By Marjorie Munsterberg

Writing About Art

Formal Analysis

Formal analysis is a specific type of visual description. Unlike ekphrasis, it is not meant to evoke the work in the reader’s mind. Instead it is an explanation of visual structure, of the ways in which certain visual elements have been arranged and function within a composition. Strictly speaking, subject is not considered and neither is historical or cultural context. The purest formal analysis is limited to what the viewer sees. Because it explains how the eye is led through a work, this kind of description provides a solid foundation for other types of analysis. It is always a useful exercise, even when it is not intended as an end in itself.

The British art critic Roger Fry (1866-1934) played an important role in developing the language of formal analysis we use in English today. Inspired by modern art, Fry set out to escape the interpretative writing of Victorians like Ruskin. He wanted to describe what the viewer saw, independent of the subject of the work or its emotional impact. Relying in part upon late 19th- and early 20th-century studies of visual perception, Fry hoped to bring scientific rigor to the analysis of art. If all viewers responded to visual stimuli in the same way, he reasoned, then the essential features of a viewer’s response to a work could be analyzed in absolute – rather than subjective or interpretative – terms. This approach reflected Fry’s study of the natural sciences as an undergraduate. Even more important were his studies as a painter, which made him especially aware of the importance of how things had been made.17

The idea of analyzing a single work of art, especially a painting, in terms of specific visual components was not new. One of the most influential systems was created by the 17th-century French Academician Roger de Piles (1635-1709). His book, The Principles of Painting, became very popular throughout Europe and appeared in many languages. An 18th-century English edition translates de Piles’s terms of analysis as: composition (made up of invention and disposition or design), drawing, color, and expression. These ideas and, even more, these words, gained additional fame in the English-speaking world when the painter and art critic Jonathan Richardson (1665-1745) included a version of de Piles’s system in a popular guide to Italy. Intended for travelers, Richardson’s book was read by everyone who was interested in art. In this way, de Piles’s terms entered into the mainstream of discussions about art in English.18

Like de Piles’s system, Roger Fry’s method of analysis breaks a work of art into component parts, but they are different ones. The key elements are (in Joshua Taylor’s explanation):

Color, both as establishing a general key and as setting up a relationship of parts; line, both as creating a sense of structure and as embodying movement and character; light and dark, which created expressive forms and patterns at the same time as it suggested the character of volumes through light and shade; the sense of volume itself and what might be called mass as contrasted with space; and the concept of plane, which was necessary in discussing the organization of space, both in depth and in a two-dimensional pattern. Towering over all these individual elements was the composition, how part related to part and to whole: composition not as an arbitrary scheme of organization but as a dominant contributor to the expressive content of the painting.19

Fry first outlined his analytical approach in 1909, published in an article which was reprinted in 1920 in his book Vision and Design.20

Some of the most famous examples of Fry's own analyses appear in Cézanne. A Study of His Development.21 Published in 1927, the book was intended to persuade readers that Cézanne was one of the great masters of Western art long before that was a generally accepted point of view. Fry made his argument through careful study of individual paintings, many in private collections and almost all of them unfamiliar to his readers. Although the book included reproductions of the works, they were small black-and-white illustrations, murky in tone and detail, which conveyed only the most approximate idea of the pictures. Furthermore, Fry warned his readers, “it must always be kept in mind that such [written] analysis halts before the ultimate concrete reality of the work of art, and perhaps in proportion to the greatness of the work it must leave untouched a greater part of the objective.”22 In other words, the greater the work, the less it can be explained in writing. Nonetheless, he set out to make his case with words.

One of the key paintings in Fry’s book is Cézanne’s Still-life with Compotier (Private collection, Paris), painted about 1880. The lengthy analysis of the picture begins with a description of the application of paint. This was, Fry felt, the necessary place of beginning because all that we see and feel ultimately comes from paint applied to a surface. He wrote: “Instead of those brave swashing strokes of the brush or palette knife [that Cézanne had used earlier], we find him here proceeding by the accumulation of small touches of a full brush.”23 This single sentence vividly outlines two ways Cézanne applied paint to his canvas (“brave, swashing strokes” versus “small touches”) and the specific tools he used (brush and palette knife). As is often the case in Fry’s writing, the words he chose go beyond what the viewer sees to suggest the process of painting, an explanation of the surface in terms of the movement of the painter’s hand.

After a digression about how other artists handled paint, Fry returned to Still-life with Compotier. He rephrased what he had said before, integrating it with a fuller description of Cézanne’s technique:

[Cézanne] has abandoned altogether the sweep of a broad brush, and builds up his masses by a succession of hatched strokes with a small brush. These strokes are strictly parallel, almost entirely rectilinear, and slant from right to left as they descend. And this direction of the brush strokes is carried through without regard to the contours of the objects.24

From these three sentences, the reader gathers enough information to visualize the surface of the work. The size of the strokes, their shape, the direction they take on the canvas, and how they relate to the forms they create are all explained. Already the painting seems very specific. On the other hand, the reader has not been given the most basic facts about what the picture represents. For Fry, that information only came after everything else, if it was mentioned at all.

Then Fry turned to “the organization of the forms and the ordering of the volumes.” Three of the objects in the still-life are mentioned, but only as aspects of the composition.

Each form seems to have a surprising amplitude, to permit of our apprehending it with an ease which surprises us, and yet they admit a free circulation in the surrounding space. It is above all the main directions given by the rectilinear lines of the napkin and the knife that make us feel so vividly this horizontal extension [of space]. And this horizontal [visually] supports the spherical volumes, which enforce, far more than real apples could, the sense of their density and mass.

He continued in a new paragraph:

One notes how few the forms are. How the sphere is repeated again and again in varied quantities. To this is added the rounded oblong shapes which are repeated in two very distinct quantities in the compotier and the glass. If we add the continually repeated right lines [of the brush strokes] and the frequently repeated but identical forms of the leaves on the wallpaper, we have exhausted this short catalogue. The variation of quantities of these forms is arranged to give points of clear predominance to the compotier itself to the left, and the larger apples to the right centre. One divines, in fact, that the forms are held together by some strict harmonic principle almost like that of the canon in Greek architecture, and that it is this that gives its extraordinary repose and equilibrium to the whole design.25

Finally the objects in the still-life have come into view: a compotier (or fruit dish), a glass, apples, and a knife, arranged on a cloth and set before patterned wallpaper.

In Fry’s view of Cézanne, contour, or the edges of forms, are especially important. The Impressionists, Cézanne's peers and exact contemporaries, were preoccupied “by the continuity of the visual welt.” For Cézanne, on the other hand, contour

became an obsession. We find the traces of this throughout this still-life. He actually draws the contour with his brush, generally in a bluish grey. Naturally the curvature of this line is sharply contrasted with his parallel hatchings, and arrests the eye too much. He then returns upon it incessantly by repeated hatchings which gradually heap up round the contour to a great thickness. The contour is continually being lost and then recovered . . . [which] naturally lends a certain heaviness, almost clumsiness, to the effect; but it ends by giving to the forms that impressive solidity and weight which we have noticed.26

Fry ended his analysis with the shapes, conceived in three dimensions (“volumes”) and in two dimensions (“contours”):

At first sight the volumes and contours declare themselves boldly to the eye. They are of a surprising simplicity, and are clearly apprehended. But the more one looks the more they elude any precise definition. The apparent continuity of the contour is illusory, for it changes in quality throughout each particle of its length. There is no uniformity in the tracing of the smallest curve. . . . We thus get at once the notion of extreme simplicity in the general result and of infinite variety in every part. It is this infinitely changing quality of the very stuff of painting which communicates so vivid a sense of life. In spite of the austerity of the forms, all is vibration and movement.27

Fry wrote with a missionary fervor, intent upon persuading readers of his point of view. In this respect, his writings resemble Ruskin’s, although Fry replaced Ruskin’s rich and complicated language with clear, spare words about paint and composition. A text by Fry like the one above provides the reader with tangible details about the way a specific picture looks, whereas Ruskin’s text supplies an interpretation of its subject. Of course, different approaches may be inspired by the works themselves. Ignoring the subject is much easier if the picture represents a grouping of ordinary objects than if it shows a dramatic scene of storm and death at sea. The fact that Fry believed in Cézanne’s art so deeply says something about what he believed was important in art. It also says something about the taste of the modern period, just as Ruskin’s values and style of writing reveal things about the Victorian period. Nonetheless, anyone can learn a great deal from reading either of them.

Ellen Johnson, an art historian and art critic who wrote extensively about modern art, often used formal analysis. One example is a long description of Richard Diebenkorn's Woman by a Large Window (Allen Art Museum, Oberlin), which covers the arrangement of shapes into a composition, the application of paint, the colors, and finally the mood of the work. Although organized in a different order from Fry's analysis of Cézanne's still-life, her discussion defines the painting in similar terms.

[Diebenkorn's] particular way of forming the picture . . . is captivating, . . . organizing the picture plane into large, relatively open areas interrupted by a greater concentration of activity, a spilling of shapes and colors asymmetrically placed on one side of the picture.  In Woman by a Large Window the asymmetry of the painting is further enhanced by having the figure not only placed at the left of the picture but, more daringly, facing directly out of the picture. This leftward direction and placement is brought into a precarious and exciting but beautifully controlled balance by the mirror on the right which . . . creates a fascinating ambiguity and enrichment of the picture space.

. . . The interior of the room and the woman in it are painted in subdued, desert-sand colors, roughly and vigorously applied with much of the drawing achieved by leaving exposed an earlier layer of paint. The edges of the window, table and chair, and the contours of the figure, not to mention the purple eye, were drawn in this way. In other areas, the top layer, roughly applied as though with a scrub brush, is sufficiently thin to permit the under-color to show through and vary the surface hue. . . . [T]he landscape is more positive in hue and value contrasts and the paint more thick and rich.  The bright apple-green of the fields and the very dark green of the trees are enlivened by smaller areas of orange, yellow and purple; the sky is intensely blue.  The glowing landscape takes on added sparkle by contrast with the muted interior . . . .  Pictorially, however, [the woman] is anchored to the landscape by the dark of her hair forming one value and shape with the trees behind her.  This union of in and out, of near and far, repeated in the mirror image, emphasizes the plane of the picture, the two-dimensional character of which is further asserted by the planar organization into four horizontal divisions: floor, ledge, landscape and sky.  Thus, while the distance of the landscape is firmly stated, it is just as firmly denied . . . .

While the mood of the picture is conveyed most obviously through the position and attitude of the figure, still the entire painting functions in evoking this response . . . Lonely but composed, withdrawn from but related to her environment, the woman reminds one of the self-contained, quiet and melancholy figures on Greek funerary reliefs.  Like them, relaxed and still, she seems to have sat for centuries.28

Johnson’s description touches on all aspects of what the viewer sees before ending with a final paragraph about mood. Firmly situated in our understanding of specific physical and visual aspects of Diebenkorn’s painting, her analogy to the seated women on Greek funerary reliefs enhances our ability to envision the position and spirit of this woman. It makes the picture seem vivid by referring to something entirely other. The image also is unexpected, so the description ends with an idea that catches our attention because it is new, while simultaneously summarizing an important part of her analysis. An allusion must work perfectly to be useful, however. Otherwise it becomes a distraction, a red herring that leads the reader away from the subject at hand.

The formal analysis of works other than paintings needs different words. In Learning to Look, Joshua Taylor identified three key elements that determine much of our response to works of sculpture. The artist “creates not only an object of a certain size and weight but also a space that we experience in a specific way.” A comparison between an Egyptian seated figure (Louvre, Paris) and Giovanni da Bologna’s Mercury (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) reveals two very different treatments of form and space:

The Egyptian sculptor, cutting into a block of stone, has shaped and organized the parts of his work so that they produce a particular sense of order, a unique and expressive total form. The individual parts have been conceived of as planes which define the figure by creating a movement from one part to another, a movement that depends on our responding to each new change in direction. . . . In this process our sense of the third-dimensional aspect of the work is enforced and we become conscious of the work as a whole. The movement within the figure is very slight, and our impression is one of solidity, compactness, and immobility.

In Mercury, on the other hand, “the movement is active and rapid.”

The sculptor’s medium has encouraged him to create a free movement around the figure and out into the space in which the figure is seen. This space becomes an active part of the composition. We are conscious not only of the actual space displaced by the figure, as in the former piece, but also of the space seeming to emanate from the figure of Mercury. The importance of this expanding space for the statue may be illustrated if we imagine this figure placed in a narrow niche. Although it might fit physically, its rhythms would seem truncated, and it would suffer considerably as a work of art. The Egyptian sculpture might not demand so particular a space setting, but it would clearly suffer in assuming Mercury’s place as the center piece of a splashing fountain.29

Rudolf Arnheim (1904-2007) also used formal analysis, but as it relates to the process of perception and psychology, specifically Gestalt psychology, which he studied in Berlin during the 1920s. Less concerned with aesthetic qualities than the authors quoted above, he was more rigorous in his study of shapes, volumes, and composition. In his best-known book, Art and Visual Perception. A Psychology of the Creative Eye, first published in 1954, Arnheim analyzed, in order: balance, shape, form, growth, space, light, color, movement, tension, and expression.30 Many of the examples given in the text are works of art, but he made it clear that the basic principles relate to any kind of visual experience. In other books, notably Visual Thinking and the Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts, Arnheim developed the idea that visual perception is itself a kind of thought.31 Seeing and comprehending what has been seen are two different aspects of the same mental process. This was not a new idea, but he explored it in relation to many specific visual examples.

Arnheim began with the assumption that any work of art is a composition before it is anything else:

When the eyes meet a particular picture for the first time, they are faced with the challenge of the new situation: they have to orient themselves, they have to find a structure that will lead the mind to the picture’s meaning. If the picture is representational, the first task is to understand the subject matter. But the subject matter is dependent on the form, the arrangement of the shapes and colors, which appears in its pure state in “abstract,” non-mimetic works.32

To explain how different uses of a central axis alter compositional structure, for example, Arnheim compared El Greco’s Expulsion from the Temple (Frick Collection, New York) to Fra Angelico’s Annunciation (San Marco, Florence). About the first, Arnheim wrote:

The central object reposes in stillness even when within itself it expresses strong action. The Christ . . . is a typical figura serpentinata [spiral figure]. He chastises the merchant with a decisive swing of the right arm, which forces the entire body into a twist. The figure as a whole, however, is firmly anchored in the center of the painting, which raises the event beyond the level of a passing episode. Although entangled with the temple crowd, Christ is a stable axis around which the noisy happening churns.33

Although his discussion identifies the forms in terms of subject, Arnheim’s only concern is the way the composition works around its center. The same is true in his discussion of Fra Angelico’s fresco:

As soon as we split the compositional space down the middle, its structure changes. It now consists of two halves, each organized around its own center. . . . Appropriate compositional features must bridge the boundary. Fra Angelico’s Annunciation at San Marco, for example, is subdivided by a prominent frontal column, which distinguishes the celestial realm of the angel from the earthly realm of the Virgin. But the division is countered by the continuity of the space behind the column. The space is momentarily covered but not interrupted by the vertical in the foreground. The lively interaction between the messenger and recipient also helps bridge the separation.34

All formal analysis identifies specific visual elements and discusses how they work together.  If the goal of a writer is to explain how parts combine to create a whole, and what effect that whole has on the viewer, then this type of analysis is essential.  It also can be used to define visual characteristics shared by a number of objects.  When the similarities seem strong enough to set a group of objects apart from others, they can be said to define a "style."  Stylistic analysis can be applied to everything from works made during a single period by a single individual to a survey of objects made over centuries.  All art historians use it.