Mood as the content of modern art

Alois Riegl, “Die Stimmung als Inhalt der modernen Kunst,” Die graphischen Künste 22 (1899), 47-56.

I have sat down on lonely mountain peaks. The ground drops precipitously at my feet, so that nothing remains to be grasped before me, nothing that could stimulate my sense of touch. The privilege of investigation is left to the eyes alone, and there is much and manifold for them to report. There arch grassy waves of earth, brightly sprinkled with flowers, signs of one season that will disappear with the next. Further below, at meadow’s edge, is the dark pine forest with its innumerable striving spires; but a light shimmer lies in the air above, for it is early summer, and the new shoots are bursting mightily forth, and daily increase the forest’s volume. Cows graze at wood’s edge; I know that they cannot be still, but from here only tiny white points attest their existence. I lift my glance to the stone wall above, where it touches the waterfall that casts its spray over house-high walls, and above whose angry thunder no sound may rise. So have I just seen and heard it up close, feeling then a timid awe before its enormous power; but now it merely traces a tame silvery band across the dark rock. Finally the eye drops all the way down to the deep green valley, where it meets a cottage with shimmering white walls. A little cloud of smoke hovers beside to witness those who live within.

As I now cast my gaze over the entirety — everywhere signs of restless life, unceasing power, and unstoppable movement, of a thousand-fold coming to be and passing away; and despite all this, unifying rest, undisturbed by a single stirring — an inexpressible feeling of life, contentment, and harmony awakes in me. It is as if a burden had been lifted, as if something long desired were finally granted. What is that burden that casts dark shadows in our spiritual life, and why does it give way before the sun-like effect that the glance into endless all — or rather that tiny portion thereof that imperfect sight can grasp in a moment — rouses in our soul?

The oppression arises from our knowledge, from the ripe fruit of the tree of knowledge. We know now that a law of causality pervades all creation. Every coming to be requires a passing away, every life demands a death, every movement takes place at the expense of another. An endless and restless struggle for existence, under which man, so richly endowed with intelligence and feeling, suffers immeasurably more than the lesser beings, hundreds of whom man destroys with a single movement. For millennia all human cultural activities were directed to this end: to ward off the natural, but brutal, right of the stronger, and to replace it with a liberating world order. Today, at the end of so long and great an effort, our fate appears to us inescapable, unavoidable. Instead of calm, peace, harmony: an endless struggle, destruction, discord, as far as life and movement extend.

That for which the soul of modern man yearns, consciously or unconsciously, is fulfilled by the solitary view from that mountain-top. It is not the peace of the churchyard that encloses him. Instead, he sees life spring thousandfold forth; but what seems from up close to be a merciless struggle, appears to him from afar as peaceful coexistence, concord, harmony. So he feels himself saved and freed from that anxious weight that stays with him every day that he lives. He perceives that, far above the conflicts that his imperfect senses present to him from up close, an unfathomable world-soul pervades all things and unites them in perfect concord. We call this notion — of order and lawfulness over chaos, of harmony over dissonance, of still over movement — Stimmung [mood]. It is made up of stillness and the distant view.

A sound startles me out of my trance. A chamois has sprung up nearby and rushes off with powerful bounds over the neighboring slopes. With a jolt, my entire attention is directed away from the peaceful landscape and towards the chamois. Involuntarily, my right hand twitches, as if for the rifle; it responds to the predator in me that wants to subject the weaker to the sense of touch. My hiking staff, the only weapon that I’ve brought, is unsuited to the task, but my glance follows the movements of the beast with greedy pleasure, until it disappears behind an outcropping. And now? The beautiful Stimmung is gone, chased off, vanished. Such a subtle thing is Stimmung, that a nearby soul will suffice to puff it away. A single bird’s squawk can have the same effect. But so too can a sharp gust of wind, which makes me shiver and prompts me to pull my jacket close, or a strong ray of sun that heats the nape of my neck. These are not living beings, but they are movements that provoke movements. Movement and the near view, the opposites to the stillness and distant view that bring Stimmung, have tossed me back into the struggle for existence.

Saving Stimmung blossoms forth, not only on those towering mountain-peaks that modern man so loves to seek out, in marked distinction to his ancient and medieval forerunners, who sought the struggle in the valleys.

Also there where the dry crust of the earth reaches its lowest level — on the sea shore — Stimmung can come to us, if stillness and the distant view lure it forth: best of all in quiet bays, where waves lightly lick the pebbles of the beach, a rowboat lies at rest, half on dry land, and the sun’s rays cast a myriad flickering life on the water through the branches of the shorescrub. But Stimmung comes too on the open beach; that is, if we can direct our gaze above the waves, which the surf pushes forward with unrelenting power and which always again give way, unconsciously and futilely, and which clearly reflect the near view of the world-machine; and if we can direct it instead toward the broad expanse beyond, transformed by a bright stroke of the sun, edged at the horizon by a colorful band, while above, the smoke from an invisible steamship shows man’s business going on even in the middle of this massive elemental waste.

And therefore there is nothing in creation, in which Stimmung may not appear. Even man, Stimmung’s greatest enemy, can awake it; it has nothing to do with the motif, all that it needs are stillness and the distant view.

What nature permits man only in rare glimpses, art should conjure for him as he pleases. So far as his fine art transcends use and decoration, to become what we are accustomed to designate as a “higher” art, it has always served to provide the comforting assurance of the existence of the order and harmony that he misses in the narrows of the world-machine, after which he unceasingly yearns, and without which his life would seem unbearable. But in earlier eras he sought harmony somewhere else, and the highest goal of fine art was something other than the awakening of Stimmung. That goal has changed with every major change in the worldview of humanity (or rather, of the sophisticated portion of the same). Up to now there have been three such changes. Let us recall their consequences for man’s need of harmony in broad, brief strokes.

The oldest, primitive stage is the battle of all against all. Man relies only on his personal, physical strength; but he perceives an invisible power of nature that he cannot subdue. This makes him uneasy, so he fashions for himself a visible bearer of that hostile power – the fetish – and offers it veneration. Thereby he believes himself safe and his unease gives way to harmony. The fetish is the beginning at once of religion and of all higher art.

The second stage is distinguished by the right of the stronger. It is no longer a battle of all against all; instead, a portion of the weaker submit to a physical superior. Such, as it seems to the men of that era, is the natural order of things in the world. This stage embraces all antiquity. The process ends, naturally, with the victory of one superior to all the others, and that was the Roman emperor. Thus did antiquity attain its ideal. The reasoning was as follows: war is indeed chaos, but it ends the moment that the stronger triumphs. Accordingly, the art of antiquity celebrates the strong, the victorious, the consequential, the alert, the beautiful body. The gods, ever fewer in number, are strong and beautiful. Thus they resemble man, for in organic nature there is nothing stronger and more beautiful than man. So the human figure as such plays the leading role in ancient art. But because the man-like gods are strong and beautiful, they also confer victory upon the strong and beautiful man. Even the weak share in this victory, for they have faithfully submitted to the strong.

This naïve belief in the gods underlies art and culture throughout all antiquity. The harmony that it seeks lies exclusively in physical superiority. However, just as there is a spirit beside the physical body, so too is there moral strength and power beside physical strength and power. This factor now gradually enters human culture, and determines its future course. It seems that the moral power had little worth for the ancient Egyptians; in their art we find no trace of moral expression. We can see the Greeks exploring it already before Alexander; but their gods gaze indifferently, and their art shows only the most elementary affects, such as joy and sorrow. The spiritual receives greater consideration in Hellenistic and Roman art: here we encounter both elementary outbursts of passing affect, as in the Laokoon, and idyllic passages that presage the modern art of Stimmung.

To explain the latter, we must recall that the Roman Empire began at the same time as Christ was born. The emergence of Christianity is nothing other than the expression of a gradually awakening unease among ancient mankind regarding the evident unsustainability of the pagan belief in the gods. The desire for a moral world order becomes ever more urgent. Henceforth it is not physical strength that should guarantee peaceful enjoyment of the good things in life, but rather spiritual, moral strength. This worldview, desired by all, but recognized by the Roman state as a threat to its very existence, was proclaimed by Jesus Christ.

The third stage dates from the triumph of Christianity: the Christian middle ages. One still seeks harmony amidst the confusion of life, sure protection from hostile – physical or spiritual – forces, in the belief in God. However, that protection is no longer guaranteed by a multitude of physically powerful gods, but by a single, morally powerful God, entirely without physical being, pure spirit. Christian art never tires of glorifying the spiritual characteristics of God, the moral merits of the saints. In this process not only the saints, but also the three divine persons, despite the purely spiritual being of God, are clothed in the form of natural beings, and indeed primarily in human form: an internal contradiction that betrays the inseparability of spirit and flesh, and thereby the practical inadequacy of a Christian worldview that is constructed exclusively on the basis of morality. Therefore the human figure remains, as in antiquity so too in the middle ages, the primary object of art. But because it appears no longer as the embodiment of physical beauty, rather of spiritual perfection, art renders the most thorough and loving attention to that part of the human body on which the inner, animate impulses announce themselves with especial clarity to the outside world: the face.

Of the three worldviews that have been sketched to this point, all of which expect the establishment of harmony from the (as it were) personal intervention of an infallible, higher power, and all of which are therefore exclusively grounded in the belief in God, the Christian worldview is without doubt the most perfect and the most satisfactory, because it guarantees the protection of moral man by a moral power. But everything depends on faith. So long as I trust completely that God will protect me, as a righteous man, from the lightning bolt, then the Christian worldview instills in me perfect harmony. This changes, however, as soon as I set up a lightning rod on my house; for now I trust my knowledge, which allows me to expect the desired protection even more from that device than from my faith, for which the lightning rod would have to seem superfluous. It therefore becomes clear that faith alone no longer guarantees me complete harmony, at least in earthly, material things. And so the Christian worldview loses out precisely in the area of decisive importance for the fine arts – in the conception of natural laws. Henceforth I may only expect harmony from knowledge.

Thereby begins the fourth stage: we might best call it that of the scientific worldview. In analogy to the polytheistic and monotheistic worldviews one could perhaps also name it the pantheistic worldview, but it is not actually opposed to the monotheistic view, both of which are held simultaneously by the majority of educated Europeans. The scientific worldview does indeed rest upon the emancipation of knowledge from faith, but not upon the elimination of faith; for today we perceive that no knowledge can enlighten us about the final causes of being, and thus the need for harmony compels us to accept the light that faith in revelation casts upon final causes and effects. But regarding the causal relationships of all natural phenomena to each other -- the physical and also increasingly the spiritual -- all but a few devout souls expect explanation exclusively from knowledge. The discoveries of knowledge are often painful to us, and the thought often crosses our minds, that the devout races must in general be happier than us. It is no accident that pessimism is a phenomenon peculiar to our modern spiritual life. But the same knowledge also creates in us the saving harmony, insofar as it allows us to perceive from afar, beyond the individual phenomena in competition, also an entire chain of phenomena. The more phenomena we embrace in a single glance, so much more certain, satisfactory, and substantial is our belief in an order that balances everything harmoniously in the best possible way. Modern art treats essentially of this harmony, as it is simultaneously provoked and presented by knowledge. This is the art of Stimmung.

Our modern knowledge no longer beholds natural phenomena as individual expressions of a personal divinity, as did pagan antiquity and the Christian middle ages, but in causal connection with their immediate and more distant surrounds. So, too, does modern art proceed to record that natural impression, which it cannot transcend, but which it creates anew by its own means. For this reason, the modern need for Stimmung can be fully and directly satisfied only through painting, which rests purely upon optical recording, and therefore naturally takes the distant view. That other genre of “higher” art, which classical antiquity had mastered -- sculpture, which provokes the sense of touch, and thus necessarily takes the near view -- owes its continuing cultivation only to the inertia of cultural transmission and to decorative needs.

But what do we today desire from painting, from two-dimensional representation in the broadest sense of the word? Neither beauty of proportion and line, as in classical antiquity, nor spiritual elevation, as in the Christian middle ages: rather, truth to life. The strict observation of the law of causality anchors the modern aesthetic of the fine arts, and in particular of painting. One may expect the most unusual things of us: even red trees or green horses, as long as that is how they appear in the mirror. What will never please us from an artist, however, is the plain miracle: not some poetry born of imagination, but the actual suspension of the empirically derived law of causality by “supernatural” personal powers.

Thus Stimmung, as the goal of all modern painting, is ultimately nothing other than a calm conviction in the immovable prevalence of the law of causality. This does not become evident through individual pictures, in which the fundamental law is constantly drowned out by distracting accidents, and reveals itself with the desired clarity first to the man who surveys an entire group of such individual phenomena from afar. Before the individual picture it is not so much perceived as intuited, felt. Therefore the images that accompany this essay are not intended as a comprehensive illustration of the modern painting of Stimmung, but as random soundings, just as they were found in the editor’s portfolio. Perhaps it would be more helpful to present a collection of those individual observations that urge themselves most frequently upon the viewer of modern pictures. Here we must content ourselves with a few examples.

The essence of Stimmung reveals itself most immediately in the works of such masters as Max Liebermann and Storm van s’Gravesande, who reproduce, in outline and movement, light and color, an excerpt from their environment that includes every optically perceptible accident. These accidents become necessities to the painter, for it is precisely through them that he can express the prevalence of the causal law that permeates and binds natural things. The representation of locomotion presents the greatest difficulty in this regard. For example, a human figure who is represented in full stride violates the causal law, which would demand an immediate continuation of the motion, which is of course impossible for the painted figure. In such cases the impressionist masters have a favorite technique: they lend to their figures not simple and solid, but multiple and mobile outlines. In general, however, the goal of modern painting is not so much to represent movement, but the ability to move. The figures should appear capable of all vital expressions, without exhibiting them directly. This approach bears fruit especially in the representation of plantlife and inorganic nature (rock, water, clouds), whose movements follow not from free will, but on the basis of physical laws. This is why landscape is the most distinguished genre of modern art.

The modern artist still maintains his right to free poetry. Thus Böcklin creates his sea nymphs, and Thoma his satyrs, not as “excerpts from nature,” but as products of fantasy, grounded in our inclination toward nature poetry. The artist does not make us believe in the actual existence of such hybrids; he rather convinces us that these creatures, if they did exist, would have to appear and act in such a way and not otherwise. Even they must now follow the law of causality, for which the ancient Egyptians, forefathers of pagan mythology, would hardly have given a handful of dates. And the same goes finally for those works that are primarily concerned with the spiritual expressions of the life of man. Already the essential role that landscape then assumes, as in the work of Max Klinger, will suffice to show how.

Is this art of Stimmung really a fruit of our most recent era? Must its beginnings not reach at least as far back as the distinction between faith and knowledge? In fact, Stimmung has been the ultimate goal of all modern art since the end of the Renaissance. We can even trace a few of its forerunners back to the Hellenistic era: that is, an era when the pagan world began to lose the old faith in its beautiful and strong pantheon, just as the natural sciences experienced their first great flourishing. But then, in place of the categorical, pagan faith in God, the no less categorical Christian faith soon made its appearance, and the natural sciences, whose cultivation had enjoyed such increase in the era after Alexander, were rendered superfluous for another millennium.

First at the end of the middle ages did knowledge of nature return to occupy man’s spiritual life, and its separation from faith could no longer be avoided. But progress was unsteady and halting, subject to repeated setbacks. In Protestant lands, the Reformation immediately encouraged that separation, at least in regard to physical nature; so obviously progress was faster there than in Catholic lands, where, as is well known, the church in principle rejects the separation of faith and knowledge still today. First with the seventeenth-century Dutch do we encounter painting grounded both in stillness and in the distant view. And immediately another characteristic of modern art comes to the fore: it is not man who stands at the center of artistic creation, but the entire breadth of nature, in whose midst the artist moves. Man is no longer the ruler, as in antiquity, or indeed still in the middle ages, but just a link in an endless chain. Thus the push for social equality finds expression, whose first prerequisites Christianity supplied, and which determines the character and direction of today’s culture. And yet just next door to the Dutch, and at the same time, flourished a Catholic art, that of Rubens. It was full of life and movement, but nevertheless tended decidedly towards the distant view, which polishes and blurs the fury and violence of movements, and thereby tames them of their dissonance.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the separation of faith and knowledge triumphed, in fact if not in principle, even in those lands that remained Catholic. Even here nothing remained to halt the emergence of the art of Stimmung. However, man has forever found it wasteful to seek something new, when something old still served him. This we learn not only from the Renaissance, which borrowed from antiquity without hesitation, but already from classical antiquity, which had pillaged ancient Near Eastern motifs just as blithely. And thus began the imitation of historical styles, not indeed for its own sake, or out of blind helplessness, but with the more or less conscious intention of extracting everything that might suit the desire for Stimmung from the available store of historical art. The history of the last century of European art will have to be written from this point of view. For it is no accident that it is precisely the Attic, with its Olympian calm, that has captured our fancy, and not indeed the Laocoön, which Bernini judged to be the most perfect of all sculptures; no accident, too, that the Venetian Existenzmalerei should appear sympathetic to us, but not the exaggerated manner of the Roman Baroque masters, who maintained an inclination towards the old near view; no accident, finally, that we have taken as a model the calm and mellow Velazquez, the single secular painter of that Hapsburg on the Spanish throne, but not his lustily enraptured countrymen.

Stimmung and devotion [Andacht] are close neighbors; indeed, devotion is simply religious Stimmung. And so far as it is possible to clearly survey the cultural history of humanity, Stimmung has always been the foremost goal of art in those periods that are simultaneously marked by a profound religious agitation. First, in late antiquity, when the pagan belief in the gods had been shaken, thus clearing the way for the appearance of Jesus Christ. Second, in the modern era, in the wake of those enormous spiritual movements that we call the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Today, finally, we see that parallelism return for the third time: for no one can doubt that we live in an era of deep spiritual agitation. Even Catholicism has renewed itself, and recently displayed a power of attraction that many sixty years ago would no longer have believed possible. But the great majority of thinkers now adopt the same position in respect to the moral world order, as they long have done in respect to the physical, namely, not to permit themselves to be consoled by a pious faith in the supersensible. Here too they expect enlightenment from the numerous novel disciplines that occupy themselves with the spiritual side of human nature: psychology, ethnology, sociology, etc. Art, however, stands faithfully by their side: as always before, so too now does art help the soul to attain that salvation, that liberation, that it absolutely requires, if it is to uphold the will to life. Thus it is our artists who win the final, highest, and most decisive prize from modern knowledge, and thereby bring to those in need of comfort some relief, if not salvation.

-- Translation November 2007 / May 2020