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Psychological Approaches to the Art History

Peter Tzanev

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Despite of the great number of texts, containing psychological interpretation of art, there are few researches having the objective to make a comprehensive historical review and systematization of the existing psychological approaches in the field of history and theory of art. Particular texts such as the study by Ernst Gombrich Art History and Psychology in Vienna Fifty Years Ago (1983)[1] are more likely isolated and throw light on some particular moments of the diverse and complex interrelation between art history and scientific psychology. In a similar context we can mention the book of the art critic Bradley Collins Leonardo, Psychoanalysis and Art History: a Critical Study on Psychobiographical Approaches to Leonardo da Vinci (1997)[2], dedicated to the psychoanalytical interpretations of art and their validity regarding art history as a scientific discipline, which has a rich historiographical analysis of the literature related to the famous study of Freud on Leonardo from 1910.

The different psychological approaches to art in the sphere of art history are most often examined in connection with the historical development of a certain theoretical issue[3] or as a part of a study on a specific cultural and historical context. Indicative examples in this direction are the book of Catherine Soussloff The Absolute Artist. The Historiography of a Concept (1997)[4], which analyses the myth of the artist in western culture and the book of Louise Rose The Survival of Images. Art Historians, Psychoanalysts and the Ancients (2001)[5], dedicated to the transforming potential of the interactions between art history and psychological researches in the first half of 20th century.

Most often the different psychological approaches to art are in the aspect of a historical development of a specific theory question or as a part of a given historical context. The book From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki (2007)[6] of the British Professor of Art History John Onians can be regarded in a similar aspect, namely as an original attempt to avoid conventional culture history. Onians offers alternative history of the existing views on art, based on the idea of radical psychological return – through the possibilities of contemporary neuroscience – to human nature as a model to study art.

It is indicative that positions such as those of Gombrich or Onians, although strongly predetermined by their relation to a certain psychological tradition or scientific psychological school, in the end of the day they are always focusing on the possibilities which psychology science gives for the expansion of knowledge within the framework of art history as a science of art. At the same time the existing historical reviews of psychological approaches to art in the sphere of psychological aesthetics and psychology of art, which are significantly more comprehensive regarding psychology as a science[7], almost always stay completely outside the context of art history and the way in which it constructs its object of research as a discipline.


[1] The article is an English language version of a report entitled ‘Science of Art and Psychology Fifty Years Ago’ (Kunstwissenschaft und Psychologie vor fünfzig Jahren), read by professor Ernst Gombrich at the 25th International Congress of the History of Art in Vienna in September 1983 in a topical section, dedicated to ‘Vienna and the development of methodology in science of art’. Gombrich follows different psychological topics and concepts, which can be found in the works of some of the representatives of the Viennese school in art history such as Julius von Schlosser, Heinrich Gompertz, Hans Sedlmayr and Ernst Kris (Gombrich, E. Art History and Psychology in Vienna Fifty Years Ago, Art Journal, Summer, 1984).

[2] Collins, B. Leonardo, Psychoanalysis and Art History: a Critical Study of Psychobiographical Approaches to Leonardo da Vinci, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997.

[3] An example for this is the study of the American researcher Juliet Koss, dedicated to the role of the concept of ‘empathy’ (Einfühlung), developed in the intersection of philosophical aesthetics, psychology and art history in the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century in Germany. (Koss, J. On the limits of Empathy. Art Bulletin, March, 2006).

[4] The book by the American researcher Catherine Soussloff – an art history and visual culture professor - deals with the way in which the image of the artist is constructed through the genre of the art biography, from Florence in the Renaissance and Germany in the 19th century where art history emerges as an academic discipline, to present days. In the penultimate part of the book, entitled ‘The Artist in Myth: Early Psychoanalysis and Art History’ Soussloff discusses the specific discourse to the figure of the artist, which emerges in Vienna in the 1930’s as a result of the interaction between art history and psychoanalysis. (Soussloff, C. The Absolute Artist. The Historiography of a Concept. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1997).

[5] In her book Louise Rose comments the psychological approaches to art by art historians from the first half of the 20th century such as Aby Warburg, Emanuel Loewy, Ernst Kris and Fritz Saxl. (Rose, L. The Survival of Images. Art Historians, Psychoanalysts, and the Ancients. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001).

[6] John Onians’s book historically follows the grounds of one contemporary neuroscience art history and interprets the ideas of twenty-five philosophers, artists, art historians and scientists from ancient times until today. (Onians, J. Neuroarthistory. From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007).

[7] Muller-Freienfels, R. Psychologie der Kunst, Leipzig: Teubner, 1923; Виготский, Л. Психология искусства. Москва, 1925\1965; Burt, C. The Psychology of Art. In. Ed. by Cyril Burt, How the Mind Works, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1945; Morgan, D. Psychology and Art Today: A Summary and Critique. Journal of Aesthetic and Art Criticism, 9, 1950; Munro, T. The Psychology of Art: Past, Present, Future. Journal of Aesthetic and Art Criticism, 21, 1963; Frances, R. Psychologie de L’esthetique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968; Hogg, J. Some Psychological Theories and the Visual Arts. In: Psychology and the Visual Arts, Ed. by James Hogg, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969; Kreitler, H., Kreitler, S. Psychology of the Arts. Dunham: Duke University Press, 1972; Pickford, R. Psychology and Visual Aesthetic. London: Hutchinson Educational, 1972; Berlyne, D. Psychological Aesthetics. In: Handbook of Cross-cultural Psychology. Ed. By C. Triandis & W. Lonner, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1980; Rump, G. Kunstpsychologie, Kunst und Psychoanalyse, Kunstwissenschaft. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1981; Winner, E. Invented Worlds: the Psychology of the Arts, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982; Allesch, C. Geschichte der psychologischen Aesthetic. Gottingen: Hogrefe, 1987; Allesch, C. Einführung in die psychologische Ästhetik. Wien: Facultas, 2006; Funch, B. The Psychology of Art Appreciation. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1997; Martindale, C. Recent Trends in the Psychological Study of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, In: Empirical Studies of the Arts, Vol. 25, N. 2, 2007.

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