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Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945)


Swiss art historian and aesthetician, who attempted to formulate an objective set of criteria for the classifications of art history. Wölfflin's most famous works include Renaissance und Barock (1888, Renaissance and Baroque) and Die klassische Kunst (1898, Classic Art), and Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (1915, Principles of Art History), his most debated book, which has been translated into twenty-four languages.

"Of all nations, Italy has given the classic type its clearest impress; that is the glory of her architecture as of her design. Even in the baroque she never went so far in depriving the parts of their independence as Germany. We could characterise the difference of imagination by a musical metaphor. Italian church bells always hold to definite tone-figures: when German bells ring it is merely a weft of harmonious sound." (Wölflin in Principles of Art History)

Heinrich Wölfflin was born in Winterthur, Switzerland, into a wealthy and cultured family. His father, Eduard Wölfflin (1831-1903) was a classical scholar, who helped found and organize the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, for which he prepared the Archiv für Lateinische Lexikographie und Grammatik (15 vol., 1884-1909). Wölfflin studied art history and philosophy at the University of Basel from 1882 to 1886, where his teacher was the famous historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897), writer of The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). At that time art history was not an independent Fach but a part of Kulturgeschichte.

After spending two years in Italy, Wölfflin published his first major work, Renaissance und Barock (1888). It was not until the publication of this study that the term "Baroque" was used neutrally in art history – earlier it had been a synonym for eccentric odd, or bizarre.

In Wölfflin's time baroque art was not considered respectable outside Germany. Wölfflin applied the term to period which started about 1530 and ended in the 1630s, when later it was used to describe the style that followed Mannerism and lasted, though with profound modifications, until well into the 18th century. Wölfflin made a clear historical distinction between Renaissance and Baroque, which he defined as "movement imported into mass." For Jacob Burckhardt, whose thought deeply influenced Wölfflin, the style meant degeneration. Prejudice against Baroque's artistic achievements continued almost until the World War II.

After studies in Berlin and Munich, Wölfflin received his Ph.D. in 1888. He then worked for five years at the University of Basel as a lecturer, before he was appointed Professor of Art History in Basel. It is noteworthy that Wölfflin, who has been labelled as a champion of "formal analysis", wrote in the very last sentence of Die klassische Kunst (1899): "In no way do we want to have pleaded for a formalistic appreciation of art. It certainly needs the light to make the diamond sparkle."

From 1901 to 1912 Wölfflin was Professor of Art History at the University of Berlin and then, suceeding Berthold Riehl, at Munich until 1924. Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe, first published by the F. Bruckmann Verlag in Munich, was written in the atmosphere of a militaristic and patriotic hysteria that had engulfed Germany after the outbreak of WWI. Disgusted by the war, Wölfflin donated large sums to the Red Cross. At the end of his book, Wölfflin spoke to his readers with the soothing words: "However different national characters may be, the general human element which binds is stronger than all that separates." 

Wölfflin pioneered the use of twin projectors (magic lanterns) in teaching. He did not like photographic reproduction of art works. Except for architectural examples, in Principles of Art History he often chose to use reproductive engravings or etchings over photographs. 

As a lecturer Wölfflin was highly popular. There are some notable critical voices, too. Walter Benjamin, who attended Wölfflin's lectures at the University of Munich, complained that he "does not see the artwork, he feels obliged to see it, demands that one see it, considers his theory a moral act." E.H. Gombrich wrote in Norm and Form (1966) that "I remember the high hopes with which I went to Berlin University and the impression Wölfflin's personality made on me, the tall Swiss with beautiful blue eyes and a firm and self-assured manner of delivery that held the auditorium maximum spellbound. I confess that the spell did not work on me for very long." Wölfflin's fame drew a number of students to work on doctoral theses on his direction. However, Max Raphael's work Von Monet zu Picasso was rejected as a doctoral thesis by Wölfflin because its subject was too modern and its argument did not focus enough on the history of the style.

After leaving Munich, where Brownshirts fought Communists in the streets,  Wölfflin continued his career in peaceful Switzerland at the University of Zürich. He was an editor of Jacob Burckhardt's work and published a psychological study on the Renaissance art, The Sense of Form (1931), in which he compared Italian and German art of the period. Wölfflin died in Zürich, on July 19, 1945. He never married, but while in Berlin he had been engaged to Ada Bruhn, the daughter of a manufacturer of small motors. Bruhn broke the engagement and married in 1913 the German architect Mies van der Rohe.

Wölfflin once remarked that all pictures owe more to other pictures than they do to the nature. Konrad Fiedler, who could be considered Wölfflin's precursor, had argued in Über die Beurteilung von Werken der bildenden Kunst (1876, On Judging Works of Visual Arts) that "[t]he understanding of art can be grasped in no other way than in terms of art." ('Foreword' by Alfred Werner, in Drawings of Albrecht Dürer, selected and with an Introductory Essay by Heinrich Wölfflin, translated by Stanley Appelbaum, 1970, p. viii) Stylistic analysis was born as a reaction to the anecdotal and biographical approach in art history, partly deriving from Vasari's Vite de' più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori Italiani (1550-68, The Lives of the Artists). When art history as a modern academic discipline was taking its fist steps, Wölfflin wanted to create for it a firm ground, "eine Naturgeschichte der Kunst", find facts and laws, universal forms of representation. Thus in the preface to the first German edition of Principles of Art History, Wölfflin provocatively suggested creating art history "without names", but after being mocked by this statement, he dropped it from subsequent editions.

Although the concept of style of a race occupied a marginal role in Wölfflin's work, it could hardly fail to appeal to the Nazis. National differences were for Wölfflin constants determined by Boden und Rasse (soil and race) – much of his work reflected the belief that forms of representation in Northern European art differed radically from those in the Mediterranean art. Dürer was described as an artist divided between North and South in Die Kunst Albrecht Dürers (1905). Biographical details are passed rapidly over, the focus is on formal problems.

As a reaction to overtly nationalistic art history, Wölfflin published in the Neue Zuricher Zeitung in 1936 an article, in which he argued national categories, while valid, are less important than art's capacity to transcend geographical divisions. ('The International Jesuit Style: Evil Twin of National Styles' by Evonne Levy, in Spirit, Style, Story: Essays Honoring John W. Padberg, edited by Thomas M. Lucas, S.J., 2002, p. 201)

Since 1929, along with a number of other eminent university professors, Wölfflin acted as a patron of Alfred Rosenberg's Nazi organization, Kampfbund für Deutsche Kulture (Fighting Union for German Culture), established in 1929. Its aim was to defend essentially German values, promote each and every ethnic expression of German cultural life, and enlighten the German people about connections between race, culture and science. Wölfflin was also an adviser of the German Philosophical Society (Deutsche Philosophische Gesellshacft),  which united German philosophers on the political right.

Wölfflin first combined the "emphatic" notions of Adolf von Hildebrand with his search for the "basic principles"  (Grundbegriffe) underlying the creation and appreciation of art, governed by the requirements of a particular time and a particular race. In the introduction of Principles of Art History Wölfflin stated that each artist has his or her own personal style, but beyond this there is also a national style, and finally a period style, which rise and fall cyclically. "Not everything is possible at all times," Wölfflin wrote. "Vision itself has its history, and the revelation of these visual strata must be regarded as the primary task of art history." Gradually abandoning the empathy theory, Wölfflin began to connect great changes in history of art to changes in ways of seeing the world.

To analyze the differences between the classic – roughly the sixteenth century, Renaissance – style, and its opposite, the Baroque style (the seventeenth century), Wölfflin used five pairs of concepts. Paintings were analyzed without regard to their subject of content. Moreover, one of the basic elements of visual arts, namely color, was subordinated to the other oppositions. 

1. Linear and Painterly
2. Plane and
3. Closed and 
Open Form
4. Multiplicity and
5. Clearness and Unclearness 

The first described the development from the linear to painterly, the dissolution of firm, plastic form with strongly stressed outlines into quivering and flickering, moving form. This pair came close to Alois Riegl's contrast between haptic and optic. One of Wölfflin's examples dealt with the difference between Dürer and Rembrandt, whose paintings were dominated by lights and shadows, whereas in Dürer's work the masses appeared with firm edges. Other four categories were plane versus recession (the development from the vision of the surface to the vision of depth), closed versus open form (pictures were not adjusted to the line of the frame but suggested that the representational area extended beyond the borders of the work), multiplicity versus unity (change from the classic composition, in which single parts have a certain independence, to a feeling of unity), clearness  versus unclearness (the contrast between distinctness, in which light defines form in the detail, and an attempt to evade clearness, to make the totality of the picture seem unintentional). The last pair is closely  related to Wölfflin's first opposition.

"What radically distinguishes Rembrandt from Dürer is the vibration of the picture as a whole, which persists even where they eye was not intended to perceive the individual form-signs. Certainly it powerfully supports the illusive effect if an independent activity in the building up of the picture is assigned to the spectator, if the separate brush-strokes coalesce only in the act of contemplation. But the picture which comes to birth is fundamentally disparate from the picture of the linear style. The presentment remains indeterminate, and is not meant to settle into those lines and planes which have a meaning for the tactile sense." (Wölfflin in Principles of Art History)

Wölfflin also applied his distinctions into sculpture and architecture, and for example in architecture clearness means representation in ultimate, enduring forms; baroque unclearness means making the forms look like something changing, becoming. All these opposed characteristics, except the striving for unity, are an expression of the development from strictness to freedom. According to Wölfflin, there is classic and baroque not only in more modern times, but in the Middle Ages and in the Antique.

The art historian Arnold Hauser has noted in The Social History of Art (vol. 2, 1962), that Wölfflin's categories cannot be applied to such baroque artist as Poussin and Claude Lorrain, who were neither "painterly" or "unclear". He also criticizes Wölfflin's unhistorical approach, and his indifference to sociological explanations behind the change of style. "Wölfflin's categories of the baroque are, in fact, nothing but the application of the concepts of impressionism to the art of the seventeenth century..." Erwin Panofsky's iconographical-iconological method, which focused on the subject matter and meaning of works of art, became the antithesis of Wölfflin's formalism.

For further reading: Die "Grundbegriffe" als Kunstbetrachtung bei Wölfflin und Dvorák by W. Böckelmann (1938); Schönheit und Grenzen der klassischen Form: Burchardt, Croce, Wölfflin: Drei Vörtrage by Joseph Gantner (1949); Philosophie der Kunstgeschichte by Arnold Hauser (1958); Heinrich Wölfflin als Literarhistoriker by Walter Rehm (1960); Stil-Symbol-Struktur. Studien zu Kategorien der Kunstgeschichte by L. Dittmann (1967); Kunst und Wissenschaft - Untersuchung zur Äesthetik and Methodik der Kunstgeschichtsschreibung bei Riegl, Wölfflin und Dvorák by H.B. Busse (1981); Heinrich Wölfflin: Biographie einer Kunsthistoria by Meinhold Lurz (1981); Thinkers of the Twentieth Century, ed. by Roland Turner (1987); Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873-1893 by Robert Vischer, Conrad Fiedler, Heinrich Wölfflin (1994); 'The Classic Is the Baroque: On the Principle of Wölfflin's Art History', in Turning Points: Essays in the History of Cultural Expressions by Marshall Brown (1997); Art History: A Critical Introduction to Its Methods by Michael Hatt, Charlotte Klonk (2006); The Books That Shaped Art History: from Gombrich and Greenberg to Alpers and Krauss, edited by Richard Shone and John-Paul Stonard (2013); Baroque and the Political Language of Formalism (1845-1945): Burckhardt, Wölfflin, Gurlitt, Brinckmann, Sedlmayr by Evonne Levy (2015); The Global Reception of Heinrich Wolfflin's Principles of Art History, edited by Evonne Levy & Tristan Weddigen (2020) Note: Wölfflin's birthdate is in some sources June 24, 1864, in this calendar June 21, 1864.

Selected works:

  • Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur, 1886 (doctoral dissertation)
  • Renaissance und Barock: Eine Untersuchung über Wesen und Entstehung der Barockstils in Italien, 1888
    - Renaissance and Baroque (translated by Kathrin Simon, 1964)
  • Salomon Gessner: mit ungedruckten Briefen, 1889
  • Die Jugendwerke des Michelangelo, 1891
  • Die klassische Kunst: Eine Einführung in die italienische Renaissance, 1899
    - The Art of the Italian Renaissance: A Handbook for Student and Travellers (preface by Sir Walter Armstrong, 1903) / Classic Art: An Introduction to the Italian Renaissance (translated by Peter and Linda Murray, 1952; 5th ed. 1994)
  • Die Kunst Albrecht Dürers, 1905
    - The Art of Albrecht Dürer (translated by Alastair & Heide Grieve, 1971)
  • Kunstgeschichliche Grundbegriffe: Das Problem der Stilentwicklung in der neueren Kunst, 1915
    - Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art (translated by M. D. Hottinger, 1932) / Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Early Modern Art (a new translation by Jonathan Blower; edited and with essays by Evonne Levy and Tristan Weddigen, 2015)
  • Albrecht Dürer: Handzeichnungen, 1914 (ed.)
    - Drawings of Albrecht Dürer. Selected, and with an Introductory Essay, by Heinrich Wölfflin (translated by Stanley Appelbaum, with a new foreword by Alfred Werner, 1970)
  • Die Bamberg Apokalypse: Eine Reichenauer Bilderhandschrift vom Jahre 1000, 1918
  • Das Erklären von Kunstwerken, 1921
  • Albrecht Dürer, 1922
  • Die Kunst der Renaissance: Italien und das deutsche Formgefühl, 1931
    - The Sense of Form in Art: A Comparative Psychological Study (translated by Alice Muehsam and Norma A. Shatan, 1958)
  • Gesamtausgabe, by Jacob Burchardt, vols. 3, 4, 6, 13, 1932-34 (ed.)
  • Gedanken zur Kunstgeschichte, Gedrucktes und Ungedricktes, 1941
  • Kleine Schriften (1886-1933), 1946 (edited by Joseph Gentner)
  • Jacob Burchardt und Heinrich Wölfflin: Briefwechsel und andere Dokumente inrer Begegnung, 1892-1897, 1948 (edited by Joseph Gantner; 2nd ed., 1989)
  • Heinrich Wölfflin, 1864–1945. Autobiographie, Tagebücher und Briefe, 1982 (edited by Joseph Gantner)
  • Pygmalion photographe: la sculpture devant la caméra, 1844-1936, 1985 (with Rainer Michael Mason, Hélene Pinet)  
  • Kunstgeschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts: akademische Vorlesung aus dem Archiv des Kunsthistorischen Instituts der Universität Wien, 1994 (2nd ed., edited by Norbert M. Schmitz)
  • "Etwas für die Phantasie": Heinrich Wölfflins Briefwechsel mit "Züs Colonna": mit Erinnerungen und Erzählprosa von Lotte Warburg, 1997 (edited by Heidy Margrit Müller) 
  • Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Early Modern Art, One Hundredth Anniversary Edition, 2015 (edited by Evonne Levy & Tristan Weddigen)
  • Drei Münchner Vorlesungen Heinrich Wölfflins: die architektonischen Stilbildungen vom Mittelalter bis zur Neuzeit; Grundbegriffe der Kunstgeschichte; Geschichte der deutschen Kunst im 19. Jahrhundert, 2016 (herausgegeben von Hans Körner und Manja Wilkens)

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