Journal of Art Psychology
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Issue: 01/2009
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Psychological Approaches to the Art History

Peter Tzanev

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5. Contemporary prospects for the psychological approaches in art history

The theoretical possibility to use psychology as an additional means which allows a different scientific view on certain art facts begins with Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich who in their early research from 1938 on caricature history reach the conclusion that the traditional art history cannot offer an adequate explanation of the late ‘invention’ of portrait caricature because caricature is not only a historical phenomenon but also a specific process which should be interpreted in the field of psychology.[1] What distinguishes the research of Kris and Gombrich from all other similar researches until that moment is not only their extraordinary qualification as art historians but most of all, their attitude to the psychological science.

When in the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, precisely in the period between 1870-1910, art historians and theorists such as Robert Visher, Heinrich Wölfflin, August Schmarsow, Alois Riegl and Wilhelm Worringer write about art grounding in different psychological or physiological views they regard psychology as an approach which is yet part of philosophy.

It is a known fact that after 1866 psychology begins to enter the German universities as a division of philosophy but even the creator of the scientific psychology Wilhelm Wundt still regards psychology as part of philosophy and not as a natural science.[2]

For a long time psychology remains a subsection of philosophy. So in 1910 in Germany there are already several journals and research laboratories for psychology but only four scientists are registered in the official guides as psychologists and not as philosophers.[3]

In 1892 the future architect and designer August Endell enrolls in the Munich University to study philosophy and not psychology, but only two years later, in 1894 when his new philosophy professor Theodor Lipps creates his psychological laboratory, Endell becomes one of his most devoted followers. In his laboratory experiments Lipps and his students like Fechner try to research the aesthetic qualities of the objects and in Munich in the 1894-1914 period Lipps, who regards aesthetics mostly as a psychological discipline, reads a lot of public lectures on art.

In 1898 Endel, influenced by Lipps’ theory on ‘aesthetic empathy’, publishes a study on psychology of perception in which he tries to describe the power of forms to evoke direct feelings in the observer.[4] In his study Endell claims that we have to learn to see in the terms of pure colors and forms and not to think about what they represent and also states that we have to learn to experience emotions which are connected with the colors and forms, leaving these emotions to freely reach out consciousness. While theorizing on the issues of psychological aesthetics, in the period between 1896 and 1897 Endell creates the famous decoration of the Elvira Studio in Munich.

At the same time the universal creative pathos and panpsychism contained in the ‘inner psychophysics’ of Lipps finds its defender in the Russian physician neurophysiologist Nikolai Kulbin, who in 1905 experiments with paintings in which he recreates forms of organic matter, seen through microscope and landscapes with intuition for the invisible.

In 1907 in Saint Petersburg Kulbin organizes a group named Triangle: Art and Psychology, which includes artists and poets ready to research the relations between art and psychology. Kulbin chooses the name ‘Triangle’ because he thinks that painting is a spontaneous projection of conditional signs from the artist’s brain onto the picture.[5]

When Vassily Kandinsky arrives in Munich from Russia in 1896 he develops his views on art, influenced by the psychological aesthetics of Lipps, Endell’s theory of a psychological art, based on the pure influence of the abstract decoration and by the ideas of his friend Kulbun and his Triangle group. In 1911 Kandinsky begins his manifest essay Whither the New Painting with words directed against the ‘outer psychophysics’ and he cites the German pathologist Rudolf Virchow who says that he has opened thousand of corpses but he never managed to see a soul. In his text Kandinsky claims that the future of art and science belongs not to those who observe the visible reality, but to those who like his friends Kulbin use their intuition and indirect scientific methods to research the invisible.[6]

In the same year, 1911, in Munich the German art historian Wilhelm Worringer publishes his book Form Problems of the Gothic in which he includes a chapter entitled Science of Art as a Psychology of Humankind.[7] In this chapter Worringer claims that the constant changes in human attitude towards the outside world are the starting point of every broader psychology and no historical, cultural or art phenomenon can be understood if it is not in correspondence with this deciding point of view.

Unfortunately the psychological ideas about art of Lipps, Endell, Kulbin and Worringer fall in the beginning of the 20th century in the context of a more and more dynamically developing experimental psychology which is inclined to choose ‘outer psychophysics’ devoted to the relation between the physical stimuli and their objectively traceable reaction and not the ‘inner psychophysics’ which explores the relation between the physical stimuli and the subjective psychological reaction.

In its striving to achieve emancipation from philosophy psychology chooses to define itself not as a science for the consciousness, but as a science for the behavior. So in the next decades the scientific psychology develops mostly on the road of the natural and applied sciences.

Also, the so called ‘romantic’ situation typical for the end of the 19th century when art historians such as Robert Vicher, Heinrich Wölfflin and Alois Riegl create texts on the ‘psychology of art styles’, keeping certain autonomy from the psychological researches, is completely passed. The development of the psychological science during the first half of the 20th century forces the second generation of representatives of the Vienna school in science of art to distance themselves from such a model of a ‘psychologized’ art history.


[1] Kris, E., Gombrich, E., The Principles of Caricature. British Journal of Medical Psychology. XVII, 1938.

[2] Leahey, T. A History of Modern Psychology. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001.

[3] Schultz D., Schultz, S. A History of Modern Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2007.

[4] Endell, A. Formenschonheit und Dekorative Kunst, Dekorative Kunst, 6, 1898.

[5] In 1907 Nicholay Kulbin writes a theoretical study named ‘Sensitivity: studies on the psychometry and clinical application of its data’ (Кульбин, Н. Чувствителность: очерки по психометрии и клиническому приложении ее данних, Санкт Петербург, 1907), and in 1908 he reads a lecture in St. Petersburg called ‘The Free Art as a Foundation of Life: Harmony and Dissonance’, which later, in 1912 is published in Munich by Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee in ‘The Blue Rider’ almanac (Der Blaue Reiter, 1912).

[6] Gamwell, L. Exploring the Invisible. Art, Science and the Spiritual, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002.

[7] Worringer, W. Formprobleme der Gotik. Munchen: Piper, 1911.

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