Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Wölfflin’s North: The Burden of Belonging


[1] Recent years have seen a growing critical attention to the affective responses of beholders to artworks. Far from delighting in the Kantian ideal of ‘disinterestedness’, historians and theorists became enthralled with moments where artworks, literally, moved the beholder to tears (Elkins 2004). An ever-growing body of writing has mapped, in nuance and detail, the emotional responses and forms of attachment between artworks and viewers. Categories such as ‘agency’ and ‘presence’ have been discussed for many years, and more recently these debates are complemented by explorations of the ‘attachment’ or ‘resonances’ felt when encountering art (Gumbrecht 2003; Noë 2012; Rosa 2019; Felski 2020; Rampley 2021). Many of these coinages seem permutations of a common theme: historians and theorists are intrigued by the ‘irrational’, raw emotional impact of works, something often linked to certain ‘pre-cognitive’ states of brain activity (Freedberg 2021).

[2] This intense focus on heightened states of emotion, triggered by encounters with art, is probably in part due to a desire to prove the real-life impact of artwork, and thus – presumably – the relevance of art history and aesthetics. At the same time, this interest in ‘raw’ emotion has side-lined other, more ambiguous and potentially fraught reactions to art. One such emotional state is ‘aesthetic disappointment’: the moment where the viewing of a work of art, though invested with much anticipation by the beholder, does not live up to the ideas and ideals associated with it. As Russell L. Quacchia recently concluded (from the perspective of philosophical aesthetics): “If anything, the topic has no more than a tacit or implicit presence” in current debates (2020, unpag.).

[3] This article aims to explore some aspects of the experience of ‘aesthetic disappointment’ through a case study focusing on one of the most influential art historians of the twentieth century. In the following, I will discuss Heinrich Wölfflin’s late monograph Italy and the German Feeling for Form (1931) – an extensive analysis of the “national characteristics” of Northern Renaissance art (Hönes 2011; Schlink 2013; Bätschmann 2018). This was a considerable shift for Wölfflin, a lifelong admirer of the beauty of Southern Renaissance art. Crucially, Wölfflin’s turn to Northern art was not a late attempt to celebrate his own heritage. Rather, arguably it was a defeatist admission of his own inability to understand “the art of an alien nature” (“eine wesensfremde Kunst”) in a profound and holistic way (Wölfflin 1931: 1). The new attention to Northern art also meant a significant shift in method: while the famous Grundbegriffe (1914) theorised a ‘neutral’ history of vision, Wölfflin now emphasised the ‘rootedness’ of both Northern and Southern European artistic productions in factors of race and soil.

[4] In many respects, Wölfflin’s 1931 monograph is testimony of its author’s profound emotional disappointment. Wölfflin’s crisis of conviction, as I will show, was mainly caused by an exaggerated belief in the transformative potential of Southern art. Categories such as Leon Battista Alberti’s “concinnitas” (‘harmony’, ‘equilibrium’) represented both a moral and aesthetic ideal for Wölfflin – an ideal gravitating around the renunciation of the mundane realities of the contemporary world. This attempt to renounce and transcend the realities of the present day by modelling life after the virtues identified with Renaissance art by Alberti, Jacob Burckhardt, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (among many others) was probably always bound to fail. By conceding his own rootedness in the ‘racial’ and visual environment of the North, Wölfflin gradually acknowledged the futility of this utopian desire. His search for the ‘national character’ of German art can thus be understood as a resigned effort to find merit in one’s own existence. For Wölfflin, appreciating the Northern Renaissance was – as he once wrote – an attempt to “make peace with our own character”, and to rationalise the perceived shortcomings of his own aesthetic response.

Wölfflin’s North

[5] Heinrich Wölfflin is commonly regarded as the “herald of the Italian High Renaissance” (Justi 1906: 1). Throughout his career, the art historian extolled the “aristocratic” beauty of the South, with all things ‘classical’ also informing his personal, ethical ideal. Southern Renaissance art, for Wölfflin, represented “autonomy and freedom”, and even “dignity”; it “elevates” us above our mundane existence to a “truly noble” state of mind (Wölfflin 1941: 33-34; 36; Wölfflin 1899, 234-5). As early as 1903, Wölfflin described his educational aim as an art historian as being “to define the magic of Italy for the Germans – a task of great historical purpose” (“den Zauber Italiens für den Deutschen auf Formeln bringen (ist) eine Aufgabe im grossen geschichtlichen Sinn“; Gantner 1982: 186-7). By explaining the beauties of the South, Wölfflin hoped to penetrate and transform the ‘Geist’ of his Germanic compatriots (though Swiss by birth, Wölfflin identified unequivocally as German for most of his life): he aimed at nothing less than an aesthetic re-education of the Northern mind.

[6] Wölfflin’s methodological formation is equally firmly rooted in the study of Italian art. Both within and beyond art history, Wölfflin is best-known for his theory of stylistic change, as outlined in the enormously influential Principles of Art History (1915), where he defined a set of taxonomic categories for describing stylistic change: ‘linear’ versus ‘painterly’, ‘open’ versus ‘closed’, and so on (Burioni, Dogramaci, and Pfisterer 2015; Weddigen and Levy 2020; Levy 2015; Weddigen 2015). These ideas were first developed in his 1888 monograph Renaissance and Baroque, where Wölfflin performed a detailed analysis of the stylistic transformation of Roman architecture between c. 1550-1600, juxtaposing different developmental stages with a dialectic of antinomes and arguing that stylistic changes are best understood as an autonomous development, independent from cultural-historical influences (fig. 1) (Wölfflin 1888). The preoccupation with Italian art permeated every area of Wölfflin’s scholarly activity. Even his 1905 monograph on Albrecht Dürer is essentially a celebration of Southern beauty, its key theme being the aesthetic (and ethical) transformation that Dürer underwent after travelling to Italy (Wölfflin 1905). Many of his contemporaries found such a take on a national treasure – Dürer was commonly acknowledged as the greatest German artist of all times – injurious: Wölfflin’s treatment of Dürer’s achievements was characterised as “reluctant, forced, and not always able to suppress his prejudices” in favour of Italian art (Weixlgärtner 1906).

Figure 1: Comparison of Renaissance and Baroque column bases (Heinrich Wölfflin, Renaissance & Barock (1888), 37)

[7] From the 1910s, however, Wölfflin published more regularly on the arts of the North, and he penned numerous influential contributions on “German Renaissance Architecture” (1914) and the “German feeling for form” (1922), culminating in his 1931 monograph of the same title (Wölfflin 1941: 110-119; 119-127). On first sight, such a shift in priorities might seem unsurprising: in the wake of the turmoil of the First World War, and during the continuing upheavals of the Weimar Republic, many scholars (from Max Weber and Werner Sombart to Aby Warburg) decided actively to champion nationalist causes (Flasch 2000; Mommsen 1996). Some of Wölfflin’s work of this period, in particular the published lecture on “German Renaissance Architecture”, are indeed coloured by a strong political overtone. Wölfflin himself openly admitted that this publication was motivated by contemporary political circumstances. The text was published in 1914, “at the beginning of the great War” – and was primarily written “because the situation demanded something German” (Wölfflin 1941: 109: “am Anfang des grossen Krieges … bedingt durch die Zeitumstände, die etwas Deutsches verlangten”). The conclusion conjures up a “powerful torrent” (“mächtiger Strom”) that will initiate “a rebirth of German spirit out of itself” (“eine Wiedergeburt des deutschen Geistes aus sich selbst”) (Wölfflin 1941: 119). These emotive formulations, suggesting a sudden, revelatory mass movement, are evidently indebted to the circumstances and the audience of the original lecture: the King of Bavaria was present.

[8] Compared to this, Wölfflin’s later writings on Northern Renaissance art pursue a markedly different agenda. This is the case in particular with his last monograph Italy and the German Feeling for Form, published in 1931. Originally, the title for this book was intended to be Italy and Us – a phrase already indicating the subjective character of this book (Meier 1996: 200). Julius von Schlosser once called it “one of the rare confessionals” in art history (Schlosser 1934). At face value, Italy and the German Feeling for Form is a book about “national characters”. Methodologically, Wölfflin continued his tried-and-tested comparativist approach: the book is organised around a series of juxtapositions of Italian and Northern European art (fig. 2). The aim of this exercise is to compare and contrast the respective characteristics of both national “feelings for form”. But Wölfflin strikes a remarkably hesitant note. The book is best understood – as Wölfflin himself phrased it – as an attempt “to make peace with our own character” (Wölfflin 1941: 119 (“über unsere eigene Art ins Reine zu kommen”)). In private, he opined that the book was an attempt to show that Northern art “also has its merits” – to provide a “justification, defence” of Northern art, as his former colleague Andreas Heusler phrased it (Meier 1996: 201).

Figure 2: Comparison of Southern and Northern Renaissance art (Heinrich Wölfflin, Italien und das deutsche Formgefühl (1931), 137)

[9] The reader of Italy and the German Feeling of Form however, can be forgiven if they do not immediately perceive the book as an avowed championing of the “merits” of Northern art. Instead, Wölfflin’s assessment of artistic achievement seems to remain weighed heavily in favour of the South, and everything that he called “Classical”. In 1931, as in previous decades – the war-time lecture of 1914 clearly being an odd-one-out –, Wölfflin praises Italian art with its clear, tectonic order and holistic organic structure: “differentiation and integration” are the key characteristics of the Southern Renaissance, resulting in “a harmony of tidily separated elements” (Wölfflin 1931: 136 (“Harmonie reinlich gesonderter Teile)). With regard to Sansovino’s Bacchus, Wölfflin celebrates how the “limbs act freely while the whole is still conceived in an entirely holistic way” (Wölfflin 1931: 134 (“wie die Glieder frei innerhalb eines vollkommen als Ganzheit empfundenen Körpers agieren”)). What he finds here is an ideal system of autonomy and order. And this is clearly not merely an aesthetic matter, but also an ethical question. In 1915, he wrote about the “boundless sense of well-being” that is evoked by great art: “the sentient mind perceives this art as the image of an elevated, free existence in which it may partake” (Wölfflin 2015: 91). Some thirty years later he still concluded that classical beauty allows us “to take part in a bigger, purer form of being” (“an einem größeren reineren Dasein teilzunehmen”), and expresses his hopes that these forms can result in an “improvement of man in his natural existence” (“Steigerung des Menschen in seiner natürlichen Existenz”) (Wölfflin 1941: 33-34; Wölfflin 1931: 157). Art is an “enlightening experience” (“aufklärenden Erlebnis”) allowing us a glimpse of an existence “beyond the measure of the earthly realm” (“ein höchst gesteigertes Dasein, über alle irdischen Maße hinaus”) (Wölfflin 1931: 182; Wölfflin 1941: 124). Understanding Italy evidently has even a metaphysical component to it: ‘classical’ beauty allows us to communicate with the realm of the divine.

[10] Compared to this, German art, for Wölfflin, precisely lacks the enlightened clarity and autonomy so characteristic of ‘classical’ beauty. Instead, for Wölfflin, the Germanic soul always craves “Unklarheit”: “unclarity” (Wölfflin 1931: 71, 194, 196). The spirit of the North delights in impressions of an almost sublime nature: everything needs to be “somehow obscured, obfuscated” (“irgendwie verdunkelt, überschattet”) (Wölfflin 1931: 198). The “intangible and immaterial” (“Unfaßbaren und Gestaltlosen”) is the North’s domain: “the Germanic peoples pray to the invisible” (“die Germanen beten das Unsichtbare an”. Wölfflin 1931: 212, 214). The Northern feeling for form remains “captivated in a generally dark realm of urges” and “deep dreams” (“Bann der allgemeinen dunklen Triebwelt … wie in tiefen Träumen befangen”. Wölfflin 1941: 122-123). These formulations are steeped in clichés of ‘völkisch’ essentialism and appear in line with a widely spread nationalist and anti-classical rhetoric in Germany, much of it indebted to Romantic tropes about the German character (Imorde 2008). Wölfflin’s characterisation of German Renaissance art as a brooding and visionary one aligns with the “Faustian” qualities celebrated by many contemporary commentators in all creations of German culture. German art of all times was regularly seen as being characterised by an “eternal urge to elevate the individual into the universal” (Moeller van der Bruck 1905: 501; Imorde 2008: 93.) Or, as the famous poet Ferdinand Avenarius phrased it: “Germanic is also the Faustian striving after insight into the ultimate things, the attempt to grasp the primeval” (“Germanisch ist auch das faustische Streben nach der Erkenntnis der letzten Dinge, nach dem Erfassen des Uranfänglichen”, Avenarius 1914: 290). This rhetoric translated almost frictionlessly into the verbiage of pamphlets by committed national-socialists such as Kurt Karl Eberlein, who published, in 1934, What Is German in German Art, in celebration of the “new movement” and championing the alleged irrationality of German culture as source of its superiority. Eberlein also highlighted the alleged “‘form’-lessness” of German art but championed this as characteristic of “an unconscious soulful artistic existence”. The “artistic law” of the German spirit is defined as a “mythical-poetic imagistic vision and interpretation”, driven by “an urge of expression” that is “neither logical nor metrical” (Eberlein 1933: 9).

[11] While similar in rhetoric, Wölfflin would have shared few if any of the convictions articulated here. For the Swiss art historian such ‘mythical-poetical’ vision was not a token of pride. Instead, there is a strangely defeatist note to his assessment, acknowledging and emphasising the North’s shortcomings when confronted with ideal, southern beauty. The art historian admits: “that we will never fully grasp the soul and spirit of Raffael’s [sic.] Donna Velata or Sebastiano’s Dorothea, or of the Mona Lisa” (“Zugegeben, daß wir die Seele von Raffaels Donna Velata oder Sebastianos Dorothea und auch der Mona Lisa nie völlig verstehn werden”. Wölfflin 1931: 174). Wölfflin, it seems, is primarily preoccupied with his perceived failure to fully understand and appreciate Italian art – the very works that he admired so fervently and longingly.

[12] Half a century earlier, such a reluctant sense of inferiority would perhaps not have been too out of step with most assessments of German Renaissance art. Nineteenth-century historians such as Wilhelm Lübke regularly judged German Renaissance art as “characteristic” of the national spirit, yet also as “not beyond reproach when considered from the strict point of view of an abstract aesthetic” (“Werden daher jene Schöpfungen von dem strengen Maßstabe einer abstrakten Ästhetik nicht tadelfrei ausgehen […]”; Burckhardt and Lübke 1882: XI). In 1931, however, Wölfflin’s statements were clearly at odds with the new confidence and swagger that held sway over many historians of German art. A new current of scholarship, shaped by scholars such as Berthold Haendcke and Theodor Hetzer, sought bullishly to assert the achievements of German art over the South, and recast the German spirit as a conquering cultural force (Haendcke 1925; Hetzer 1987). For Hetzer, “German form” is a power that reformed Italian art. The aesthetic of the High Renaissance is seen as the result of an encounter with the compelling qualities of Northern Renaissance art: “The painters of the 16th century […] were struck by the fundamental and peculiar forces of German creation” (Hetzer 1987: 103). According to this interpretation, the soulful spirit of the north injected life and animation into the stiff and individualist creations of the Quattrocento. In many respects, this is an exact inversion of Wölfflin’s emphasis on Dürer’s openness towards Italian art: now the South is cast in the receiving role. In Hetzer’s reading, Dürer’s “German form” is the source of a new form of “pictorial authority” (“deutsche Form”, “Bildhoheit”): the formal structure of the artist’s works is linked with a specific political structure; “authority” is legitimised precisely through the imminent and overwhelming emotional appeal of Dürer’s forms (Hetzer 1982: 17, 229). This triumph of German form over Italian “individualism” is thus establishing an “Empire of Art” that boldly reaches out beyond the borders of the Northern realm (Hetzer 1987: 43, 40).

[13] Wölfflin was very wary about such hypotheses of (as he called it) “Pangermanism”. After reading Hetzer’s book, he wrote a pithy letter to the author, rejecting the central hypothesis of his book and warning – only half-jokingly, it seems – that “Mussolini won’t let you into the country anymore!” (Meier 1996: 323). Instead of following Hetzer’s line, Wölfflin apparently became more and more convinced that ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ mentalities and aesthetic sensibilities are opposite poles, with dialogue between them only being a limited possibility. Already in younger years he occasionally pondered that “the contrast of Germanic-Nordic and Southern-Antique” is “permanent”, and fundamentally engrained in ‘national types’ (Gantner 1982: 145).  The reason for this is sought primarily in his own, Germanic identity. Far from being a token of pride, this “Germanness” is at the root of a fundamental defeat of the art historian: what emerges here first and foremost is not a defence of German art, but a fundamental crisis in understanding Italian art which becomes – as quoted above – the “an art of alien nature”. Italy and the German Feeling for Form is thus a document of disappointment, of unrequited love. National heritage came to haunt the art historian.

Art and Identity

[14] In many respects, this disappointment put into doubt much of Wölfflin’s art historical life work. For Heinrich Wölfflin, the purpose of art history was rooted in an educational agenda – in the idealist sense of German Bildung, implying that any acquisition of knowledge should primarily foster a moral and spiritual cultivation of self (Bruford 1975; Horlacher 2016; Adler 2004). Wölfflin, like many of his contemporaries, considered aesthetic experiences as instrument for achieving such forms of intellectual and ethical self-elevation. From the perspective of German Idealism, art was the prime vehicle of the “good, true, and beautiful” (Kurz 2015). In art historical discourse, Johann Joachim Winckelmann first codified this idea when arguing that when “gazing upon [a] masterpiece of art, I forget all else, and I myself adopt an elevated stance” (Winckelmann 2006: 334). In late nineteenth-century Germany, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment presented the crucial philosophical reference point for such beliefs in the transformative potential of art. In Kantian terms, a convincingly-structured, aesthetically pleasing artwork can serve as “symbol of the morally-good” (“Symbol des sittlich Guten”) – and thus provide a model for an ideal form of existence (Kant 1974, 313, 352). Art’s “autonomy” allows the successful artwork to propose a visible alternative to the structures and constraints of the world we live in. Wölfflin’s praise for classical art alludes precisely to such a moment of moral transformation and enlightenment. A true Kantian, he stayed well clear of the Dionysian “aesthetics of joy and affirmation” that many of his contemporaries celebrated in Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings (Shiner 2001: 195). As an educator, Wölfflin was supremely successful: generations of students and lay people have ‘learned to see’ through the terminology and stylistic ‘principles’ that Wölfflin laid out in his books (Teutenberg 2019: 244-246; 277-278). Many perhaps have also absorbed the numerous implicit value judgments that Wölfflin’s writings convey, in particular the juxtaposition of “Baroque” (as a degenerate artform) and “Renaissance” – as example of classical goodness and wholesomeness (Levy 2015B; Brown 2018).

[15] For Wölfflin, the study of art history was thus a matter of utmost personal and ethical relevance. By analysing and understanding the great models of artistic beauty and order, he envisaged nothing less than to become classical (Hönes 2011: chapter II.3). The Principles of Art History seem quintessentially designed to theorise the possibility of transcending reality (and one’s corporeal and “racial” identity) through art. In the Principles, as is well known, Wölfflin proposes the existence of an independent history of vision: a history of changing optical forms that underpin the change of artistic styles (Davis 2011: chapter 3, 4). This is an explicitly a-cultural take on the history of art: stylistic change, Wölfflin claimed, is driven by forces independent from historical, social, and biographical events. Naturally, Wölfflin conceded that ‘cultural’ factors such as politics, geography, and individual artistic intention have a significant impact on the history of art (Wölfflin 2015: 88). But he claimed forcefully that this was not the only determining factor for the development of style in art – rather he theorised a “double root of style” (Wölfflin 2015: 83). Wölfflin postulates the existence of a ‘neutral’ way of seeing that is independent of cultural factors such as character, politics, and race: art “also has a development all of its own”, an “internal” (formalist) history of art as opposed to the “external” (cultural) history of art (Wölfflin 2015: 305). His critical aim was to document “a developmental history of seeing in the Western world, a history for which differences in individual and national character are of no great consequence”. Wölfflin’s methodological project is aimed at “extracting this inner optical development” (Wölfflin 2015: 94). His ultimate goal is to uncover what lies beyond the reach of culture.

[16] Recovering such a form of seeing that transcends the historical and cultural contingencies was foundational for Wölfflin’s ideal of self-cultivation through aesthetic experience – his life-long “idea of an artistic life” (Gantner 1982: 141). The idea of achieving transformative experiences through vision relies, as stated already, on the assumption of an “autonomous” (‘pure’, ‘internal’) element in great art – a quality that transcends the historic context of its creation. Wölfflin’s Principles persistently encourage the reader to engage in stylistic analysis in order to immerse oneself in the ‘form of life’ presented on the picture plane: “The eye adjusts to its form, and everything else falls into place” (Wölfflin 2015: 251). What Wölfflin hopes to uncover, by isolating the ‘neutral’ layers of vision, is a “grammar and syntax” of art – which can be learned and assimilated (Wölfflin 2015: 305). By adopting one’s own form of expression to the stylistic “syntax” of great art, Wölfflin hoped eventually to become like the artworks – to absorb and adopt the ethical values that he extolled when describing the art of Raphael and others. This idea of ‘remodelling’ the self through immersion into great artworks was shared widely among Wölfflin’s circle of friends and colleagues. For many years, the art historian was in close contact with the sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand, who theorized about the ways “aesthetic perception” can lead to “a kind of dematerialization of the spectator.” The artwork, for Hildebrand, is an “object independent of the remaining world” – and through the experience of “pure perception” the beholder can immerse themselves into this ideal sphere (Hildebrand 1952). Both Hildebrand’s and Wölfflin’s ideas were heavily influenced by the formalist theories of the Neo-Kantian aesthetician Konrad Fiedler, who argued that images “can remodel a mirror image of the world in the minds of man” (Fiedler 1991: 42: “das Spiegelbild der Welt in den Köpfen der Menschen umgestalten”). Any assumption of a ‘rootedness’ of art in the national characteristics of a people (as mooted in Wölfflin’s 1931 monograph) proved a fundamental challenge to these ideas.

Deracination: Wölfflin’s Dürer

[17] Following Hildebrand and Fiedler, Wölfflin hoped to cultivate an aesthetic existence that transcended the conditions of the world he inhabited – in particular the toils of modernity, the hurried technological life, and the eclecticism of the nineteenth-century which he perceived – like many others – as a hindrance to the emergence of a holistic form of culture (Hönes 2011: 43-51). Many of his contemporaries sought to remedy the burden of modernity by evoking the fold of a more authentic form of “community” (“Gemeinschaft”) – an ideal frequently infused with nationalist and racial connotations (Mommsen 1994: 162-167). In art writing, such a nationalist ideal of “Gemeinschaft” was extolled most prominently (and radically) by Julius Langbehn: in his bestseller Rembrandt als Erzieher, the author lauded the ‘soulful’ compositions of the Dutch seventeenth-century artists as models for a community based on spiritual unity. Wölfflin’s ideal, however, had little in common with these ideas. Instead he championed a form of personal (and aesthetic) autonomy that precisely aimed to overcome such biological and cultural determinants; indeed, a process of deracination was key to his project of an aesthetic remodelling of self.

[18] Wölfflin’s model for this process of self-alienation and re-formation was no other than Albrecht Dürer – the subject of Wölfflin’s only single-artist monograph, published in 1905. Dürer was of course the very artist whom so many historians in Imperial and Weimar Germany studied (as Wölfflin phrased it) “with longing eyes”, in order to find “a symbol of all national art”, and a definition of “what can be called German” (“unsere Zeit blickt mit so verlangenden Augen nach allem sich um, was Deutsch heißen könnte, und Dürers Name ist so sehr Symbol aller nationalen Kunst…”) (Wölfflin 1905: III). For example, Momme Nissen praised “Dürer als Führer” (“Durer as Leader”), and Ludwig von Sybel lauded him as the true “educator” of the German people – both authors conceived their statements in response to Langbehn’s Rembrandt (Momme Nissen 1904; Sybel 1892: 6). In Dürer’s art, they hoped to find the very essence of German artistic spirit: the “deutsche Form” extolled by Theodor Hetzer and others. Wölfflin, as already indicated, staunchly countered such interpretations: “Dürer has often been called the most Germanic of all German artists” – but the “Romantics brought up this idea. It is wrong” (“Die Romantiker haben diese Vorstellung aufgebracht. Sie ist falsch”) (Wölfflin 1905: V). Instead of consolidating a firm Germanic identity, Wölfflin rather claims that with Dürer “the great uncertainty came into German art” (“Durch ihn ist die große Unsicherheit in die deutsche Kunst gekommen”) – an uncertainty caused by his striving for a higher, more ideal form of beauty. Wölfflin thus presents Dürer as a searcher who constantly longed for a “foreign great beauty” (“fremden großen Schönheit”) (Wölfflin 1905: V). Wölfflin’s monograph makes, as already indicated, no secret of the author’s admiration for the Italianate tendencies in Dürer’s art. Dürer is praised as the true “reformer” of German art, leading his contemporaries out of the inborn moodiness of the Germanic imagination, towards the “purity” and “clarity” of Classicism. “Pure” in its different permutations indeed seems to be one of the most frequently used epithets that Wölfflin applied to Dürer’s art (Wölfflin 1905: 26, 42, 43, 55, 58, 71, 82, 83, 95, 100-104 and passim).

[19] Wölfflin describes Dürer’s striving for “purity” as a constant dialectical struggle and balancing act between Germanic tradition and Italian ideals. Ultimately, the artist is praised not only for what he achieved, but even more so “for what he has overcome” (“vielleicht liegt das Größere in dem, was er überwunden hat”) – namely his ability to transcend the constraints of his Germanic origins (Wölfflin 1905: VI). Dürer is lauded as an individual who “educated himself to a great human being” (“sich selbst zum großen Menschen erzogen”, thus making him “an educator of mankind” (“Erzieher der Menschheit”) (Wölfflin 1941: 129). Once again, Wölfflin’s art history is characterised by a strong ethical inflection: the quest for beauty is equated with a quest for moral integrity. The passages on Dürer’s character are indeed the most striking ones of Wölfflin’s book. In his view, Dürer’s interest in Italian art was not driven by a desire for the country’s vivacità, but instead by an interest in the rational, measured part of cisalpine heritage, namely classical order, proportion, and clarity. Wölfflin’s Dürer was not carried away by Goethe’s “land where the lemon trees bloom”, but attracted by the rules of Vitruvian man.

[20] Throughout his life, Wölfflin praised Dürer as an individual who prefers “a medium zone of temperament” (“mittleren Zone des Gefühls”), shunning all extremes in favour of a balanced, resilient existence (Wölffin 1943: 15). In the 1905 monograph, Wölfflin described Dürer’s encounter with Italy even as characterised by “renunciation” (“Entsagung”) – a deeply Protestant, even puritan value (Wölfflin 1905: 93). Repeatedly, Wölfflin highlights Dürer’s “cool, measured” (“kühle Gemessenheit”) demeanour (Wölfflin 1943: 15). Dürer, here, is paralleled with other Renaissance men such as Leon Battista Alberti who defined his ethical ideal as “concinnitas”: a balance of character achieved by rigorous cultivation of resilience against any temptation. Alberti reported, for example, how he trained himself to endure the cold or unpleasant smells, in order to discipline body and spirit alike (Grafton 2002: 10). Dürer, according to Wölfflin, practiced a similar ethics; in this “restraint lies – even for us still today – in part the moral power of this man”. To Wölfflin, Dürer cultivated a “morality of vision” (“Sittlichkeit des Sehens”), a steadfastness that provides “solid ground” (“festen Grund”) from which to orient oneself (Wölfflin 1943: 15, 21).

[21] In Wölfflin’s (undoubtedly selective) reading, this marks the modernity of Dürer: the ability to stay away from the turmoil of the business of the day, and the steadfast, solitary resolution to search for a higher, artistic and moral truth. In many respects, Wölfflin’s ethics (as projected onto the Renaissance) seem an ideal example for the attempts at emotional self-control, widespread in Weimar Germany, that Helmut Lethen described as “cool conduct” (Lethen 2002). Many of Wölfflin’s friends and colleagues, such as the literary scholar Karl Vossler praised individual behaviour that is “without passion and almost desireless”, in order to “forget the conditions of his own mind” and to become “modest, reflective, and inwardly free” (Vossler 1934: VIII, V. See Hönes 2011: 130-131). Wölfflin was not the only one who projected these ideals onto the German Renaissance, and Albrecht Dürer in particular. Here he met with authors like Aby Warburg who interpreted Dürer similarly as a moral hero, who cultivated a form of rational restraint through dogged self-discipline (Newman 2008: 109). As Warburg wrote in a lecture of 1905: Dürer’s life and career represent a “chapter of the self-education of mankind”, achieved through “self-work” and leading to an ideal, balanced synthesis between northern and southern influences (Newman 2008: 108).

Turns, Biographical and Methodological

[22] This ideal of an ‘Italianate’ Dürer, deracinating himself from his German roots was, as already indicated, heavily criticised by many. For fervent nationalists, who praised Dürer precisely for his treudeutsch ways, Wölfflin’s argument was hard to stomach. Instead they preferred to evoke a homely Dürer who only felt at ease in his native Nuremberg and whose Italian journeys were somewhat of an embarrassing aberration (Riehl 1893). “The real essence of Renaissance art remained alien” to this “most German of artists” (Schneeli 1896: 29; Huber 1928). This nationalist clamour became particularly heightened in the wake of the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Dürer’s death in 1928. Wölfflin steadfastly opposed these tendencies. In his own contribution to the 1928 jubilee, he continued to argue that Dürer already had “Italianate characteristics within himself” (“das ‘Italienische’ in seiner Natur irgendwie vorgebildet”) and was thus predestined to engage with Southern art (Wölfflin 1941: 127).

[23] Such a train of thought, however, suggests a certain essentialism that implied a fundamental challenge for Wölfflin’s broader theory of aesthetic “self-education”. If Dürer already had “Italianate characteristics within himself”, he did not have to transform himself entirely: his encounters with ‘classical’ purity only teased out what, deep down, was already part of his identity. Wölfflin became painfully aware that aesthetic and ethical self-fulfilment might perhaps be less a matter of “will”, than of “grace”, as he phrased it in an essay on “National Characteristics”, published 1936 (Wölfflin 1941: 131). Late in life, Wölfflin became increasingly doubtful of man’s boundless potential for idealist self-cultivation.

[24] To put it bluntly: by the mid-1920s, after more than a quarter of a century of contemplating classical beauty, Wölfflin had to acknowledge that he still inhabited a prosaic world, a Germany after the First World War, dominated by a recession instead of classical, aristocratic ideals. He had failed to reach his goals – failed to match Dürer, let alone Raphael, and failed to transcend the mundane realities of the sublunar world. Worse than that, Wölfflin’s perennial attempt to live a classical life seem to have backfired dramatically. While forcefully attempting to cultivate a refined, classicised conduct, Wölfflin increasingly alienated himself from his own contemporaries and the world he lived in.

[25] This was of course not unintentional: Wölfflin celebrated, as quoted above, Dürer’s morally steadfast “renunciation”, and these values became the art historian’s ethical ideal as well. In 1929, Wölfflin noted in his diary: “The notion of ‘renunciation’ becomes ever more important to me […] to renounce without complaint might be a great source of power, yes of all higher forms of culture” (“Mir wird der Begriff der ‘Entsagung’ immer bedeutender … dass man in dem Entsagen ohne Klage eine grosse Quelle der Kraft, ja aller höherer Kultur erkennt”; Gantner 1982: 86; Hönes 2011: 85-86). As a pathway to personal fulfilment, this was perhaps not the best route to take. Max Weber once characterised such radical forms of protestant asceticism as a “pathetic inhumanity” that lead invariably to “a feeling of unspeakable inner loneliness of the solitary individual” (Weber 2001: 59 (translation modified)). In the eyes of his friends and colleagues, Wölfflin indeed appeared increasingly like a “lone giant”, “inaccessible”, a silent “wall” of an “almost pathological self-consciousness” who often behaved “icily cold” towards others (Fischer 1945: 448; Dessoir 1946: 196; Gerstenberg 1950: 39; Jedlicka 1965: 16, 5. Cf. Hönes 2011: 124). Wölfflin hoped to transform himself into a new Baldassare Castiglione, who appears in Raphael’s portrait as “independent and at the same time occupying a necessary place within the whole”: a man “structured like the spacing between columns on a façade” (fig. 3) (Wölfflin 1931: 139). But few of these aspirations translated into lived reality; instead Wölfflin more and more resembled the brooding, closed-off figure of Dürer’s Melencholia.

Figure 3: “Raffael, Graf Castiglione” (Heinrich Wölfflin, Italien und das deutsche Formgefühl (1931), 139)

[26] By the mid-1920s, Wölfflin seems to have become increasingly aware of this ever-widening gulf between his ambitions and reality. The growing disappointment about his failure to live an “artistic life” manifested itself in a substantial biographical break: in 1924, Wölfflin, aged sixty and at the height of his fame, resigned from his chair at Munich university in order to retire to his native Switzerland and to find new ways of “educating myself in more general, humane ways” (Wölfflin 1948: 532). The shifting political landscape – in November 1923, Hitler had attempted the so-called ‘Munich Putsch’ – undoubtedly played its part in this decision. In Munich, Wölfflin had immediate exposure to and social intercourse with leading supporters of National Socialism. He was a frequent visitor to the salon of Elsa Bruckmann, a key supporter of Adolf Hitler. Private documents, such as a letter to Bruckmann, indicate, however, that he was increasingly worried by the “fanaticism” of the radical right (Wölfflin 1929; Bechstadt, Deutsch and Stöppel 2008: 289-290). This is remarkable: even though Wölfflin rarely spoke publicly about his politics, he was undoubtedly a nationalist and conservative. On both counts, Wölfflin’s attitude seems entirely typical of the behaviour of most German academics of the interwar years: though staunchly conservative, and often sceptical of the Weimar Republic, most German professors hoped to withdraw from the political fray by retreating into their ‘ivory towers’ (Ringer 1969; Müller 1996: 91-94). In 1924, Wölfflin seems to have realised that such an ‘inner immigration’ might not suffice; his consequence was to leave the country, in search for a new refuge beyond the turmoil of German politics.

[27] This biographical turn is accompanied by a radical and intriguing methodological shift, putting into doubt several of the key tenets of his Principles of Art History – and in particular the theory of the “double root of style”. The different editions of the Principles document the author’s shifting positions: In 1915, Wölfflin confidently noted that: “people will always see things the way they want to”. In the sixth edition, published in 1923, he changed this to a much more hesitant phrase, suggesting that “people have probably always seen things the way they wanted to see them” (Wölfflin 2015: 334, footnote 2). Wölfflin evidently began to feel first doubts as to whether ways of seeing are indeed entirely a matter of free will – and subject to an individual’s aesthetic self-cultivation. These doubts were amplified in the years to come. In 1926/7, Wölfflin returned to Munich University to deliver a last lecture course. In a letter to his friend and colleague Karl Vossler, Wölfflin expressed his hopes of using the occasion for presenting his audience with a “critique” of his Principles of Art History (Gantner 1982: 391).

[28] In the end, the lecture marked more of a tentative moving away from the theories of the Principles. For now, Wölfflin remained committed to the aim of uncovering the “internal form of art and artistic development” (Burioni, Dogramaci and Pfisterer 2015: 291). At the same time, Wölfflin suggests that the aim of such an analysis can only be “historic” in nature (Burioni, Dogramaci and Pfisterer 2015: 287, 292). Instead of evoking theoretical models such as Fiedler and Hildebrand, Wölfflin now stresses his debts to the historic method of Jacob Burckhardt (Burioni, Dogramaci and Pfisterer 2015: 289). Seven years later, Wölfflin developed these ideas into a more fully fleshed-out re-appraisal of his magnum opus. In 1933, Wölfflin published a short article, titled “Principles of Art History: A Revision” (Wölfflin 1933; Wölfflin 2015: 319-324). The title already indicates the programmatic methodological realignment that was to follow. In particular, as indicated above, Wölfflin distanced himself from the idea of an “internal” form of vision that can be detached from cultural circumstances. Wölfflin now claims that vision is always conditioned by the “dictates of time and race”; “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” (Wölfflin 2015: 324). What he renounces here is precisely the idea of the ‘double roots of style’ that formed the core of his earlier theory – and of his idea to transform the self through art.

[29] Italy and the German Feeling for Form was published four years after his Munich lectures, and two years before the “revision” of the Principles. In many ways this book forms a crucial link between the two methodological reflections just discussed. At the heart of Wölfflin’s last monograph, as discussed, is the idea of an inalienable rootedness – of a national character that an individual cannot shed. In essence, the book is an extended reflection on why Wölfflin, as the Northerner that he is, will necessarily fail to understand the art of the South – why he is incapable of moulding himself according to the image of Classical glory. Race and physical organisation, as determined by climate and soil, is quoted as one of the key reasons here. It is “futile to work with Italian proportions while one does not possess an Italian corporeality” (Wölfflin 1931: 12). Any emulation of Classical forms is necessarily limited by the corporeal identity of the maker. It would be tempting to believe “that men felt everywhere the same. Alas, this isn’t so” (Wölfflin 1931: 134). The “racial” component is an eternal constraint; every style goes back to “man … as racial type that develops only very slowly” (Wölfflin 1931: 6). This is a striking contrast to the Principles of 1915 where Wölfflin emphasised, by way of conclusion in the book’s one-but-last paragraph, that, for “all the differences in national character, that which binds humanity together is stronger than that which divides it” (Wölfflin 2015: 316-317; Wölfflin 1915: 250). By 1931, Wölfflin had lost this unassailable belief in a new Renaissance and humanist universalism – and with it all hopes for salvation through aesthetic experience.

Learning from Failures

[30] This essay has aimed to analyse Heinrich Wölfflin’s late interest in the Northern Renaissance, and interpreted it as symptomatic for a larger methodological shift, revising key tenets of the Principles of Art History. Wölfflin’s new interest in ‘national characteristics’ and ‘racial types’ is best understood as evidence for a gradual disillusionment with the Idealist notion of art as an autonomous and transformative power. The case of Wölfflin thus allows to draw at least three broader working hypotheses relevant for our understanding of art historiography around 1900, the emotional regimes of the disciplines, and the power of images more generally.

[31] First, Wölfflin – and his reception of Dürer in particular – provides an important case study for highlighting the degree to which art history in Imperial and Weimar Germany was co-opted and used as a tool for emotional self-control and Idealist self-cultivation. As indicated, the case of Wölfflin can be situated within broader frameworks of emotional behavior of its time, most importantly the notion of ‘cool conduct’, but also Aby Warburg’s notion of ‘distance’ as a function of enlightenment (Böhme 2004). Second, Wölfflin’s profound disappointment about his own ‘rootedness’ in Germanic visual culture (and inability to transcend his ‘national characteristics’) should encourage us to think further about the complexities and ambiguities that were associated with “Northern” identities. At times, the highly charged and politicized language of the 1930s tends to obscure nuances and moments of doubt among individuals whose rhetoric, from a modern perspective, seems unabashedly nationalistic. Third, Wölfflin’s failure to ‘transform’ his self through aesthetic experience not only highlights the importance of moments of failure and (personal) disappointment for the development of art historical methodologies (Szöllösi-Janze 2003); it also serves, more generally, as a reminder of the limits of pictorial efficacy.


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Hans Christian Hönes, University of Aberdeen

Hans C. Hönes is lecturer in art history at the University of Aberdeen. He has published extensively on art historiography since the eighteenth century, and has written and edited books on: Heinrich Wölfflin (Wölfflins Bild-Körper, 2011), eighteenth-century antiquarianism (Kunst am Ursprung, 2014), and art history and migration (Migrating Histories of Art, co-ed. 2019), among others. His third monograph, Tangled Paths: A Life of Aby Warburg, is forthcoming with Reaktion Books. 

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