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Facets of the Crystalline: Study of a Motif 1900-2020

O Dunlaing, Cliona (2021) Facets of the Crystalline: Study of a Motif 1900-2020. PhD thesis, University of Essex.

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Abstract

In 1908, the German art historian, Wilhelm Worringer (1881-1965) published Abstraktion und Einfühlung (Abstraction and Empathy), a book that would have far reaching consequences. He claimed that the history of art alternates between inorganic and organic forms; from ‘abstraction’ or ‘primitive’ art to Classical, humanist art. For Worringer, the crystal exemplified the inorganic, meaning that, in art history, the crystalline motif expressed a rejection of humanist art. Worringer was not the first to identify the crystal’s symbolic potential. The controversial Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) had already inspired crystalline forms amongst the Berlin avant-garde in the 1890s. Nonetheless, it was Worringer’s thesis that drove the development of the motif among the new generation of German Expressionists. In early twentieth century work, it symbolised a rejection of classical ideals while retaining a notion of transcendence. It optimistically heralded a new order with some proponents even predicting crystalline landscapes. This utopian vision faded in the Twenties and the motif was largely dormant until Robert Smithson (1938-73) revived Worringer’s interpretation in the Sixties. As an autodidact, Smithson harvested ideas from a variety of disciplines and, in doing so, he evolved the motif, placing it centre stage in several key works. Discontent with Worringer’s time-limited view, Smithson sought to encompass aeons of development. In his mature work, Smithson rejected a traditional artist’s palette, instead manipulating the physical world. Smithson’s use of the crystalline motif reaches a climax in Spiral Jetty (1970) through its interaction with the Great Salt Lake. The work of contemporary artist Josiah McElheny (b.1966) also centres on the crystalline motif, reflecting and evolving its meaning. Consequently, references to Expressionists and Smithson abound. As a skilled glassmaker, McElheny maximises glass’ material characteristics. He uses the crystalline to shatter any sense of the past as a single narrative, suggesting instead a multitude of possibilities.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Robert Smithson, Crystalline, Bruno Taut, Josiah McElheny, Wilhelm Worringer, Ernst Haeckel, Motif, 20th Century art theory, Entropy
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BH Aesthetics
N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR
N Fine Arts > NA Architecture
N Fine Arts > NX Arts in general
Divisions: Faculty of Humanities > Philosophy and Art History, School of
Depositing User: Cliona O'Dunlaing
Date Deposited: 29 Jan 2021 17:48
Last Modified: 29 Jan 2021 17:48
URI: http://repository.essex.ac.uk/id/eprint/29668

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