Formalism (art)

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In art history, formalism is the study of art by analyzing and comparing form and style—the way objects are made and their purely visual aspects. In painting formalism emphasizes compositional elements such as color, line, shape and texture rather than iconography or the historical and social context. At its extreme, formalism in art history posits that everything necessary to comprehending a work of art is contained within the work of art. The context for the work, including the reason for its creation, the historical background, and the life of the artist, is considered to be of secondary importance. In archaeology, where it tends to be called morphology, the study and comparison of form remains an essential method of identifying objects.

History of formalism[edit]

The concept of formalism can be traced as far back as Plato, who argued that 'eidos' (or shape) of a thing included our perceptions of the thing, as well as those sensory aspects of a thing which the human mind can take in. Plato argued that eidos included elements of representation and imitation, since the thing itself could not be replicated. Subsequently, Plato believed that eidos inherently was deceptive.

A formal analysis is an established method in art history and criticism for analyzing works of art: "In order to perceive style, and understand it, art historians use "formal analysis". This means they describe things very carefully. These descriptions, which may include subjective vocabulary, are always accompanied by illustrations, so that there can be no doubt about what exists objectively".[1] For a particular work of art, a formal analysis consists of a purely visual description of the work irrespective of cultural context, history, or artistic motivation. As such, it is a basic tool for art historians and artists to understand the purely visual aspects of a work of art. This is not to say that such cultural or motivational interpretations can be separated from the artwork, but that the visual elements provide an essential starting point for understanding a work of art. Elements of a formal analysis include descriptions of color, space, line, volume, mass, and composition, and putting these together to analyse artistic style.

First introduced by Roger de Piles (1635–1709), in his book the Principles of Painting, the technique of formal analysis was more fully developed by 19th-century art historians. Leading proponents of a formalist approach to art history were, from the Vienna School of Art History, Moritz Thausing, who in 1879 became the second Ordinarius (full professor) of art history at Vienna, who advocated an autonomous art history and promoted the separation of art history from aesthetics. Thausing's students Franz Wickhoff (Professor 1891) and Alois Riegl (Professor 1897) furthered his approach, insofar as they developed the methods of comparative stylistic analysis and attempted to avoid all judgements of personal taste. Thus both contributed to the revaluation of the art of late antiquity, which before then had been despised as a period of decline. Riegl in particular, as an avowed disciple of positivism, focused on the purely formal qualities of the work of art, and rejected all arguments about content as metaphysical speculation. Other leading figures noted for a formalist approach were Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945) and Henri Focillon (1881-1943).


In archaeology, despite modern techniques like radiocarbon dating, the study of shapes and forms, and their grouping into period styles remains a crucial tool in the identification and dating not only of works of art but all classes of archaeological artefact, including purely functional ones (ignoring the question of whether purely functional artefacts exist). The term morphology ("study of shapes", from the Greek) is more often used for this. Morphological analyses of many individual artefacts are used to construct typologies for different types of artefact, and by the technique of seriation a relative dating based on shape and style for a site or group of sites is achieved where scientific absolute dating techniques cannot be used, in particular where only stone, ceramic or metal artefacts or remains are available, which is often the case. That artefacts such as pottery very often survive only in fragments makes precise knowledge of morphology even more necessary, as it is often necessary to identify and date a piece of pottery from only a few sherds.

In contrast to recent trends in academic art history, the succession of schools of archaeological theory in the last century, from culture-historical archaeology to processual archaeology and finally the rise of post-processual archaeology in recent decades has if anything increased the importance of the study of style in archaeology.[2]

Formalism in the 20th century[edit]

In the 20th century the formalist approach to art history gradually declined, but formalism became increasingly important in the aesthetic theory of current art. In 1890, the Post-impressionist painter Maurice Denis wrote in his article 'Definition of Neo-Traditionism' that a painting was 'essentially a flat surface covered in colours arranged in a certain order.' Denis argued that the painting or sculpture or drawing itself, not the subject of the artistic work, gave pleasure to the mind.

Roger Fry in Vision and Design (1909) was an early Modernist critic to apply formalist analysis to contemporary art. Denis' emphasis on the form of a work led the Bloomsbury writer Clive Bell to write in his 1914 book, Art, that there was a distinction between a thing's actual form and its 'significant form.' For Bell, recognition of a work of art as representational of a thing was less important than capturing the 'significant form', or true inner nature, of a thing. Bell pushed for an art that used the techniques of an artistic medium to capture the essence of a thing (its 'significant form') rather than its mere outward appearance.

Throughout the rest of the early part of the 20th Century, European structuralists continued to argue that 'real' art was expressive only of a thing's ontological, metaphysical or essential nature. But European art critics soon began using the word 'structure' to indicate a new concept of art. By the 1930s and 1940s, structuralists reasoned that the mental processes and social preconceptions an individual brings to art are more important than the essential, or 'ideal', nature of the thing. Knowledge is created only through socialization and thought, they said, and a thing can only be known as it is filtered through these mental processes. Soon, the word 'form' was used interchangeably with the word 'structure'.

In 1940, the American art critic Clement Greenberg, in an influential piece in Partisan Review, argued that the value of art was located in its form, which is inseparable from its content. In a talk given by Clement Greenberg at Western Michigan University, January 18, 1983, he addressed the topic of 'formalism' directly.

Formalism was originally the name of a Russian art and literary movement before the First World War. And then it became used by the Bolsheviks (Soviets) for any kind of art that was for its own sake. It became a dirty word like "art for art's sake," which is a valid notion. Sometime in the '50's the word formalism came up again in the mouths and at the pens of people I dare to call middlebrow. And then, it's true, I was made responsible for it, though I wasn't the only one, and by one of these easy inferences that plague human thought, it was held that I advocated a certain way of painting. Now, I haven't written a word in favor of a certain kind of painting that hasn't been made yet. You only write about art that's already been made. My prejudice, as Professor Link says, is towards representational painting, and it's the only kind I can do, but I had to accept the fact that the major painting of our time, and the major sculpture too, after a while, was abstract, because you can't choose what to like and what not to like. I say major because the difference between major and minor is very important. It became very important for this country in the '40s when the Abstract Expressionists finally decided they could compete with the French and stop being in tutelage. But my rhetoric wasn't very careful, otherwise I couldn't have been misunderstood to the extent I have been. I recognize that and I don't put the blame entirely on the people who misunderstood me. Though I still say I haven't written a word that gives you reason to think that I'm for abstract art, as such, as against other kinds of art. I wrote a piece called "Modernist Painting" that got taken as a program when it was only a description, and I was thought to believe in things that I was describing [as a program]. Again, it was the fault of my rhetoric. I was in favor of "pure" art in spite of the fact that I put quotation marks around "pure" or "purity" whenever I used them, because I don't believe there's any such thing as pure art. It was an illusion. It was a necessary illusion, apparently, for modernist artists and it helped produce some great art and some great poetry. A necessary illusion for Mallarmé, say, and for Valery, and maybe even for Ezra Pound. It was a necessary illusion for Picasso and for Cézanne. There is no such thing as pure art, or pure poetry, or pure music. Anyhow I don't believe there is such a thing. But I made the mistake of contenting myself with quotation marks and not saying "look, I don't believe this as a program, I'm simply describing." And so people assumed that was my program. I'd been describing what I thought had happened under modernism, and nothing more and nothing less. It was also inferred that I had said there was some necessity working in this although I said nothing to that effect. But I blame myself. I should have been more careful.[3]

Formalism today[edit]

The concept of formalism in art continued to evolve through the 20th century. Some art critics argue for a return to the Platonic definition for Form as a collection of elements which falsely represent the thing itself and which are mediated by art and mental processes. A second view argues that representational elements must be somewhat intelligible, but must still aim to capture the object's 'Form'. A third view argues for a dialectic-discursive ontological knowledge. Instead, structuralists focused on how the creation of art communicates the idea behind the art. Whereas formalists manipulated elements within a medium, structuralists purposely mixed media and included context as an element of the artistic work. Whereas formalism's focus was the aesthetic experience, structuralists played down response in favor of communication.

Structuralism's focus on the 'grammar' of art reaches as far back as the work of Marcel Duchamp. In many ways, structuralism draws on the tools of formalism without adopting the theory behind them.

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Review by: Clemency Chase Coggins of The Uses of Style in Archaeology edited by Margaret W. Conkey and Christine A. Hastorf, p. 233, Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Summer, 1992), pp. 232-234, Maney Publishing, JSTOR
  2. ^ Review by Mary Ann Levine of The Uses of Style in Archaeology, edited by Margaret Conkey and Christine Hastorf (see further reading), pp. 779-780, American Antiquity, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Oct., 1993), Society for American Archaeology, JSTOR
  3. ^ Clement Greenberg. "Taste". Retrieved 2010-03-16. 


  • Bell, Clive. Art. London: 1914.
  • Denis, Maurice. 'Definition of Neo-Traditionism.' Art and Criticism. August 1890.
  • Greenberg, Clement. 'Towards a Newer Laocoon.' Partisan Review. 1940.

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