T.E.Hulme and Wilhelm Worringer

After the fifth of his 'Notes on Bergson', published in February 1912, Hulme disappears for a while from the New Age only to reappear early in 1914 as the defender of what one might have thought was a 'NEW art' - the art that would soon come to be known as Vorticism. He had not previously shown any signs of any particular interest in painting but now he appears in particular as a champion of 'abstract' art. One could say that it was precisely the possibility of 'abstract' art that excited his interest in painting. It can never be sufficiently stressed how many of the pioneers of what is called 'modernism' saw themselves as deeply anti-modernist.

His thinking was now influenced by an encounter with the young German art historian Wilhelm Worringer, author of the highly influential Abstraction and Empathy. (8) Hulme heard Worringer lecture in Berlin in October 1913 and in January 1914 he himself delivered a lecture largely based on Worringer's ideas to an audience that included Pound and Lewis. The lecture appears in Speculations under the title 'Modern Art and its Philosophy'.

(8) Wilhelm Worringer: Abstraction and empathy - a contribution to the psychology of style, Chicago, Elephant paperbacks, 1997. 1st German publication 1908. 1st publication in English, 1953

Worringer was not - at least at the time he published Abstraction and Empathy - particularly concerned with 'modern art'. He belonged to a school of German art historians who argued that the art of different human cultures should not be judged by 'modern' - meaning at the time 'realist' or 'naturalist' - criteria:

'Every style represented the maximum bestowal of happiness for the humanity that created it. This must become the supreme dogma of all objective consideration of the history of art. What appears from our standpoint the greatest distortion must have been at the time, for its creator, the highest beauty and the fulfilment of his artistic volition. Thus all valuations made from our standpoint, from the point of view of our modern aesthetics, which passes judgement exclusively in the sense of the Antique [meaning classical Graeco-Roman - PB], are from a higher standpoint absurdities and platitudes.' (p.13)

In particular Worringer identified 'abstraction' and 'empathy' as the perfectly valid though contradictory expressions of two quite different ways of experiencing the world. Empathy was characteristic of the art of a society at ease with its environment - the artist loved what he saw around him and wanted to reproduce it in his art. It was a pantheistic art - nature and its appearances were seen as embodying the highest, divine principles. Abstraction by contrast was an art that was suspicious of the world, seeing it as an unruly chaos that needed to be disciplined:

'Whereas the precondition for the urge to empathy is a happy pantheistic relationship of confidence between man and the phenomena of the external world, the urge to abstraction is the outcome of a great inner unrest inspired in man by the phenomena of the outside world; in a religious respect it corresponds to a strongly transcendental tinge to all notions. We might describe this state as an immense spiritual fear of space ... The less mankind has succeeded, by virtue of its spiritual cognition, in entering into a relation of friendly confidence with the appearance of the outer world, the more forceful is the dynamic that leads to the striving after this highest abstract beauty.' (pp.15-17)

Worringer was not using the term 'abstract' to mean strictly 'non-representational'. He assumes that a strictly non-representational pattern could only be 'decorative' in the most superficial meaning of the word, incapable of expressing anything of human value. Nonetheless the publication of Abstraction and Empathy is certainly an important event in the history of 'abstract art' in the twentieth century. It was - by accident rather than design - published in Munich, in 1908, and, probably to Worringer's surprise, was taken up by the group of artists living in Munich - Franz Marc, Alexei Jawlensky, Wassiliy Kandinsky, Paul Klee - the German 'Expressionists'. Behind Worringer's use of the word 'abstract', however, was another German painter and theorist of art, the Benedictine monk Peter Lenz, founder of the 'School of Beuron' which aimed to do for ecclesiastical art what the revival of Gregorian chant had done for ecclesiastical music (the monastery of Beuron was an important centre of Gregorian chant). In his essay The Aesthetic of Beuron, (9) Lenz said:

'For us, however, the ideas of the eternal and divine are abstract; they do not allow themselves to be brought down to this region without being weakened; they may not be translated into a purely human manner and style. The God-Man, Christ Himself, is not revealed, even when I produce the most exalted model; there is always an ‘inexpressible’ left over, which I can only indicate by typical-geometrical means.' (p.27)

(9)Fr Desiderius Lenz: The Aesthetic of Beuron and other writingsFrancis Boutle publishers, London, 2002

Again, it was not a question of a 'new' art but an attempt to understand the principles of an old art, better suited to the religious sensibility than the sensual opulence of baroque, rococo or romanticism. The Beuron art was flat, hieratic and obviously based on simple geometrical figures and relations, deliberately following - in the case of Lenz - Egyptian or - in the case of his disciple Paulus Krebs - 'Byzantine' (I would rather say 'Eastern Roman') models. Through Gauguin's most distinguished disciple, Paul Sérusier, Lenz's argument for an austere geometrical painting was well known in Paris on the eve of Cubism.