Donnerstag, 28. September 2023

What is the ‘Gestalt’ in art?

Wassily Kandinksy, Komposition VI, 1913, oil on canvas, 195 x 300 cm @wikicommons

‘One is frightened by the poverty, the drought, the remoteness from life, by the utter insignificance of everything that is said about it’[1] [own transl.], is how Max Wertheimer, a co-founder of the Berlin School of Gestalt theory, described the basic problem of the scientific approach to a ‘living event’ in a 1924 lecture[2]. He advocated a psychological approach focusing on the ‘inside of the problem’ instead of abstracting. In this way he advocated for abolishing the radical separation of science and life. 

The ‘Gestalt theory’, of which he was a representative, can be traced back to an essay by the philosopher Christian von Ehrenfels: ‘Über Gestaltqualitäten’ (1890)[3] [on the qualities of Gestalten, own transl.]. Von Ehrenfels defined Gestalt as a "wholeness" to which certain Gestalt qualities were attributed, which "are neither to be found in constituent parts nor can be reduced to these parts"[4].  Aristotle’s well known words: "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts"[5] [own transl.] describes the synergetic combination of individual parts in the sense of Gestalt theory and was subsequently used by Gestalt theorists such as Wolfgang Köhler[6].  In the scholarly works of one of Köhler’s students, Rudolf Arnheim, Gestalt theory is applied to the image or artwork and the Aristotelian definition is extended by a dynamic notion. Arnheim defines the ‘Gestalt’ as "a field made of equal forces that are organised in a self-sufficient whole."[7]  [own transl.]
These forces originate in the object itself, which in the case of a work of an artwork refers to its material qualities. According to Arnheim, these are, for example, the grain of the wood or the thickness of the oil paint. However, since the artist prefers "amorphous material", which can only be perceived visually, the artwork is classified by Arnheim as a "weak Gestalt"[8].  That is, "[...] that art exists only as psychological experience [...]"[9] [own transl.]. External forces, which are synaesthetic effects, penetrate the organism (the "Gestalt") and disturb the balance, according to Arnheim.[10]

Looking at 'Composition VI' (1913) by Kandinsky above exemplifies how a painting can disturb the 'balance' and create a visual language, potentially resonating with our perception.

[1] „Man erschrickt vor der Armut, der Dürre, der Lebensferne, vor dem völlig Unwesentlichen alles dessen, was dazu gesagt wird.“ Max Wertheimer: Über Gestaltpsychologie.  


[2] Ibid.

[3] ‚Über Gestaltqualitäten‘

[4] „weder in Bestandteilen anzutreffen sind noch auf diese Teile reduziert werden können.“ Günter Brucher u. Wassily Kandinsky: Kandinsky, S. 129–130.

[5] „das Ganze ist mehr als die Summe seiner Teile“ Aristoteles: Metaphysik 1041 b 10 (VII. Buch (Z))

[6] Ibid., S. 130.

[7] „ein Feld, dessen Kräfte in einem in sich geschlossenen und gleichwertigen Ganzen organisiert sind.“ Günter Brucher u. Wassily Kandinsky: Kandinsky. Wege zur Abstraktion. 1999, S.10.

[8] Rudolf Arnheim: Gestaltpsychologie und künstlerische Form. In: Theorien der Kunst. Hrsg. von Dieter 

    Henrich u. Wolfgang Iser. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1992. S. 132–148.

[9] „[…] daß die Kunst nur als psychologische Erfahrung existiert […]“ Ibid.

[10] Günter Brucher u. Wassily Kandinsky: Kandinsky, S. 10.