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Worringer, Wilhelm

    Full Name: Worringer, Wilhelm

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 13 January 1881

    Date Died: 29 March 1965

    Place Born: Aachen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

    Place Died: Munich, Bavaria, Germany

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): art theory, Expressionist (style), and German Expressionist (movement)


    Art Historian and theoretician of Expressionism. Worringer formed his education at a number of German universities, Freiburg, Berlin, and Munich, before finally writing his dissertation at Bern in 1907. His thesis was entitled Abstraktion und Einfühlung: ein Beitrag zur Stilpsychologie (Abstraction and Empathy: Essays in the Psychology of Style). Its publication aroused the interest of art critic Paul Ernst, who reviewed it like a new art book in the influential Kunst und Künstler. It was then issued in a trade edition which gained it immense popularity among intellectuals and artists. German expressionists of Die Brücke, especially Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde, found Worringer’s ideas justifying the primitive art which their art took in part as its inspiration. Worringer was appointed to the University at Bern. His next book, an expansion of the concluding section of Abstraktion, focused on gothic art and architecture. Formprobleme der Gotik (Form in the Gothic), 1911, contrasted and celebrated the “gothic impulse” to create stylized art, opposing it to a Mediterranean infatuation with verisimilitude. The book again met acclaim and Worringer’s reputation was secure. His subsequent publications, such as Die altdeutsche Buchillustration of 1912, were more art historical and never caught the public imagination the way his first two works had. Worringer left Switzerland in 1914 for German military service in World War I and saw fighting. Afterward, he returned to teaching at the Universität Bonn, appointed professor in 1920. There he published two more works, Agyptische Kunst (1927) and Griechentum und Gotik (1928), before moving to Königsberg, also in 1928. Worringer himself continued to expand on his initial stylistic ideas in abstraction. After the Second World War, Worringer moved briefly to Halle, which was then in the Soviet Zone of conquered Germany. The founding of the communist German Democratic Republic in 1950 induced Worringer to leave for Munich, where he remained the rest of his life..

    Worringer’s contribution to art and art history cannot be underestimated. His 1907 thesis on art and empathy was draws from the 19th-century aesthetic ideas of Novalis and Schlegel. But Worringer’s method owes a great deal to the esthetic theories of Theodor Lipps (1854-1914) and the art history of Aloïs Riegl. From Lipps, Worringer builds upon the concept of empathy, that our own sense of beauty comes from being able to relate to the specific work of art. He borrows Riegl’s assertion that mimesis is not an inherent urge in artistic production: that stylized art is not because of a culture’s incompetence to create realistic representations, but rather reveals a psychological need to represent objects in a more spiritual manner. Abstraktion und Einfühlung asserted that realistic representation, such as the art of ancient Greece and Rome, demonstrated a confidence in the material world; abstract representation, such that of the gothic period or ancient Egypt, showed an insecurity with materialism and a greater trust in spirituality. Thus, artistic representation became a key window into a historical period’s world view. For early twentieth-century German intellectuals, Worringer’s respect for primitive art and the notion that abstracted forms emanated from societies in spiritual anxiety justified expressionism’s raw character. Artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the spiritual leader of the Dresden expressionist group, Die Brücke, and Emil Nolde use extensively Worringer’s notions of the exoticism and the concomitant angst associated with abstraction. His ideas also encouraged the fascination with the study of African and South Seas art. The art historian Carl Einstein, drew heavily upon Worringer’s work for his own Negerplastik of 1915, as later did Herbert Read. Worringer’s second work, Formprobleme der Gotik, developed the theme formulated in Abstraktion for one particular period, european medieval art. However, it is here that the problems with such a global theory based on style begin to appear. Gothic art becomes defined as any style not shaped by classically inspired culture. Worringer’s dichotomies become sharper and more forced than in his earlier work: North vs South, abstraction vs empathy, renaissance vs gothic. It was this mindset and its historic implications for cultures, that German national socialism used as its esthetic of “pure” and “degenerate” art. It remains ironic that the same author’s theories helped elucidate German Expressionisim also served its greatest antagonist, the Nazi party.  His Bonn students included Heinrich Lützeler.

    Selected Bibliography

    Abstraktion und Einfühlung: ein Beitrag zur Stilpyschologie. published dissertation, Neuwied, 1907, then as book, Munich: R. Piper, 1908. [Abstraction and Empathy. Translated by Michael Bullock. New York: International University Press, 1953.]; Formprobleme der Gotik. Munich: R. Piper, 1912. [ Form in Gothic. Translated by Sir Herbert Read. London: A. Tiranti, 1957.]; ägyptische Kunst: Probleme ihre Werte. Munich: Piper, 1927. [Egyptian Art. Edited by Bernard Rackham, et. al. London: Putnam’s Sons, 1928.]; Die Altdeutsche Buchillustratoren. Munich: Piper, 1912.; Die Anfänge der deutschen Tafelmalerei. Leipzig: Insel, 1924.; Griechentum und Gotik: vom Weltreich des Hellenismus. Munich: Piper, 1928.; Käthe Kollwitz. Königsberg: Grafen und Unger, 1931.; Künstlerische Zeitfragen. Munich: Brickmann, 1921.; Lucas Cranach. Munich: Piper, 1908.; Problematik der Gegenwartskunst. Munich: Piper, 1948.; über den Einfluss der angelsächsischen Buchmalerei auf die frühmittelalterliche Monumentalplastik des Kontinents. Halle: Niemeyer, 1931.


    Dvorák, Max. Idealism and Naturalism in Gothic Art. Translated and noted by Randolph J. Klawiter. Preface by Karl Maria Swoboda. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967, pp. 240-1; Neue Beiträge deutscher Forschung: Wilhelm Worringer zum 60sten Geburtstag. Edited by Erich Fidder. Königsberg: Kanter, 1943.; Read, Herbert. “Introduction” to Form in Gothic, pp. ix-xiii.; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, p. 21 mentioned, p. 30; Metzler Kunsthistoriker Lexikon: zweihundert Porträts deutschsprachiger Autoren aus vier Jahrhunderten. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1999, pp. 493-5; Dictionary of Art 33: 383-5; Encyclopedia of Aesthetics 4: 482-3.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Worringer, Wilhelm." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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