Romantic Art Theory

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What were the main elements of Romantic art theory? What influence have these ideas had on subsequent ways of thinking about the meaning and significance of the visual arts (including film)?

'In my films Marlene is not herself. Remember that, Marlene is not Marlene. I am Marlene.'1

These are the words of Josef Von Sternberg describing his working relationship with Marlene Dietrich. Evident in his statement is the belief that the filmstar serves merely as a conduit for communicating the director's vision. The star's performance should be attributed to Sternberg himself, while Dietrich merely articulates his sense of the character being portrayed. This kind of reasoning was shared by numerous filmmakers and critics, and accumulated gradually over subsequent decades, resulting in the formulation of a politique des auteurs in the mid- 1950s. Consisting in large part of director-egoism and a substantial amount of critical fabrication (critics, of course, had a vested interest in its installation), this became known, through the intervention of Andrew Sarris, as auteur theory - the notion that the director should be regarded as the sole author of the film.

Auteur theory met with a considerable degree of controversy, but revolutionised film criticism, and has since become the dominant orientation in critical theory, despite continual protestations from its many opponents. Yet for all its revolutionary applications, auteur theory, or rather the principle behind it, was essentially nothing new. It was simply the latest wave in a current that had determined the course of art history since the late 18th century. The new criticism was basically the Romantic theory of art applied to film. The aim of this essay is to assess the principles central to Romantic theory - among them authorship, rejection of the established canon, expression of inner vision, and the multiplicity of beauty - and to document how vestiges of it still remain today.

Marlene Dietrich

First, some of the predecessors of Romantic theory should be given consideration, since their seemingly alien principles illustrate the extent to which Romantic theory has supplanted them and shaped our modern conception of the meaning and significance of art. M.H. Abrams has defined two main approaches to art theory: the mimetic and the pragmatic. The first of these has its origin in Plato's assertion that art is 'essentially an imitation of aspects of the universe'2. In Plato's discourses, Socrates - that is, the literary construction used to express Plato's theories - cites the example of the three beds of the nature of art: that which is the eternal and immutable 'perfect form' of the bed; that which is made by the carpenter (i.e. is the material manifestation of its idea); and that which is found in a painting. In describing the painter, Socrates says, 'We may fairly designate him as the imitator of that which others make.'3 Artists, as the imitators of natural things (which are in turn imitations of their Ideal forms) are seen as 'thrice removed from … the truth'4, and are therefore allocated a lowly station on the hierarchy of existence.

In Abrams interpretation, Aristotle can be similarly aligned with this mimetic orientation - seeing and judging art in terms of its relation to the natural, external world. Art is once again imitation, but since Aristotle had already disposed of the world of ideas, 'imitation' is considered the domain of the arts alone, which allows them a slightly higher status than does Plato's philosophy.

As Abrams attested, the mimetic orientation is probably the most primitive of aesthetic theories, and the notion that resemblance to natural things should be a method for analysis offers little help when considering the work of Picasso for example, and none for that of Malevich. For this reason it was eventually superseded by the pragmatic orientation. Aristotle's writings were exploited by later theorists who came up with imaginative re-interpretations to suit their own ends. Sir Philip Sidney accepted Aristotle's Mimesis, but specified that it produces 'a speaking picture: with this end to teach and delight.'5 It is this extra proviso that edges the mimetic towards the pragmatic orientation, which emphasises the centrality of the audience. A work of art is 'a means to an end, an instrument for getting something done'6 and its value is judged in relation to its success in achieving this aim. Or in other words, it was designed to solicit a certain response from its audience, and its efficiency in this is the basis for aesthetic judgement.

Art criticism gravitated away from these approaches and found one that concentrated on the relation of art to the artist (rather than to audience or nature). It was this Romantic theory that was used as the basis for aesthetic judgement from the 18th century until a few decades ago, and may still, Abrams postulates, be the method adopted by the majority of critics today.7 Romanticism was considered to be a revision of hitherto existing values: 'Le romantisme n'est précisément ni dans le choix de sujets, ni dans la vértité exacte, mais dans la manière de sentir.'8 In describing Romanticism as an alternative 'way of feeling', Baudelaire, in his review of the 1846 Salon, specifies that it is neither a complete doctrine nor a question of shared subject matter. It is rather, in Abrams words, an 'habitual direction of reference'9, or a new vantage point from which to survey the history and practice of art. That its fundamental aim was to bring about a modification of and a break with the past has been attested by a substantial body of contemporary criticism. For example, in her review of German culture De L'Allemagne of 1813, Madame De Staël commented on 'the habit of distinguishing the productions of antiquity by the appellation classic, those of modern times by that of romantic'10. A French newspaper and adherent to Romantic theory was quoted as describing Romanticism as a 'coalition prompted by various interests, but which has a common goal, war against the rules, against the rules of convention.'11 The critics August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, with whom the term 'romantic' originated, felt it described those who 'believed the modern world to be spiritually incompatible with that of antiquity.'12 These accounts stress Romantic theory's opposition to the established canon, to its conventions and aesthetic values. Verification that this was a central principle of Romantic theory can be found in the attitude of Romantic artists and thinkers to the Royal Academy and its European counterparts. They associated these institutions with a dominant order that extolled the virtues of classicism - the official aesthetic of the age. The academies influenced every stage of art - from schooling to exhibition systems and awards - and thus affected art theory by dictating precisely the nature of acceptable taste. Using their influential position as the official arbiters of taste to promote the aesthetic of academic classicism earned these institutions the contempt of Romantic theorists and artists. They promptly rebelled against them in favour of aesthetic and social reform, seeking to instil what has been termed a 'democracy of taste.'13 The aesthetic that they formulated was not to be restricted to an initiated minority, but sought to communicate on a more direct level with the individual.14 Nothing was to mediate between artist and spectator. This is evidenced by the first definition of Romantic poetry: in the Schlegels' magazine Athenaeum Friedrich Schlegel called it 'progressive universal poetry'15- thus incorporating both the revisionist and the egalitarian impulses of Romantic theory.

Reduced to its essential principles, Romantic theory was primarily concerned with the correlation between art and the artist as a means to understanding and judging artworks, bound up in considerations of authorship and self-expression. These aspects are those most frequently associated with Romantic theory: the notion of the lone artist, a melancholy genius struggling to project a vivid impression of his own psyche upon the canvas. The image lingers still; to our eyes Van Gogh seems to be the archetypal artist. This 'expressive' notion flourished in the Romantic period, but has been traced back to Longinus, whose classical rhetoric prefigured the emphasis on the centrality of artist over spectator, highlighting a strong element of continuity in Romantic theory as well as of change. He influenced the course of its development with his concept of the Sublime, which became 'one of the most familiar modern criteria of aesthetic value'.16

Van Gogh, Starry Night

Concerned primarily with poetry he listed five sources of the Sublime, three of which were formal characteristics and were the result of art. The other two derived from innate genius: 'the power of forming great conceptions' and 'vehement and inspired passion'17. Abrams has summarised Longinus's treatise by saying that these instinctive qualities were more important than the acquired skills, and, if a choice had to made, works produced by natural genius are preferable to 'impeccable mediocrity which can be achieved by art alone'18. From this can be inferred the need for a Romantic artist who relies on innate genius rather than academic training or skilled mastery of current conventions. Baudelaire's 'way of feeling' thus becomes a unifying concept: it unites all the disparate elements of Romantic theory together. It opposes the canon and academicism, while constituting the new tool of the artist who is now at the centre of the debate.

Art that was felt to communicate the artist's psyche was held in high regard by Romantic theorists. It was seen as a means of externalising the internal: 'the word expression is very strikingly chosen for this: the inner is pressed out as though by a force alien to us'19. Artists were encouraged to direct their gaze inward and make visible their individual psyches. Friedrich urged artists to 'close the bodily eye', and Henrik Streffens wrote:

Tired of the eternal efforts to fight our way through raw matter, we chose another way and sought to embrace the infinite. We went inside ourselves and created a new world.20

That self-expression was the order of the day is evidenced by Wordsworths's proclaimation that 'poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'21. Obviously he wasn't thinking of the visual arts, but his statement nevertheless reiterates the importance of this intensity of feeling and facility for its expression.

Given this proviso that art should express the artist's vision, the notion of authorship assumed great significance, signalling the arrival of the connoisseur, (eg.Winkelmann), who sought to ascribe authorship to artworks.22 It is clear that the practice of using authorship as a criterion for judging aesthetic value has persisted until the present - hence a sketch by Leonardo is more prized than a full-scale work by a less famous artist, as John Berger has pointed out. We find incomprehensible the notion of an artist's workshop - in which the master composed only the general design and most salient passages of a painting, allowing his apprentices to execute the rest. That this practice was adopted by such great artists as Titian and Rubens does little to reconcile the fact with our present way of thinking - for we are judging the principle from our Romantic perspective. We feel that if art is supposed to be a profound expression of the artist's psychology, allowing a privileged insight into a mind of creative genius, then every brushstroke should descend directly from his hand, not those of a few assistants - however skilled at imitating his style they may be. Why else would we pay so much for it?

This is one of the reasons why Andy Warhol has been derided by critics. Warhol employed an army of assistants at his workshop, the Factory, and would frequently make little more contribution to the creative process than affixing his signature to a painting by means of a rubber stamp. Equally confounding to our expectations of conventional art practice is the point, noted by Gombrich, that the artists of the great cathedrals and medieval masterpieces (at a time when they were seen as craftsmen) very often neglected to sign their work.23 Ever since the installation of Romantic theory we have been inclined to see artists as intellectual virtuosos rather than skilled artisans.

Authorship has perhaps become the main way in which we approach artworks and attempt to uncover their significance. Adhering to the notion of expression, we seek to assign meaning to the formal qualities of a work primarily in terms of its relation to the artist - hoping to see the relationship between shapes and colours, and deployment of iconography as avatars of his or her psychic states. There are, of course, problems with this approach. The author may be anonymous, or obscure. In such cases, judging the work on the basis of authorship becomes virtually impossible and ultimately fruitless. Several art historians (e.g. Berrensen) endeavoured to attribute anonymous works to known artists according to visual style, but such an inductive argument must inevitably deal with the question, does visual style proceed from states of mind or is it developed as a 'signature' in an age that values originality above all else?24

In the period that saw the effloration of Romantic theory, several critics endeavoured to analyse the nature of beauty. Most notably, Baudelaire made his now famous distinction between the two contingents of beauty: eternal and ephemeral. A facetted conception of beauty was formulated, in which aesthetic value could be placed in a variety of categories. Not only Baudelaire, but also Stendhal, Schlegel, Sismondi, and Madame De Staël commented on its disparate nature. Baudelaire himself wrote 'there are as many beauties as there are habitual manners of looking for happiness.'25 This statement echoed Stendhal: 'Beauty is nothing else but a promise of happiness.'26 The Sublime has already been discussed, but reference should be made to the arrival of the Grotesque in the theory of art. A distinctly Romantic phenomenon, the notion of the Grotesque was in accordance with the new aesthetic of Romantic theory, but also its counter-cultural ethos.27 Victor Hugo, whose novels Les Miserables and Nôtre Dame de Paris explored the darker recesses of the human soul and modern urban life, praised this new aesthetic sub-set in the preface to his play Cromwell of 1827. The Grotesque was readily incorporated into the work of Géricault and Goya.

Goya, Saturn Devouring One Of His Sons

At the beginning of this essay the way in which Romantic theory was applied to film, resulting in the politique des auteurs was mentioned. It now remains to assess how this has affected the general conception of film. Given that films are produced by an industrial process, requiring the contribution of numerous personnel and financial bodies, the tendency was to deny film's potential status as an art form, specifically because the Romantic notion of the lone artist could not be applied to it. How could the necessary qualities of the originality and personal expression of the individual artist assert themselves in such a medium?

Nevertheless, it was felt that certain directors were skilled at projecting a personal vision. Andrew Sarris, for example, claimed that 'the auteur theory values the personality of the director precisely because of the barriers to its expression.'28 Asserting originality in spite of these hostile forces makes it all the more valuable. Writing in the journal Cahiers du Cinéma, Francois Truffaut illustrated his politique des auteurs by distinguishing between metters en scène (the French refer to direction as mise en scène), who are at best merely skilled technicians, and actual auteurs, who can transform a script into an expression of their own personality. Truffaut and his colleagues at Cahiers cite numerous examples of each type of director: Hitchcock, for example, is a true auteur; Huston is merely skilled at staging the action.

Cahiers du Cinéma

It is easy to see how this idea descends from Longinus's distinction between innate genius and impeccable mediocrity. Therefore, in keeping with the Romantic ideal, films by certain directors were elevated to the status of art - that is, any film by a director who is considered an auteur. Even a bad Hitchcock film has more aesthetic value than a good one by Huston. It is convenient that these theories were pioneered by Truffaut, who became both a critic and a director. The installation of the Romantic theory in film held vital significance for both professions. If directors could be considered artists, then those who studied their work became not just film critics, but Art critics, with all the extra prestige that this entails.

In conclusion, this elevation in the status of film is due to the process of assessing its aesthetic value according to Romantic theory, the general acceptance of which has seen the other visual arts undergo a similar exaltation. Art has achieved the status that the classical world allowed philosophy and poetry, but denied a discipline that was seen as a craft, and its makers, since they worked with their hands, as craftsmen. Romantic theory offers an exhilarating view of art, the focal point of which is, rightly or wrongly, the heroic artist: rebellious and innovative, flouting the moribund conventions of the established canon, and struggling to create images of shocking profundity via personal expression and intensity of feeling. Since its installation the visual arts have graduated from being mere imitation of the natural world to being a valid and vital cultural tradition - a veritable world unto itself, with the power to signal and define simultaneously the aspirations and fears of its inhabitants.


Secondary sources:

1. Josef Von Sternberg, quoted in The Cinema Book p36

2. Plato, quoted in The Mirror and the Lamp by M.H. Abrams p8

3. Ibid. p8

4. Ibid. p8

5. Sir Philip Sidney, quoted in The Mirror and the Lamp p14

6. M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp p15

7. Ibid. p3

8. Charles Baudelaire, quoted in Romanticism: Breaking the canon by Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer

9. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp p100

10. Quoted in Romanticism and Art by William Vaughn, p9. (1994, Thames and Hudson Ltd. All references within the text are to this edition)

11. Quoted in Romanticism: Breaking the canon by Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer

12. William Vaughan, Romanticism and Art, p9

13. Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Romanticism: Breaking the canon

14. Summary of ideas in Romanticism: Breaking the canon

15. Friedrich Schlegel, quoted in William Vaughan, Romanticism and Art, p9

16. Summary of ideas in Abrams's The Mirror and the Lamp, and a quotation from the same source, p132

17. Longinus, quoted in The Mirror and the Lamp p73

18. Ibid. p73

19. A.W. Schlegel, quoted in The Mirror and the Lamp p48

20. Henrik Steffens, quoted from Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder, p291

21. Quoted in The Mirror and the Lamp p21

22. Summary of ideas in Jill Stewart's lecture Formalism and Style

23. E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art p205

24. Summary of ideas in Jill Stewart's lecture Formalism and Style

25. Charles Baudelaire, quoted in Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer's Romanticism: Breaking the canon

26. Stendhal, quoted in Charles Baudelaire's The Painter of Modern Life p3

27. Summary of ideas in Romanticism: Breaking the canon

28. Andrew Sarris, quoted in Theories of Authorship by John Caugie (ed.) p28


Abrams, M.H., The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (First published in 1953 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Paperback edition published in 1971)

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Nina, Romanticism: Breaking the canon in

Baudelaire, Charles The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (First published by Phaidon Press, 1964, London. Second edition,1995)

Caughie, John (ed.), Theories of Authorship (First published in 1981 by Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London)

Cook, Pam (ed.), The Cinema Book (First published in 1985 by the British Film Institute, London. 2nd edition, 1999)

Gaarder, Jostein, Sophie's World (London. First published in Great Britain by Phoenix House in 1995. This edition published by Phoenix, 1996. Translation by Paulette Moller, 1994)

Gombrich, E. H., The Story of Art (London. First published in 1950 by Phaidon Press. 16th edition, 1995)

Vaughan, William, Romanticism and Art (London. First published in 1978 as Romantic Art, revised 1994 by Thames and Hudson Ltd)


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Posted on Jun 18, 2010
Posted on Jun 9, 2010