Grey Room

Introduction to Wölfflin’s “On Right and Left in Images”

Zeynep Çelik Alexander


Modern art history’s reliance on the comparative method is customarily evoked in the same breath as the name of one of its presumed late-nineteenth-century founders: Heinrich Wölfflin. The pair of oppositions that Wölfflin set up in Renaissance und Barock (1888) to distinguish the linear from the painterly style would eventually transform into general “principles of art history” in Kunstgeschichte Grundbegriffe (1915), to be read by generations of students throughout the twentieth century. Between these two books, Wölfflin adopted a technique that lent his comparative argument considerable rhetorical power: starting with Die klassisische Kunst (1899), he began to place images on the facing pages of his books to force his readers’ eyes into comparing and contrasting them. Positioning a cropped image of Botticelli’s Venus across the page from Lorenzo di Credi’s, to use the example that opens Grundbegriffe, was a controlled experiment of sorts. Comparing the elbows of the two figures alone—the energetic angles of the former, as Wölfflin explained, to the domesticated curves of the latter—stressed “form” and taught a graphic object lesson. Comparativism thus placed a tolerable amount of Hegelianism into neo-Kantian formalism; it injected the pedagogical force of the dialectic into an aesthetics that drew on physiological psychology to claim a relationship of immediacy between form and affect.