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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Few terms have lasted as long as “form”; it has been
in existence since the Romans. And few terms are as
international: the Latin forma has been accepted in
many modern languages, in Italian, Spanish, Polish, and
Russian without change, in others with slight alteration
(in French forme, in English “form,” and in German

However, the ambiguity of the term is as great as
its persistence. From the outset the Latin forma re-
placed two Greek words: morphē and eidos; the first
applied primarily to visible forms, the second to con-
ceptual forms. This double heritage contributed con-
siderably to the diversity of meanings of “form.”

The many opposites of form (content, matter, ele-
ment, subject matter, and others) reveal its numerous
meanings. If content is taken as the opposite, then form
means external appearance or style; if matter is the
opposite, then form is regarded as shape; if element
is considered opposite, then form is tantamount to the
disposition or arrangement of parts.

The history of aesthetics reveals at least five different
meanings of form, all of them important for a proper
understanding of art.

(1) First, form is equivalent to the disposition, ar-
rangement, or order of parts,
which will be called form
In this case the opposites to form are elements,
components, or parts which form A unites or welds
into a whole. The form of a portico is the arrangement
of its columns; the form of a melody is the order of

(2) When the term form is applied to what is directly
given to the senses,
we shall call it form B. Its opposite
then is content. In this sense, the sound of words in
poetry is its form, and their meaning its content.

These two meanings, form A and form B, are at times
confusingly identified, but this should be avoided. Form
A is an abstraction; a work of art is never just a disposi-
tion but consists of parts in a certain arrangement of
order. Form B, on the other hand, is by definition
concrete, “given to the senses.” Of course, we can
combine forms A and B by using the term “form” to
refer to the order (form A) of what is directly perceived
(form B), form to the second power, as it were.

(3) Form may mean the boundary or contour of an
object. Let us call it form C. Its opposite and correlate
is matter or substance. In this sense, frequently used
in everyday speech, form is similar to, but by no means
identical with, form B: colors and contours perceived
together belong to form B, but contour alone pertains
to form C.

The above three ideas of form (A, B, and C) are
the creations of aesthetics itself. On the other hand,
the remaining two concepts of form arose within gen-
eral philosophy and then passed into aesthetics.

(4) One of them—we shall call it form D—was
invented by Aristotle. Here form means the conceptual
of an object; another Aristotelian name for this
form is “entelechy.” The opposites and correlates of
form D are the accidental features of objects. Most
modern aestheticians dispense with this idea of form,
but his has not always been so. In the history of aes-
thetics, form D is as old as form A and even older
than the ideas of B and C.

(5) The fifth meaning, which we shall call form E,
was used by Kant. For him and his followers it meant
a contribution of the mind to the perceived object. The
opposite and correlate of the Kantian form consists in
what is not produced and introduced by the mind but
is given to it from without through experience.

Each of these five forms has a different history, which
will be presented here as they occur in aesthetics and
the theory of art. The five forms appear historically
not only under the name “form” but also under many
different synonyms, e.g., figura and species in Latin,
or shape and figure in English.

We are concerned here not only with the history
of the concept but also with the history of theories
of form, including not only the question of when and
in what meaning form appeared in theories of art, but
also when and in which meanings it was regarded as
an essential factor of art.

The History of Form A. Words which the ancient
Greeks used to name beauty etymologically meant
pattern or proportion of parts. For visible beauty, for
works of architecture or sculpture, symmetria, that is,
commensurability, was the principal term; for audible
beauty, for musical works it was harmonia, that is,
consonance. The word taxis, that is, order, had a similar
meaning. Such were the ancient synonyms of form A,
the disposition or order of parts. These terms were not
accidental: the Greeks used them because they were
convinced that beauty—particularly of the visible and
audible kind—consists in an arrangement and propor-


tion of parts, in form. This was their great contribution
to aesthetic theory.

This aesthetic theory, as testified by Aristotle, origi-
nated among Pythagoreans, probably in the fifth cen-
tury B.C., and claimed that beauty consists in a well-
defined simple proportion of parts. Strings produce
harmonious sounds when their length is in proportion
to the relatively simple ratio of one to two (octave)
or two to three (fifth). A portico of a temple is perfect
if its height, width, and the arrangement of columns
are computed according to the accepted module (in
the Doric temples architects regarded five to eight as
the correct ratio of the width of columns to the space
between). A man, as well as a monument, is beautiful
when his proportions are correct; sculptors observed
the one to eight ratio of the head to the body and
one to three of the forehead to the face.

The Pythagoreans, convinced that beauty depends
on proportions, expressed this in a very general for-
mula: “order and proportion are beautiful and useful”
(Stobaeus IV, 1, 40). “No art comes about without
proportion. All art therefore arises through number.
So there is a certain proportion in sculpture and also
in painting. Generally speaking, every art is a system
of perceptions, and a system implies number; one can
therefore justly say: things look beautiful by virtue of
number” (Sextus Empiricus VII, 106).

The Pythagoreans, point of view was maintained by
Plato: “It is always beautiful and virtuous to preserve
measure and proportions” (Philebus 64E). “Ugliness
means simply a lack of measure” (Sophist 228A).
Aristotle's view was similar: “Beauty consists in mag-
nitude and ordered arrangement” (Poetics 1450b 38).
Just as the Stoics thought: “Bodily beauty is the pro-
portion of limbs in their mutual relation and in relation
to the whole; so is it the case with the beauty of the
soul” (Stobaeus II, 62, 15). Cicero thought similarly:
“Harmonious symmetry of limbs engages the attention
and delights the eye” (De officiis I, 28, 98). Of the six
qualities of architecture that Vitruvius recognized as
many as four (ordinatio, dispositio, eurythmia, sym-
) consist in the correct arrangement or disposi-
tion of parts (De architectura I, 2, 1). It is rather unusual
for a general theory to meet with such a universal
acceptance over so long a period of time. A nine-
teenth-century historian of aesthetics, R. Zimmermann,
maintained that the principle of ancient art was form
(Zimmermann, p. 192). This view is correct, and refers
to the meaning of form as an orderly disposition and
proportion of parts.

The privileged position of form as orderly disposition
was not called in question until Plotinus, at the close
of antiquity in the third century A.D. While agreeing
that the proportion of parts is the basis of beauty he
disputed whether proportion is regarded as its only
basis (Enneads I 6, 1; VI 7, 22). Had that been the
case, only composite things could then be beautiful,
whereas there are things which though simple are yet
beautiful, e.g., the sun, light, gold. Beauty therefore,
as Plotinus said, lies not only in proportions but in the
luster of things as well. Since that time the position
of form A, although still privileged in the theory of
art, has ceased to be exclusive.

In the Middle Ages aesthetics had appeared in not
one but two varieties. According to the one which was
true to the ancient Greek tradition, beauty and art
consisted in form alone. Saint Augustine supported and
unheld this theory: “Every thing pleases only by
beauty; in beauty, by shapes; in shapes, by proportions;
and in proportions, by numbers” (De ordine II 15, 42).
No Greek in classical antiquity ever expressed this old
Hellenic idea more emphatically than this Father of
the Church. “There is no ordered thing which is not
beautiful” (De vera religione XLI, 77). And again:
“Beautiful things please us by their number” (De
VI 12, 38). And lastly: “The more measure,
shape, and order there is in all things, the more they
have that is good” (De natura boni 3). This triad
(modus, species, ordo) became the formula of medieval
aesthetics and survived a thousand years. It was re-
peated literally in the thirteenth century by the great
scholastic compendium Summa Alexandri: “A thing is
said to be beautiful in the world when it observes the
proper measure, form, and order—modum, speciem, et
” (Quaracchi ed., II, 103). Taken together they
were synonyms of what we call form.

In the Middle Ages the principal term for form A
was figura (from the Latin fingere, to shape). Abélard
defined it as a disposition of the body (compositio
), both of the model and of the work of art
(ed. Geyer, p. 236). However, the term forma was also
used in this meaning. As early as in the sixth century
Isidore of Seville composed both terms figura and
forma (Differentiae, Ch. 1). In the twelfth century
Gilbert de la Porrée wrote: “Form is used in many
meanings; also in the meaning of the figure of bodies”
(Porretanus, p. 1138). The treatise Sententiae divini-
(ed. Geyer, p. 101), dating from the same century,
stressed the distinction between the conceptual form
(form D) and visual form (form A). Clarembaldus of
Arras defined form (A) as follows: “Form is the appro-
priate arrangement of parts in material things” (ed.
Jansen, p. 91). Alain of Lille considered as synonyms:
form, shape (figura), measure, number, connection
(Patrologia Latina, Vol. 210, col. 504). The ancient
symmetry, harmony, proportion was called form.

This usage lasted until the end of the Middle Ages.
As Duns Scotus formulated it: “Form and figure are


the external disposition of things” (ed. Garcia, p. 281).
Also, in the works of Ockham it was part of their
regular terminology: form was on a par with figure
(ed. Baudry, p. 225 and p. 94).

The adjective formosus was, fairly early, incorpo-
rated into the language of art. This adjective meant
the same as shapely, well-proportioned, beautiful; it
conveyed a favorable aesthetic judgment, and was a
sign of the appreciation of form in the Middle Ages.
Then followed the noun formositas (“shapeliness”),
which meant the same as beauty. The negative adjec-
tive deformis (“shapeless,” “ugly”) was also used. In
Bernard of Clairvaux we find a play on the words
formosa deformitas and deformis formositas which he
used to describe the art of his time (Patrologia Latina,
Vol. 182, col. 915).

In its second variety, medieval aesthetics followed
Plotinus with his dualistic conception: beauty consists
in form but not exclusively in form. Just as Augustine
championed the first conception, Pseudo-Dionysius
advocated the second (De divinis nominibus IV, 7). He
is the author of the dual criterion of “proportion and
luster” (proportio et claritas), a conception of beauty
which also had many followers. Robert Grosseteste
described beauty as proportion, but concerning the
beauty of light he maintained that “it is based not on
number, not on measure, and not on weight or anything
else like that, but on sight” (Hexaemeron 147 v). The
second conception won the support of Saint Thomas
Aquinas in his early commentary on In divina nomina
(Ch. IV, lect. 5), and in his Summa theologica (II-a
IIae.180 a.2 ad3): “Beauty consists in a certain luster
and proportion” (Pulchrum consistit in quadam
claritate et proportione

Both trends in aesthetics, with their different ap-
proaches to form A, persisted during the Renaissance.
The line advocated by Pseudo-Dionysius was kept alive
by the Platonic Academy in Florence. Its head,
Marsilio Ficino remarked: “Some regard beauty as an
arrangement of component parts, or to use their own
words, commensurability and proportion.... We do
not accept this view because this kind of arrangement
occurs only in composites and, therefore, no simple
thing can be beautiful. However, pure colors, lights,
separate sounds, the glitter of gold and silver, knowl-
edge, the soul, are all called beautiful and are all pure
and simple” (Convivium V 1). This was in agreement
with the beliefs of Plotinus and his medieval followers.
Pico della Mirandola's pronouncements were similar.
However, the representatives of this dualistic concep-
tion were in a minority during the Renaissance.

It was the classical theory which again became pre-
dominant; namely, that beauty consists exclusively in
the disposition and proportion of parts, in form (A).
This was the case in Alberti's treatises which formu
lated the Renaissance theory of beauty and art: “Beauty
is a harmony of all the mutually adapted parts” (De
re aedificatoria
VI 2); “... beauty is a concordance
and mutual attunement of parts.” The consonance of
parts determining beauty was called by Alberti con-
serto, consenso, concordantia, corrispondenza,
and par-
ticularly concinnitas. Following Alberti the last term
was most commonly used in the Renaissance to de-
scribe perfect form. Nevertheless, Alberti used other
names too: ordine, numero, grandezza, collocatione e
(ibid., IX 5).

Alberti had followers. In 1525 Cardinal Bembo
wrote: “The body is beautiful when its members are
in proportion to each other, just as with the soul whose
virtues are in mutual harmony” (Gli Asolani I). The
great Palladio saw the excellence of architecture in
forme belle e regolate (Palladio, I, 1, p. 6). And the
philosopher-mathematician Cardano explained once
more that beauty depends on simple proportions (De
p. 275).

This conception of art based on form persisted in
seventeenth-century France. It is most clearly stated
by Nicolas Poussin. It appears also in the French
Academy, where a particular stress was placed on the
rules which govern form. We find it in the writings
of the academic theorists André Félibien, Abraham
Bosse, Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy, Henri Testelin
(Tatarkiewicz, Historia Estetyki, III, 389, n. 471). The
classical conception was advanced by François Blondel,
author of a classic work on architecture; according to
him, in a building the following are essential: “l'ordre,
la situation, l'arrangement, la forme, le nombre, la
proportion” (Blondel, p. 785).

The supremacy of form—if form is understood as
a simple, conspicuous disposition of parts which can
be defined in numbers—declined in the eighteenth
century under the spell of romanticism. Nevertheless,
it soon revived, in the neo-classicism of the end of the
century, in the writings of Johann Joachim Winckel-
mann and Quatremère de Quincy. De Quincy (p. 66)
proclaimed true beauty to be “geometrical.” And in-
dependently of all artistic trends, of classicism and
romanticism, Kant declared in 1790 that “in all the
fine arts the essential element consists, of course, in
form” (Kritik der Urteilskraft, sec. 52).

In the first half of the nineteenth century idealische
(“ideal Beauty”) distracted aestheticians
away from form but only briefly. The term embodying
the concept of form A reappeared in J. F. Herbart's
aesthetics and especially in the writings of his disciple,
R. Zimmermann, whose entire aesthetics was conceived
as Formwissenschaft (“science of form”), precisely in
the sense of form A, that is, of the interrelation of

The recognition of the importance of formal rela-


tions in the arts is not a modern achievement; formal
relations were the foundation of Greek aesthetics. On
the other hand, it is indeed true to say that in certain
trends in art and art theory, the twentieth century has
again brought form to the fore in several meanings of
the term, including that of form A. Stanislaw I.
Witkiewicz and the adherents of “formism” and pure
form defended form A in Poland, Clive Bell and Roger
Fry in England. Emotions connected with figurative
art, Fry said, quickly evaporate and those which remain
spring from a purely formal relation: “what remains,
what never grows less nor evaporates, are the feelings
dependent on the purely formal relation.

Twentieth-century artists and theoreticians concur
on this point even when some of them use different
terminology. Instead of “form” Charles Jeanneret (Le
Corbusier) said “invariants” (esprit Nouveau, 1921). He
also said: la science et l'art ont l'idéal commun de
généraliser, ce qui est la plus haute fin de l'esprit
ence and art share the common ideal of generalizing,
which is the highest goal of the mind”).

Among those who in the twentieth century have
been concerned with the problem of form in art some,
like E. Monod-Herzen, give it a purely geometrical
interpretation, and others, like M. Ghyka, a mystical
one. The ancients, especially the Pythagoreans, were
familiar with both interpretations. While the whole
ancient theory of art attached particular importance
to form, the twentieth century sees only some move-
ments in art theory doing the same, but in a more
radical way.

A noted contemporary American aesthetician, Karl
Aschenbrenner, has offered the following solution to
the controversy over form: form alone (meaning form
A) does not determine the aesthetic impact of a work
of art, which is also composed of elements, but only
form can be analyzed adequately and is, therefore,
alone fit to be the subject of aesthetic theory. This view
is a new solution to the old problem.

Surveying two thousand years of the history of form
A, we notice another point; namely, form used to mean
either any arrangement of parts or more exclusively,
a correct, beautiful, harmonious, and orderly arrange-
ment; synonyms of this narrower sense of form A were
symmetria, concordantia, concinnitas. Particularly with
the Pythagoreans and Augustine, form used to mean
an arrangement or order which is rational, regular, and
expressible by numbers; this more specific meaning
explains the Greek and scholastic synonyms of form,
e.g., numerus and ordo. A more thorough analysis will
therefore distinguish any arrangement (form A) from
a harmonious or regular order (a subspecies, form A1).

The narrowing of the concept of form A to the more
specific form A1, in the sense that only an outstanding
form is worthy of its name, may be illustrated in many
fields. In Latin paleography, from the thirteenth to the
fifteenth century, a certain style of writing was called
litteraformata, but only when it was used for the
copying of important, biblical and liturgical texts, and
had a ceremonial character. Furthermore, in ordinary
everyday handwriting, litteracursiva, a refined variant
appeared around 1400 and was called cursiva formata.

“Structure” is an often used term in recent years,
and its meaning is close to that of form A. However,
it usually refers only to nonaccidental forms created
by inner forces or internal drives. Consequently it
applies rather to biological or geological structures;
but recently, the term and concept of structure have
been adopted in the theory of art. This usage expresses
the tendency to regard forms of works of art as
products of natural processes. If we are to include
structures in the “family” of forms, they may be con-
sidered closely related to form A, particularly to form
A1, but sui generis are a second subspecies, form A2.

The History of Form B. While the first sense of form
(A) refers to arrangement or order, the second sense
(B) refers to the appearance of things. The correlates
of form A are component elements, parts, colors in
painting, sounds in music; in form B, the correlates
are content, import, meaning. The impressionists stress
the importance of form in appearance, and the abstract
painters stress form in arrangement.

Formalists have been advocating both form A and
form B, and occasionally confound the two concepts.
Yet as early as the thirteenth century, Saint Bonaven-
tura drew a clear line of division, using figura as a
synonym of form: Figura dicitur... uno modo disposi-
tio ex clausione linearum... secundo modo exterior
rei facies sive pulchritudo
(Quaracchi ed., V, 393). Here
“form” (figura) has a twofold meaning: first, it is an
arrangement enclosed within boundary lines; secondly,
it is an external appearance or beauty of a thing.

(1) The ancient Sophists were the first to single out
form B and to emphasize its importance, e.g., in the
realm of poetry by separating the “sound of words”
from their “significant content”; the “sound of words”
and “beautiful rhythm” constituted the form in poetry.
The distinction between form and content was pre-
served in Hellenistic poetics. Posidonius' definition of
poetry distinguished the word from its meaning, or
“verbal expression” from its “content” (in Philodemus,
ed. Jansen, p. 25). Following Demetrius another for-
mula contrasting form with content was used: “what
the work communicates” and “how it communicates
it” (De elecutione [1508], p. 75). This formula is the
vaguest and most flexible of all.

Some trends of poetics in late antiquity not only
selected “wording” as form, but attached special
importance to it as the very essence of poetry. Cicero
and Quintilian believed that “judgment of the ears”


(aurium judicium) is important in oratory and poetry;
even as early as the third century B.C., for some Greek
scholars the judgment of the ears was the only judg-
ment that mattered. The names of these ancient
formalists are known; one of them, Crates, maintained
that pleasant sound makes the only difference between
good and bad poetry; Heracleodor was even more
specific when he considered good poetry as a pleasing
arrangement of sounds, thus uniting forms A and B.
Hellenistic scholars not only contrasted form with
content in poetry, but also regarded form as superior.

In the Middle Ages, form (compositio verborum) and
content (Sententia veritatis) were even more sharply
opposed to one another, as external and internal factors
of poetry. The scholastics called content “the internal
sense” (Sententia interior) and form “the external verbal
ornament” (superficialis ornatus verborum). They dis-
tinguished two kinds of form: one purely sensory, i.e.,
acoustic (quae mulcet aurem) or musical (suavitas
); the other, mental or conceptual form, the
manner of expression (modus dicendi), embraced tropes
and metaphors and was on the whole optical in kind,
employing images and constituting the visual aspect
of poetry. These distinctiones were elaborated chiefly
by Mathieu of Vendôme (Ars..., ed. Faral, p. 153).
Form B thus includes ornatus verborum and modus

In medieval poetics beside two kinds of form there
were two kinds of content (Sententia interior); one
comprised the subject of a work (fondus rerum) and
the plot of the events narrated, the other consisted of
the ideological content, the religious or metaphysical

In Renaissance poetics the dividing line between
form and content was just as distinct. The terms used
were verba and res. Invention (inventio) and thought
(sententia) were included in content; wording (elocutio)
belonged to form. Some writers like Fracastoro and
Castelvetro called form an instrument (stromento),
intimating thereby an inferior role for form (B.
Weinberg). On the other hand, writers like Robortello
saw the real purpose and value of poetry in beautifully
and properly ordered words, that is, in form B.

Form acquired a still higher status in the aesthetics
of literary mannerism; while one trend within manner-
ism, called conceptismo, aimed at subtlety of thought
(that is, of content), another (culturanismo) strove for
subtlety of language—that is, of Form B (Gracián).
However, if we are to contrast form with content in
line with Demetrius' formula (“what is said” and “how
it is said”), then we notice that the whole movement
of literary mannerism was centered on form exclu-
sively. However, the term “form” was rarely used
because the Aristotelians in taking possession of it
employed it in a different sense (discussed below as
form D). The ideas of form (B) and its content were
employed only in poetics, in which domain they were
used for many centuries and occupied a position of
paramount importance.

(2) In the eighteenth century the problem of the
relation of form to content ceased attracting attention;
in the meantime other problems came to the fore. The
term “form” and its synonyms were seldom en-
countered in poetics. The problem was revived in the
nineteenth century not only in poetics but in the theory
of all arts. By the middle of that century “form” (i.e.,
form B) appeared in the theory of music (E. Hanslick)
and soon after in the theory of fine arts. This change
was fundamental because previously the concept of
form B had been applied only to poetics.

In the art of the word, form and content were two
separate items because only in this art do they form
two different, clearly divided, and very dissimilar
strata, viz., words and things (verba and res). Here the
form is linguistic, the content material. The reader is
presented directly only with words by means of which
he may indirectly represent things. Such a duality of
form and content does not exist in other arts.

However, musical works express something; works
of painting and sculpture express, mean, or denote
something, and what they express, mean, or denote
seems to constitute their content and not their form.
Nevertheless, the situation is different in these arts
because in none of them can we find two strata as
dissimilar as words and things. The content of a novel
lies beyond the printed page seen by the reader; on
the other hand, the content of a picture (for instance
the river Seine in Monet's picture), is seen in the
picture. What lies beyond the picture is not the content
but its subject, its model, or whatever the painter

The concepts of form (B) and its correlated content
changed when applied to the visual arts; one might
even say that next to the old concept of form in poetics,
a new concept of form (B1), more universal and vague,
came into existence. For a long time no occasion arose
to confuse these two concepts, form A and form B,
because the first was applied mainly to the visual arts
and the second only to poetry. Confusion arose when
form B was introduced to the theory of the visual arts
in addition to form A. “Form” was then used in both
senses at the same time. “Only form is important”
intimated, first, that only the appearance (not the con-
tent) is important, and, secondly, that within the ap-
pearance only arrangement (not the elements); that is,
only form B matters, but also form A within form B,
thus overlooking the distinction between the two
meanings of “form.”


(3) Another important turning point in the history
of form B occurred when a new question was raised:
Which is the more important in art, form or content?
Formerly considered equally necessary and comple-
mentary, form and content, in the nineteenth and
especially in the twentieth century, began to compete
with each other. The debate was intensified by radical
supporters of “pure” form; the years 1920-39 heralded
the ideas of formalism, suprematism, unism, purism,
neo-plasticism; also, Malevitch's pronouncements in
Russia, Clive Bell's in England, Le Corbusier's in
France, the formists' in Poland, P. Mondrian's in

The moderate statement of formalism appears in a
formulation like Le Corbusier's that in a true work
of art “form is the most important thing.” According
to extreme formalism only form is important, or stated
negatively, content does not matter. The extreme view
implies that the subject, narrative content, corre-
spondence with reality, the idea itself, the thing repre-
sented by the work of art, and even the feelings ex-
pressed by it are all unimportant. In extreme formalism
content is unnecessary, only form is needed; content
will not help but may harm art. According to the
formula of H. Focillon, forms are neither signs nor
images since they signify and express only themselves.
On the other hand, W. Kandinsky remarked: “Form
without content is not a hand but an empty glove filled
with air. An artist loves form passionately just as he
loves his tools or the smell of turpentine, because they
are all powerful means in the service of content”
(Cahiers d'art, 1 [1935], 4).

Finally, an important distinction between two kinds
of form was made: those with a corresponding content
and those having none. In fact there are figurative
forms representative of things, or reproducing objec-
tive forms, and forms which are abstract or nonrepre-
sentative. This duality of forms had been noticed as
long ago as Plato, who contrasted “the beauty of living
beings” with “the beauty of a straight line and circle”
(Philebus 51C). In the eighteenth century this duality
of form had been recognized in the theory of art; Kant
distinguished between free (freie) and dependent beauty
(anhängende Schönheit), and Home similarly had dis-
criminated between “intrinsic” and “relative beauty.”

However, the sharp contrast between the two kinds
of form has been questioned; Kandinsky, himself an
abstract painter, regarded abstract form as no more
than an extreme link in a continuous chain of forms
from the purely representative to the abstract. To say
nothing of the fact that various abstract forms are
inspired by real objects and that the effect of abstract
forms on the viewer is frequently due to associations
with real objects. In any case, the twentieth century
has seen form B elevated to the highest place in the
theory of art.

The History of Form C. In many dictionaries the
explanation of form begins with a third meaning given
here of this term. A Lalande's French dictionary of
philosophy gives as a first definition of form: “a
geometrical figure made up of the contours of objects.”
Similarly, in P. Robert's dictionary of the French lan-
guage, the long list of meanings of the term begins
with the definition: form is a “set of contours of ob-

In everyday speech “form” frequently has this
meaning, which seems to be the original and natural
one, compared with which all the others appear meta-
phorical or at least derivative. Thus conceived this
sense of form (form C) is synonymous with contour,
figure, and shape; its meaning is close to that of surface

Form C is known also outside of everyday speech;
it is used in art, specifically in visual arts where it is
applied to the works of architects, sculptors, painters.
These comprise the artists who attempt to reproduce
or construct forms conceived as contours. If form B
is a natural concept in poetics, form C is the natural
one for the visual arts, which are concerned with
spatial forms.

Form C played an important part in the history of
the theory of art only from the fifteenth to the eight-
eenth century, but it was indeed the basic idea during
that period. It also appeared under the names “figure”
or “drawing” (in Latin texts figura predominated; in
Italian writers disegno was more popular). “Form” was
used in those centuries rather with the different shade
of meaning discussed below as form D (substantial
form). “Drawing” was the natural synonym for form
as contour. G. Vasari in his Lives of the Painters (Vite
..., I, 168) considered drawing as similar to a form
(simile a una forma). Another late Renaissance writer,
F. Zuccaro, defined drawing as a form without bodily

Form C concerns only drawing, not color, and there
lies the obvious difference between forms C and B.
For sixteenth-century writers contour (form C) and
color represented two opposite extremes in painting.
Paolo Pino wrote about it in 1548 in his Dialogo di
In the seventeenth century a rivalry ensued
in the visual arts between form and color. Drawing
was considered more important, particularly in aca-
demic circles: “Let the drawing always point the way
and serve as a compass,” Lebrun said; he was the
dictator in art during the reign of Louis XIV (Lebrun,
pp. 36, 38). H. Testelin, the historiographer, declared
to the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture: “A
good and competent draughtsman, even if he is a


mediocre colorist deserves more respect than one who
paints beautiful colors but draws badly” (Sentiments
..., p. 37).

The supremacy of form as drawing ended at the start
of the eighteenth century, when, with the emergence
of Roger de Piles and the Rubenists, color gained a
position parallel to that of drawing. The rivalry and
arguments died down, and the contrasting of form (C)
with color lost its topical interest.

Comparing the three histories, briefly given above,
we may note that the most long-lived one was that
of form A as arrangement, followed by form B as
appearance, and form C as drawing. In antiquity par-
ticular value was attached to form A, in the Renais-
sance form C was favored, and in the twentieth century
form B was stressed.

When critics at times write that a work “lacks form,”
we may well wonder whether it is possible for a work
of art, or for that matter, for any object to be without
form? The correct answer will be that it depends on
what we understand by “form.” Objects cannot be
without form A because their parts must be arranged
in some way. However, this arrangement may not be
an orderly or harmonious one, and therefore may lack
form in sense A1. So likewise with forms B and C, since
no material object can exist without appearance or
contour. On the other hand, not every object has an
important or, to use Clive Bell's expression, “significant
form.” W. Strzemiński (a Polish painter and theorist)
insisted on the “inequality of 'form',” its “knots,” and

We recall the words of the distinguished philosopher
Ernst Cassirer who declared that to see the forms of
things (rerum videre formas) is a no less important and
indispensable task than to know the causes of things
(rerum cognoscere causas) (Essay on Man, sec. 9).
Though beautiful this formula is not quite precise
because it is unclear which of the three concepts of
form Cassirer means.

The History of Form D (Substantial Form). The
fourth concept of form was initiated by Aristotle. He
used morphē for form in various senses, e.g., shape or
figure, but primarily as a synonym for his particular
concept of eidos , entelechia. He thus regarded form
as the essence of a thing, its nonaccidental component:
“By form I mean the essence of each thing” (Meta-
1032b 1, trans. W. D. Ross; see also 1050b
2; 1041b 8; 1034a 43). He identified form with act,
energy, aim, and with the dynamic element of exist-
ence. This use of form may appear metaphorical to
us but it was not so in antiquity. It was basic in
Aristotle's metaphysics, but neither he nor his followers
in antiquity ever used it in aesthetics.

However, in the Middle Ages, when in the thirteenth
century the scholastics accepted the Aristotelian con-
cept of substantial form, they introduced it into aes-
thetics. They did it in connection with the old idea
derived from Pseudo-Dionysius that beauty consists in
both the right proportion and luster (claritas, splendor)
of objects. “Luster” became identified with Aristotelian
form, and what resulted was the peculiar idea that the
beauty of an object depends on its metaphysical essence
when revealed in its appearance. The first to offer this
interpretation was probably Albert the Great; for him
beauty consisted in the luster of substantial form (form
D) revealing itself in matter, but only when it has the
right proportion (form A) (ed. Mandonnet, V, 420-21).

This viewpoint was maintained by the Albertine
school, in particular, by Ulrich of Strassburg, who
tersely wrote: “substantial form is the beauty of every
object” (ed. Grabmann, pp. 73-74). Other contem-
porary schools, such as the Franciscan and Augustinian,
thought the same way. Bonaventura accepted this view
and inferred that since beauty consists in substantial
form, and since every being, has such a form, every
being is beautiful: omne quod est ens habet aliquam
formam, omne autem quod habet aliquam formam
habet pulchritudinem
(Quaracchi ed., II, 814).

The use of form D in aesthetics reached its zenith
but also its end in the thirteenth century: though char-
acteristic of the high Middle Ages, it did not survive.
“Substantial form” along with the whole of Aristotelian
philosophy lasted until the sixteenth century but least
of all in aesthetics. Some traces could still be found,
e.g., in the writings of Vincenzo Danti, a scholar in
the sixteenth century who said that shape in art origi-
nates in a perfetta forma intenzionale (Danti, Book I,
Ch. 11); also in the theories of the painter Federigo
Zuccaro, who identified drawing with form and form
with idea, rule, knowledge (Book I, Ch. 2). These traces
of Aristotelian form in aesthetics became extinct in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. F. Baldinucci,
in his dictionary (1681), describes form as a philo-
sophical but not aesthetic term, and so does Richelet
(1719). Form D ceased as an aesthetic meaning, and
was certainly not used in the nineteenth century.

However, in the twentieth century, this conception
under different names seems to be revived in the works
of abstract painters, such as P. Mondrian or Ben
Nicholson. When Mondrian writes that “... a modern
artist knows that the feeling of beauty is cosmic and
universal,” or that new art “expresses a universal ele-
ment of things because it reconstructs cosmic relations
(Seuphor, p. 144), then he is praising a sense of form
similar to what the Aristotelians called “substantial

The historian of aesthetics will note also that “form”
was used not only for Aristotle's entelechies but also


for Plato's Ideas. Medieval translators of Plato's works
did so, and they were followed by translators of Plato
into modern languages. Translating “idea” by “form”
is justified to some extent by the fact that in everyday
Greek, “idea” meant shape, approaching form B, but
a different meaning was introduced then by Plato. The
translators, however, followed the original everyday
meaning of idea as form. As a result, “form” acquired
another metaphysical meaning, which never achieved
the same currency as form D, entelechy, in aesthetics.
Of course, the Platonic Idea has played a considerable
role in the history of aesthetics but not under the name

The History of Form E (A Priori Form). The fifth
concept of form was created by Kant. He described
form as a property of mind which compels us to expe-
rience things in a particular “form.” This Kantian form
(here called form E) is the a priori sense of form; we
find it in objects only because it is imposed upon them
by the subject. Thanks to its subjective origin, form
E is endowed with the unusual attributes of universality
and necessity.

(1) Did Kant have any precursors? Was his concept
of form known to anyone before? The Marburg School
attributed this concept to Plato, claiming that his a
approach was similar to Kant's, and that Plato
understood “ideas” as forms of the mind. Plato's
Theaetetus appears to confirm this interpretation;
however, a more ontological conception dominated his

Nicholas of Cusa (Cusanus), an early Renaissance
thinker and follower of Plato, reflected over the nature
of form in art: “Forms originate only through human
art.... An artist does not imitate shapes of natural
objects; he only renders matter capable of accepting
the form of art”; and further: “Every visible form will
constitute the likeness and image of the true and in-
visible form existing in the mind” (Cusanus, p. 219).
This formulation in the pre-Kantian theory of art is
probably closest to the Kantian meaning of form.

(2) Kant himself prepares a surprise for us. In his
Critique of Pure Reason he discovered the a priori
forms of knowledge in the mind: forms of space and
time and categories like substance and causality. When
later he embarked upon the critique of aesthetic valu-
ation in his Critique of Judgment (1790), one might
have expected that he would have also discovered in
the mind permanent, universal, and necessary forms.
But surprisingly enough, he did not detect in aesthetics
any a priori forms analogous to those he found in the
theory of knowledge. He did not think that beauty was
determined by permanent forms of mind but by unique
gifts of artistic talent. Essential forms (form E) of
beauty do not exist, for Kant; beauty has been, and
always will be, created anew by geniuses. In short, in
aesthetics a priori forms (D) play no role.

(3) The successors of Kant who developed his theo-
ries in the nineteenth century also failed to detect any
a priori forms in aesthetics. However, such forms were
discovered in the last quarter of the century, in 1887,
by Konrad Fiedler, a thinker who was not a Kantian;
in philosophy he followed J. F. Herbart. Vision had
for him its universal form, just as knowledge had its
a priori form for Kant. Fiedler admitted that men may
lose the right form of vision; however, artists preserve
it in their work. Artistic vision and visual arts are not
results of free play of the imagination, as Kant thought:
they are governed by the laws and forms of vision.

Fiedler's understanding of the forms of vision was
still vague. A clearer definition was given by his disci-
ples and successors: the sculptor A. von Hildebrand,
two art historians, A. Riegl and H. Wölfflin, and the
philosopher A. Riehl. Hildebrand's Problem der Form
(1893) was an important turning point. He made a
distinction between two forms of visual images: the
nearby (Nahbild) and the distant (Fernbild). A clear
image can be seen only from a distance; only then does
a distinct and consolidated form appear which the
work of art requires and which can provide aesthetic

The rapidity of changes in artistic trends, especially
during the nineteenth century, could not but produce
skeptical feelings about any single form of artistic
vision; there must be more than one such form; in the
history of art a variety of forms succeed one another
in coming to the fore. As a result a pluralistic concep-
tion of the a priori form E of art came into existence,
and became characteristic of art theories in the first
half of the twentieth century, particularly in Central
Europe. Consequently, form E has many alternative
forms; they are not timeless, permanent as in Fiedler,
but correspond to, and change with, the times. This
conception is best known in Wölfflin's formulation. He
illustrated the alternative variety of forms in the tran-
sition from the Renaissance to the baroque, from the
linear to the plastic form, from the closed to the open
form. The Austrian school, under A. Riegl's leadership,
demonstrated the fluctuations of art between the
optical and haptic (tactile or kinesthetic) forms. J.
Schlosser, close to this school, contrasted crystalline
form with organic form; W. Worringer, abstract with
empathetic form (Abstraction und Einfühling); W.
Deonna, primitive with classical form. Though they
differed they accepted form E in its pluralism.

The History of Other Forms. There are still other
meanings of form which, though less important, are
used in the theory and practice of the arts.

(1) The name “form” is sometimes given to tools


which serve to produce forms, e.g., the forms used by
sculptors, potters, tinners, and others. We may call
them forms F; they are employed in making forms,
and at the same time are forms. Often, as in the case
of sculptor's forms, they are negatives of the forms
which will be created with their help. Some of them,
namely, sculptors' and potters' forms, are used for
shaping the form we have called form C, whereas
others, such as the tinctorial and printing forms, give
objects color as well as shape, thus producing forms
in the meaning of form A. History shows that the
importance of form F in art is increasing. Even archi-
tects are now making use of such forms in the produc-
tion of prefabricated elements for the construction and
facing of buildings.

(2) In the history of the visual arts, as in the history
of music or literature, forms are frequently discussed
in yet another meaning: conventional, traditionally or
commonly accepted forms, binding on the composer
or writer who uses them. Once accepted, for whatever
reason, they are ready and waiting to be used. These
forms, which we may call form G, are exemplified in
literature by the forms of the sonnet or of tragedy with
the “three unities” (place, time, and action); in music,
the forms of the fugue or sonata; in architecture, the
peripteros (“array of columns”) or the Ionic order; the
bosquet form in Italian and French gardening; the
zwiebelmuster (“onion pattern”) design in Saxon por-
celain. These forms are partly structural and partly
ornamental. Though they are all forms A, a few of them
are forms G. Many forms G have a long and venerable
history, their Golden Age going back to antiquity when
almost every variety of art was enclosed within such
forms. Medieval art was also restricted by such con-
trolling forms, as was also eighteenth-century classi-
cism. Romanticism undermined the old forms, but also
created new ones in their place. In avant-garde art the
departure from stable and conventional forms seems
thoroughgoing: every artist wishes to have his own
way. History appears to show that art moves way from
forms G. It is, however, possible for new stable forms
to be created.

(3) “Form” of art may also mean a kind or variety
of that art. In an expression like “new forms of paint-
ing” form is used in the same sense as that in a “form
of government” or a “form of disease.” The term is
used but does not belong in the theory of art; it is
simply a convenient way of expressing the multiplicity
of the arts: ars una, species mille. In our catalogue
of forms, we may list it as form H.

Nor are all the meanings of “form” in art exhausted
by the above. Their great number has been known and
remarked upon long ago. In the twelfth century Gilbert
de la Porrée wrote: “one talks about form in many
meanings.” In the thirteenth century Robert Grosse-
teste (p. 109) distinguished three meanings: (a) as a
model, e.g., a sandal used as a form (pattern) for making
sandals; (b) as a casting mold, e.g., for a statue; (c) as
an image in the mind of an artist. Bonaventura's dis-
tinction between two meanings of form was given

Some of the concepts of form discussed above have
disappeared and belong to the past; the concept of
form D is not needed by modern aestheticians, and
form E has acquired new names. Form F is used rather
in artists' workshops than in art theory; form G is a
technical expression of theoreticians of art; form H may
easily be replaced by other expressions. In all these
cases there is no danger of confusing their respective
meanings. However, concepts A, B, and C are closely
related and are likely to be mixed up; and yet since
they are so intimately linked with the name “form”
it would be wrong to deprive them of that usage. Thus
there does not appear to be any prospect of eliminating
the ambiguity of “form” in aesthetics and in the theory
of art. But once we are aware of the various meanings
of the term, it ceases to be harmful.

Summary. The history of the five conceptions of
form developed along diverse lines. For an astonish-
ingly long time form A has been the basic concept
in art theory. Form B has been sporadically contrasted
with and placed above content in works of art, for
example, in the Hellenistic period, but never to such
an extent as in the twentieth century. Form C was
peculiar to art in the sixteenth and seventeenth cen-
turies. Form D was a distinctive feature of high scho-
lasticism. Form E aroused no interest until the end of
the nineteenth century.


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[See also Beauty; Iconography; Impressionism; Naturalism
in Art; Structuralism; Style.]