Hernri Focillon, the phenomenology of shape and aesthetical empathy


„All the arts could be envisioned under the sign of style, even the human life, considering the individual and historical existence as shapes”. H. Focillon

In his work „The shapes’ life” Henri Focillon considered (op.cit iii pg.71): „The human conscience always moves towards a language and even a style. Achieving a conscience means to gain a shape. Even at the inferior floors of the intelligibility and definable there still are forms, dimensions, rapports. The specific character of the spirit is to describe itself continuously. It is like a drawing that composes and decomposes over and over again and its activity, in this sense, is an artistic one. Alike the artist, the spirit works out the nature, using the material of the psychological life and transforming it endlessly, shaping it”. The underline belongs to me.

The study of Focillon represents a phenomenological approach of the human’s imaginary metamorphoses. In the chapter “the shapes of the reason” Focillon questions the way in which the forms that animate the artistic imagery and those ones responsible for a certain style and for the coherence of the mental contents are congenitally tide on a specific individual nature. His research is a treasury of very subtle observations referring to the birth process of the forms in the mind of the artist and to their materialization into the art-work. He focuses the transformation of the shapes during the creative process and the fluctuations of an inner organism caught in a continuous act of self-definition. His work reveals the fact that the shapes are consubstantial not only to some semantic contents (exposed by the artist in its creation) but also to his own inner phenotype, the shapes being organically and indestructibly connected to his (her) particular way of experiencing life matters, to his (her) inner psychological substance.

The shapes are modulated from the specific sensibility of the artist and, meantime, they define and crystallize this particularity through expression: “we don’t state that the shape is the allegory of the symbol of the sentiment, but its main specific activity, the form acts upon the sentiment.  Let’s say then that art is not only giving a shape to sensibility, it also wakes up the shape into the sensibility”[i].  This statement is a clue-reference in what concerns the problem of the transposition of the artist’s soul into the work. Pushing forward the reasoning of Focillon, it could be assumed that the metamorphoses of the sensibility into the shapes with aesthetically expressive potential have a double meaning, being as well form generators and receivers: the sensible material absorbs the form and is transfigured through it, achieving in this way a determination which couldn’t exist otherwise. The shape is catching, like in photographical bath, the particular fluctuations of the anima and, through this mechanism, reveals and configures it. In other words the aesthetical expressions of the soul are those one that give it an image, a face, they make it visible, perceptible as singular entity; these expressions surprise the ineffable of the subjective nature and make it accessible to the conscience.

Focillon founds the dialectic of shape and of the processes of formalization with an extraordinary accuracy, pointing out that an intrinsic content is inseparable from its modality of exposure. He suggest that the inner cosmos is oriented towards the organization in coherent forms and this phenomenon evokes the existence of an unifying principle capable to generate expressiveness which could lead to the idea according to the style is not the product of elaboration, but a predestination of the individual being for a certain code of expression: „Nothing is more tempting and, in certain circumstances, more justified than the assumption of existence for an internal logic that subordinates and organizes the shapes”. (…) „ Like the sand spread out on a vibrant surface that starts moving under the influence of an instrument with bow and drawing different figures, which come to be symmetrically disposed, a similar hidden principle, stronger and more rigorous than any inventive fantasy, calls and adjoin different shapes through tonic movement and correspondence”[ii].

Another feature of the tandem shape-content discussed by Focillon is that one of the meta-formal message, enveloped in expression. It is envisioned as a meaningful code which is transcendent to the representation. Not the shape is the one inducing the aesthetical vibes, but the emotion that comes along, the shape being only a transitory medium for some mental and emotional constructs that become accessible only thought that configuration. The shape is a screen, a window, a virtual field through which is spread out sensible information: „ We’ll say, on short, the shapes transfigure the skills and the bents; furthermore, they provide a specialization to the aptitudes, offering them not a character, but a certain tonality.  They are more or less intellect, imagination, memory, sensibility, instinct, character; they are more or less muscular vigour, sanguine fluidity or consistency. The shapes operate without interruption over these elements, educating them, creating in the animal-man a new man, multiple and unitary as well”. [iii]

Focillon talks about style advancing the hypothesis of a formal vocation of each individual and suggesting that neither culture of the environment, nor the spirit of an époque can influence so much the creative drive of an artist to completely modulate his aesthetical orientation and sense of the form. He discusses also the imaginative means, the level of fantasy or the trans-figurative capacities sustaining that they are not rooted in the cultural ground of the individual, but they belong to an inborn aspect of the inner cosmos.  The aesthetic sense could be educated such way to allow the possibility of judgment of value, but the preferences for a certain style transgress the domain of cultural training.  Furthermore, Focillon suggests that there is a certain potential of aesthetic expressivity varying from a subject to another, a potential that records higher capacities in the case of the artists.  According to this potential the men experience a more or less acute need to have a personal style, in other words to configure their self image in a language with aesthetical colour. The artist is a special individual due to his (hers) extreme need of stylistic addiction. This attribute of his (her) nature is a congenital one; the conscience of the artist is marked by this dependence on the elixir of impersonation, because “he (she) is the one who creates the forms, but is also created by the shapes, on his (her) turn”[iv].

Within the context of the art creation and receptiveness the artistic empathy comes along with complex representations of the sensible world and the more particular is the level of expressivity of a subjective pattern the more probable is the empathic communication, because the aesthetical empathy presumes a high degree of affinity with the model artistically coined. No matter which perspective we would approach, the problem of the empathy plays a crucial part in the comprehension of the art phenomenology, it represents the catalysing factor of the aesthetic communication.  The need of empathy is available for both the creator and the receptor.

The individual soul is aesthetically configured; it defines itself through aesthetical criteria such as stylistic sensibility and choice, for instance. Two different individuals with an identical ethical vision could embrace completely different means of expression of their own convictions and the style is what determines the aesthetical dimension of the discourse, it’s on his aptitudes to discern “how” things are supposed to be envisioned and presented. Here comes the observation of Henri Focillon: the style and the shape that coin the expression cannot be separated from its inner content because they both are meant to provide for the nature of this content:„The shape is not the random cover of the fund”. (op.cit iii pg.10). A philosophical idea is inherently dependent on the formulation that carries on the meaning. „The sense of the shape is incorporated in its texture; it has a particular value that shouldn’t be confounded with the semantic attributes that might be inferred in addiction. “The iconography, for instance, could be conceived either as “variation of the shapes with mutual meaning, either as variation of meanings through the same shape”.

Ilinca Bernea

[i] [Foc] Focillon, H., Viaţa formelor, (1995) Editura Meridiane, pg.76

[ii] [Foc] Focillon, H., Viaţa formelor, (1995) Editura Meridiane, Bucureşti , pg. 17

[iii] [Foc] Focillon, H., Viaţa formelor, (1995) Editura Meridiane, Bucureşti, pg. 80

[iv] [Foc] Focillon, H., Viaţa formelor, (1995) Editura Meridiane, Bucureşti, pg. 91


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copyright Ilinca Bernea


"For moral reasons ... the world appears to me to be put together in such a painful way that I prefer to believe that it was not created ... intentionally."
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