In the ever more vehement yearning for a new style in architecture and applied art, and in the new, original and independent style of decoration, the dissonant warning voices of the cautious can be heard. From the dizzy heights of their experience, they smile down sympathetically upon the foolish exploits of their juniors and still remain ready to show to the general public the only path of truth. They teach us that there can be no new form, that all possibilities have been exhausted in the styles of the past, and that all art lies in an individually modified use of old forms. It even extends to selling the pitiful eclecticism of the last decades as the new style.
To those with understanding, this despondency is simply laughable. For they can clearly see, that we are not only at the beginning of a new stylistic phase, but at the same time on the threshold of the development of a completely new Art. An Art with forms which signify nothing, represent nothing and remind us of nothing, which arouse our souls as deeply and as strongly as music has always been able to do.
The barbarian finds our music distasteful; culture and education are necessary for its full appreciation. Appreciation of visual form is also something that must be acquired. We must learn to see it and really immerse ourselves in form. We must discover how to use our eyes. It may well be that man has for a long time delighted in form subconsciously. In the history of the fine arts this development can be clearly studied but it has not yet reached the point where it has finally taken root never to be forgotten. Painters have taught us a great deal, but their primary aim has always been colour, and where they were concerned with form, they mainly searched for the conceptual quality by the exact reproduction of the object, and not the aesthetic quality, which nature only rarely and by chance offers in the dimensions which the painter requires.
If we wish to understand and appreciate formal beauty we must learn to see in a detailed way. We must concentrate on the details, on the form of the root of a tree, on the way in which a leaf is connected to its stalk, on the structure of the bark, on the lines made by the turbid spray on the shores of a lake. Also we must not just glance carelessly at the form. Our eye must trace, minutely, every curve, every twist, every thickening, every contraction, in short we must experience every nuance in the form. For there is only one point in our field of vision which we can see exactly, and it is only that which is clearly seen, which can hold some meaning for us. If we see in this way, an immensely rich new world is revealed to us, full of totally new experience. A thousand sensations are awakened within us. New feelings and shades of feeling, continual unexpected transformations. Nature seems to live and we begin to understand that there really are sorrowing trees and wicked treacherous branches, virginal grasses and terrible, gruesome flowers. Of course, not everything is going to affect us in this way, there are also things which are boring, meaningless and ineffectual, but the alert eye will everywhere observe forms of superb, soul-shattering magnificence.
This is the power of form upon the mind, a direct, immediate influence without any intermediary stage, by no means an anthropomorphic effect, but one of direct empathy. If we speak of a sorrowing tree, we do not at all think of the tree as a living being which sorrows, but mean only that it awakens the feeling of sorrow within us. Or when we say that the pine tree aspires upwards we do not animate the pine tree. It is just that the expression, of the act of aspiring, produces more easily in the mind of the listener a clearer image of verticality. We are employing nothing more than a verbal aid to make up for an inadequate vocabulary and to produce a living concept more quickly.
‘How can the feelings aroused by form be explained?’ is a question voiced most loudly by those who have never experienced them. I could answer, that there is no place for this here, that one can enjoy music without having to know why the chords can possibly move us so greatly. But in order to pacify those who doubt and to pave their way into the world of form, I should like to attempt to describe the emotive effect of the elements of form and their constituent parts, and also to at least outline the psychological explanation, so far as is possible without lengthy discussion …
The straight line is not only mathematically but also aesthetically superior to all other lines. If we follow a straight line, for instance the vertical, with our eyes, this always retains the same direction in our field of vision. In contrast to this, a curved line, perhaps that of a round-headed archway for instance, alters its shape continually: first vertical, then slanting upwards, then horizontal, then slanting down and finally descending vertically. Whereas during the observation of curved lines there is always something new to grasp, the straight line always looks the same. As we look, our perception is quickened, and this is accelerated, the further the straight line extends, since every extra second of looking appears to add nothing to our perception. But since more familiar things are grasped more readily still, urging the eye on, the speed with which we perceive a straight line rises continuously.
Every quick motion gives us a certain feeling which we will call for the moment ‘the feeling of speed’. The straight line awakes this feeling in us; it looks quick and the more so the longer it is. The width of the straight line, however – we are here speaking of real and not mathematical lines – has the effect of slowing it down. For a wide straight line requires more time for it to be appreciated than a narrow one, since it requires more perception. The straight line therefore appears faster or slower depending on whether it is narrow or broad.
The effect of direction is of a completely different nature. The vertically descending straight line (i.e. the straight line which we follow from the top downwards) has a light and effortless effect. The horizontal has a quiet strength, and the vertically ascending line gives the effect of strong exertion. The slanting positions, slanting downwards or upwards, offer intermediary nuances, so that we have a continual table of characteristics stretching from a feeling of minimum effort to the strongest feeling of all. This emotional appeal is probably based on the fact that directing the eye upwards requires more effort than looking downwards. The reason for this is not quite clear. The mid-point of the eye is in front of the pivoting point, and probably of the centre of gravity. This in fact would mean that raising the eyeball requires effort but that lowering it does not. Besides this, certain assumptions about the processes in the retina enable us to give a second reason for the emotional effect which we are discussing. This however can only be developed in a more comprehensive description. […]
Straightforwardness, sincerity, warmth, solemnity, profundity and sublimity all have a slow tempo in common, whereas frivolity, provocation, arrogance, harshness, violence and savagery are transmitted to us by speed and suddenness. In both cases, however, there is a step by step gradation of tension, effort, force, intensity or whatever one wishes to call it. An element of lightness and effortlessness is present in all simplicity and frivolity, whereas that which is savage or inspired calls forth within us extremes of effort. And just as with these extremes, there is a certain tempo for every emotion and a corresponding degree of exertion. We have attempted in the accompanying Table to organize the main nuances of emotion. In the horizontal rows, the effort rises from left to right whereas it is the tempo which rises in the vertical lines from bottom to top. The inner rectangle contains feelings of gaiety, those outside it are feelings of apathy. Apathy results in us from everything which is too weak or too strong, too slow or too fast for our endurance …
And because all sensations are only tempo and tension, form is able to awaken all shades of emotion within us. For we saw that the straight line always awoke within us not only these two kinds of sensation, but indeed every other possible variety. [. . . ]
The present essay was originally published in Dekorative Kunst, I, Munich, 1897