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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Classic or Baroque 2008

posted by on October 21 at 11:46 AM

Here’s another binary opposition to throw into your binary-opposition machine.

Late-19th/early-20th-century Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin described two opposing styles: the Classic and the Baroque. (The title of his study in Swiss German was Renaissance und Barock. See how we bring it back to Barack?) By Classic he meant High Renaissance (roughly 15th into 16th century). By Baroque he meant Baroque (roughly 16th into 17th century). Even more specifically, he pitted Dürer against Rembrandt.

By Wölfflin’s system, the Classic style was linear, with scenes arranged parallel to the picture plane, using closed form, emphasizing the multiplicity of the parts or forms as much as the whole, and engaging in absolute, almost sculptural clarity. The Baroque was painterly, with scenes receding into unbounded open or flexible space, unified and dominated by light (light over form), and endowed with only relative clarity. When you think of Rembrandt and Dürer, the terms come clearly to mind.

In sculpture, an easy example is Michelangelo’s David versus Bernini’s.


I’m partial to the Baroque. Just drawn to it. I admire the Renaissance but love the Baroque. Plus, Baroque is the underdog. For years the word “baroque” was not a category in art but an insult. In some ways, Baroque has gone down in history the way women have: as mysterious and not entirely serious. (I caught a glimpse of a James Elkins book the other day in which he posed the question: Why is serious always better than silly in art? What are we overlooking when we make that assumption? Seems worth thinking about.)

So this season I’m voting Bernini, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio over Michelangelo, Mantegna, and architects like Bramante and Sangallo. You?

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A woman after my own heart. I've had this debate with myself and others and I am definitely partial to baroque, especially when you wrap baroque music into it.

It's fun to listen to baroque music while looking at baroque art or architecture.

Posted by Sir Learnsalot | October 21, 2008 11:59 AM

I too have always been partial to the baroque - more passion.

One nit-pick, however -- Although Wölfflin was Swiss, he wrote in German, not Swiss-German. Technically, Swiss-German is only an oral language (occasionally written for amusement or at festivals). The Swiss write more or less in Hochdeutsch.

Posted by Went to high school over there... | October 21, 2008 12:15 PM

sure you think you like baroque now. but there are less-fantastic baroque creations. like this:
which is in Vienna, and was built to thank God for making the plague go away.

And I know you don't care much for churches, but I hold a grudge against baroque architecture for ruining this church. The bones of the left-hand end of the basilica are renaissance, but they were painted and sculpted over in baroque...look at the ceiling. then, look at the alter picture on the far right, and see what I think is the worst thing of all in the baroque world: "clouds" made of solid material, here it is plaster plus gold!

Posted by mary | October 21, 2008 12:34 PM

i've always preferred baroque art and quite honestly i've never heard of it being thought of as silly. looks completely serious to me. except for the whole god and jesus stuff. i could do away with that.

i also agree with the question about serious vs. silly art. i always think about that when someone tells me pop art isn't real art. i think those people are silly.

Posted by Joseph | October 21, 2008 12:38 PM

Ruskin pulled this same artistic line-in-the-sand for Gothic vs Renaissance and we got the horrors of the Neo-Gothic Revival, the worst of which was a concommitant intellectual conservatism that created entrenched academic control of the arts and stifled freedom of expression.

That said, I personally lean towards the Classical because I like clarity and a bit of restraint. You can over-egg a pudding. The exuberance of Baroque did reflect the intellectual freedoms of the Renaissance but it also eventually gave way to Rococo which always struck me as the ultimate in artistic over-consumption.

Posted by inkweary | October 21, 2008 12:44 PM

psst... Durer not baroque, pass it on

Posted by mike | October 21, 2008 12:45 PM

Gelsenkirchener Barock

Posted by Amelia | October 21, 2008 12:48 PM

How can you say no to Baroque architecture when you walk into a Borromini church?

Posted by Gloria | October 21, 2008 12:57 PM


Who said that Durer's Baroque?

I love the expression on Bernini's David's face. It's so rare to see a sculpture of the human form that doesn't have an expressionless, vapid gaze.

Posted by keshmeshi | October 21, 2008 1:03 PM

How can you say no to Classicism when you walk into the Pantheon?

It isn't about saying no to whole movements it should be about maintaining a critical eye and developing informed taste.

Posted by inkweary | October 21, 2008 1:07 PM

I like a little Baroque in my pudding, yes it's true. I'll even take a little Rococo in my cocoa on occasion. But inkweary is 100% correct about lines in the sand, and about Ruskin, too (though some neo-Gothic succeeds, simply because it's so funny).

But really my heart lies with Modernism and its precedents, including more than a little neo-Classicism. I think there's a little bit of good in all periods. But if I could go look at any painting, any sculpture, any building, right now, it would be from the early part of the c.20 or the late part of the 19th.

Posted by Fnarf | October 21, 2008 1:14 PM

Baroque spawned Rococo and is therefore evil, just like Barbara spawned W.

But then Renaissance spawned Mannerism, which spawned Baroque...or is my art history leaking out my ears?

Posted by zephsright | October 21, 2008 1:25 PM

@10: No indeed, but I was responding to Mary's post, which seems to dismiss the whole movement because it has its misses, and ignores its hits.

I can embrace a movement and also critique it.

Posted by Gloria | October 21, 2008 1:44 PM

@13 Exactly! Chacun a son gout.

Posted by inkweary | October 21, 2008 2:00 PM

@13. You're right that I spoke too quickly. I do indeed seem to dismiss the baroque movement on the basis of a few ghastly examples in my post above. Let me amend my comments to include the fact that I agree with Jen Graves' assessment of Bernini's David as superior to Michaelangelo's; I think it's beautiful.

That said, I tend to favor simple over gaudy when it comes to architecture, and that keeps me from enjoying baroque buildings and monuments. I don't particularly care for neo-classical architecture, either, so perhaps I should have made that point in my original post.

Posted by mary | October 21, 2008 2:50 PM

We are in a Baroque era, aren't we?

Posted by Jim Demetre | October 21, 2008 4:42 PM

What is this attempt at pseudo-intellectualism? The inclusion of an obscure Swiss art historian and some fancy wording of a most basic style distinction do not make your post less vapid. Stick to the high road, Jen, that's what you're good at.

Posted by SwissMiss | October 22, 2008 3:03 AM

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