Emotion in art—is that not perfectly natural? Works of art almost automatically generate emotions when encountering, looking at, and listening to them, including their atmosphere, because they affect what viewers experience and speak to their subjective point of view. This year’s theme of Emotion presents works that deal specifically and explicitly with emotions. This occurs on two different levels: by dealing with issues that are fraught with emotion or by provoking a strong emotional reaction.
Emotion as a theme offers an approach to art based on ideas, similar to the theme of Identity (2016), and in contrast to more formal aspects, e.g. themes of Illusion (2015) or Sound (2017). Since the point of view is first and foremost an artistic, and not a scientific or psychological one, the focus is not on emotions themselves, but on the diversity of potential artistic expressions. One of the most effective ways of influencing people is to move them emotionally—this ranges from communicating an experience to manipulating thinking. Various eras in the history of art took very unique approaches to influencing emotions, which were, of course, also related to the spiritual and social developments of their particular time periods:
Reason and Emotion
Differentiating reason from emotion and exploring their interrelationships has been a central preoccupation of interpreting art since antiquity (Aristotle). Art history can also be seen as a kind of interplay, whose focus shifts back and forth between reason and emotion. Of course, each epoch has its own unique emotional character, but in certain time periods this is particularly pronounced: for instance, in the religious ecstasy of the Baroque, in the green mountaintops and churning waves of landscape paintings in the Romantic period, or in the eruptive bursts of color of Expressionism. Even abstract painting has had—and has—its proponents of emotional painting, be it through an exaggerated display of gestures or an excessive use of colors.
The concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, popularized during the artistic avant-garde in the first half of the twentieth century, can be traced all the way back to the Baroque period and Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau bestowed it with an important symbol. This concept, which encompasses the various arts, was further developed later on in media art, which employs technology to address all senses simultaneously. Generating all-encompassing atmospheres not only the physical world but also in virtual reality makes influencing sensory perception possible in a totally emotional way. It is no coincidence that one also speaks here of the “electronic baroque.”
There are positive and negative, simple, complex, and, of course, mixed emotions: love, happiness, longings, dreams—hate, fear, horror, trauma—memory, nostalgia, loss, insecurity—drama, pathos, ecstasy, and catharsis and infinitely more. Such concepts have different qualities and describe states of being or represent perceptions. Although the possibilities seem infinite, for man there exists a more or less universally coded spectrum of largely unconscious emotional perceptions and reactionary patterns. These are in part overlaid by cultural influences and individual personalities.
Emotions can be expressed in art in a wide variety of ways: figuratively in relationship to spaces, objects, or human figures; abstractly in terms of mere colors and forms; and narratively in terms of atmosphere. Human consciousness often invests basic physical perceptions (cold-hot, hard-soft, up-down, light intensity, colors, etc.) with emotional meaning. Equally urgent is the need to endow environmental phenomena with human characteristics and emotions.
For the annual theme for 2018, we have identified a number of examples in the visual arts that present this topic from various angles and in different art fields and media.
Emotions can be expressed in relation to the human body: with facial expressions, gestures, and posture. This system of signs—body language—is a general biological, psychological characteristic that art uses and reflects on with its own means. The description of an epoch-spanning, valid gestural language led art historian Aby Warburg to develop the “pathos formula,” which ascribes universal validity to the representation of emotional expressions through gestures and facial expressions. ▶ Group exhibition Sturmhöhen
The importance of colors as emotional stimuli was already examined in Goethe’s teachings on color and is almost always applied in visual art—consciously and unconsciously. Especially in painting, but also in installation, film, and sculpture, coloration determines the artwork’s emotional impact. The effect of color goes beyond the tonal value of individual colors; differentiated impressions are addressed by “color harmonies” and, of course, by form and environment. Conversely, of course, colors can also be assigned to feelings, as in the “wheel of emotions” by American psychologist Robert Plutchik. ▶ Group exhibition Sturmhöhen, exhibition Philipp Geist
Some materials have very complex effects capable of triggering strong emotions. The transparency of glass, for instance, allows it to convey a sensation of cleanliness and honesty, its optical properties give the impression of objectivity through its use in scientific devices such as microscopes or lenses. At the same time, its brittleness can trigger uncertainty and anxiety, whereas its shininess, light-fragmenting, and reflective properties also evoke a mystical, spiritual quality. ▶ Group exhibition Fragile!
The natural environment or man-made objects can also be laden with emotions. Objects are ascribed magical capabilities; they assume a personality or human qualities as if brought to life. In doing so, they can convey not only emotions but even take on a supposed will of their own. ▶ Exhibitions Andriy Hir and Stefanie Unruh.
The rich and still lively tradition of landscape painting attests to how emotions are projected onto landscapes. Here, emotional meaning is attributed to all formal and thematic aspects: cardinal points, times of day, vegetation as well as a landscape’s formal and color characteristics (e.g. local color). In a wider sense, landscape can also be an inner space, an interior in which e.g. light and projections create an all-encompassing spatial atmosphere. ▶ Exhibition Philipp Geist
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