Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 14, 2020
Malika Maskarinec The Forces of Form in German Modernism Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018. 240 pp. Paper $34.95 (9780810137691)

As suggested by the title of her erudite and intellectually ambitious new book, Malika Maskarinec argues that form is a dynamic concept in modern German philosophical aesthetics. Using the art historian Heinrich Wölfflin’s notion of Formkraft as a critical lens, Maskarinec reads not only the aesthetic theories of Arthur Schopenhauer, Georg Simmel, Theodor Lipps, and Paul Klee but also the experimental writings of Franz Kafka and Alfred Döblin, in terms of a dynamic whereby form-as-force defies (but also in large part depends on) gravity. Despite some terminological slippage (gravity is frequently equated with the weight of matter; form is now conflated with mechanical “force,” now with moral “uprightness”), the author economizes on her terms when locating her interest in “gravity and the will” as antagonistic, mutually dependent “formative forces” (14).

In the “prelude” or first chapter, Maskarinec considers Schopenhauer’s theory of architecture as the prototype of an “aesthetics of heaviness” (an expression borrowed from Simmel), according to which “architectural form captures our attention and reveals the basic qualities of matter only because of the formally intensified discord between the opposed tendencies of gravity and rigidity” (32). For Maskarinec, Schopenhauer’s thinking extends the notion of a dispersive Zurückstoßungskraft (repulsive counterforce), which Immanuel Kant had proposed as the complement to Newtonian gravity or Anziehungskraft (force of attraction). According to Schopenhauer, Maskarinec indicates, architecture “enacts in miniature” a similar dynamic with its cosmogonic “strife” between matter and form (23) except “when Formkraft supersedes Schwerkraft,” as in the soaring forms of “theatrical” Gothic architecture. By contrast, the weighty solidity of classical architecture is “true to nature,” since “the conflict between rigidity and gravity [is] so openly and naively displayed” (30).

Maskarinec makes little of Schopenhauer’s conservative classicism, presumably because she considers his valorization of materiality and heaviness to be ultimately modern. This is consistent with her second chapter, in which the author reads the philosopher Simmel’s essays on the French sculptor Auguste Rodin as indebted to Schopenhauer, but also as a revision of “classical” values like grace (Anmut). According to Maskarinec, Simmel considers Rodin as representing “in the concrete contours of a sculptural body, the activity of the will as it strives toward form”; furthermore, “the striving will does not belong to a sovereign subject but is a derivative of Schopenhauer’s will as an amalgam of desire, mechanism, and intention” (38–39). This makes for a compelling reading of Simmel, all the more so as Maskarinec links the philosopher’s reception of Rodin to his 1902 essay “Aesthetik der Schwere,” which “announces, in anticipation of the essays on Rodin, his commitment to heaviness as an aesthetic quality” (47). Still, the reader is left wondering how an aesthetic of heaviness could have led to advocacy of both classical architecture and the presumably anticlassical Rodin and how, more importantly, both positions could qualify as equally modernist.

The chapters on Schopenhauer and Simmel, making up the section entitled “An Aesthetics of Heaviness,” are principally concerned with the weight of matter. By contrast, the subsequent two chapters deal with form of a weightless kind, namely abstraction. However, Maskarinec does not conceive of abstraction in disembodied terms but in accordance to “the [German] tradition of empathy aesthetics roughly spanning the period of 1870 to 1910,” which demands “that we make sense of and relate to a world of spatial bodies on the basis of our bipedal experience of force and counterforce” (59–60). Surveying a tradition that includes thinkers such as Robert Vischer, Hermann von Helmholtz, Wölfflin, and Wilhelm Worringer, Maskarinec ultimately emphasizes Theodor Lipps’s theory of embodied perception, which appeals to “universal mechanical laws” that human bodies share with other objects to interpret geometric and spatial forms (70). This positivist approach to abstraction, Maskarinec shows in chapter 4, is widespread and finds favor with Klee—not so much Klee the artist as Klee the art theorist and Bauhaus teacher, who invites students “to empathize with the building blocks of pictorial composition—geometric figures and colors” as the means “to acquire a feeling for the expressive value of abstract forms and the rules of pictorial composition” (79).

In these two chapters in the section “Empathy and Abstraction,” form is shown to be a persistent issue in the German philosophical tradition but only marginally related to gravity. While arguing that both Lipps’s and Klee’s theories of abstraction depend on “our possession of embodied knowledge” as “heavy upright structures . . . constantly at risk of toppling over” and constantly “respond[ing] to gravity’s pull” (67), Maskarinec concedes that Lipps has little interest in weighty matter, for which reason he extols the dematerialized freedom of abstract ornaments; likewise, Klee’s interest in gravity turns out to be incidental to his concern with pictorial “balance.” In fact, gravity is anathema to the “experience of ascension . . . of elevation, of freedom from pressure or weight” that Klee theorizes and figures vis-à-vis evocative images of floating fish and birds in flight (102).

In the last section, “Poetic Gravity,” Maskarinec discusses two authors who stand in contrast to the other figures in her book: “in comparison to the bodies described by Georg Simmel, Theodor Lipps and Klee, Kafka’s and Döblin’s fictional characters are often supine, their bodies and lives verging on formlessness” (110). One might therefore expect her to read Kafka and Döblin in terms of an avant-garde critique of Formkraft. Instead, Maskarinec sees their common thematization of formlessness in humanist, empathetic terms as attesting “a profound (and also medical) concern for how human bodies suffer mechanical failure through injury and fatigue” (110). According to Maskarinec’s physiological (as opposed to psychological) conception of empathy, “to empathize with Franz Biberkopf means to feel his struggle with gravity somatically” (131), just as to read Kafka’s Metamorphosis is to empathize with Gregor’s bodily pains and death as “a final concession in suffering to the heaviness of mere matter” (127).

Given the complexity of the issues Maskarinec deals with, each section or pair of chapters would have made for a fascinating article to be read on its own terms. Since these chapters appear here in book form, however, I am compelled to interrogate the larger conceptual framework that unites them, namely “German modernism,” a “modernism [that] imagines the body as possessing a will to form that counters gravity” (4). Although the authors under discussion maintain in sight “base bodily matter and the soiled ground onto which one might fall,” they “ultimately strongly reject the formless aesthetic and its antihumanistic implications” that “postmodern” critics like Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois had read into aspects of modernism (5). (For the “postmodern” use of the term “formless,” taken from the French philosopher Georges Bataille, see Bois and Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide [Zone Books, 1997].) Yet by upholding “the modernist avowal of uprightness as a corporeal and aesthetic ideal perpetuat[ing] a dominant classical aesthetic into the twentieth century” (5), Maskarinec participates, perhaps unawares, in a certain postmodern caricature of canonical modernism as a cult of form.

Maskarinec is certainly correct to underscore the persistence of the classical heritage in German modernist and avant-garde productions, recently underlined by Rainer Rumold in Archaeologies of Modernity: Avant-Garde Bildung (Northwestern University Press, 2015): “The monumental status of Goethe or Schiller and their paradigmatic significance for the German idea of Bildung (as self-cultivation) constituted a legacy which many [modernist and avant-garde] artists and writers had internalized to a degree that it stayed a factor in their productivity stronger and longer than a classical idea anywhere else” (Rumold, 16). Maskarinec makes no reference to Rumold’s work (published by the same press just two years before) despite the two scholars’ shared interest in Kafka, form, Bildung, and a modernism haunted by classicism. For Rumold, “the project of the modernist avant-garde” consists in primitivizing classical Bildung, replacing self-cultivation with the realm of “unsymbolizable, singular images” freed from the sovereign subject (Rumold, 18). Maskarinec makes a comparable claim in seeing the modernist “affirmation of uprightness” as nontranscendental and “mundane,” in the sense of being coupled with “force” and subject to the weight of matter (5–6). However, she does not relinquish the humanist framework in her vigorous defense of empathy, which in my view makes for a less strong interpretation of Kafka and Döblin.

Maskarinec herself recognizes the limits of the empathic paradigm. In light of Döblin’s figure of meat as substitution for “a traditional representation of distinctly human flesh animated by a spiritual principle,” she asks: “To what extent can we empathize with the body stripped of its humanity and portrayed as mere matter that is animated by or even robbed of force? Does an exclusive use of the language of mechanics, of force and counterforce, invite or block empathic identifications?” (149). These questions suggest that if empathy (Einfühlung) is to remain a valid mode of modernist interpretation, it must also make room for its antithesis or a critical modality thereof, as famously theorized by Bertolt Brecht vis-à-vis the term “alienation effects” or Verfremdungseffekte (see “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting” in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetics [Hill and Wang, 1964], 91–99). In the case of Forces of Form, the concept of alienation could have shed light on what might be called protomodernist moments in the classical/romantic tradition as another way of arguing for their continuity: for instance, Heinrich von Kleist’s “Puppet Theatre,” which Maskarinec opposes (misleadingly, in my view) to Schopenhauer’s “aesthetic of heaviness.” For, instead of a “hyperbolic disavowal of volume and mass in the interests of the lightness of grace” (34), Kleist’s text is an astonishing critique of classical aesthetics via its own terms: the marionettes appear graceful and “antigravitational” precisely because they are inanimate, “dead, mere pendula” that “simply obey the law of gravity” (Kleist, “The Puppet Theatre,” in Selected Writings, ed. David Constantine [Hackett, 2004], 413–14). I suspect that the paradigm of alienation would have enabled Maskarinec to see in Kleist’s text “forces of form” that challenge empathy as well as other possibilities that the thinkers of Formkraft do not typically entertain: could beautiful form emerge from “force” as well as from inertness, from will as well as from passivity? And what might beautiful form look like when modeled on neither monumental architecture nor the fine arts but on “the lowbrow art of the marionette” (33)?

Joyce S. Cheng
Department of History of Art and Architecture, College of Design, University of Oregon