Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Re-Reading (Autogeography)

    I.  Having learned how to recognize the general character of the Northern Gothic will to form in its purest manifestations – early ornament and mature Gothic architecture – we will now investigate the vicissitudes of this will to form.  We shall here be touching upon the great chapter in the development of mediaeval art, a chapter which, owing to the one-sidedness of the Renaissance point of view inherited by the modern historian, has never obtained its due.

     II.  I comply with the necessity of recapitulating once more in conclusion the course of development outlined in this chapter by quoting a passage from an academy lecture delivered by Alexander Conze, the Berlin archeologist:

"In the meaningless play of form of their geometrical style, untold generations of the old European nations found satisfaction for their aesthetic needs in the domain of plastic art, until gradually, under Southern influences, they were drawn into the circle of a richer world of form derived from one of countries in the Eastern corner of the Mediterranean.  But their own peculiar artistic sensibility did not thereby finally become extinct with the same rapidity as that of savages who nowadays come into much more violent contact with more highly developed civilization.  

In Greece, the Doric style, in which as Taine says 'trois ou quatre formes élémentaires de la géometrie font tous les frais,' may have grown up under the after effects of the mood of the old geometric style.  But in the north of Europe the vitality of primeval habit shows itself unmistakably when confronted with the intrusion of Graeco-Roman art.  After its first submission, the old native fashion pushes its way through, remodeling the alien forms, to issue in the Gothic style as the radiant outcome of the struggle between the two worlds of art; and even in the Rococo, after the repeated triumphs of the Renaissance, a last dying echo of it may be imagined.   

In Moslem art, an analogous breaking out of early undercurrents through the Graeco-Roman surface went on side by side with the emergence of the Gothic style.  Such far-reaching considerations, however, could only be developed in full with reference to the world-historical elements in the general history of art.”  (Sitzungbericht der Berliner Akademie der Wissenschaften, 11, II, 1897).

From:  Wilhelm Worringer, Form In Gothic (authorized translation  of Formprobleme der Gotik, edited with an introduction by Herbert Read), New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927, Chapter 14, "The Vicissitudes of the Gothic Will to Form."

NOTE:  Before sliding this book from my shelf the other day, I hadn’t re-read any parts of Wilhelm Worringer’s important Form In Gothic since college, but when I did I was instantly transported to an exciting, moral world where disciplined analysis of the relationships between historical facts and images and the honest interchange of ideas are all that matters.  

     As Herbert Read writes in his excellent introduction, by the time he translated Worringer’s work some twenty years after its initial German publication, Worringer had significantly revised some of his earlier views.  What was most important to Read, however, was preserving the unique “inner life and movement” of the original work for readers:  

“Books of this kind are living things:  if you destroy their bodily unity by adding limbs to the evolved nexus of thought, you thereby destroy their breath and so their best effectiveness.”    

     As is often the case when re-opening  books you haven’t viewed for many years, other history happens.  

     Reading the inscription written by the person who purchased Worringer for me as a present was disturbing and a little painful and caused me to revisit other parts of my autogeography.

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