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Rhys W. Williams

(b Aachen, Jan 13, 1881; d Munich, March 29, 1965).

German art historian. He studied art history at Freiburg, Berlin, and Munich, before submitting his doctoral dissertation in Berne in 1907. This thesis, entitled Abstraktion und Einfühlung: Ein Beitrag zur Stilpsychologie, was first published in Neuwied in 1907 as a dissertation. Somewhat unusually, it was recommended to, and reviewed favourably by, the writer Paul Ernst, whose article in Kunst and Künstler swiftly prompted a publication in book form the following year. It is a peculiar feature of Worringer’s reception that his first publication not only established his reputation as a significant art historian, but has seldom been out of print since 1908. That a doctoral thesis should have had such a profound impact, not only for art historians and theorists, but also for generations of creative writers and intellectuals, is almost unprecedented.

Abstraktion und Einfühlung takes as its starting-point Theodor Lipps’s theory of empathy, the notion that the work of art maximizes our capacity for empathy, that beauty derives from our sense of being able to identify with an object. While conceding that a mimetic urge exists in man, drawing on the ideas of Alois Riegl, Worringer denies any necessary connection between mimesis and art: if Egyptian art was highly stylized, he argued, this was not because its artists were incompetent and failed to reproduce external reality accurately, but because Egyptian art answered a radically different psychological need. In mimetic works, he argued, we derive satisfaction from an ‘objectified delight in the self’; the aim of the artist is to maximize our capacity for empathizing with the work. This kind of art springs from a confidence in the world as it is, a satisfaction in its forms, something embodied in Classical and Renaissance art. By contrast, the urge to abstraction, exemplified variously by Egyptian, Byzantine, Gothic, or primitive art, articulates a wholly different response to the universe: it expresses man’s insecurity and seeks to answer transcendental or spiritual needs. Thus in certain historical periods man is confidently assertive and finds satisfaction in ‘objectified delight in the self’, abandoning himself in contemplation of the external world, but in periods of anxiety and uncertainty he seeks to abstract objects from their contingency, transforming them into permanent, absolute, transcendental forms....