Alexandre Saint-Yves D'Alveydre: L'Archéomètre.

Alexandre Saint-Yves D'Alveydre, L'Archéomètre (illustration from the book: Alexandre Saint-Yves D'Alveydre, L'Archéomètre, 1910, reprint 1979). Photo: University of Vienna, Department of Art History

Visual Resonance. Vibrations in the context of perceptual physiology, art theory, and aesthetics 1700–1925 

Beatrice Immelmann

PhD Project (uni:docs-program)

The conception of aesthetic perception and aesthetic experience through nervous vibrations or vibrations of the soul has a tradition dating back to the beginning of the 18th century. It constitutes a recourse in the scientific model of sensual perception. Physical phenomena, such as light and sound, as well as their perception, were considered derived from the properties of the vibrational motions of matter, as in Nicolas Malebranche’s De la Recherche de la Vérité from 1675, or Isaac Newton’s Opticks, from 1704. Since then, this conception has remained a recurring model to explain the physical, physiological, and psychological aspects of the perception of light and sound, as in the writings of Hermann von Helmholtz and Gustav Theodor Fechner.
Providing a physical and neurological explanation for an analogy of light and sound, or seeing and hearing, the perception — and the appreciation — of visual and auditory stimuli were thus reduced to the same principle. This simplified theory apparently intrigued artists, musicians, and writers, and gave significant impulses to link the aesthetic perception of music and painting, or sound and color, for the next 200 years. In this vein, the terminology became a popular scientific explanation for the processes of perception or perceptual physiology in art theory and aesthetic writings, such as those of Edmund Burke and Charles Baudelaire. It was especially used in theoretical considerations by those artists who produced and exhibited art works with a growing degree of abstraction from approximately 1910 on, by Wassily Kandinsky, František Kupka, Robert Delaunay, Georges Vantongerloo, and many more. Vibrations became an argumentative pattern to theorize a correspondence between artistic production, originating from the artist’s vibration of the soul, and a resonant aesthetic experience of the viewers.
This PhD-project aims to 1) trace back a continuity of the discourse on vibrations in the context of art theory and aesthetics between 1700 and 1925, and 2) analyze the function of this argumentative pattern in art literature.