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The Expressiveness of Form - Formalism in Art

  • formalism in art
June 4, 2017
Deeply invested in modern and contemporary art, the Widewalls magazine aims at providing a unique experience for its readers in the form of in-depth and quality journalism.

How do we judge the value of the work of art? And, no, we are not talking about its price on the market. One of the oldest answers to that question is that we judge it by its form, by those structural elements that are always discernible to the eye – that which we call formalism in art. This approach to deciphering artwork gave birth to art science, art criticism, as well as a specific way of creating art by focusing on its visual, aesthetic quality.

The road to understanding what formalism in art really is about takes us from philosophical ideas of Plato, Aristotle and Immanuel Kant, through the experiments of the avant-garde, all the way to contemporary ideal of socially-engaged and conceptual art. At the same time, at its heart, formalism holds that one question which stands above all others – what is art? How can we know when we are standing in the presence of something truly magnificent? Is there a universal way to determine the quality of any single work and use it to recreate the sublime?

Many believed that there is. They postulated that artistic excellence can be found in the structure of its elements, that it can be dissected and measured, like with all good science, but more importantly, that it unveils the very essence of human creativity.

Samuel Morse - Gallery of the Louvre, 1833, via Wikimedia
Samuel Morse – Gallery of the Louvre, 1833, via Wikimedia

L’art pour l’art – What is Formalism in Art?

So, what are those compositional elements formalism places at the front? Or, better yet, what is not formalism? Every time you stopped to appreciate the ultimate irony of Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life (1908-16) or profound social commentary of Banksy’s Rage Flower Thrower (2003), according to formalism doctrine you are missing the point. Everything in the work of art which is related to symbolism, context of any kind and iconography can only be secondary to what constitutes its form – line, shape, color, brushwork. Why is this so important? First, these are the elements that all artwork ultimately share, and so the only elements which can provide a basis for understanding art in general. And secondly, putting these elements in focus means that art can become an autonomous sphere of human creation – L’art pour l’art.

“L’art pour l’art without purpose, for all purpose perverts art.” – Benjamin Constant, 1804

L’art pour l’art is perhaps one of the most famous lines in all of art history and it is closely related to formalist movement. Meaning art for art’s sake, it was an idea that went perfectly in hand with formalist view of value of art. Art needs no purpose other than its intrinsic beauty. If value of art can only be found in its structural elements, then surly nothing outside those elements can present motive for creating art. These ideas of form at the center of artistic creation had different manifestations in different art movements. For Romantics, form was where you search for art’s essence; For Symbolists and Impressionists, it was its superior power to convey artist intention; For Abstract Expressionists, it was the raison d’être – for meaning in art, one should look no further than the form.

The Definition of Formalism in Art

History of Formalism – The Question of Aesthetics

Plato was the first thinker to introduce the concept of form. For him, form or appearance, was that one element shared by both tangible and abstract phenomena in the world. His ideas framed how we understand human perception, why is a portrait or a shadow equally important to us as the real thing. Plato’s theories were the basis for birthing the aesthetic discipline – the study of beautiful. Aristotle believed that catharsis in art can only be achieved if the work is dominated by its structure. Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, was more concerned with universality. His philosophical quests for universal truth lead him to conclude that only form of an art object can be judged equally by different people, equally leading to pleasure. For what kind of world it is we live in, if we all see things differently, if there’s no objective knowledge? From Kant we inherited that idea of form as shape, which will later lead to analysis of what today we call style. It was through reading of Kant that aesthetics of art, and art criticism with it, was gradually formulated by Eduard Hanslick (1891), Clive Bell (1913) and Roger Fry (1920).

As an idea, formalism reached its peak in the period of high modernism, between the last decades of the 19th and first half of the 20th century. This is not surprising if we remember that first works of abstract art appeared during this period. Non-representational art brought this new way of expression where often nothing is discernible except its structure, inspired greatly by evolution of aesthetic thinking on the expressiveness of form. Works of Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock, together with their thinking about art, pushed an American art critic Clement Greenberg (1960) to fortify this formal approach for analyzing modern art only through those elements used to create it.

Raphael - Philosophy (School of Athens), 1509-1511. Stanza della Signature, Vatican Palace, via Wikimedia
Raphael – Philosophy (School of Athens), 1509-1511. Stanza della Signature, Vatican Palace, via Wikimedia

Philosophy of Formalism – Form in Literature and Music

A big part of philosophy of formalism is related to 19th century striving for scientific truth. People then believed that in art, like in physics or architecture, we need to learn to recognize formalistic aspects of the work in order to study art as a scientific discipline. Such discipline would study how art is made in order to understand what it is we are looking at. Formalism is the reason why today we can enroll into Literary Theory, Musicology and Art History programs and courses at universities. It is the reason why there are still people around who are trained to trace back every brushstroke of Mona Lisa. This philosophy, governed by 19th century logical thinking, enabled us to understand the syntax in a literary masterpiece, succession of chords in an orchestral symphony, every breath in actor’s performance. Formalism brought discourse of color, texture, rhythm, composition and flow into the world, concepts we all use when we try to describe the beautiful.

Formalism was an attempt on philosophical inquiry into the very nature of art, and as such was one approach among many others, like Voluntarism, Intellectualism and Naturalism. But, it took all of the arts with a storm. Formalism was particularly strong in music. It positioned music itself as above history, composers and even text which is often present in vocal works. It was much easier to celebrate the abstraction in music than it was with the other arts, but also to diminish the value of anything outside the work itself. In literature, formalism meant focusing on exploring the meaning of a literary work only from what we can experience while reading it, and then only considering those elements inherent in the text – grammar, syntax, tropes etc…

Joseph Catanzaro - Two Musicians, via shopify
Joseph Catanzaro – Two Musicians, via shopify

The Art Critics: Clive Bell and Clement Greenberg

One of the most important figures in formalism was Bloomsbury writer and art critic Clive Bell. His 1914 book Art was first attempt to define the form in visual art which he did through his notion of significant form. Reflecting the L’art pour l’art ideology, his goal was to give irrefutable proof that art form is different than what we find in all other objects. Bell believed that emotions we experience when looking at an artwork are incited by its formal quality and not its subject matter, sensation he called the aesthetic emotion. Significant form is actually a combination of formal elements, primarily lines and colors which Clive Bell thought are building blocks of all visual art.

Following Bell’s influential ideas, it was American critic Clement Greenberg who proved to be the strongest advocate of formalism and modern art inspired with it. It not for his striving to codify the expressive elements in non-representational art, it is questionable whether works of Pablo Picasso, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and other Abstract Expressionist artists would be so quickly accepted in the U.S. art community. For Greenberg, the rejection of representation by abstract artists was a natural evolution of visual art. The manipulation of form was the king of artistic expression.

Clement Greenberg speaking in 1961, via
Clement Greenberg speaking in 1961, via

The Formal Analysis of a Painting – What Constitutes the Form

As pertaining to the meaning of the word “formalism”, the formal analysis of the work of art refers to description of purely visual elements. The Formal analysis role is to locate all the elements of art’s form and explain their arrangement – the work’s composition. So, what are those elements? Explanations which can be found differ in number, but all agree on the most important: line, color, shape, space and texture.

When we try to describe the line, we ask ourselves is it straight, curved, flowing, and thick or thin, horizontal or vertical. Shape and space represent the relationship of objects in the painting and space behind them. The main question is whether the shape is geometric or organic, how many shapes are used to produce the desired image? In what dimension, form of space, are they placed? Color is, besides the line, the most important element of a painting. We describe the color through concepts of hue (red, blue, yellow etc.), value (brightness), intensity (purity), saturation, delineating between primary and secondary colors and considering their complementarities. Texture is that last piece of the puzzle which gives us the idea of surface quality of an object. Is it silk the man on the portrait is wearing? What would the object feel like if we could touch it? In order to make a successful analysis we must ask that most important question – What is the composition of the painting? It is the collective dance of all of these elements that constitutes the significant form, that which provides its expressiveness.

The Bauhaus School famously explored the concepts of color and shape
The Bauhaus School famously explored the concepts of color and shape

Formalist Art – Creating the Absolute

The works of art that we could dub as formalist already achieved fame by other names – modern art, abstract art, the avant-garde, yet they here are presented in the context of their philosophical origin. After all, Clement Greenberg’s famous essay Modernist Painting (1960) uses works of Jackson Pollock as The example of formalism. Greenberg saw Pollock’s style as maybe the greatest example of that manipulation of pure form. But perhaps, the best example of formalist art would be compositions of Piet Mondrian like his Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red (1937-42). Working with simple geometrical lines and primary colors, his paintings are the purest manifestation of that which Clive Bell considered significant form. Formalist approach to music, which produced the concept of absolute art, as unattached to anything outside itself, was a great inspiration for abstract artists who strived to achieve this lack of referentiality.

Even though formalism stared in many other arts, it was the painting that both Bell and Greenberg had in mind while formulating their theories. Great works of formalist art were produced by Expressionism, Cubism, Geometrical Abstract Art, Post-Painterly Abstraction, and Informal Art by artists like Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malewitsch, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Jean Dubuffet and many others. But this purified painterly approach to form also inspired artists in other media and continues to do so today: Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling and their Abstract films, Minimalism of Yves Klein and Frank Stella, Vsevolod Yemilyevich Meyerhold‘s Formalist theatre, Land art etc.

Piet Mondrian - Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red (1937-42), via lisahatscher.wordpress
Piet Mondrian – Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red (1937-42), via lisahatscher.wordpress

Welcome to the Age of Post-formalism

Like with all good social theories, there is usually more criticism involved, than the actual content discussing the theory. Anti-formalism opinions appeared almost instantly after first attempts of canonization. Questions demanding more detailed description of the form, disputes over the historical function of art and what constitutes its value continue to inflame art critics and historians.  But the biggest challenge to formalism came with Postmodernism and Conceptual art. Works of artists like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol brought the question of concept in play when nobody could’ve guessed that it would come to rule contemporary art. Postmodernism on the other hand introduced that hard critical reflection into the inner workings of the art world, tearing down all big narratives and search for universal truth. But in 2017, we live in a truly Post world, where Postmodernism is also something we had to overcome, leading us to a whole new appreciation of the form.

Written by Vera Mevorah.


  1. Karin Ulrike Soika, Abstract Painting, Abstract Art, Absolute Art, [June 1, 2017]
  2. Clive Bell, Art, Chatto & Windus, 1916
  3. Robert Stecker, Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art – An Introduction, Rowman & Littlefield, 2010

All images used for illustrative purposes only.