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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Individualism in art and individualism of artists are
not necessarily closely related. The first problem, that
of individualism in art cannot be divorced from visual
evidence, while the second, that of the origin, history,
and vicissitudes of the individualist artist is above all
a sociological and psychological one. In the following
pages the latter problem will be more fully discussed
than the former. The entire history of art could, and
perhaps should, be written under the heading of
“Changing Aspects of Individualism in Art.” Since this
cannot be done within the compass of this article, only
three topics of particular relevance to the history of
ideas have here been singled out for brief considera-
tion: (1) the question of individual styles, (2) that of
rapid changes of style within the work of one artist, and
(3) that of the non finito, the unfinished work of art.

Individual Styles and Rapid Changes of Style. Ever
since Johann Joachim Winckelmann and more specifi-
cally since the late nineteenth century, under the influ-
ence of such scholars as Heinrich Wölfflin and Alois
Riegl, the history of art has been equated with the
history of styles, and this approach has still a great
many advocates in the third quarter of the twentieth
century. Starting from Greece and the Italian Renais-
sance, standards of judgment, terms of reference, and
a critical language have been developed, and step by
step the history of art of all cultures and periods has
been approached and investigated with similar stylistic

No one can doubt that large cultural areas (such as
Europe and China) have developed mutually exclusive
artistic conventions to which they have adhered for
very long periods of time; that there are national
(French, English), regional (Venetian, Neapolitan), and
period styles (Gothic, Renaissance), all vastly different;
and that these puzzling phenomena may be described
as bearing the mark of individualism of peoples, re-
gions, and periods. Nor can one doubt that by a strange
emotional and intellectual but basically unconscious
submission, creative individuals partake in and, at the
same time, become active heralds of the characteristic
style of their country, region, and period. Each artist
has, in fact, an individual style and a fluctuating degree
of freedom within the broader stylistic setting of the
national and period styles. It must be admitted, how-
ever, that individual styles of artists reveal idiosyncratic
traits to a varying extent at different periods and in
different cultural contexts and, moreover, that the
recognition of personal styles is often dependent not
only on the degree of study and empathy but also on
the theoretical standpoint of critics and historians. John
Ruskin abhorred individualist artists; he loved medieval
art and fully accepted the concept of the medieval
artist as the servant of God and as such lacking the
worldly pride of individualists. In contrast to this view,
which is still to be encountered, it is now common
knowledge that many masters of the Middle Ages—
great as well as mediocre—often had highly individual
manners (Schapiro, 1947). How else could we attribute
with assurance certain statues of the West porch of
Chartres to a great anonymous revolutionary, and
lesser statues to his pupils and followers. Attributing
works of art—a highly specialized art historical pro-
cedure—implies an absolute trust in the individuality
of style, without barriers of time and place.


But the conception of an individual style, the aware-
ness of it, and the wish to develop it in a definite
direction, all this was not conceivable until Renaissance
artists began to see themselves as historical beings in
a new sense, to which the writing of autobiographies,
starting with Lorenzo Ghiberti's, bears witness. It was
only then that artists were able to survey the panorama
of history and make a considered choice of their alle-
giance. No medieval artist could have expressed what
the architect Filarete (Antonio Averlino) wrote about
1460: “I ask everybody to abandon the modern tradi-
tion [i.e., the Gothic style]; do not accept counsel from
masters who work in this manner.... I praise those
who follow the ancients and bless the soul of Brunel-
leschi who revived in Florence the ancient manner of
building” (Oettingen, 1888).

The freedom of choice was accompanied by a free-
dom to change. It seems that Renaissance artists were
the first to bring about controlled changes of their
manner, not rarely even from year to year. Without
literary evidence and a highly developed technique of
analysis it would often be impossible to recognize that
a great master's works from different periods of his
career are actually by the same hand (Wittkower, “The
Young Raphael,” 1963). This is true of many artists
from Raphael on and particularly so of modern artists.
Picasso's ability to switch from a style derived from
negro sculpture to one based on Greek vase painting
and sculpture illustrates well how the freedom of
choice effects radical changes of style.

The change from a comparative stability to a com-
parative mobility of style is also reflected in a changing
approach to the training of artists. For medieval artists
the road to eminence lay in the closest possible imita-
tion of one master. Cennino Cennini, in his late medie-
val artists' manual, warned apprentices against imitat-
ing many masters, and advised them to follow one
master only, in order to acquire a good style. At the
end of the fifteenth century Leonardo reversed this
position by counselling that a painter should not at-
tempt to imitate another painter's manner. Medieval
workshop practice was eventually replaced by the
method of selective borrowing from many masters, a
method that from Vasari to the eighteenth century was
regarded as style-forming and quality-enhancing, while
since the romantic age it has been stigmatized as
eclectic. But, in fact, by the very freedom of choice
the method implies, it can enhance individualism of
style, as it does if Picasso's case.

It is true, however, that the freedom of choice need
not necessarily lead to heightened individualism of
style. For reasons not easily accounted for, periods
pregnant with great individualist artists alternate with
others which show a levelling in the individualism of
style. Such “lows” may be found in the second half
of the sixteenth century in Italy, the second half of
the seventeenth in France and, indeed, in most other
European countries, and the first half of the eighteenth
in England. Somewhat similar observations led Clive
Bell, in his spirited and not yet forgotten book Art
(London, 1914) to the not entirely paradoxical conclu-
sion that Giotto was at once the climax and anticlimax
of medieval individualism: “For Giotto heads a move-
ment towards imitation.... Before the late noon of
the Renaissance, art was almost extinct” (p. 148).

By contrast to the long period of the individualism
of style deliberately derived from and based upon the
serviceable repertory of a homogeneous artistic culture
(fifteenth to eighteenth century), the romantic concep-
tion of genius opened new doors to an individual ap-
proach to style. Although romantic artists often de-
luded themselves by believing that their own creations
were independent of any tradition, they surely fostered
a great richness and variety of personal styles and
enhanced the potentiality of unpredictable and sudden
changes. Moreover, the fervent romantic belief in the
uniqueness and the inviolability of the individual led
to the conviction that art is not teachable. This novel
creed had important consequences for the future course
of the history of art. Even Gustave Courbet, by no
means a romantic artist, declared: “I cannot teach my
art nor the art of any school, since I deny that art can
be taught, or, in other words, I maintain that art is
completely individual” (Goldwater and Treves, 1947).
Such views help us to understand the peculiar devel-
opment of art in the nineteenth century, when a gulf
opened between the great individualist works of the
chosen few and an impersonal art production: the
autonomous, creative artist stood aside, while many
young artists had to submit to the collective discipline
of the academies.

The Non Finito. The non finito affords perhaps an
even deeper insight into the process of individ-
ualization than do problems of style. Unfinished Egyp-
tian, classical, and medieval works have come down
to us, but it can be said with complete confidence that
they were meant to be finished and remained incom-
plete for external reasons. With Leonardo and espe-
cially Michelangelo the non finito enters a new phase,
for it now results from internal rather than external

Never before had a tension existed between the
conception and the execution of a work. But now
self-criticism, dissatisfaction with the imperfect real-
ization of the inner image, the gulf between mind and
matter, between the purity of the “Platonic idea” and
the baseness of its material realization—often the sub-
ject of Michelangelo's sonnets—prevented these mas-


ters from finishing some of their works. They would,
however, never have claimed that unfinished creations
can be regarded as finished (Barocchi, 1962; Tolnay,

A shift from this position to one intimately con-
nected with expanding individualism culminates in the
nineteenth century in the unfinished work by Rodin
and others. Here the non finito is often due to a delib-
erate decision to bring the creative process to an end
at a moment of the artist's choice, so that the torso,
the roughly-hewn work, the half-finished picture, the
sketchy execution are the finished product. Rodin
commented on his Balzac: “The essential things of the
modeling are there, and they would be there in less
degree if I 'finished' more.” Thus the intentional non
requires a new form of self-analysis and intro-
spection, for the work results from a sophisticated
control of the act of creation. Moreover, if only half
is said and so much hidden and hinted at, the umbilical
cord between the work and its maker is never truly
severed. In consequence the personality of the artist
asserts itself in the work and through the work more
demandingly than in any other context and at any other
period of the history of art. By the visual evidence of
his “unfinished-finished” work the artist requests the
public to follow him even where his goal seems indis-
tinct or when he seems beset with problems peculiar
to him alone. And the public is prepared to respond
and pay due regard to the artist's genius, sure in the
conviction that all he creates is important and worth
the effort of interpretation and assimilation. Such con-
siderations would seem to blur the dividing line be-
tween art and artist. Similarly, some of the points made
in the part of this article on Individualism of Artists
might, with a slight change of emphasis, have found
a place in the present section.