Contextual Studies 7: Modernist Aesthetics

1. What do we mean by ‘Aesthetics’?

The theory of aesthetics is a system of criteria for judging or evaluating a piece of art. A theory states ‘this is how to judge good art’ and ‘if its got this, its good’.

2. Clive Bell (1881-1964)

Background:  Bell is a writer and critic that was associated with multiple young artists in England.

What is Bell’s Hypothesis?

His hypothesis was written in 1914, the same time that artist’s were working in the early 20th century such as Matisse, Kandinsky, Picasso and Braque. This means that it is directly related to their art and the period that we are looking at is one of experiment and change. Bell’s hypothesis stated ‘There must be a single theory of art, there must be a way of finding out what all of these good pieces of art have in common and if we can find out what that is then we have got a theory’. He believed that is was possible to have a single theory of art and these are the questions that he is asking.

Bell’s questions (slide 2)

  1. What is art?
  2. What makes art good or not?

3. Range of artworks (slides 3-10)

Piero della Francesca, Resurrection. (1463-5)


Discipline: an Italian fresco painting meaning it has been painted onto a wall

Culture/ Context: in a church, gallery, or a public building

Era: 1400’s

Giotto, Lamentation. (c. 1305)


Discipline: an Italian fresco painting

Culture/ Context: in a church or a public building with christian and religious context

Era: 1300’s/15th century

Stained glass window, Charters Cathedral. (1200s)


Discipline: French architecture/stained glass

Culture/ Context: gothic style/ religious

Era: 1200’s/13th century

Turkish Plate. (1500s)


Discipline: pottery/ceramics

Culture/ Context: Islamic pattern, Turkish, figurative but not people

Era: 1500’s/16th century

Ancient Egyptian hunting scene. (c. 1500BC)


Discipline: fresco tomb painting

Culture/ Context: figurative, no perspective, flat, side view of face like Picasso’s work

Era: 1500BC

Cezanne, Riverbanks .(1904)


Discipline: oil on canvas, portable and can be moved

Culture/ Context: beginning of cubism, modernist abstraction

Era: 1900’s

Antony Gormley, The Angel of the North. (1988)


Discipline: public sculpture

Culture/ Context: monumental due to its size, made of iron and in the landscape

Era: 1900’s

Antoni Gaudi, Sagrada Familia Cathedral, Barcelona. (1892-1906)


Discipline: architecture

Culture/ Context: religious and still under construction as the artist passed away

Era: 18-1900’s

4. The Aesthetic Hypothesis (1914)

Main points from text;

a) What is ‘aesthetic emotion’ and why is it important? (p.107/I.1-13)

The starting-point for all systems of aesthetics must be the personal experience of a peculiar emotion of sensitive people. All sensitive people agree that there is a peculiar emotion provoked by works of art. On the contrary, every work produces different emotion. But all these emotions are recognisably the same in kind; so far, at any rate, the best opinion is on my side. That there is a peculiar kind of emotion provoked by every kind of visual art, by pictures, sculptures, buildings, pots, carvings, textiles etc. is not disputed, I think, by anyone capable of feeling it. This emotion is called the aesthetic emotion; and if we can discover some quality common and peculiar to all the objects that provoke it, we shall have solved what I take to be the central problem of aesthetics. We shall have discovered the essential quality in a work of art, the quality that distinguishes works of art from all other classes of objects.

b) What is ‘Significant Form’? (p.108/I.1-5)

Cezanne? Only one answer seems possible- significant form. In each, lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, I call ‘Significant Form’; and ‘Significant Form’ is the one quality common to all works of visual art.

c) What is ‘descriptive painting’? (p.108/I.7-15)

The hypothesis that significant form is the essential quality in a work of art has at least one merit denied to many more famous and more striking- it does help to explain things. We are all familiar with pictures that interest us and excite our admiration, but do not move us as works of art. To this class belongs what I call ‘Descriptive Painting’- that is, painting in which forms are used not as objects of emotion, but as means of suggestion emotion or conveying information. Portraits of psychological and historical value, topographical works, pictures that tell stories and suggest situations, illustrations of all sorts, belong to this class. That we all recognise the distinction is clear, for who has not said that such and such a drawing was excellent as illustration, but as a work art worthless?

d) Can ‘descriptive painting’ be good art? (p.108/I.15&16) (p.109/I.4-7)

Let no one imagine that representation is bad in itself; a realistic form may be as significant, in its place as part of the design, as an abstract. But if a representative form has value, it is as form, not as representation.

5. Summary of Bell’s attitude:

Bell looked at form not philosophy.

6. Can we apply it?

a. Fauvism.

Derain, The Bridge at Charing Cross. (1906)


Yes. The subject matter is not important, the painting is about deliberately shocking colour, form evokes some kind of emotion. Bell’s theory works well for these kinds of art works.

b. Cubism (Braque)

Braque, Violin and Jug. (1910)


Yes. Early era of cubism were the colours are dull, abstract form. Cubists are interested in the line and form, the viewer doesn’t need to know anything about the subject matter. Cubists wanted to get the brain working by using fragmented sections to create a visual puzzle, they are cognitive based that forces the viewer to work out what is happening.

c. Grosz/Dix

Dix, The Match Seller. (1921)


No, the theory doesn’t work. To appreciate this painting the viewer needs to know the story. Its a descriptive painting but has significant form, it does give an aesthetic emotion but this can not be appreciated fully due to not knowing the full narrative.

George Grosz, Grey Day. (1921)


Partially suitable. It can’t be appreciated solely for its form as the artist wants the viewer to think and use their imagination, as there has been too much rationality and common sense within art.

d. Surrealism (Magritte)

Rene Magritte, The Human Condition. (1933)


No, cannot be appreciated just for its form. The viewer needs to use the imagination t form perspective.

e. Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation. (19-1911)


Yes, the aesthetic emotion comes mainly from the colour. Kandinsky has theories regarding colours and how the different colours effect the psychology of the viewer.

f. Mondrian

Piet Mondrian, Composition. (1921)


Yes. Mondrian’ s work is all about form. The placing of the colours and the lines are deliberate.

7. Conclusion:

Generally, Bell’s theories are particularly good for abstract work that relies on form and avant-garde art. A lot of people find Mondrian’s work difficult to appreciate as it doesn’t seem as though it was difficult to create, it look simplistic and cold. Bell’s theory is extreme and aimed at abstract art, he’s saying you should just be able to look at the art and appreciate it without having to work it out or use your own existing emotions. Bell’s theory is a way of encompassing abstract art but ignores art that has a political or social messages.

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