BMCR 2005.08.26

Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts. Originally published as Historische Grammatik der bildenden Künste (1966). Translated by Jacqueline E. Jung

Alois Riegl, Benjamin Binstock, Historical grammar of the visual arts. New York: Zone Books, 2004. 495 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 1890951455 $36.95.

Under the same cover are published two versions of the fundamental study of Aloïs Riegl (1858-1905), the brightest representative of the so-called Vienna art historical school. The first version represents the manuscript of 1897-98, the second version is the author’s lecture notes of 1899. This arrangement is very useful since it allows us not only to learn the views of the author but also to see their development and to see the author’s method of reworking the material. A nice font, large margins, convenient index, and hard binding make this book pleasant to use. The editors have also provided 30 black and white images to illustrate Riegl’s most recurring references.

Jacqueline Jung did a marvelous job of rendering the author’s very complex ideas and difficult language into clear and eloquent English, as we can see simply from a comparison of the English terms she uses with their German equivalents provided in parentheses. The translator’s preface is fascinating by itself as a small philological essay because it gives a clue not only to the translator’s techniques but also to the flavor of the original German text.

A study in art history more than a hundred years old must be something outstanding to warrant a brand-new English translation, and this is indeed the case. Before evaluating its merits and shortcomings, it is necessary to mention the author’s intentions, method, formal principles, and the structure of his study. The author tacitly uses a formal linguistic approach for the analysis of the general principles of art history. The study of language can be applied to any text regardless of its message and contents; Riegl’s study was the first successful attempt to single out similar formal categories for any object of art and for any time period. For characterization of an art object Riegl does not use the typical approach of a “catalog card” listing of function, material and purpose, but tries to establish more universal terms. The most important of them is Riegl’s famous Kunstwollen, “the will of art,” the impersonal driving force behind art’s evolving visual elements. According to Riegl, the essence of art as fashioning objects out of dead matter is contest with nature, not sheer imitation or replication of nature; illusionism is only one of the recurrent stages in art’s development.

Riegl’s periodization of art history is classical: Antiquity (from time immemorial till 313 A.D.), the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (till the expansion of the Reformation), and the modern era (to the Riegl’s lifetime). Yet the author is sensitive enough not to establish strict boundaries; each “age” consists of three sub-periods: growth of the worldview, its perfection, and decline. The last in turn nurtures in itself the seeds of the “change of paradigm” in modern terms, the new worldview, while the old worldview, though giving way to the new one as a mainstream conviction, does not die out entirely and continues to subsist in different forms due to the persistence of the tradition. Since the study represents the attempt of a universal, “meta” approach, the author limits his empiric ground to several “arts” (Egyptian, classical Greek, Hellenistic and Roman, East Roman or Byzantine, Medieval with its early period, Romanesque and Gothic, both unified under a category of “the art of Germanic peoples,” Renaissance and Baroque) and tests the applicability of his approach and the validity of his notions on each of them.

In the first part of the first version Riegl identifies the main driving force for the art of each main period: art as improvement of nature through physical beauty (chapter 1, pp. 57-65) with its summit in Egyptian art and decline in the Hellenistic and Roman period; art as improvement of nature through spiritual beauty (chapter 2, pp. 67-94) in Byzantine and Islamic art with the summit in 14th c. Italy and decline in the Renaissance (“Germanic art” is treated separately in this chapter and in relation to other “arts,” pp. 84-94); and art as reproduction of transitory nature (chapter 3, pp. 95-105) in the late Renaissance and Baroque epoch.

The second part of the first version discusses the purposes and functions of art. The intent of art can correspond to bodily needs; hence, art that serves the satisfaction of sight appeals solely to the sense of sight, while art for other practical purposes appeals to other senses (e.g., shelter — to the sense of touch). The intent of art can also correspond to spiritual or intellectual functions; hence art can serve as fulfillment of a conceptual purpose. Once art loses its conceptual purpose, its forms, devoid of their former conceptual meaning, become an armory for decorative purposes. In the first period, art realizes itself as perfecting of nature, in the second as spiritualization of nature, and in the third as competition with nature for art’s own sake.

In the next chapter (chapter 5, pp. 123-86), the author addresses the issue of motifs. He distinguishes between two main categories: organic and inorganic. Organic motifs are movable, curved, and round and possess innate individualistic qualities. To harmonize such motifs thus means to improve and beautify them. Inorganic motifs are static, crystalline, and symmetrical and possess regular surfaces. Riegl treats the relationship of both categories of motifs in different artistic cultures. Symmetry is the opposite of movement: the more one gains, the more the other loses. The division between “crystallinity and slavish imitation of organic nature” in Egyptian art is overcome in Greek art with its careful balancing of the two by giving roundness to inorganic forms and by “an inorganic reconfiguration of organic forms” (p. 145). Riegl considers the extraction of inorganic quality from organic motif a source of pleasure evoked by the object of art. “Organism” and “harmonism” are seen in a constant dialectic struggle. This notion gives way to the understanding of the difference between the functions of art despite similar formal characteristics. Thus, as opposed to other periods of realistic portraiture, Riegl aptly defines the Egyptian portrait as the imitation of a living model for non-artistic purposes. He distinguishes between symmetry as a universal principle and as a culturally conditioned proportion (p. 143). In this chapter Riegl also treats the main trends of dealing with the issues of organism and harmonism in different artistic cultures, touching on the role of gesture as an artificial means of expressing the spiritual and also on the issue of the relationship between ground and pattern.

Chapter 6 is dedicated to the relationship of form and surface. In quite modern terms Riegl offers the viewer’s intended distance for perceiving the object of art (near view, normal and distant view) as an important characteristic of an artistic culture. He makes an important point: what is natural in nature is by no means identical with what is natural in art. This leads to several connected notions: the object possesses its innate form, which manifests itself externally and internally as its objective surface; when perceived it becomes the subjective surface, which the artists actually work with and the observers see. Riegl returns to the issue of image and ground, which is fundamentally connected with the distance from the viewer, and correlates it with its purpose, formal structure, and technique. The multiplication of surface parts and consequently of internal articulations was avoided in Egypt but harmonized within a larger, visually dominant form in Greece. The next step was visualization of space, which both cultures lacked, treating the ground as a void between the elements of the composition. In discussing the effect of art on a distant viewer, Riegl elaborates on the notions of linear perspective (pp. 216-20), light and shadow (pp. 220-23), aerial perspective (pp. 223f), the issue of planes (pp. 226-29), polychromy as distinguished from colorism (pp. 229-31), and architectonic principles (pp. 231-40).

The second version of Riegl’s argument follows the same lines but in a more coherent way. While the divisions of the first version were organized around main criteria, testing their validity for different time periods, here Riegl applies his criteria for the analysis of art by time periods, from antique anthropomorphic polytheism to the third c. A.D. (chapter 1, pp. 307-21), through Christian monotheism up to the time of the Reformation (chapter 2, pp. 323-35). Riegl touches upon the origins of the natural-scientific view (chapter 3, pp. 337-340), and treats in a more synthetic manner motifs and purposes (chapter 4, pp. 343-93) and form and surface (chapter 5, pp. 395-433), using in the latter two chapters the material of the early time period to the late Roman epoch. The second version, although it dwells on the same notions and criteria as the first, is shorter and written in a more sketchy manner, which gives an impression of more condensed thoughts.

To evaluate the shortcomings of the book as a magnificent “monumental ruin” is a more difficult task, since the reviewer is split between praising its novelty as seen through the eyes of the author’s contemporaries and the more practical task of pointing out its outdated or questionable elements. Riegl had set for himself a difficult agenda with his supra-genre agenda, which gave him some troubles when dealing with the transition of motifs into different media (e.g., the planarity of motifs in Arabian carpets, p.150). Some of the issues Riegl discussed are not as pressing in modern times, such as the view of art history as a line of rises and declines or the issue of “barbarism” versus “classicism” (which the author did not need to put in quotation marks). His use of the criterion of “ugliness” or “beauty” is now banished from scholarly analysis as too subjective and culturally determined; the same can be said about the term “spiritual,” which Riegl uses with great enthusiasm. The unanimous acceptance of the Italian Renaissance as the glorious liberation of art from the “early Christian yoke” or the paradigm of two main European cultures — the “classical” Mediterranean, based on the persistence of the Greco-Roman cultural tradition, and the “barbarian,” more innovative and original Germanic culture — also cannot stand anymore as a scholarly model. One may consider religious mentality and art but should not set a strict causal relationship between them as Riegl often does.

The book has proved to be an excellent tool for art history classes on the University level both as an auxiliary tool for lectures in art history and as a discussion-oriented course reading for the students. In spite of its outdated aspects, the book has retained its value over the last hundred years. Riegl does not always give the right answers, but he does always asks and teaches us to ask the right questions.