WOLFFLIN’S COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS

Heinrich Wolfflin was an art critic and art history professor at the beginning of the 1900’s. He was one of the first to use two slide projectors (lanterns) in a classroom. While that may seem inconsequential, it allowed Wolfflin and his students to view two works of art from different chronological periods side-by-side, unlike in museums where works are segregated by century. In this format, he noticed that there were not only differences in content, but also differences in the design elements from period to period. He focused on a comparative analysis between Renaissance and Baroque works of art, and while citing similarities in narratives (overwhelmingly Catholic or Greek mythological) the Renaissance works consistently interpreted design and composition in one way, and Baroque works in another.

We have already noted that artists exposed to a particular Geist, impacted by the same socio-political contexts, will create works that embody similar motivations, intentions, and stylistic elements. Though there will be a variance in style due to personal tastes, the works will be consistently familiar. Wolfflin concluded that art history could be taught without names, as the art works are products of their producers’ environments.

Wolfflin’s systematic analysis is based on the application of five pairs of elements: linear vs. painterly, plane vs. recession, open vs. closed, multiplicity vs. unity, and absolute vs. relative clarity.