse and interpret it was the dissertation submitted in 1906 to the University of Berne by the German art historian Wilhelm Worringer (1881-1965), titled Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style.9 Reviewed in 1907 in the journal Kunst und Künstler edited by Karl Scheffler,10 the manuscript came to the notice of the publisher Reinhard Piper, who published it in 1908. Worringer's book has appeared in more editions than any other theoretical work of German modernism, and in international terms has been the most influential. It has been reprinted over twenty times and translated into nine languages.

Worringer's advocacy of including non-European art in art history is in keeping with his efforts to replace a limited 'Western concept of art' ('abendländische Kunstgesinnung') by an art concept 'in the universal sense' ('im Weltsinne'), as he phrased it in a later work. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.