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The Dutchman Hemsterhuis considered beauty as a phenomenon born of the meeting between sensibility, which gives multiplicity, and the internal sense, which tends to unity; hence the beautiful is “that which exhibits the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time.” Man, to whom it is not permitted to attain ultimate unity, finds in beauty an approximate unity which gives him a pleasure somewhat analogous with the joy of love. This theory of Hemsterhuis, in which elements of mysticism and sensationalism mingle with glimpses of truth, developed later into the sentimentalism of Jacobi, for whom the totality of Truth and Goodness and even the Supersensible itself are sensibly present to the soul in the form of beauty."
Platonism or, more accurately, neo-Platonism was revived by the creator of the history of figurative art, Winckelmann (1764). Contemplation of the masterpieces of antique plastic art, and the impression of superhuman loftiness and divine indifference which they create all the more irresistibly because we cannot reawaken the life they once possessed or understand their real significance, led Winckelmann, and others with him, to the conception of a Beauty which, descending from the seventh heaven of the divine Idea, embodied itself in works of this description. Baumgarten's follower Mendelssohn had denied the enjoyment of beauty to God: the neo-Platonist Winckelmann gave it back to him and lodged it in his bosom.
“Wise men who have meditated upon the causes of universal Beauty, seeking her amongst created things and trying to gain the contemplation of Supreme Beauty, have placed it in the perfect harmony of creatures with their ends and of their parts with one another. But as this is equivalent to perfection, which man is incapable of attaining, our concept of universal beauty remains indeterminate, and arises by means of particular cognitions which, when accurately collected and fitted together, give us the highest idea we can attain of human beauty, which we elevate in proportion as we raise it above matter. But, again, since the Creator deals out perfection to all his creatures in the proportion that befits them, and since every concept rests on some cause which must be sought outside the concept itself, the cause of Beauty which is to be found in every created thing cannot be sought in anything outside these created things. For this reason, and because our cognitions are comparative concepts, whereas Beauty cannot be compared with anything higher, it is difficult to attain a distinct and universal cognition of Beauty.” The only way out of this difficulty and others like it is the recognition that “supreme beauty resides in God’’: “the concept of human beauty becomes the more perfect in proportion as it can be thought more in conformity and agreement with supreme Being, which is distinguished from matter by its own unity and indivisibility. This conception of Beauty is as a spirit which, freed by fire from the prison of matter, strives to conjure up a creature in the likeness of the first reasonable creature formed by the divine intelligence. The forms of such an image are simple and continuous and within this unity they are varied and for that very reason harmonious.” ” To these characteristics is added “ lack of significance ’’ (Unbezeichnung), since supreme beauty cannot be described with points or lines different from those which alone can constitute that beauty; its form “is not peculiar to this or that determinate person, neither does it express any state of feeling or sensation of passion, things which disturb unity and overcloud beauty.” Winckelmann concludes: “We look upon Beauty as a purest water drawn from the centre of the spring ; the less taste it has the higher it is esteemed because free from all impurities.” " To perceive pure beauty, a special faculty is required, which certainly is not sense, but may perhaps be intellect or even, as Winckelmann says, “a fine internal sense ’’ free from all intentions or passions of instinct, inclination or pleasure. Having asserted beauty to be something supersensible, it is not surprising that Winckelmann should wish, if not wholly to exclude colour, at least to reduce it to a minimum, and treat it not as a constitutive element in beauty but as secondary and ancillary." True beauty is given in form : by which he means line and surface, forgetting that these are only apprehended by the senses, and could not be seen without being in some way coloured. When error refuses to retire, hermit-like, to the narrow cell of a brief aphorism, it finds itself condemned to selfcontradiction in order to live at all in the world of concrete facts and problems. Although composed with a view to stating a theory, the work of Winckelmann always led him among concrete historical facts clamouring to be brought into relation with his formally stated idea of supreme beauty. In his admission of line-drawing and his further admission, on a lower plane, of colour, we have two compromises already ; to which a third is added in his principle of Expression. “Since human nature has no state intermediate between pain and pleasure " and as living creature without such feelings is inconceivable, “the human figure must be represented in a condition of action and passion, which artists call expression.” Hence Winckelmann, after dealing with Beauty, goes on to treat of Expression.” He then found himself obliged to effect a fourth compromise between the single constant supreme beauty and individual beauties; for while he preferred the male to the female body as a completer embodiment of perfect beauty, he could not shut his eyes to the obvious fact that we know and admire beautiful women's bodies and even beautiful animals' bodies. Friend and, in a sense, collaborator of Winckelmann was Raphael Mengs the artist, no less eager than his archaeological fellow-countryman to understand the nature of that beauty which the one studied as a critic while the other produced it as a painter. Remarking, writes Mengs, that of the two chief duties of a painter, the imitation of appearances and the selection of the most beautiful objects, much has been written on the former, while the latter “has scarcely been touched by the moderns, who would have been ignorant of the art of drawing were it not for the statues of ancient Greece’’; * pondering this, “I read, asked and looked at everything likely to throw light on the subject, but never was I satisfied ; either they spoke of beautiful things or of qualities which are the attributes of beauty, or they pretended to explain, as the saying is, the obscure by the more obscure, or even confused the beautiful with the pleasing: so that finally I determined to search for the nature of beauty on my own account.” ” One of his works on this subject was published during his lifetime by the advice and assistance of Winckelmann (1761); many others appeared posthumously (1780), all were reprinted several times and translated into several languages. In his Dreams of Beauty he says, “I have been sailing a long time on a vast sea seeking the understanding of beauty, and still I am far from any shore and in great doubt how to shape my course : gazing around, my sight is confounded by the immensity of the subject.” ” In truth it seems as though Mengs never arrived at a formula satisfactory to himself, although he conformed more or less to Winckelmann's doctrine that “beauty consists in material perfection according to our ideas; and since God alone is perfect, beauty is divine "; it is the “visible idea of perfection ” and stands in the same relation to it as does a visible to a mathematical point. Our ideas proceed from the purposes which the Creator has willed to fulfil in various things; hence the multiplicity of beauties. In general, Mengs finds the types of things in natural species: e.g. “a stone, of which we have the idea that it should be uniform in colour"; which “is called ugly if it happen to be spotted ”; or a child “would be ugly if he were like a man of mature age, just as a man is ugly when shaped like a woman, and a woman when she is like a man.” He adds surprisingly, “As among stones there is but one perfect species, the diamond; among metals, gold ; and among animated creatures, man only ; so there is difference and distinction in every order, and very rarely is there perfection.” ". In his Dreams of Beauty he considers beauty as “a middle disposition, including perfection on the one hand and the pleasing on the other ”; in reality it is a third thing, differing from perfection and the pleasing, and deserving a special name for itself.” The art of painting arises from four sources: beauty, significant or expressive character, the pleasing united to harmony, and colouring. Mengs finds the first amongst the ancients, the second in Raphael, the third in Correggio and the fourth in Titian.” From this empirical studio-gossip he rouses himself to exclaim, “The force of beauty so transports me that I will tell thee, reader, what I feel. All nature is beautiful, and so is virtue ; beautiful are forms and proportions; beautiful are appearances and beautiful the causes thereof; more beautiful is reason, most beautiful of all is the great first cause.” “ An attenuated, that is to say, a less metaphysical, echo of Winckelmann's theory is found in Lessing (1766), who infused a new spirit into the literature and social life of the Germany of his time. According to Lessing the aim of art is “delight "; and since delight is a “superfluous thing ” it seems reasonable that the legislator should not allow to art that liberty which is indispensable to science in her search for truth, the soul's necessity. For the Greeks painting was what by its nature it ought to be, “the imitation of beautiful bodies.” “Its (Hellenic) cultivator represented nothing but the beautiful : common beauty of a low grade served him as an accidental subject, an exercise, a diversion. The
Beauty and lack of significance.
* Zimmermann, op. cit. pp. 302-309; v. Stein, Entstehung d. m. Asth. P. II.3.
* Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums, 1764 (in Werke, Stuttgart, 1847, vol. i.), bk. iv. ch. 2, § 51, p. 131. * Op. cit. § 22, pp. 131-132. * Op. cit. § 23, p. 132.
Winckelmann's contradictions and compromises.
A. R. Mengs.
* Geschichte, § 19, pp. 130-131. * Op. cit. bk. iv. ch. ii. § 24.
1 Geschichte, bk. v. chs. ii. and vi. * Letter of January 2, 1778, Opere, Rome, 1787 (reprinted Milan, 1836), ii. pp. 315-316. * Opere, i. p. 206.