In art history, formalism is the study of art by analyzing and comparing form and style—the way objects are made and their purely visual aspects. In painting formalism emphasizes compositional elements such as color, line, shape, texture, and other perceptual aspects rather than iconography or the historical and social context. At its extreme, formalism in art history posits that everything necessary to comprehending a work of art is contained within the work of art. The context for the work, including the reason for its creation, the historical background, and the life of the artist, that is, its conceptual aspect is considered to be of secondary importance. Anti-formalism in art would assert the opposite ascription of respectively primary and secondary importance.


The philosopher Nick Zangwill of Glasgow University has defined formalism in art as referring to those properties "that are determined solely by sensory or physical properties—so long as the physical properties in question are not relations to other things and other times."[1] The philosopher and architect Branko Mitrovic has defined formalism in art and architecture as "the doctrine that states that the aesthetic qualities of works of visual art derive from the visual and spatial properties."[2]

The historical origin of the modern form of the question of aesthetic formalism is usually dated to [4]

A formal analysis is an academic method in art history and criticism for analyzing works of art: "In order to perceive style, and understand it, art historians use 'formal analysis'. This means they describe things very carefully. These descriptions, which may include subjective vocabulary, are always accompanied by illustrations, so that there can be no doubt about what exists objectively".[5] For a particular work of art, a formal analysis consists of a purely visual description of the work as if irrespective of cultural context, history, or artistic motivation. As such, it is a basic tool for art historians and artists to understand the purely visual aspects of a work of art. This is not to say that such cultural or motivational interpretations can be separated from the artwork, but that the visual elements provide an essential starting point for understanding a work of art. Elements of a formal analysis include descriptions of color, space, line, volume, mass, composition, and other perceptual aspects, and putting these together to analyse artistic style.

First introduced by Roger de Piles (1635–1709), in his book the Principles of Painting, the technique of formal analysis was more fully developed by 19th-century art historians. Leading proponents of a formalist approach to art history were, from the Vienna School of Art History, Moritz Thausing, who in 1879 became the second Ordinarius (full professor) of art history at Vienna, who advocated an autonomous art history and promoted the separation of art history from aesthetics. Thausing's students Franz Wickhoff (Professor 1891) and Alois Riegl (Professor 1897) furthered his approach, insofar as they developed the methods of comparative stylistic analysis and attempted to avoid all judgements of personal taste. Thus both contributed to the revaluation of the art of late antiquity, which before then had been despised as a period of decline. Riegl in particular, as an avowed disciple of positivism, focused on the purely formal qualities of the work of art, and rejected all arguments about content as metaphysical speculation. Other leading figures noted for a formalist approach were Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945) and Henri Focillon (1881–1943).

Formalism in the 20th century

Roger Fry in Vision and Design (1909) was an early Modernist critic to apply formalist analysis to contemporary art. Throughout the rest of the early part of the 20th Century, European structuralists continued to argue that 'real' art was expressive only of a thing's ontological, metaphysical or essential nature. But European art critics soon began using the word 'structure' to indicate a new concept of art. By the 1930s and 1940s, structuralists reasoned that the mental processes and social preconceptions an individual brings to art are more important than the essential, or 'ideal', nature of the thing. Knowledge is created only through socialization and thought, they said, and a thing can only be known as it is filtered through these mental processes.

Formalism today

According to the observation that works of art can in general contain formal properties and nonformal properties, the philosopher Nick Zangwill has delineated three types of formalism as they are encountered at the turn of the 21st century. First, Zangwill identifies extreme formalists who think "that all works of art are purely formal works—where a work is purely formal if all its aesthetic properties are formal aesthetic properties," then he defines anti-formalist thinkers as those who "think that no works of art have formal aesthetic properties."[6] The third type which Zangwill identifies as representing the transition of the philosophy of aesthetics into the 21st century is that of moderate formalism, where its principle exponents defend the principle "that all the aesthetic properties of works of art in a select class are formal, and second, that although many works of art outside that class have nonformal aesthetic properties, many of those works also have important formal aesthetic properties that must not be ignored."[7]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Nick Zangwill, The Metaphysics of Beauty (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), p. 56, ISBN 0801438209.
  2. ^ Branko Mitrović, Philosophy for architects (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, [2011]), p. 51.
  3. ^ Kant. Critique of Judgment. Section 14.8.
  4. ^ Donald Crawford, Kant's Aesthetic Theory (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, ), p. 100.
  5. ^ Review by: Clemency Chase Coggins of The Uses of Style in Archaeology edited by Margaret W. Conkey and Christine A. Hastorf, p. 233, Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Summer, 1992), pp. 232–34, Maney Publishing, JSTOR
  6. ^ Nick Zangwill, The Metaphysics of Beauty (Ithaca, NY: University of Cornell Press, 2001), p. 84.
  7. ^ Nick Zangwill, The Metaphysics of Beauty (Ithaca, NY: University of Cornell Press, 2001), p. 84.


  • Bell, Clive. Art. London: 1914.
  • Denis, Maurice. 'Definition of Neo-Traditionism.' Art and Criticism. August 1890.
  • Greenberg, Clement. 'Towards a Newer Laocoon.' Partisan Review. 1940.

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