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 character of a revelation.
Among the critics concerned with “pure vision,” Conrad Fiedler (1841–95) was perhaps the most influential. A wealthy young man, patron and intimate friend of artists (especially of the painter Hans von Marees), an independent scholar who never sought any link to established institutions of learning, Fiedler belongs to a type that has now almost completely disappeared. Scholars of his kind were not constrained by the requirements and limitations imposed by the traditions of institutionalized learning. They were given to crossing disciplinary borders, and to a freewheeling working of the mind, often setting themselves intellectual goals that would not have found a favorable reception in a university. Fiedler's work reflects these conditions.
Conrad Fiedler's literary oeuvre is not very large, being contained, with some additions, in two volumes.1 Despite its somewhat heavy and abstruse style, it exerted a striking influence. The only explanation for this is that the power of the idea, if not always expressed with full clarity, impressed readers, and made it possible for the text to exercise a strong formative impact on them. Fiedler's thought was dominated by a single problem, best expressed in his longish study “Concerning the Origin of Artistic activity,” written in 1887.2
Fiedler's basic argument is clearly stated. To understand art, he said, many students begin by investigating the works of art, that is, the final re-