Journal ARS 53 (2020) 2

Ján Bakoš

Looking for the Concept of Style (1753 – 1953)


This study maps changes in perceptions of the concept of style from the second half of the eighteenth century to the end of the Second World War. Comte Buffon had already come up with the anthropocentric notion that style was the man (1753), but it was J. J. Winckelmann who would fundamentally shape style discourse. He brushed aside the traditional concept of style as a timeless artistic norm and embraced the notion that style was a historically evolving phenomenon. This was the dawn of art history as a history of style. In the Romantic era, style was understood to mean expression and, in the Hegelian version, the expression of the spirit of the epoch. The counter-reaction to Romantic spiritualism emerged in the period of materialist determinism and historicism, when style was posited as a rhetorical tool determined by its materials and purpose, or function (Von Rumohr, G. Semper). Then, under the influence of modernism and the notion of autonomous art, the style came to be seen as the autonomous principle of the form (‘Kunstwollen’) and immanent development (A. Riegl, H. Wölfflin). But not even formalism could prevent the rise of Hegelian expressionism: either in the idea that style represented the worldview of the time (A. Riegl), or in the notion of the double root of style (H. Wölfflin). After the first world war, the search for the identity of style intensified. Various proponents of general art history (‘allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft’) joined in the debate on the essence of style. The style was also interrogated as a philosophical problem. The discussants were convinced that any ambiguities in the concept of style could be resolved by producing a more precise definition of the term. Ultimately though, their attempts at clarifying the concept of style by specifying the various types of style simply led to the creation of an overly complex style typology (P. Frankl) that in fact obscured style’s essence. By the late 1920s, however, the basic premise of stylistic history had been relativized – the premise of homogenous epochs of style. This was then rejected by W. Pinder, who propagated the idea that three generations of style existed simultaneously. By the first half of the 1930s, various attempts were being made to change the style paradigm: to replace the notion of supra-individual stylistic history with the idea of the structure of the work of art (H. Sedlmayr). Stylistic history (‘Stilgeschichte’) was interpreted as being the product of the individual artist in contrast to the dissemination of linguistic history (‘Sprachgeschichte’, J. von Schlosser). These attempts to come up with an individualistic notion of style were, however, immediately quashed by the onset of the new supra-individualist collectivism – in which stylistic history was seen as expressing the constant character of the nation, ethnicity, race. The collapse of hegemonic nationalism led to a crisis in the holistic notion of the history of style. Several prominent German art historians thought metaphysics offered a way out (H. Jantzen’s concept of style as entelechie). Other scholars were reluctant to give up entirely on the holistic concept of style, viewing it in sociological terms (the Marxist reduplication of the class structure of society, F. Antal), or as the intellectual ‘habitus’ of the era (E. Panofsky). But at that moment American and English scholars joined the debate on style, shaping its character for many decades to come.