Notebook, 1993-

APPROACHES - In The Words Of . . . .

From: Ferrier, Jean-Louis, Director and Yann le Pichon, Walter D. Glanze [English Translation]. Art of Our Century, The Chronicle of Western Art, 1900 to the Present. New York: Prentice-Hall Editions. 1988.

Henri Focillon

The Life of Forms
1943 - Writings & Theories

A professor at the Sorbonne and later at the Collège de France, Henri Focillon died at the age of sixty-two in the United States where he had been teaching an archaeology course at Yale University since 1940. An art historian, he had written major works on Romanesque sculpture and nineteenth- and twentieth-century European painting. In the United States, Focillon worked for the cause of Free France, energetically fighting with the word and with the pen for what he hoped would soon be a victory by the Allies. As a way of paying tribute to both the scholar and the man, below we are printing excerpts from his most famous book, 'La vie des formes' [The Life of Forms], an essay on methodology and on doctrine that was first published in 1934.

At a time when we are considering the question of the life of forms in matter, we are not separating one notion from the other and if we use two terms it is not to endow an abstractionist process with objective reality but rather to bring out the constant, indissoluble, irreducible character of de facto harmony. Hence, form does not act as a superior principle that fashions a passive mass, for we can consider that matter imposes its own form on form. Indeed, the question is not one of matter and of form in themselves but of matters in the plural, numerous, complex, changing, having an appearance and weight, issuing from nature but not natural.

A number of principles can be derived from what we have just stated. The first is that matters have a certain calling or, if you will, a certain formal mission. They have a consistency, a color, a texture. They are form and, as such, they call on, limit, or develop the life of artistic forms. They are chosen not only because they are convenient to work with or, to the extent that art serves needs in life, because it is a good thing to use them, but also because they lend themselves to a particular treatment, because they impart certain effects. Hence their form, in its utter crudeness, provokes, suggests, propagates other forms, and, to use a seemingly contradictory expression, because they liberate them according to their law. But we should note without further ado that this formal vocation is not a blind determinism, for--and now we come to the second point--these matters, so appropriately characterized, so suggestive and even so demanding of art forms, over which they exert a kind of attraction, are, in turn, profoundly changed by them.

Thus the matters of art and the matters of nature are divorced from each other, even if they are bound up by strict formal convention. We see a new order setting in. There are two distinct reigns, even without bringing in techniques and production. The wood of the statue is no longer the wood of the tree; sculpted marble is no longer marble from the quarry; gold that is cast and hammered out is a metal without precedent; the brick that is baked and constructed bears no relationship to clay from the claypit. Color, texture, and all the values that affect the visual sense of touch have changed. Surfaceless things, hidden behind the bark, buried in the mountain, trapped in the nugget, submerged in the mud, have separated from chaos, acquired an epidermis, adhered to space, and taken in light that fashions them in its turn . . . The visible life of matter has been transformed . . .

We are reminded of what Flaubert said about the Parthenon --"black as ebony." Perhaps by that he meant an absolute quality--the absolute on a scale that dominates matter and which even transforms it, or simply the stern authority of an indestructible thought. But the Parthenon is in marble, and this is extremely important, so that the cement tambours that respectful restoration has interspersed among the columns could seem no less cruel than mutilation. Is it not strange that a volume could change, according to whether it takes shape in marble, bronze, wood, according to whether it is painted in distemper or oil, engraved with the burin or lithographed? Do we not risk confusing epidermal and surface properties, which can be easily changed, with others that are more general and constant? No, the truth is that volumes, in their various states, are not the same, as they depend on the light that shapes them, that brings out their fullness or hollowness and makes the surface the expression of a relative density . . . .

Henri Focillon, La vie des formes

[An Exerpt From: Ferrier, Jean-Louis, Director and Yann le Pichon, Walter D. Glanze [English Translation]. Art of Our Century, The Chronicle of Western Art, 1900 to the Present. New York: Prentice-Hall Editions. 1988. p. 417]



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