Don’t you see that, for my work on modeling, I have not only to possess a complete knowledge of the human form, but also a deep feeling for every aspect of it? I have, as it were, to incorporate the lines of the human body, and they must become part of myself, deeply seated in my instincts. I must feel them at the end of my fingers …My object is to test to what extent my hands already feel what my eyes see.
– Auguste Rodin (from Anthony Ludovici, Personal Reminiscences of Auguste Rodin, 1926)
Romantic and postromantic aesthetics share three principles or approaches to art: 1) verisimilitude or a “naturalist,” seemingly true-to-life, representation of objects and especially of human figures; 2) a primary emphasis upon the expression of emotion in art, and 3) a focus upon beauty and sensuality. These are, roughly, postromanticism’s coordinates in a kind of three-dimensional space of aesthetics.
What makes an artistic movement unique is in some respects analogous to what makes a person unique. Suppose you want to describe the particularity of a person you know well and care about. Usually you list a set of important or dominant traits: his sensuality, his intelligence, his obsessions, his like for certain sports, his creativity, his tastes and dislikes, etc. Very likely, you’ll find many individuals who have some of these traits. But if you have described him well and thoroughly enough, nobody will share all or even most of the traits you listed. This is the process I’ll follow in this chapter to present the coordinates of postromanticism. Each of the features I will list, by itself, will not be sufficient to distinguish postromanticism from other artistic movements. However, the combination of qualities I attribute to postromanticism will give it a specific place in (so to speak) aesthetic space that no other artistic movement has occupied or can occupy.
Before we begin identifying the coordinates of postromanticism, let’s take one obvious and quite legitimate objection. In a moment I will say, for instance, that the expression of emotion defines postromantic aesthetics. One can immediately counter that emotion is often prevalent in many movements in art and, in fact, that few of them are completely devoid of emotion. Impressionism can be said to be emotive; expressionism and abstract expressionism are even more so. So what makes postromanticism unique?
I have two answers to this question. First, I believe that few other movements place emotion at the foreground of every part of the artistic process: the inspiration of the artist; the feelings conveyed by the artistic object itself; the impact upon the viewers. Emotion may exist in most art, but it’s rarely the most essential characteristic of all aspects of an artistic movement. Romanticism and postromanticism share an all-pervasive emphasis upon emotion.
Suppose, however, that the person making this objection answers that the same can be said about German expressionism. She grants me that, for instance, Rococo art or Impressionism don’t privilege emotion in the same way that Romanticism does, but she can still point to several other artistic movements, such as expressionism and even abstract expressionism, that do. How do I answer this more fine-tuned follow-up objection? By falling back upon my original statement that describing a movement takes several, not just one, coordinates. Which is why I define postromantic aesthetics in terms of at least three intersecting features: 1. verisimilitude; 2. the primary emphasis upon the expression of emotion and 3. the embodiment of sensuality. It’s unlikely that other movements, aside from Romanticism of course, will share the intersection of all three points in the same way.
The description of postromantic aesthetics, moreover, can be thought of as only one axis in a three-dimensional philosophical space. I’ll also give the details of two other axes: postromantic ontology (or sense of being in time) and ethics (that emphasize passion). Furthermore, in these last two sections of the chapter I will explain some of the differences between Romanticism and postromanticism. This is hardest to do given that, obviously, postromanticism is heavily inspired by Romanticism. This three-axis sketch of the coordinates of postromanticism—in terms of its aesthetic, ontological and ethical qualities—will hopefully give readers a better idea of what I mean by this movement and what constitutes its specificity. It also follows the basic format of the first section of the book, which discussed the Romantic movement and its precursors.
Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com