Sculpture: Some Observations on Shape and Form from Pygmalion's Creative Dream
Johann Gottfried Herder
Long recognized as one of the most important eighteenth-century works on aesthetics and the visual arts, Johann Gottfried Herder's Plastik (Sculpture, 1778) has never before appeared in a complete English translation. In this landmark essay, Herder combines rationalist and empiricist thought with a wide range of sources—from the classics to Norse legend, Shakespeare to the Bible—to illuminate the ways we experience sculpture.
Standing on the fault line between classicism and romanticism, Herder draws most of his examples from classical sculpture, while nevertheless insisting on the historicity of art and of the senses themselves. Through a detailed analysis of the differences between painting and sculpture, he develops a powerful critique of the dominance of vision both in the appreciation of art and in our everyday apprehension of the world around us. One of the key articulations of the aesthetics of Sturm und Drang, Sculpture is also important as an anticipation of subsequent developments in art theory.
Jason Gaiger's translation of Sculpture includes an extensive introduction to Herder's thought, explanatory notes, and illustrations of all the sculptures discussed in the text.
individual parts of the human body from the perspective of the sculptor. The published version of 1778 retains this structure virtually unaltered. The new starting point is achieved by taking out of part 3 everything that is concerned with “expression.” This material is then put into part 4, which begins with an interpretation of plastic beauty in terms of “inner perfection,” adding posture, movement, gesture, and action to the static physiognomy of the human body detailed in the previous
beginning to take hold, one that emphasized the importance of the viewer’s emotional response as a means of animating the work, or “bringing it to life.” In contrast to the distanced contemplation of the antiquarian or the connoisseur, the appropriately responsive art lover was enjoined to enter into a more intimate relation to the object of his or her admiration. The myth of Pygmalion, who falls in love with and then succeeds in bringing to life the statue he so fervently admires, was
sight so early, that he had no remembrance of ever having seen, and was couch’d between 13 and 14 years of age.” Herder’s account of the case is taken from Robert Smith’s A Compleat System of Opticks (1738), where Cheselden’s report is cited verbatim. 5. Cf. the following passage of Cheselden’s report: “Though we say of this gentleman that he was blind, as we do of all people who have ripe cataracts, yet they are never so blind from that cause, but that they can discern day from night; and for
who used it as the basis for a taxonomy of the arts in his “Betrachtungen u¨ber die Quellen und Verbindungen der scho¨nen Ku¨nste und Wissenschaften” [Observations on the sources and interconnections of the fine 108 Editor’s Notes to Pages 41–42 arts and sciences], first published in 1757 (reprinted in Mendelssohn, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 1). Lessing also employs this distinction in chapter 17 of Laocoo¨n. 24. Again, Herder is drawing on and taking issue with Lessing’s Laocoo¨n (see note
Five 1. Herder visited the blind wife of a farmer in 1770 in order to learn more about the sensory experiences of the blind. He discusses the visit again in his Kaligone (1800). See Herder, Sa¨mtliche Werke, 29:49. 2. For Nicholas Saunderson, see part 1, editor’s note 3. 3. French: “Shame to he who thinks badly of it,” motto of the Order of the Garter, the English order of knighthood founded by King Edward II in 1348. 4. The word “metagrabolise” was coined by Franc¸ois Rabelais (c. 1494– c. 1553)