Sebastian Preuss on Wilhelm Worringer and Modernism
With his groundbreaking book "Abstraction and Empathy", art historian Wilhelm Worringer influenced such early modern artists as Kandinsky and Marc, who found support for their initial experiments in abstraction. In this essay, Berlin-based art critic Sebastian Preuss explicates Worringer's revolutionary ideas and art-historical impact.
||Wilhelm Worringer's book Abstraktion und Einfühlung. Ein Beitrag zur Stilpsychologie (Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution tothe Psychology of Style), completed in 1907, was not conceivedas a manifesto of Expressionism, as has often been claimed. Yet the small volume and first work by the young German art historian became one of the most influential sources of ideas for modernart. In July 1911, August Macke wrote in a letter to his friend,the painter Franz Marc: "Do you know the book by Worringer? I have read it and find it partly quite fine. There are many things in it for us." Marc promptly passed on the recommendation to Vasily Kandinsky: "Marvelously disciplined thinking, concise and cool." A month later, Marc celebrated Worringer's book in the art magazine Pan as a volume "that today deserves the most widespread attention and in which a train of thought was written down by a strictly historical mind that should cause fearful opponents of the modern movement quite a bit of anxiety." In 1951, Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky's girlfriend and cofounder of the artists' group Der Blaue Reiter, said to Worringer: "We've known each other since the beginnings of Postimpressionist art, for which you prepared the intellectual ground."
Rarely has a dissertation reached so many readers. Overlooking the fact that he was reading a yet unpublished copy of the volume, the poet Paul Ernst was so moved by Worringer's text that he wrote a praising review for the periodical Kunst und Künstler. The article soon caught the attention of Munich publisher Reinhard Piper, who printed the study in 1908. By 1921, totally twelve editions had appeared, with many more to follow, and the book was translated into nine languages. With youthful impartiality, Worringer, who was in his mid-20s, at the time of his writing, defied the conventions of the "materialistic method," as he called the accustomed loyalty to facts in his field, boldly developing an universal model that encompassed art developments of every era.
Worringer distinguished two fundamental orientations in art: abstraction and naturalism. He viewed the latter as "empathy" with the organic, as the "feeling of being at ease and at one with creation," which was achieved in its highest form by the ancient Greeks in their "temperate and felicitous mental climate" and later in the Renaissance period. In the early 20th century, the ideal of classical art still dominated art scholarship and the art industry, and this model could not even be shaken by Impressionism. While Worringer did not reject classicist values per se, he did rail against the dogged classicism of the peoples who lived north of the Alps. Full of pathos, he called for the rehabilitation of the major counterforce that had influenced so many periods. In his view, an "urge to abstraction" stood at the beginning of every culture, which he illustrated with prehistoric art known at the time and artifacts of primitive peoples. Worringer saw this ancient human drive toward abstraction as the consequence of an "immense spiritual dread of space."
"Primitive man"—which Worringer did not mean condescendingly—stands "lost and spiritually helpless amidst the things of the external world." But from this helplessness he draws the vitality to create the "greatest abstract beauty." Objects are removed from their natural context "with elementary necessity" and in an individual form turned into art. In this way, a single leaf or a coiled-up snake can become an abstract, ornamental element. Everything seems two-dimensional; three-dimensionality plays no role in such abstraction. "The primal artistic impulse has nothing to do with the rendering of nature," Worringer writes, vaunting the geometric ornament as "the earliest artistic style" and "absolute form." Based on his analysis of art over time, Worringer propounded psychologies of entire cultures. He attributed an "inner disharmony" and "cloudy mysticism" to the peoples of Scandinavia and the northern Slavic countries, saying that "no clear blue sky arched above them, no serene climate, no luxuriant vegetation surrounded them." As a result, they developed a labyrinthine ornamentation that never achieved the regularity of geometry, as the confident peoples of Asia Minor and the ancient Greeks did. Worringer had a special preference for the Gothic; here, "Northern man was able to gratify his need for expression, which had been intensified to the point of pathos by inner disharmony." In the exaggerated attire of Late Gothic paintings and sculptures, he observed how the abstract became expressive, and with the downfall of cathedral art, "the last 'style' [went] under."
Although he did not expressly mention it, in his book Worringer reacted to the intellectual currents of his time. Back in 1844, Karl Marx had diagnosed an abstraction of living conditions, an "estrangement of practical human activity." In Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy) from 1867, he used the expression "abstract labor." After the turn of the century, philosopher Georg Simmel, whose lectures Worringer attended, asserted in his writings that urban life increasingly overtaxed people in the "crystallized structure" of a "vast, overwhelming organization of things and powers" rising up in front of them. Inspired by this idea, Worringer found "crystalline" forms in abstraction.
Worringer's criticism of rigid classicist aesthetics, his positive view of primitive art, his psychological analysis of abstraction, and the linguistic pathos echoing in his enthusiasm for Friedrich Nietzsche all captured the German avant-garde spirit around 1910. Although there was no mention of modern artists in Abstraction and Empathy, they found themselves represented in the book—not marginalized as outsiders, which was the common perception at the time, but integrated in a revolutionary model of world art history. Expressionists in the artist group Die Brücke in Dresden and Berlin longed for a new authenticity, for raw and true feeling. Rather than empathizing with nature like the Impressionists, they eruptively spread hard ("crystalline" in Worringer's view) streams of paint across the canvas. The Munich painters of the Blaue Reiter proceeded in a similar fashion. Kandinsky and Marc sought cosmic visions, ethereality, and transcendence. Their color patches blossomed into abstract formations, their lines twisted into ecstatic ornamentation. Worringer's volume made it possible to situate these innovations in an art-historical context.
While the author himself did not find this appropriation of his ideas unappealing, he did consider it somewhat suspect. He never wanted to be a "church father" of the avant-garde, Worringer wrote to his friend, the architectural critic Sigfried Giedion, in 1950, referring instead to the "indivisible secret of simultaneity." "People's antennae were lifted everywhere," he explained in the same letter. "But at the time I understood as little of what I wrote as my equally young readers did." He was first and foremost an art historian; his academic ambition was aimed at the past, not at the present. But he systematized and interpreted the aesthetic experiences of art epochs in an innovative, even experimental way, going all the way back to prehistoric times. Precisely by using the method of looking back, he gained insights, that captured the essence of what his contemporaries before World War I and in the 1920s were doing. His depiction of ancient art in Abstraction and Empathy sharpened their sense of the present. The book provided an aesthetic and psychological basis for modernism, which was just emerging at the time. Some of Worringer's writings might be awkward and unintelligible to us today, but his historical importance is indisputable. In 1980, the great media scholar and art psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, who had experienced 1920s and early 1930s German intellectual life, wrote that Worringer had elevated "non-realistic art to positive creation by the human spirit."
The book's beginnings date back to a study trip to Paris over Easter in 1905, during which Worringer participated in the "sudden, explosive act of birth the world of ideas." Hurrying through the Musée de Trocadéro, alone in the "wide halls in which all other life is extinct," the young student, who was still looking for a suitable dissertation topic, was suddenly gripped by the "spiritual intoxication" that he would later describe as the origin of the urge to abstraction. He did not reveal whether it was the ethnological objects from distant cultures or the "cold plaster reproductions of medieval cathedral sculpture" that excited him. From 1902 to 1909, Worringer lived in Munich. Even more so than Berlin, the city was at the center of avant-garde bohemian life at the time. Art Nouveau artists disrupted the city's Bavarian coziness, as did the many erotomaniacs, eccentrics, socialists, and other starry-eyed idealists who cavorted in the city's Schwabing district. He befriended Heinrich Mann and was part of the extended circle of the neo-Romantic poet Stefan George for a while. In this vibrant atmosphere, he later recalled, in which everyone was a "diviner," he wrote Abstraction and Empathy.
While artists and a liberal, progressive middle class enthusiastically adopted his ideas, the academic world was piqued by them. "The works of the Expressionists and the Cubists resemble Worringer's descriptions of Gothic figures, and this book will be accepted as a manifesto of Expressionism, as an art product, but not as a scholarly achievement," wrote the renowned medievalist Richard Hamman about Worringer's professorial dissertation Formproblem der Gotik (Form Problems of the Gothic) that was published in 1911. Subsequently, Worringer applied for numerous professorial positions, but was turned down each time, and the young scholar had to work as a private lecturer and traveling speaker in Bern and Bonn. His appearances were always a big event, drawing hundreds of listeners for his eloquence, unusual pictorial analyses, and interpretations of the world, as well as his theatrical slide shows. It was only in 1928 that the Prussian minister of culture, Carl Heinrich Becker, who was an admirer of Worringer, was able to provide him a professorship, in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia).
When the Nazis took power, Worringer's educated middleclass, left-wing world collapsed. Out of political conviction, he didn't publish anything during these years, and he was eyed with mistrust and considered unworthy of representing Germany in lectures abroad. He was now "a quiet person in Germany, who is only loud at home," as he wrote to his publisher Piper in 1937. But even during World War II, educated Königsberg residents flocked to his lectures, in which he described the art of old Europe, which was now burning to the ground, as a humanitarian value system, and everyone in the hall understood his unspoken criticism of the Nazis. After fleeing to East Prussia, Worringer received a professorship in Halle in 1946, but four years later he headed westward again after the "second German dictatorship's" takeover of the country. Until his death in 1965, he lived in Munich, during which time he gained increasing recognition abroad. English art critic Herbert Read celebrated Worringer as the "father of all modern art and intellectual things."
After World War I, Worringer had fundamental doubts about the art of his time, and he again looked far back into the past. In talks he gave in 1919 and 1921, he distanced himself from Expressionism and the art that was popular when Abstraction and Empathy was first published. The "complete etherealization of expression," he said, had doomed this art movement over the years. He saw the work of the once young and rebellious artists as having degenerated into bourgeois wall decoration and now accepted their inventiveness, or "convulsions" in his view, only as fiction. Nor could the 40-year-old art historian, by 1921, follow the Dadaists any more: "They are playing fast and loose with art in order to finally open people's eyes to the fact that it is no longer there and that they are devoting their time to a fake."
After these reckonings from 1919 and 1921, Worringer commented on the art of his time only a few more times, in short articles on Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Pankok, and even the Futurist Carlo Carrà. But his world remained in the past. Worringer gave modernism more than he received from it.