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Principles of Art History, by Heinrich Wölfflin

Heinrich Wölfflin
We have said that the development of perception is psychologically apparent- that is, systematic. But then how was art, as an independent entity such as this, able to merge with the course of the broader history of spirit? Now art, in the full sense of the word, is not actually something we have addressed in our deliberations. The decisive element, the material world, has not been touched upon, and this includes not only the question of the (morphological) forms in which an age builds but also how man perceives himself and how he confronts worldly things intellectually and emotionally. Thus the problem is reduced to whether our history of seeing can really be called a history in its own right. Clearly that is only the case to a limited extent. Their sensual and spiritual nature means that these internal processes have always been part of the more comprehensive general development of every period. They are not separate, nor do they proceed at will. Bound up as they are with material, they have always been regulated by the dictates of time and race. Even Greek antiquity went through a painterly period, though it always retained its isolating, plastic attitude to a certain extent. The Italian baroque should undoubtedly be considered as a painterly style, though the term painterly was never developed as far there as it was in the north. And as for the development of pictorial imagination in general, its "rationality" is none other than that which underlies the whole development of the spiritual and emotional life of the peoples of Europe.

Banal though it may be, I shall repeat this sentence from my Principles: "People have probably always seen things the way they wanted to see them." The painterly style, to stay with the same example, only ever came once its bell had tolled; that is, once it had been understood. Yet one should not expect too much of the parallels between the history of the eye and the general history of spirit, which would be to compare the incomparable. Art retains its specificity. But that is precisely where it is creative in the highest sense, generating evernew forms of apprehension from the ground of pure perception. A cultural history that takes into account the leading role that visual art has sometimes played remains to be written.

l happened to chance upon the following remark in the notes for a lecture course among the papers left behind by Jacob Burckhardt: "Broadly speaking then, the relationship of art to in general can only be conceived as being loose and vague; art has its own life and its own history. I do not know what specific sense Burckhardt meant to give this sentence, but it is remarkable to find such a statement coming from this man, who was more willing and able than anyone to see art as part of history as a whole.
Principles of art history

*Heinrich Wölfflin, Principles of art history : the problem of the development of style in early modern art; a new translation by Jonathan Blower ; edited and with essays by Evonne Levy and Tristan Weddigen. (Original title: Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe.) One hundredth anniversary edition. Los Angeles, California : The Getty Research Institute, [2015].

Principles of Art History by Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945), a revolutionary attempt to construct a science of art through the study of the development of style, has been a foundational work of formalist art history since it was first published in 1915. At once systematic and subjective, and remarkable for its compelling descriptions of works of art, Wölfflin’s text has endured as an accessible yet rigorous approach to the study of style. Although Wölfflin applied his analysis to objects of early modern European art, Principles of Art History has been a fixture in the theoretical and methodological debates of the discipline of art history and has found a global audience.

With translations in twenty-four languages and many reprints, Wölfflin’s work may be the most widely read and translated book of art history ever. This new English translation, appearing one hundred years after the original publication, returns readers to Wölfflin’s 1915 text and images. It also includes the first English translations of the prefaces and afterword that Wölfflin himself added to later editions. Introductory essays provide a historical and critical framework, referencing debates engendered by Principles in the twentieth century for a renewed reading of the text in the twenty-first.

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