Visual Metamorphosis

Visual metamorphosis is the term we use to indicate shape-shifting in art. It allows an artist to transform a shape representing one item into a similar shape representing something else. This, in turn, allows one meaning to be hidden behind another. It is a visual technique equivalent to allegory and metaphor in literature and has, in consequence, been widely used. It was first proposed in the 1930’s in a slightly different form by the French art historian, Henri Foçillon. Although subsequent historians have recognized visual metamorphosis in a few works by major artists, Dürer being the best-known, it has been far more widely used than anyone, save artists, has ever recognized.1

Any great European artist in any period would have assumed that a borrowed form borrows meaning and that there is no difference between an idea for a painting and a composition of form. Plato’s word for form was idea.2 Nevertheless, in the nineteenth century many experts believed that paintings by Edouard Manet, who was by far the most significant artist of the day, had no specific meaning. His compositions, they said, were just a variety of different colored forms and that the artist himself paid no more attention to painting a human head than he gave to the depiction of the same man’s shoes.3 Just as materialist science had robbed the world of meaning, so art criticism repeated the pattern in art. The movement reached its peak in the theory of Clement Greenberg, a twentieth-century American critic, that painting should have no other meaning than the essence of its own medium: canvas, paint, flatness and frame.

Even before Foçillon, though, cultural historians trained in Germany and led by Erwin Panofsky had argued that the traditional symbolism of certain objects allowed artists to embed their images with meaning. Their prime example was how the circular shape of a straw firescreen behind the Virgin’s head in a painting now known to be by Robert Campin imitated the shape of a halo. It allowed the artist to portray the Virgin as an ordinary mother without the artificial baggage of an ancient symbol. Iconology, as the methodology is known, became popular though few examples were quite so visually intriguing as the firescreen and the halo. Many involved the changing meaning of an object over time rather than of one form being mistaken for another. Like other methodologies it succumbed to competing theories, also non-visual, that seemed to offer more promise.

A few art historians continued to focus on vision. In 1934 Foçillon restated St. Augustine’s argument from a millennium earlier that forms live in the artist’s mind.4  Forms, he argued in his book The Life of Forms in Art, are in constant change not only in the mind of the artist but as they are transmitted from one work of art to another. The metamorphosis that a form undergoes in the mind of a great artist, he declared, is unavailable to the unimaginative painter who cannot recognize the common element nor even effect the change. 5 If many painters cannot recognize the metamorphosis, it is not surprising then that most viewers have not been able to see them either. Indeed Foçillon’s own experience of such metamorphoses seems to have been somewhat limited because his concrete examples in art are relatively scarce. Once shown, however, the ability to see visual metamorphosis can be taught and, as in so many other talents, practice helps improve performance. (A word of warning: it is important that visual metamorphosis make sense within the work itself, the artist’s overall oeuvre and art history too. If not, the viewer can get carried away by his or her own imagination, not the artist’s.) Studying our examples, though, from a variety of periods by a variety of different artists will help strengthen your own neurons’ ability to recognize similar patterns supported by similar evidence elsewhere. Indeed the joy that comes with such recognition, fed by the neurons' release of dopamine, is as close as many will ever come to pure aesthetic satisfaction.

For a more detailed explanation, see the paper by Simon Abrahams, "How Forms in Art Work."

1. Joseph Leo Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (Chicago University Press) 1993, pp. 27-32

2.Plato’s definition of ideas as forms was based on their eternal, unchanging nature. Seneca described Plato’s definition of Idea as ‘that from which all things visible are made and according to which all things are shaped’ and as ‘the eternal model of the things which are made by nature.’ He further asserted that ‘God has within himself these models of all things...He is full of these figures, which Plato calls ‘ideas’; Aristotle stated that ‘the form of a work of art is present in the soul of the artist long before being translated into matter’  See Erwin Panofsky, Idea: A Concept in Art Theory [orig. publ. 1924] (University of South Carolina Press) 1968, pp. 24-7, 125. 

3. From the supportive criticism in Manet’s own day of Emile Zola to the scholarly writings of the 1950s, it was generally accepted that ‘subject, narration and symbol were alien to Manet’ and that ‘no object had any meaning beyond its formal function.’  Beth Archer Brombert, Edouard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat (Little, Brown and Company) 1996, p. 487

4. St. Augustine ‘acknowledged that through art a kind of beauty is revealed that, far from being merely derived from the creations of nature and transferred to the work of art by a simple act of copying, lives in the mind of the artist himself (author’s italics) and is directly translated by him into matter’ See Panofsky, op. cit., p.35

5. Foçillon described the influence of forms on the minds of artists of varying abilities: ‘With a mere imitator, a reliance on memory narrows the field of metamorphoses; with a virtuoso, such a reliance does not necessarily diminish their intensity in any way. To a visionary, the sudden, imperious nature of an image seems to impose itself on the life of forms with no little violence. There are, finally, those intellectuals who strive to think of form as thought and to adapt its life to the life of ideas.’ Foçillon, The Life of Forms in Art,  trans. C. Beecher Hogan and G. Kubler (Zone Books) 1989, p. 125


1989, p.125)


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