Work of nature, work of art

A. Riegl, „Naturwerk und Kunstwerk. I.“ Allgemeine Zeitung (München), Beilage 13 (1901); reprinted in K.M. Swoboda, ed., Gesammelte Aufsätze (Augsburg, 1928), 51-64.


The idea of development dominates the modern interpretation of the relationship between nature and visual art. This was preceded by the idealistic interpretation, which saw the goal of visual art as the improvement of nature, and believed this goal to have been attained in classical antiquity. Human works of visual arts that originated at any other time were to be seen only as muddling about in comparison with the pure, ancient idea of art, and our practical goal today would have to be to achieve, where possible, the improvement of nature in the work of art once more to the same extent, as had been achieved in classical antiquity.

The idea of development, which granted historical legitimacy also to non-classical tendencies in art, began to take possession of modern thought in the middle of the nineteenth century. In art history, it introduced itself first,  in sharpest contradiction to the preceding idealistic interpretation, by denying man the ability to determine the nature of his artistic creation according to his own free judgement. The first stage of the modern developmental view held that every work of art was strictly determined by three material factors: the raw material,  the technique (the tool), and the practical use. These three factors alone determined the style, that is, the external characer of each and every work of art in relationship to nature. The works of nature were only very generic models for the human creation of art; in the work of art one should first attend to the nature of the raw material and of the tool, and to the practical requirements; only then, as it were incidentally, did nature become an object of observation. Only insofar as the work of art might recognizethe natural demands of these three fators in a pleasing fashion could it count as style-appropriate [stilgerecht], or beautiful. The aesthetic pleasure in the work of art would thus be contenment regarding the successful mastery of the materials and the realized practical use.

Of course such an interpretation is most plausible for those works of art in which the three material factors appear in particularly striking fashion, that is, in the so-called applied arts. Indeed, the literary masterpiece that blazed this trail – Gottfried Semper’s famous book on Style – deals almost exclusively with the so-called technical arts, and among these, most thoroughly with textiles. The fundamental insight of Semper may be summed up as follows: every raw material and every technique have found the forms that are most conveniently and easily carried out in them. The notion of development arose in the reflection upon value: that in the beginning stages of the visual arts of man there were only technical arts; and that the art forms that were summoned through the individual raw materials, techniques, and purposes, and at first were characteristic only of these, their procreators, were then gradually interchanged with one another through exterior imitation, that is, material mixing and alloying (but not out of the self-willed critical choice of the creators). Thus did it come at last to the stylelessness and style-hybridity that was, or so it was thought, so characteristic of the mid-nineteenth century.

It is worth emphasizing at this point that the so-called Semperian Theory claimed definitive validity, not only for the development of the applied arts, but also for the entire development of all visual art. We encounter its influence therefore not only in the historiography of architecture, where it has, as a particularly memorable result, produced the conception of the Gothic as a product of the stone building, which sought to protect itself against lateral thrusts; but also in the history of sculpture, where it has positioned, for example, archaic flat relief as a necessary stylistic outgrowth of stone-carving, and the later high relief as a transfer of repousée work onto stone.

Such a view should logically lead to the conclusion that the visual arts must have attained to their utmost perfection at the very beginning, and in fact this thought is repeatedly suggested in Semper’s book. One might introduce exceptions in regard to the human figure in order to preserve the perfection of classical figural sculpture, but these were mere excuses which were meant to paper over the fundamental principle. The idealistic norm had been felicitously overcome, but another, materialistic, norm had been set in its place. For the so-called Semperian Theory is nothing other than the expression of the materialistic metaphysics of Strauß1, Büchner2, and the like in terms of art history. As in metaphysics, so in art history, it was held to be an exact science in contrast to the earlier idealistic speculation. In this, one ignored that the simple identification of idea with matter - since no bridge could be perceived between them - was no less speculative than the earlier confiscation of matter in favor of idea.

The Semperian Theory has laid such deep roots in the conception of the historical origin of the applied arts that even today it retains at least some authority in the work of distinguished researchers. However, I believe myself to have demonstrated its untenability already in 1893, in my Stilfragen, on the basis of a discussion of ancient Near Eastern and early Greek monuments of decorative art. By contrast, it was impossible to maintain the deception for long in the criticism of the figural arts, as though their entire historical development could even approximately be explained through a simple transfer of technical procedures. There, at first, a virtue was made out of necessity, insofar as one believed it scientific to entirely avoid every “aesthetic“ in sculpture and painting, and to limit oneself to the allegedly purely factual, that is, to the determination of the place and era of origin of the individual monuments. However, this rendered it impossible to bring individual monuments in relation to each other, even as value judgments persisted (good, bad, mediocre). The result was a practical aesthetic, whose existence was simultaneously denied in the interest of an alleged scientificity. The denial hindered only any clarity about the signficance and accuracy of these value judgments. True scientificity was slain by a supposed scientificity. The inevitable result was a vague sense of the inner falsehood of this cult of the isolated fact, even if this was not perceived clearly (which for the most part has not happened even today). Accordingly, another theory (the second of the modern theories) has emerged for the historical judgment of the two figural arts. Once again,  this is nothing other than the adaptation to the the relationship between nature and the visual arts of a specific highly influential line of thought which emerged forcefully in the second half of the nineteenth century.

This line of thought is based on the construction of the dearly missed bridges between the material and the ideal by means of a physiologically grounded psychology (Wundt3 and Fechner4, among others). It seeks to come nearer to the essence of the spiritually vital expressions of men, even while it remains as much as possible on the level of sensible material phenomena. In art history, this tendency corresponded to a theory, according to which the figures that stand before our eyes in works of art would be nothing other than material reproductions or memory-images of actual figures, thus, of works of nature. Man necessarily preserves in his consciousness impressions of the external things that he has taken into himself through the sense of sight. But there is also an impulse in him to make these impressions once more sensible, insofar as he reproduces them with his hand (or wishes to see them reproduced by others), be it on a flat surface, or in stereometric images. In this theory, clearly, two distinct elements are merged: the first mechanistic, insofar as the work of art appars to be strongly determined by the external sense-impression (the memory-image); and the second teleological, insofar as a goal-oriented aesthetic impulse is assumed that longs for the reproduction of the work of nature by the work of art via the route of the memory-image.

It must now be asked, how a development is possible within this theory. The answer is generally conceived as follows: the earliest sense-impressions, and with them the memory-images, and the works of art determined by them, were completely nebulous and unclear in comparison to the sensible natural phenomena. Gradually, however, a sharper sense emerged for a truer recording of the phenomena in detail, and of the relationships of the detail to the corresponding whole. Thus, the work of art gradually becomes ever truer to nature, myth becomes knowledge, and idealism becomes naturalism; whereby, of course, occasional notable regressions need not be ruled out. For the most part, this is the standpoint from which art history has been produced for the last twenty or thirty years, at least insofar as the figural arts are concerned. For the judgment of the applied arts, by contrast, and as already mentioned, the Semperian Theory has retained its grip. The resulting dualism seems all the more surprising when one considers the incessant talk of the “unity“ of all visual arts.The development of the applied arts was considered in essentially mechanistic terms, that of the figural arts half mechanistically, half teleologically.

It must now appear striking that until recently no one attempted, even within a limited era, to represent through the monuments the development of visual art by means of the psychological theory. Admittedly, there was a lot of talk of memory-images in relation to individual cases, and occasional assertions that these may be seen in all works of art; but everyone stopped before applying this principle of development to an entire stylistic period. Did this hesitation come from the continuing influence of the materialistic cult of isolated facts, as it had developed in the time of the anti-Hegelian reaction, or from an uncomfortable suspicion that even this new theory would not hold true in all cases? We are relieved of the necessity of answering this question, as it has today become one merely of historical value. That which was long awaited has now come to light. Admittedly, Professor Emanuel Löwy subjects only a limited artistic terrain to systematic consideration in the book in question:5 the archaic and the severe styles in the classical figural art of the Greeks up to Lysippos. But the development within this period of time is strictly traced according to the psychological theory of the memory-image.

Apart from numerous apt and stimulating individual observations, the chief and lasting value of this book lies in the fact that we may now estimate the reward which the linking from a superior standpoint of isolated facts, in themselves dead, may impart. Through the mere fixing of a monument to a geographic and chronological point, only an antiquarian interest is satisfied; if one wishes to learn from the work of art its own actual content, then one must derive that content from the conditions under which it has necessarily originated. For indeed, the work of art was not made for our taste. However, we can only recognize these conditions within the internal developmental chain, and therein lies the fundamental importance of a correct recognition of the links between works. As the mechanistic theory has long shown itself incapable of producing a solution to this problem, one must welcome the fact that an able researcher has now sought those links by means of the psychological theory.

No one will be able to claim that the psychological theory can offer a convincing explanation of the development of all art-historical phenomena. This becomes clear already through the admirable book of E. Löwy, so narrow is the temporal period that is addressed therein. It is already unfortunate that the oldest art that the author addresses can, as he himself admits, on no account be labelled as primitive. We might wish to imagine the oldest, most nebulous memory-image as completely flat; it occurs, therefore, contrary to all expectations, when on the oldest known works of art (the ancient Egyptian sculptures) we encounter not only a pronounced concept of relief, but also – and I cannot emphasize this enough, as it is usually overlooked – the finest conceivable observation of nature. That this latter point as a rule eludes us, allowing instead the impression of a rigid lifelessness, is explained by the fact that Egyptian sculptures are not made for the purely optical Fernblick, to which we are accustomed, but rather for the severest Nahblick. As a result, the delicacy of the modelling, often unsurpassable, first reveals itself in its full effect to the touch of a fingertip. The original memory-image, whence everything was supposed to have issued, is thus a mere assumption, which the historical monuments completely fail to prove.

E. Löwy must furthermore recognize that many works of art completely resist an easy ordering in his developmental series. The author explains them as exceptions, which in comparison to the overwhelming number examples that support his theory may only claim symptomatic value. And indeed, anachronistic phenomena are also in other artsitic eras hardly unusual. However, the Vapheio cups anticipate a truly post-antique approach, and that precisely in an art-historical era (the Mycenaean) which, far from regularly distinguishing itself from the leading Mediterranean art of the time (the ancient Near Eastern) generally appears to be the more barbaic, the more backwards of the two. Must one not therefore conclude that already in deepest antiquity, and alongside the ancient Near Eastern tendency, another tendency more closely related to the Greek archaic had emerged? And yet such an assumption must seriously endanger the psychological theory of all development from a nebulous memory-image.

The difficulties that confront the theory at hand become entirely insurmountable when it comes to the final phase of ancient art in the later Roman empire. The course of the development would inevitably have culminated in a continual increase in the observation of nature. Even allowing for occasional small reversals, how to explain it if the entire practice of observation, laboriously gained over the course of millennia, should be summarily abandoned and exchanged for the most nebulous memory-image? Could one then still speak of a continual development at all? And yet this is precisely what happened at the end of antiquity. For a long time one sought to explain that the “backwards step” was not freely chosen, but introduced violently through the invasion of uncivilized barbarians. That however this hypothesis is a mere makeshift excuse, without any internal or external justification, I believe I have recently shown.6

The psychological theory fails no less if one seeks to apply it to the explanation of the remaining arts, which as arts stand in a certain intrinsic relationship to the visual arts. Thus one would have to expect in the developmental history of music an increasing proximity to the natural sounds heard by us, whereas the opposite is the case, and the natural sound as such, even via the detour over an innate memory-tone, can never be the goal of music.

Psychophysik and the related psychological tendencies with their experimental observations were often met with the reproach that their results were built onesidedly upon the subjective experiences of the individuals selected for observation (the researchers). This fact is also noteworthy for our investigation, because it is sufficient to explain why the psychological theory has been able to win such great significance for the art-historical research of the last two or three decades. This is the same time in which individualism has succeeded to predominant mastery in the visual (and in other) arts. The art historians noticed that the modern artists primarily attempt in their works to produce fleetingly glimpsed, subjective color images of optically-fernsichtig perceived works of nature. They were somewhat hastily prepared to proclaim an element of a particular modern phase in the development of art – the optical-fernsichtig Impressionsism – as the fundamental principle of the entire general development of art, just as formerly Semper had been ready to establish that which he held for the leading principle in the development of textile arts as the developmental principle of all visual art without exception.

Were the psychological theory in art history to proceed consistently, then the optical impression would have to stand at the beginning, and the plastic interpretation, which endeavors to give a clearer account of the individual parts of the figure in itself and in relationship to each other, would have to follow afterwards. The course of art history, on the basis of the preserved monuments, teaches however exactly the opposite: the ancient Near Eastern arts followed throughout an exceptionally plastic interpretation and objective observation of nature, while the optic-subjective moment at first only gradually attained validity. Another branch of early ancient art, the Mycenaean, betrays by contrast decidedly optical inclinations, and since this stands in a particular (to this point not exactly determinable, but on the whole undeniable) relationship with later Greek art, it gives us a hint, whence the “naturalistic“ urge came into the otherwise essentially plastic-Oriental early Greek art. We would therefore have, as already indicated before, from the earliest times two artistic tendencies that worked upon each other from opposing sides: a plastic-nahsichtig art of the Oriental peoples and an optical-fernsichtig of the Indo-German peoples. Each direction, followed one-sidedly, leads necessarily into tedium and paralysis; in reciprocal, even if often hostile, interpenetration, they generated the fertile develpment that has led to today.

If, according to what has been said, the psychological theory does not fulfill all expectations, this lies ultimately on the remains of materialistic metaphysics that still  shelter within: that is, on the determination of the creation of art through the memory-image. One proceeded as if this were a known quantity, when it is actually only a materialistic puppet, a nebulous metaphysical concept. As soon as this becomes clear, the way appears which a future, entirely impartial research will have to take up, freed of the last traces of this materialistic metaphysics.

There is today a widespread philosophical tendency, which through the fundamental refusal of all metaphysics is determined to hew only to the given: one calls it  “positivistic,” in the broadest sense of the word. If one of the principles of this tendency were translated into art history, then it would result that the creation of art expresses itself only as an aesthetic drive: for some (the artists) to reproduce the things of nature in a particular fashion, under the one-sided elevation of some characteristics, and the repression of others; for others (the public), to see the things of nature reproduced precisely as it is done by the contemporary artists. That through which this drive could be determined – whether now raw material, technique, or function, or even memory-image – is for us at the very least an ignoramus, perhaps for ever an ignorabimus:7only the Kunstwollen remains as a given.

It may now be asked, how a development is possible within this Kunstwollen. As the familiar study of the monuments within their chronological series teaches, the development is not linked to the things of nature in themselves, which have always remained the same, but to the fashion in which man wanted to see the things of nature reproduced. At this point I am able to give only a general sketch of the course of the determinate moments in the development of the Kunstwollen as it appears in heretofore known and distinguished style periods. I have spoken in a somewhat more precise fashion of these things in the previously mentioned work on Die spätrömische Kunstindustrie, although there only in relation to antiquity and the earliest Middle Ages.

The things of nature reveal themselves to the human sense of sight as isolated figures, but simultaneously bound with the universe (or rather, with an as good as  unbounded slice of the same) to an infinite whole. They are bordered by outlines, but they are more or less fluidly assimilated in their environment. They display a closed, local coloration and participate at the same time in the overall tone of their environment. The development of the human Kunstwollen is linked to this duality of the work of nature in the eyes of man. Two extremes are therefore possible: on the one hand, the most extreme isolation of the individual things of nature from all others; on the other hand, the most extreme connection with the same. In both cases the individual figure, and together with it the possibility of its reproduction in the work of art, is annihilated: in the first case it is atomized, in the second it is dispersed into the infinite. However, a massive space for the play of development is offered by the expanse between the two extremes.

Man introduces nothing into the work of nature that he seeks to reproduce, but rather emphasizes only the isolating or the binding characteristics and simultaneously represses the others, according to whether his Kunstwollen is directed more towards the phenomenon of the isolated individual figure or towards that of its connection with the outside. Both tendencies have been present from the beginning: we have already designated the one (isolating) as probably of ancient Near Eastern origin, the other (connecting) as Indo-German. The latter has at all times been the driving one, the former the receiving [Letztere ist allzeit die treibende, erstere die erhaltende gewesen]. For this reason the course of development up to now, so far as we are in a position to recognize it in the art works that have come down to us, presents itself in general as a progression from stricter isolation to continually increasing connection. The observation of nature, that is, the faithful reproduction of specific striking characteristics of the work of nature (thus, what one is in the habit of calling naturalism), has however always without exception been a leading goal of visual art; but one has at various times intentionally emphasized various characteristics in the effect, which may all be traced back to outline and color, and just as intentionally repressed others, according to whether one wanted to see the figures isolated from or connected to each other, isolated from or connected to the surface, isolated from or connected to deep space. However, in this emphasis or, as the case may be, repression, rests once more the unnatural character, the exaggeration, the idealism in comparison to the work of nature, of all works of art without exception, which is specific precisely in accord with that naturalism.

At this point a second, fundamental fact comes to our attention. A work of nature that is as sharply isolated as possible in its outlines and coloration already appears immediately to the senses as a self-contained unity. If, however, its outlines are dissolved and blurred, its coloration unclear and varying, then the supplementary aid of the consciousness of experience is required in order to sharply grasp the thing in its isolated essence. As however the development, according to what was earlier said, has led in general from stricter isolation to growing connection, one may conclude, that the oldest known artistic creation, which in its definitive portions had emerged from the ancient Near East, was conceived as much as possible on the basis of an immediately sensible appearance of the things, while the later phases of development gradually and to a constantly increasing degree have introduced the consciousness of experience as an intellectual factor in the perception of the work of art.

It is finally necessary to realize, that the complete, absolutely certain conviction of the isolation of a thing can absolutely never be conveyed through the sense of sight, but rather only through the sense of touch. The isolation that the sense of sight reveals to us is itself merely a memory of the experience of the sense of touch. Therefore the oldest significant artistic creation – the ancient Near Eastern – was essentially plastic (that is, it was directed towards the awakening of the experiences of the sense of touch), whereas its tendency since then has ever increasingly, even if with occasional visible regressions, become an optic one.

In such a light, of course, also those monuments from the so-called Mycenaean culture – to come back to them once more –, which do not allow themselves to be adpated to the psychological theory, gain their explanation, as indicated above. It is telling that the first archaeological researcher who has sought to grasp the development of the older ancient art from a unified point of view, has suspected the significance of the Mycenaean monuments for a final solution of his task, for he expressly laments the neglect of this area up to now by his contemporaries. “On a history of art within the Mycenaean era,” says Löwy (16), “I see, with the exception of ceramics, that no beginning has yet been made.“ In view of the wealth of the relevant finds that is in fact strange, but, if one knows the territory, entirely understandable. Not much can be accomplished in terms of chronological or geographical assignment within the Mycenaean period, and also the iconograhpic elements allow a prudent research little fodder. But really, the striking majority of our archaeological researchers stand clueless in front of the artistic in the artwork. What is tiresome is that this cluelessness is being artificially kept alive from very authoritative quarters – admittedly for the sake of a supposed scientificity. What should be preserved in this scientificity and which self-deceptions run underneath it, I have already remarked in the critique of the cult of the isolated facts. What perhaps at the time of Semper had been a salutary self-limitation is today the worst obstacle to progress and development in archaeological research.

When the art historian and archaeologist to this point has been able to say (or actually not been able to say) – this picture or this statue is good or bad – he should also now be able to state precisely the basis of his value judgment. Why was the work of art pleasing at the time of its origins and why is it not pleasing today? What did one want from visual art at that time and what does one want from it today? These are questions that can be answered on the basis of the monuments and therefore must finally be answered. In this I see absolutely the most burning task of art-historical research in the immediate future.

By what, however, the aesthetic drive is determined, to see the things of nature reproduced under the emphasis or repression of the isolating or the connecting characteristics in the work of art, on this point only purely metaphysical presumptions can be presented, which the art historian must fundamentally decline. However, we may yet gain a somewhat broader basis for the deeper understanding of this Kunstwollen. If we take into consideration not art alone, but any one of the remaining great cultural areas of humanity – state, religion, science – the conclusion will present itself to us, that these areas are constantly concerned with the relationship between individual and collective unity. If one pursues the direction of the Wollen that particular peoples have developed in particular eras in these cultural areas, then it will be infallibly shown that its direction is in the final analysis completely identical with that of the contemporary Kunstwollen in the same people. If one summarizes this specific shared Wollen in all regions of culture under the designation Weltanschauung, then it will be possible to say, that visual art, if not determined by the contemporaryWeltanschauung, runs absolutely parallel with it.

To prove these connections between visual art and Weltanschauung in the particulars would not be something for the art historian, but rather something – and indeed the actual task of the future – for the comparative cultural historians. But the art historian cannot dodge the collaborative work on this task, because he is much too strongly invested in its solution to wait for others to gradually complete the necessary studies. For all of the other cultural areas play a constant role in art history, insofar as they lend the work of art (which is never without an external purpose) its external occasion, its content. It is however clear that the art historian will only then be able to correctly judge the material motive and its interpretation in a particular work of art when he has learned how the Wollen that has gave the impulse to that motive is identical to the Wollen that has formed the relevant figure according to outline and color in a particular way, and in no other. In other words: iconography, which today in art history is, like chronological and geographical determination, cultivated one-sidedly and for its own sake, will first win its true value for art history when it is placed in internal correspondence with the sensible appearance of the work of art as form and color in surface or space – just as a chronological or geographical determination will first bear its true usefulness when we clearly recognize how the relevant art could only have emerged at that particular place, and at no other.

So much on the significance for art-historical research of the postitivistic theory of the Kunstwollen as the driving element behind all creation of visual art. For philosophy, however, it would have the following result: an empirical aesthetic might then emerge, for what the Semperian and Fechnerian aesthetics claimed to have accomplished, is at best only a preliminary step; the Empirie in its full purity still eludes both.

A. Riegl, „Naturwerk und Kunstwerk. II.“ Allgemeine Zeitung (München), Beilage 48 (1901); reprinted in K.M. Swoboda, ed., Gesammelte Aufsätze (Augsburg, 1928), 65-70.


In an earlier essay which appeared under the same title, I sought to explain how, in the interpretation of the relationship between the work of nature and the work of art, three theories have succeded one upon the other since the middle of the nineteenth century: the purely materialistic theory of Gottfried Semper; the half-materialistic, which appeals to the memory-image; and the positivistic, which maintains only the aesthetic drive, the Kunstwollen, as the single given positive. The common ground of all three theories lay however in the fact that the fundamental principle of each was established as one capable of explaining development, for the obvious reason that only in such a way can the possibility be opened to satisfactorily expain the varieties of change in period style.

For a few years now an artistic teaching put forward by the German sculptor Adolf Hidebrand has gained growing respect in Germany among artists and laymen, art lovers and art historians. The teaching appears in written form in his book, Das Problem der Form in der bildenden Kunst, which has quickly become famous and now appeared in its third edition. The author of this book united in himself three gifts in such a forutunate manner, as no modern artist since Gottfried Semper has acheived: a significant, practicing master, he is at the same time a thinker, who knows how to give an exact account of the essence of his artistic creation, but possesses also such a rich literary inclination that he is able to offer the results of his reflections in a form accessible to the public. How such an artist-thinker conceives of the relationship between the work of nature and the work of art would be in any circumstance worthy of the most careful attention. If I did not heed it explicitly in my previous essay, this is only because Hildebrand may have provided a solid law on the issue at hand [sc. the relationship between art and nature], but has left no possiblity of development open within it.8 For in contrast to Semper, who stood at the beginning of a retrospective period, Hildebrand belongs to a more recent era, whose artists have shed the respect before older works of art as such, and have thereby once more gained the courage of their own artistic opinion. Adolf Hildebrand too possesses such an opinion, and it has become for him, as is natural to a forwards-looking artist, an unshakable conviction. From this fact it follows with logical consistency that Hildebrand must disapprove not merely of those modern tendencies which do not meet the requirements of his norm, but also of many older tendencies which have long won a historical right to existence, as for example that of Canova. It could hardly ever have been Hildebrand’s intention to grasp the inner necessity, or the developmental conditions, of those older style-ways that deviate from his; instead he sought only to establish a norm by which anyone today could judge the worth of older works. In this sense his teaching on art is closer to that  of Johann Joachim Winckelmann than to the three theories of development discussed above.

Despite this difference in fundamental intention, we see multiple threads that connect his project to ours. It is indeed rewarding to follow them and to ascertain the relationship between the Hildebrandean theory of artistic creation, which is so righly esteemed, and the dominant art-historical theories of development, at least in their most general lines of thought. Both parties may well expect enlightenment and utility from such an investigation: both those whom Hildebrand has caused to recognize a fixed aesthetic norm for the judgment and evaluation of older works of art, and  those others who wish above all to know why the art works art art made in earlier eras do not look like those made today.

One point in common lies already in the establishment of a fundamental principle, with which theories of development can so little dispense as the absolute theory brought forward by the artist. The fundamental principle of the Hildebrandean teaching is expressed in the following maxim: that which distinguishes the work of art from the work of nature is its architectonic content, as opposed to its imitative content, which is common to both. Accordingly, any determination of the work of art through the memory-image, which can only relate to the imitative content, is ruled out from the start, as in fact Hildebrand himself states expressly (p. 37 of the third printing of his book). At the same time, and no less ambiguously, Hildebrand states that the architectonic content of the work of art should not be thought of as determined by the raw material (p. 85); and therefore the connection with the Semperian theory appears also to be rejected. The architectonic content is rather brought forth exclusively through an aesthetic drive (”instinctive need,“ p. 7). As this drive is clearly nothing other than the Kunstwollen of the positivistic theory, it becomes clear that Hildebrand’s artistic teaching corresponds fully, at least in its fundamental principle, with the developmental theory that I designate the positivistic.

If we now follow Hildebrand’s interpretation of the architectonic content into the particulars, it is possible to ascertain its correspondence on a further fundamental point with the positivistic theory that I have recently sketched. According to Hildebrand, the architectonic content consists in the following: the things of nature should appear at once both as three-dimensionally developed and self-contained, and as freely mobile forms in infinite space. In this definition a stable factor is established alongside a number of variables. The stability rests in the fact that the creation of an immediately apparent and unified relationship between the individual things and their environment constitutes the primary task of all creation of visual art. One easily recognizes here that duality of all natural things between individual discreteness on the one hand, and assimilation in the environment on the other hand, to which, according to the positivistic theory, all creation of visual art is connected. Everything, however, that remains in Hildebrand’s definition is, if taken with the utmost strictness, only valid for his own artistic creation, in a broader sense for modern sculpture, in the broadest sense for all modern visual art; it can find application to all earlier artways only under more or less powerful limitations and conditions.

In this sense it is a question within the given general and stable principle – the relationship of the individual things to their environment – of three special and variable relationships: the relationship of the individual things to their environment in particular, the relationship of the thing itself to the three dimensions, and the relationships of the surrounding space to the three dimensions.

Let us begin with the first relationship [of individual things to their environment]. Hildebrand conceives it as an ideal state of balance. The individual things should on the one hand appear delimited for themselves with absolute clarity, but on the other hand should in no way stick out from their environment in a distracting fashion. Here the sculptor in stone betrays himself: his material denies him an excessively loose formation of the outlines, and he accordingly finds certain modern efforts, for example in Italian sculpture, atrocious; one can almost say that Hildebrand represents a classicizing tendency in this respect. From such a standpoint neither ancient Near Eastern and archaic, nor Late Roman and medieval art, which isolated the forms in opposition to the environment as severely as possible; nor indeed some newer arts (for example, the chiaroscuro of Rembrandt, whose Dutch contemporaries so significantly wanted nothing to do with the creation of sculpture), which allow the outlines of forms to fade into the environment; none of these is worthy of existence. And yet these arts have been valid through long centuries and millennia as  pure and complete fulfillment of human wishes.

The relationship of the individual things to the three dimensions should, according to Hildebrand, be observed in such a way that the development of their parts in all three dimensions (and particularly in depth) appears completely clear and unified. In this definition there is, however, no place for ancient Egyptian art, which surpressed the appearance of the third dimension whenever possible, nor for late Roman art, nor again for certain modern tendencies that have endeavored to produce a living appearance through the avoidance of all tactile plastic curves, making do instead solely with with colors and outlines and the experiences of the consciousness that are associated with these.

The relationship of the spatial environment to the three dimensions, finally, Hildebrand conceives as follows: the environment should appear to extend freely and equally in all three dimensions. On this point the modern artist speaks most loudly and one-sidedly through Hildebrand. For the interpretation of the spatial environment of individual things in the work of art as an infinite, three-dimensional empty space begins, taken strictly, first in the Renaissance (since Ghiberti); all antiquity, insofar as it took heed of the environment of individual things in the work of art at all, wished to perceive it merely in the two dimensions of height and width, that is, as a plane. Admittedly, the advanced painters of the Roman imperial era, with their apparently widely deepened planes, may pile figures and motifs behind and over each other, but in this they unfailingly and intentionally suppress every characteristic which might bring to consciousness the extension in depth of the space as such. Intead, the figures remain on their various planes, in front and behind, all of roughly the same size and delineated with the same clarity.9

The relationship of Hildebrand’s artistic teaching to the art-historical theories of development may therefore be roughly defined as follows: in everything that relates to the stable and the generally valid, the creation of visual art is fully grounded in the theory designated by myself as the positivistic;10 both in the assumption of a Kunstwollen as the final known, impulse-giving factor, and in the definition of the task of the Kunstwollen, which is also according to Hildebrand directed towards the creation of a unified relationship between the individual thing and the environment. As soon, however, as one wishes to state the definition with more precision, the paths of the artist and the art historian diverge. The artist can imagine only a single, specific version of the relationship in question: the one that he himself follows in the creation of his own art. That is of course his right and we can only approve of his strong conviction. For the art historian, however, this path is barred, for he would thereby sacrifice any justification of the idea of development, and thus also deny himself the possibility of treating all earlier periods of art without exception (for example, also that of Canova, which is explicitly rejected by Hildebrand) according to their full historial merit.

All of these difficulties seem now to have been removed in the positivistic theory, whose fundamental traits I have recently presented in these pages. One the one hand, this theory contains the Hildebrandean artistic teaching within itself: both those elements which are generally valid and stable as its fundamental principles, and those which are contingent as expressions of a particular modern phase of the development. On the other hand, it goes further, insofar as it pursues the fundamental principles further, and thereby creates room for the legitimate explanation of all past style-ways without exception.

[1] {David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), whose Der alte und neue Glaube (1872) explicitly advocated materialism.}

[2] {Ludwig Büchner (1824-99), German philosopher and materialist, author of Kraft und Stoff: Empirisch-naturphilosophische Studien (1855).}

[3] {Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), German physiologist and psychologist. Author of the Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie (1874), among many other works.}

[4] {Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801-1887), German psychologist. Author of the Elemente der Psychophysik (1860), among many other works.}

[5] Die Naturwiedergabe in der älteren griechischen Kunst. Von Emanuel Löwy, Professor an der Universität Rom. Rom, Löscher & Co. 1900. {Emanuel Löwy (1857-1938), Professor of Archaeology at the Universities of Rome and, later, Vienna.}

[6] Die spätrömische Kunstindustrie nach den Funden in Österreich-Ungarn, in Zusammenhang mit der Gesamtentwicklung der bildenden Kunst bei den Mittelmeervölkern, dargstellt von A. R. Wien, k.k. Hof- und Staatsdruckerei.

[7] {ignoramus et ignorabimus: phrase popularized by the German physician Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818-96) in his Über die Grenzen des Naturerkennens (1872); reprinted in Reden von Emil du Bois-Reymond in zwei Bänden (Leipzig, 1912), I.441-73.}

[8] Of course this should not be taken to mean that Hildebrand himself wishes to reject outright the possibility of a theory of development; what he says, for example, about ancient Egyptian sculpture leads  directly to notions of development. But Hildebrand’s book nowhere names a principle though which such a development could be consistently traced. Instead, his fundamental law is generally advanced as a strictly irrefutable formula.

[9] The theorists of the memory-image are compelled to attribute such striking gaps in the reproduction of nature in the work of art to a deficient, uneducated capacity for observation on the part of ancient man. Through this example it is possible to recognize in a quite instructive fashion how pre-conceived opinions can lead to the coarsest and most manifest errors, for in the acuity of sense perception ancient men were just as superior to the moderns as the Indians were to the conquering English. Our current, powerful mastery of nature has been built essentially on intellectual work; and that the senses have gained nothing from this, is indicated alone by the numerous wearers of glasses precisely among the thinking peoples of Europe. If therefore the ancient Romans and Greeks did not take heed of atmospheric perspective in their works of art, they had their own good reason for suppressing this natural phenomenon, which was surely at least as well known to them as to us.

[10] Thus not in the sense in which Hildebrand himself (p. 39), in connection with another theorist, has used the word “positivist.”

-- free translation and {notes} November 2007 / March 2019