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Welcome back, it's been a catastrophically long break, but this time I'm back to stay. In the time that I've been AWOL much and more has happened, but that's for my personal blog on WordPress. One thing I can share is that I've been holding Socrates Cafe style discussions in London through meetup.com (it's a great site, check it out), and they've been a great success if I may say so myself. Unfortunately some things went wrong and it is for the time being put on hold. However I would still like to hear from other people and engage in meaningful discussion. You can imagine how happy I was to discover that Dissecting Apollo is still here, and hasn't been spammed into oblivion.

To restart a great community, I'd like to pour some Formalism all over this page. Formalism is one of the ways to engage with art, possibly the earliest, and maybe the most fundamental, although definitely not the most popular in its basic form. There are as many philosophies as there are philosophers, but I prefer to think of it in terms of what Maurice Denis wrote in 1890
                               "Remember that a picture, before being a cavalry charger, a nude woman , or some genre anecdote, is essentially a                                   flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order."
In that sense formalism is categorically easy to understand, but difficult to grasp in its simplicity. How can we possibly look at art as simply paint on a canvas, if the artist doesn't make it as such, and we don't see it as such upon first contact? Another quote from Clive Bell in 1914 becomes even more complicated
                                "The representational element in a work of art may or may not be harmful, always it is                                               irrelevant … to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no                                                                   knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions"
What kind of fun is art if we can't look at it using our knowledge? And I don't mean our indepth knowledge of textiles and dress, of history, or botany, or theology. Bell says even more  we look at art as newborn babes without knowledge of emotions, basic knowledge of human psychology (not the type you learn in school, but what we learn through living). So when you encounter a painting like the one just below, you are supposed to ignore the fact that you know this is Marie Antoinette in her last attempt to gain public support by commissioning a portrait of herself as a mother. The fact that Elisabeth VIgee LeBrun, probably the most famous female artist of the 18th century, who was given the honourable position of court painter to Marie Antoinette. Or when looking at a painting of the crucifiction, we are to see a man, who appears to be in pain, with random figures of both men and women mourning around him, without engaging our knowledge of scriptures and traditional representation. The approach seems ludicrous, but as we can see from all the dates so far, this is a late 19th, early 20th century view that I believe has already seen its heyday. Formalism is good to know, and useful to occasionally reference, but definitely not the dominant way of thinking nowadays.




In his Principles of Art History Henirich Wolfflin uses the formalist approach to trace the changes between Renaissance and Baroque art. A seminal work which stands at the gate of academic Art Historical study. He poses a list of binaries between Renaissance and Baroque art.
Renaissance                                              Baroque
Linear                                                           Painterly
Plane                                                            Recession
Closed Form (self contained)                       Open Form (reach beyond the composition)
Multiplicty                                                      Unity
Absolute Clarity of subject                            Relative Clarity

In the next post I will talk about the formal analysis of art, which is not necessairly Formalist in philosophy, but deals with formal composition and colour rather than the social content of art. It will probably shine some more light on Wolfflin's binaries.

Such is the Formalist approach to art. How do you feel about it, is it still valid in the modern world? Can formalism offer us new ways of looking at contemporary art? Did I get it completely and totally wrong?


Ta,
The dissector.

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