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J. J. Winckelmann, Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst

I. Biographical Information
  • Johann Joachim Winckelmann: 1717 - 1768
    • grew up poor, studied theology and philosophy at Halle, then Jena
    • became a research assistant to Count Bünau near Dresden, where he studied art and literature of antiquity, especially at Dresden court and exhibitions
    • wrote Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst - 1755
    • converted to Catholicism and moved to Rome right after this; while there wrote Sendschreiben von den Herkulanischen Entdeckungen - 1762
    • got a post at the Vatican Library in 1763.
    • then published his masterpiece (longest work) - extremely important for art history, laid out the main phases of the development of ancient Greek art -- Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums - 1764
    • Versuch einer Allegorie, besonders für die Kunst - 1766
  • Winckelmann was very famous in his own time, and had great influence on many other writers; known as founder of art history
  • also a scandal which aroused public interest: homosexuality; and mystery surrounding his death in Trieste in 1768 - murdered by an Italian thief or lover (strangled and stabbed) -- this added to public fascination

II. Topics Covered in Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke
  • 1. Nature
    • temperate climate and peculiarities of life in ancient Greece led to the development of the ideals of beauty, as well as the natural beauty and wisdom of the Greeks
      • elements of Greek culture and society led to their noble development, namely:
        • physical exercises and Olympic Games
        • dress customs and social values (free-flowing garments, often naked for sport or physical expression)
        • philosophers and artists participated in youth education and studied this physical form and beauty
      • it was not merely an external physical perfection, but an inner nobility as well
      • for northern climates, this natural beauty is not (easily) attainable, but we can nonetheless appreciate and marvel at and learn from the Greek masters
    • when learning, artists should admire the original sources if at all possible (praise for Dresden’s collection)
    • we can find in Greek art not only natural beauty, but an ideal beauty as well -- a beauty based on internal images, which have been adapted from the external world of nature -- in other words, the Greeks formulated an archetype of nature, an ideal that transcends nature itself
    • Greek artists adhered to these laws or precepts always: to faithfully depict nature, but beautify it as well; it was a combination of natural, sensual beauty as well as this idealized archetype which led them to the greatest height in art: “die sinnliche Schönheit gab dem Künstler die schöne Natur; die idealische Schönheit die erhabenen Züge.” (W 11)
      • there was thus a totality and perfection in Greek art: a unity of construction and an integration of all parts
      • the way to depict this ideal beauty is to gather observations from various elements and unite them in a coherent whole
      • in fact, because of these ideals, we can learn to better appreciate the perfection of nature by studying Greek art
  • 2. Contour
    • emphasizes the fine line between completeness and superfluity -- most modern art has either too much or too little, but the Greeks found exactly the right minimal balance
  • 3. Drapery
    • again, balance is important - Winckelmann notes the difference between ancient Greek garments (thin, almost transparent) and modern thick ones; hopes that modem artists will still be able to portray the form underneath the drapery.
  • 4. Expression
    • “edle Einfalt und stille Größe” in both posture and expression
      • to Winckelmann the Greek soul was always dignified, almost stoic, even in extreme passion/pain
    • Laocoon - his torment does not cause distortion of either his face or his muscles, although his pain is clear to see
    • thus, physical condition and spiritual greatness are portrayed together, in balance
    • the ARTIST must have the greatness of spirit, in order to portray it in his figures (artists must therefore be philosophers as well)
    • compares development of artists: violence/haste when young, dignity and thoroughness when mature
    • the soul is most expressive in a resting state -- too much movement is distracting
    • trained eyes appreciate this quiet grandeur
      • a grandeur that is moving even though there is no motion - “eine wirksame Stille” (W 23)
  • 5. Working Techniques
    • relative merits of wax vs. clay modeling, Winckelmann is clearly on the side of clay
    • extrapolates what Michelangelo’s modeling technique was
  • 6. Painting
    • Winckelmann has to assume that Greek painting was as impressive as their sculpture, but, as he says, the ravages of time have left little proof of this.
    • In fact, he gives modern painters the advantage in the case of perspective and the use of color, and also for the practice of painting with oils, which are to him a reflection of the northern climates, of nature “unter einem dickeren und feuchteren Himmel” than Greece
  • 7. Allegory
    • calls for artists to paint as poets -- using allegory, or images which convey general concepts rather than specific events
    • laments that there is not a good reference for painters who want to use allegory -- it would be useful to compile a compendium of imagery and allegory for modern artists to make use of
    • emphasizes simplicity and balance yet again - criticizes convoluted patterns and shell designs of the Rococo
      • also takes thought for the placement and arrangement of paintings
    • finishes with the admonition that art should delight and instruct (“vergnügen und zugleich unterrichten”).

III. Style and Argumentation
  • Winckelmann's prose is extremely lively and emotionally charged; almost “schwärmerisch” at times, but this is a part of its appeal, and it is not at all out of place
    • a very flexible style, almost poetic rather than prosaic
    • Herder, Goethe and other praised his style for its liveliness and also for his use of concrete / empirical examples
    • Schulz writes that Winckelmann's prose “fesselt ... nicht nur historisch, sondern als eine vollkommen gegenwärtige und lebendige Erscheinung.” (Schulz 234)
    • not a scientific aesthetic system (like Baumgarten); reads far more like an art-historical programmatic treatise
      • to a certain extent, Winckelmann is prescriptive or normative: he does lay out guidelines and rules for art production and appreciation, but he does so in such a way as to make them seem a natural part of idealized art itself
      • partly in opposition to Gottsched (et al) and their reliance on French standards
        • a delayed reaction to the Querelle des anciens et des modernes of the previous century
        • Winckelmann clearly takes the side of the ancients, sets Greek art up as standard to which we should all aspire
  • argumentation, logic:
    • tends to leap around a bit: uses mental associations rather than logical or rhetorical procedure
      • not logical proofs and conclusions, but rather short aphoristic or ‘thesenhaft’ statements, which are then illustrated with anecdotes, historical examples, or art-historical descriptions.
        • For example, the first sentence: good taste started under Greek skies. Then goes on to cite the temperate climate, and how Greek art was not often appreciated in the north, etc. all the while using mythological and anecdotal evidence to illustrate the superiority of Greek taste.
    • doesn’t attempt to define many of his terms, but rather points to concrete examples to illustrate his points
      • these examples can be works of art, historical facts, or simply anecdotes that illustrate his ideas
      • most often, they are visual examples or experiences; as Schulz puts it “Winckelmanns allgemeine Sätze gründen nicht in einem ästhetischen System, sie beruhen auf Anschaung und somit auf Erfahrung” -- or, to be even more blunt: “Winckelmanns Prosa hat Augen.”
    • for example, he hardly even defines his concept of “beauty” -- the only real quotable definition is the “edle Einfalt und stille Größe.” So, let’s take a closer look at that phrase.
      • edel: a spiritual quality - ability to retain composure even in passion, also a moral judgement
      • Einfalt: an aesthetic quality: not overdone with ornamentation, nor too bare -- just the esssentials which make the art timeless and univerally valid
        • also a cultural commentary and statement against modern art, perhaps even a political commentary against aristocratic excess?
      • still: both an aesthetic and spiritual quality. Motion and garishness is by definition transitory and cannot last, so the ideal is the opposite -- Winckelmann aims for timelessness, a move away from the turmoil of daily life and into a higher plane.
      • Größe: the higher plane -- embodies aesthetic, moral, and spiritual all together. An idealized vision of humanity, set a level above mere mortals. Complete and whole, vollkommen.
    • It’s also important to look at Winckelmann's exact phrasing. He writes “Das allgemeine vorzügliche Kennzeichen der griechischen Meisterstücke ist endlich eine edle Einfalt, und eine stille Größe.” Brandt is right to point out: why “endlich”? By including “endlich,” what appears to be a definition is in fact the culmination and summarizing of a string of characteristics, each leading logically to the next. Brandt points out them out: Nature (inlcuding climate, etc.) - a primarily external quality, although with some inner (spiritual) elements. Nature forms the contour or shape of beauty, which is also primarily external. And contour is then covered and highlighted by drapery. Finally we reach the pinnacle, the edle Einfalt und stille Größe, which combines both inner and outer grace as one complete whole. With this fourth criterion, the work of art thus becomes something more than its material form, or, in Brandt’s words: “im Stein wird etwas dargestellt, was der Stein selbst nicht ist -- die Seele des Helden.” (B 45)

IV. Problematics
  • Winckelmann's Greece is a myth! this 'ideal Hellenic age' with happy and serene Greek citizens living in freedom, eternal springtime and light doesn’t match the reality of ancient Greece; the irrational or Dionysian sides to life are never mentioned
    • but this was a very widely accepted and cherished myth at the time and for quite some time afterward -- Nietzsche of course destroyed the myth once and for all -- and the myth did serve a very useful purpose
  • paradox: if Greek beauty was based on the unique circumstances in Greece (climate, etc.), then why -- and how? -- should Germans attempt to emulate this ideal? Is such an ideal even valid for German art?
    • Herder, of course, addresses this directly.
  • Szondi sees a paradox in Winckelmann and in the poetics of the Goethezeit in general. Basically, he says, a sense of the historical and of the importance of the individual developed because of the delving into and learning more about Greek art. But at the same time, as a growing awareness of history and cultural differences and even a sort of historical relativism arose, these same Greek ideals continued to hold sway as the model and epitome of what German art should strive towards. This leads to the condition of writers such as Winckelmann, in that they are torn between an admiration of the past, but a desire to support the present. This tension causes “ein verzweifeltes Streben danach, die Moderne bejahen zu können, ohne die Antike zu verleugnen; der Antike treu zu bleiben, ohne das Eigene verleugnen zu müssen.” (Szondi 18)
  • Szondi also points out a seeming problem with the phrase “edle Einfalt, stille Größe” -- it may appear to be an oxymoron or paradox in some respects, but as he explains, it really isn’t: “Edle Einfalt sollte möglich sein und war von den Griechen erreicht worden, obwohl das Edle sonst nicht als einfältig und Einfalt nicht als edel erscheint; stille Größe sollte von der Kunst ausgehen, obwohl das Große als das Erhabene in der Ästhetik, etwa im Bild der stürmenden See, nicht als still, sondern als durch Maßlosigkeit überwältigend gedacht wird. So scheint Winckelmann in dem Ausdruck stille Größe die beiden Begriffe sublime und beautiful, »erhaben« und »schön«, zusammenzuspannen und damit eine dialektische Konzeption des Kunstideals vorwegzunehmen, das sich später bei Hölderlin und Hegel erfüllt.” (Szondi 45-6)

IV. Influence
  • Winckelmann's writing is restricted to the visual arts, but his influence was much farther-reaching. His writing incorporates moral, cultural, and even political values as well. He became leading proponent of classical / Hellenic ideals, since (as we’ve seen) he made the myth of ancient Greece into a coherent whole, a guiding light
  • Winckelmann's appeal extended on many different levels:
    • moral qualities to art: appealed to moral center of Enlightenment
    • humanist emphasis: appealed to an increasingly secular/humanist age
    • ideals of proportion, line, contour: appeal for Rationalist age
    • emotional quality of writing, odes of praise: appeal for Empfindsamkeit and others
    • subjective criticism: recognition of the individual
    • political dimension: emphasis on individual and republican freedom (Athens, polis, etc) appealed to those who were reacting against French strictures and perhaps even helped to forge a national identity for Germany (modeled on Greek ideals - see Butler's study)
    • that’s not to say that Winckelmann wasn’t a little repressive or prescriptive himself: he summarily dismisses the majority of medieval art as well as the Dutch school and landscape painters, since he claims they are misguided.
      • but as a cultural critic his writings found great resonance.
  • Lessing: Laokoön (1766) -
    • accepts fundamental premise of Winckelmann -- that of the ideal beauty of Greek art
    • but disagrees completely with Winckelmann's reasoning about the Laocoon statue -- for Lessing the moral element is not the same as for Winckelmann. Stoicism, Lessing says, is not the issue here. Laocoon does, in fact, scream aloud in Virgil’s Aeneid, and passionate displays of emotion were actually quite common in Greek works. Rather, the reason that Laocoon is not screaming in the sculpture is that, for a plastic art such as that, such a scream would not be beautiful. He reasons that the visual arts have different rules than the literary arts, and that there are distinct territories mapped out for each type of art. Thus he takes issue with Winckelmann's call for a poetization and allegorization of painting, since that would have painting intrude upon the poetic realm.
  • Herder: introduces a sort of historical relativism to Winckelmann's main ideas. Yes, Greek art is worth emulating, and it certainly is admirable, but since, as Winckelmann himself describes, Greek art is a product of the peculiar circumstances in Greece, Greek art cannot be unquestioningly and universally taken as a model. Instead, Herder claims that other cultures can produce different styles of art which are equally valid for that particular culture. We can still learn from the Greeks, but we must emulate (modify and elaborate), not imitate (copy).
  • Goethe: Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert (1805) - a volume of collected writings by and about Winckelmann. Includes an essay which is both a tribute and homage to Winckelmann, and also a statement of Goethe’s own Hellenic or classical ideals. Discusses some of the values which Winckelmann epitomized: antiquity, friendship, beauty, etc.
  • countless others in fields of art history, criticism, and aesthetics
  • outside of Germany (primarily France and USA), Winckelmann is/was recognized for claiming that the ideals of republican freedom are a necessary prerequisite for true art. (Read Bauemer for a thorough discussion.) He points out that the French Revolution took up this slogan, connecting “bürgerliche Freiheit” to the ideal of “Menschlichkeit” and from there connected to art. Also Thomas Jefferson (who owned an Italian translation of Winckelmann) was a proponent of this ideal. German reception, however, tended to focus almost exclusively on the ideal of beauty and the phrase “edle Einfalt, stille Größe.”

Selected References:

Baeumer, Max L. “Winckelmanns Formulierung der klassischen Schönheit.” Monatshefte 65 (1973): 61-75.
Baeumer, Max L. “Klassizität und republikanische Freiheit in der außerdeutschen Winckelmann-Rezeption des späten 18. Jahrhunderts.” In Johann Joachim Winckelmann 1717-1768. Ed. Thomas W. Gaehtgens. Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1986. 195-220.
Brandt, Reinhard. “»...ist endlich eine edle Einfalt, und eine stille Größe«.” In Johann Joachim Winckelmann 1717-1768. Ed. Thomas W. Gaehtgens. Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1986. 41-54.
Bräutigam, Bernd. “Poetizität vs. Diskursivität: Winckelmann und der Ursprung literarischer Ästhetik im 18. Jahrhundert.” In Neuere Studien zur Aphoristik und Essayistik. Ed. Guilia Cantarutti and Hans Schumacher. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1986. 223-249.
Butler, Eliza M. The Tyranny of Greece over Germany. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.
Morrison, Jeffrey. Winckelmann and the Notion of Aesthetic Education. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
Nisbet, H.B., ed. German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism: Winckelmann, Lessing, Hamann, Herder, Schiller, Goethe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Schulz, Eberhard Wilhelm. “Winckelmanns Schreibart.” In Studien zur Goethezeit. Ed. Hans-Joachim Mähl and Eberhard Mannack. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1981. 233-255.
Seeba, Hinrich. “Johann Joachim Winckelmann: Zur Wirkungsgeschichte eines ‘unhistorischen’ Historikers zwischen Ästhetik und Geschichte.” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 56 (Sept 1982): 168-201.
Szondi, Peter. Poetik und Geschichtsphilosophie I (Studienausgabe der Vorlesungen, Bd. 2). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974.

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1999 for German 948 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Referat: J. J. Winckelmann, Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst." Website Article. 13 September 1999. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/948Winck.html>.