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Gillo Dorfles, painting, and philosophy[1]

Luca Cesari

The path that leads Gillo Dorfles the painter to the well-known production of his artworks within the Movimento Arte Concreta [Concrete Art Movement], which contributes to the creation of an optimal space for ideas, is the same path that leads Dorfles the critic, theoretician, and poet, to the articulation of his own aesthetics in Discorso tecnico delle arti [The technical language of the arts], published in 1952[2]. The most important aspect of the transition is represented by articles he wrote in 1948-1949[3], which were devoted in one way or another to the “correspondences” among the arts (which take up a good portion of the book), and in these texts we can see the extent to which Dorfles’ approach is influenced by Goethe’s theoretical writings. One such article is dedicated to Goethe’s Farbenlehre [theory of color] and another shifts the attention to Kant’s schematism of concepts, as Dorfles reviews Cesare Brandi’s “theory of the object,” following the publication of Carmine o della pittura [Carmine or on painting] in 1949. These interests continue in subsequent years in his review of Luigi Pareyson’s[4] theory of “formatività” [“forming-activity”] where the primary idea veers toward the thought of Goethe and away from Croce’s concept of form (which some continued to use in arguing the similarity between art and the forming-activity).

There is no doubt that Dorfles in 1952 and Pareyson a few years later developed a complementary, if not completely corresponding, terminology despite differences in theoretical approach. The interest in Goethe’s theoretical reflections, which nourish Dorfles’ mind, from the first manifestation of his critical activity (which we will see in this essay) enables him to gain a broader and more significant grasp of the notion of “formative process” (Gestaltung). This notion, however, pertains not only to his philosophy, for it is permeated by the entire symbolic mechanism underpinning the “universality of the gnoseological activity” [5] of our logical and creative mental processes, and it favors the rejection of a closed theory of cognition and an aesthetic philosophy, since that mechanism is more far-reaching than philosophers admit. In the 1950s we also find Pareyson interested in the thought of Goethe, and the product of this same aesthetics cannot be considered too far removed from the notion of the highly imaginative formative process, which lies at the root of all mental production.

There are, however, other important synchronies between the great scholars, such as their shared interest in Schelling and the philosophy of myth. On the occasion of the preparation of a volume specifically on Dorfles’s[6] theoretical contributions to aesthetics, the importance of the years prior to 1948, which had an impact on the main interests of a life and career that went well beyond 1950, was noted. Also noted was the importance of some dense early writings and paintings executed between 1930 and 1934, which can be found in the articles published in the journals Italia letteraria and Le arti plastiche [7] from the same period.

This cluster of elements, together with the diary entries that the author has recently published,[8] not only confirms the importance of the constructive experiences of the entire period, but relates more than we might think to the essence of the relationship with the personality of Goethe, which implicitly accounts for the complex epistemic exigencies in all of Dorfles’s work.

At this point, the chronological details are not of secondary importance, but confirm various historical and biographical factors that contribute to our appreciation of his career as a painter. These facts establish a perfect correlation between the forms of expression pursued in the early 1930s – as described by Luigi Sansone[9] – and the first journal articles, which are already clearly representative of his talent, keeping in mind the fact that they are the work of a young man. Both indicate that the first accepted artworks and the first articles published in journals come on the heels of a journey to Dornach, Switzerland, which did not take place in 1934 but in 1928-1930, as Dorfles himself tells us in his diaries[10]. As we know, Dornach is associated with the Goetheanum, the great artistic and spiritual building designed by Rudolf Steiner, which was destroyed and rebuilt during Dorfles’ stay, a truly symbolic structure and headquarters of the Anthroposophy Society, which asserts a strong relationship with the aesthetic and artistic perspective. The German poet after whom this temple/theater is named assumes an essential role that depends on the universal spirituality of the conceptualization of literature and science, but also on the fact that Goethe supposedly experienced a real eureka moment as regards the possibility of penetrating the hidden secret of nature: “Becoming aware of the idea within reality is the true communion of man”[11]. With this, he means the inseparability of nature and spirit and refers to one “who sees the world only as a great whole”, anticipating, we might say, all later theorists who integrate psyche and nature, beginning with Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli and including modern thinkers in search of a grand unification theory, and not simply for the individual phenomena of physical nature. We need only mention the conference dating from the end of the 1880s, titled ambitiously Goethe, the Founder of a New Aesthetics, where we read: “We still do not have an aesthetics based on the assumption that the beautiful is sensible reality that appears as idea. We have to create such an aesthetics. It could certainly be called an aesthetics of Goethe’s conception of the world and it is the aesthetics of the future”[12].

The reciprocal influence with the ideas that Steiner was developing during the same time he was producing the scientific writings of Goethe in the series “La letteratura nazionale tedesca” [“The German national literature”] for publisher Kürschner, between 1884 and 1897, is an integral part of this discussion. That publication of the scientific works of the poet supports many subsequent observations on the definition of a unified theory of the formative forces, which presupposes a single evolutionary chain of beings and forms, and which, by virtue of an implicit valorization, we find in Dorfles from the most coherent affirmation of the concept of the “becoming of art” that also derives from Goethe (Metamorphose der Pflanzen) [The metamorphosis of plants][13].

Perhaps, it is not an exaggeration to say that grasping this idea of the Urform promotes the felicitous development of a style consisting of conceptual and cognitive interferences in the task of acknowledging “the universality of our gnoseological activity” by means of which we can reflect on the diversification of the original plant that is Dorfles. It also explains why his reflection on the concept of Gestaltung – “an undeniable foundation for the processes of nature and man”[14], focused on identifying “the formative constants that govern the evolution of the creativity of man and nature” – unfolds in the course of the 1930s, 1940s, and in 1950s, with an important Note in the journal Aut aut[15], and continuing in subsequent decades, up to the more recent works, in which the same “constant” reappears in Fatti e fattoidi [Facts and factoids] (1997).

In the face of Dorfles’s numerous and diverse theoretical writings, which some may find difficult to unify, a useful analogy is the nexus of a plant that branches out in many directions. It is on this basis that, as noted earlier, an Itinerario estetico [Aesthetic journey] was developed and in which we find Goethe’s concept of Urpflanze [archetypal plant] and the key ideas that already appeared in an article in Le arti plastiche in 1933, on “Goethe the draftsman”. On this occasion the reader has the chance to evaluate the comments, keeping in mind that, for an author born in 1910, this represents one of the first efforts with all the expected the limitations and merits. The limitations are those we are familiar with, while the merits consist in the development of key concepts and personal reflections within a specific historical framework, as we can see from the opening lines of the article:

In his Farbenlehre or theory of color, Goethe is the first to discuss hot and cold colors; this reference to the profound experience of color on the part of the entire organism and not merely the eyes recurs frequently in his works. He writes: “Color can also be tasted; blue will appear alkaline, yellow-red acidic”. Such an intimate perception of things and nature is one of the essential features of Goethe’s mentality (…) Goethe understood that the natural observation of things was tied to their artistic essence; he knew, for example, that the nervous system must be connected with ethical and spiritual energy, that respiration and the circulation of blood contain a malleable musical element, and that the skeleton represents the architecture of the human body. This aesthetic and spiritual nexus connecting the organs of the human body to each other to produce a harmonious whole and not merely the accumulation of cells and fibers, escapes the myopic eye of today’s naturalists, who have buried within themselves all interest in aesthetics, and is of no interest to today’s artists, who live in complete ignorance of natural phenomena.

We might perhaps acknowledge that such a unique approach to Goethe at this time – that is to say, during the years when the young Dorfles is dissatisfied with the study of both science and the humanities in the strict sense – stems from his enthusiasm for medicine and aesthetics, as evidenced by his diaries[16]. But we cannot underestimate the more important influence of Steiner’s reading of the scientific writings, in particular where Goethe’s rejection of Baron von Holbach’s conceptualization of the body as “mechanical mass of individual things”[17], and where there is reference to an anti-mechanistic view of causal processes that are in effect during all forms of perception, demonstrating that “even the most unnatural is nature”[18].

     Quite different are the articles published in Le arti plastiche, of which we now consider the one dedicated to Raphael, which is representative of Dorfles’s critical approach prior to 1948, and demonstrates his historical and artistic engagement with his contemporaries. Why Raphael?  It would not be possible to contextualize or comprehend Dorfles’s advocacy of the artist from Urbino without taking into account the main trends in art history and criticism, which in general gave Raphael’s work a cold reception. These are the years when Roberto Longhi publishes his most typical studies and Lionello Venturi, with Gusto dei primitivi [The taste of the primitives] (1926), initiates a true dismissal of the genius from Urbino; this fact alone would suffice to explain Dorfles’s unexpected response, which appears in a review of a book by Carlo Gamba, printed in 1932:

Anyone who examines the studies on ancient art of recent years will note that they deal more or less with the 1200s and 1300s or some isolated figure from the 1600s. In fact, almost all art historians have taken to re-evaluating the primitives in the belief that they see a parallel between their naïve imperfection and the imperfection in today’s art, and between their spontaneous grotesques and the grotesques we find today. Alternatively, they see the deformations and bursts of color in some decadent painters (El Greco) as a precursor to the chromatism and deformations of the 1800s. The study of the primitives has been prolific; it has re-evaluated some magnificent artists, and has distanced the prevailing taste from falseness and neoclassical art. But I believe that it would also be worthwhile to take up once again the close study of the 15th century and attempt to approach painters like Raphael with a complete understanding.

The recommendation to approach Raphael with a “complete understanding” cannot be taken as indicative of the main art criticism of the period, as stated above, with its theoretical framework that excludes Raphael, whether or not this is the intent. We need only mention a few caustic comments in The taste of the primitives and in Come si comprende la pittura [How to look at a painting], published in 1947, or all of Longhi’s writings, from Rinascimento fantastico[19] [The fantastic renaissance] of 1921 to Cinquecento classico e cinquecento manieristico [The classical 1500s and the mannerist 1500s], of 1976, in order to illustrate the contrasting attitudes the two great critics who, like blind atoms and with similarly harsh judgments, treat the figure of Raphael. Below we have Venturi’s comparison of Masaccio’s Tribute Money and Raphael’s Attila:

Masaccio’s images do not walk; they stand still (…) one arm of Christ commands, one arm of Peter confirms (…) the gravity of the moment impedes all superfluous actions, renders every pose sacred (…) Spectators who turn their gaze to Raphael’s fresco depicting the meeting between Attila and Pope Leo find themselves removed from a sanctuary and thrown into a fair. The movement creates confusion; the moral energy disappears and materializes in the appearance of saints Peter and Paul; in the foreground, the horses, the grooms, and soldiers assume beautiful poses more suited to a circus, and the many undeniably deft touches do not suffice to fill the emptiness and pointlessness that is the cause of all that motion[20].

We also have Longhi’s rapier thrusts directed at the “very famous canonical artists” and the various broadsides leveled against art that “is servile, accommodating, purely decorative, and lacking nerve” or art that “constantly shifts from pure lyricism to pictorial accommodation; because grotesque paintings and the Raphael Rooms share an unaesthetic and practical foundation”[21]. Such views are echoed in his review of Walter Pater’s[22] book Rinascimento. Studi d’arte e di poesia [The Renaissance. Studies in art and poetry] or in Breve ma veridica storia della pittura italiana [A brief but truthful history of Italian painting] (1914), where we read the following:

I cannot devote more time to Raphael who, you may have already concluded, belongs not to the group of pure painters but that of graphic illustrators of the ideals of life. His is figurative literature, not painting, worthy of respect and admiration only for the nobility and dignity of choosing the ideals to illustrate as opposed to the depths to which the vast majority of today’s illustrators sink. In principle, however, there is an ethical and not an artistic difference between Raphael and the others. In short, his superiority is based on a moral criterion and not on an aesthetic one and I, therefore, cannot spend too much time on him as I deal with the history of art[23].

Furthermore, the serious criticisms we find in “Percorso di Raffaello giovane”[24] [“The artistic journey of the young Raphael”] (1955) do not diminish in subsequent years. Such a context makes Dorfles’s article unconventional, even if unintentionally so, and the piece has the merit of bringing to national awareness a study like Gamba’s, which, among other things, was published far from the clamor of Italy. His position, then, is to be appreciated in context and in terms of the criterion of fashion contained in the title of one article “Raffaello, un pittore fuori moda” [“Raphael, an out of fashion painter”], which is all the more effective considering his opposite, El Greco, in another article “Spagna, antichi di moda”[25] [“Spain, ancient artists in vogue”].

Nonetheless, we can contrast the fortune of an art criticism that promotes a modern “taste of the primitives” or 17th-century artists thought to have a value waiting to be understood, the new fortune of Raphael, produced when the “myth”, born in the 18th and 19th centuries, fades with the arrival of the 20th century. The modern taste that was to be manifestly “primitive”, from Fauvism to Surrealism, admires him, extols his qualities, and views him as “a great artist not understood” (Derain[26]). How can we not cite the fascinating words Salvador Dali directed against the impassioned critics and the “cuckolds of the old modern art”?

It is easier to approach the genius of Gaudi than that of Raphael since the former is a genius surrounded by loud thunder, while the latter is bathed in heavenly silence. We must now win the Raphael battle, the most decisive and difficult of all. Only with the appropriate admiration for him will the true superior souls of our age be recognized because Raphael is the most anti-academic, the most tenderly alive, and the most futuristic of the aesthetic archetypes of all times[27].

Whereas the dominant critical opinions of the period convey a cold attitude and assessments that are not all measured, this is not the case for the more general artistic literature of the painter within which the admiring young Dorfles operates when confronted with the wings of the “imposing” Christ in Raphael’s Transfiguration. As opposed to Venturi’s[28] claim that the figure displays the evanescence of a “phantasm”, Dorfles brings to bear his own ideas, which mature perhaps under Rudolf Steiner’s respect for the painter from Urbino. In fact, we should not underestimate the final section of the article as regards the Transfiguration, with the touching passage on the “beautiful woman with her back to the spectator” and the “possessed boy”. There is, in effect, a correspondence between these words and Steiner’s description of the same scene in a conference from 1916:

To those who say that, in his later works, Raphael executed visionary paintings, we need only point out that the figure of the possessed boy functions as a completely true rendering of an occult-realistic event. The event becomes understandable to the others in the scene through what I would call mediumistic nature, unconsciousness of madness, such that they too can grasp something of the transfiguration[29].

And above all, there is an extraordinary appreciation of the difficulties that the artistic nature of Beauty and its Idea, emphasized by Raphael, would encounter with the arrival of an era whose myth of beauty for beauty’s sake and art for art’s sake, which, despite Venturi’s[30] interpretation, is not the concept that stands out in Raphael: “Now, the time has come when we increasingly fail to understand Raphael, when we understand him less because the epoch itself has become older than what Raphael could give to his times”[31].

[1] Following the appearance of his poetry in Sergio Solmi’s Prima antologia di poeti nuovi [First anthology of new poets] (Florence: Meridiana, 1950), Gillo Dorfles did not publish his poetry until recently when, in 2012, he submitted an extensive selection of poems to the publisher Campanotto (Udine); these were poems composed during the same period: Poesie 1941-1952 [Poems 1941-1952], edited with an introduction by L. Cesari.

[2] Discorso tecnico delle arti [The technical language of the arts], published by Nistri-Lischi in the series edited by Francesco Flora, was reprinted 50 years later, in 2000, in the Edizioni Christian Marinotti (Milan).

[3] Keeping in mind the Bibliografia [Bibliography] of the writings edited by C. Bietoletti (Gillo Dorfles, Intinerario estetico [Aesthetic journey] (Pordenone, Edizioni Studio Tesi, 1987), we refer to the articles collected by L. Cesari in  Itinerario estetico – simbolo mito metafora [Aesthetic journey – symbol myth metaphor] (Udine: Campanotto, 2011); Rapporti attuali tra musica e pittura [Current relationships between music and painting], ‘La costituzione d’ oggetto’ e il ‘Carmine’ di Brandi [‘The theory of the object’ and ‘Carmine’ by C. Brandi] (1949), cited later in the essay, and Goethe e la teoria dei colori [Goethe and the theory of color] (1949).

[4] Gillo Dorfles, L’arte come formatività (a proposito dell’estetica di Pareyson) [Art as forming-activity (regarding the aesthetics of Pareyson)], in Letteratura IV, no. 21-22 (1956); also in Itineratio estetico (2010), op. cit.

[5] This refers to an issue pursued by Dorfles in Mito e ragione [Myth and reason] (1989), now in Itineratio estetico [Aesthetic journey], op. cit.

[6] This too refers to Itinerario estetico [Aesthetic journey], op. cit.

[7] Dorfles’s earliest critical studies, officially dating from 1930, appear in L’Italia letteraria and Le arti plastiche, which published all the author’s contributions up to the outbreak of the war, after which the author’s contributions appear in other periodicals, such as Il mondo, Domus, Casabella, La Rassegna d’Italia, etc. These writings, in large part, consist of comments on the art in Roman galleries (first and foremost the Galleria Romana, directed by P.M. Bardi from 1930 to 1933) and exhibitions by artists from the Rome area (Cagli, Marini, Ziveri, Ferrazzi, Fazzini, Mafai) with whom Dorfles strikes up a friendship after his move from Milan to Rome where he enrols in the fourth year of medical studies. His friendship with Bardi, Cagli, and Bontempelli, in particular, would lead to a series of discussions on architecture, from about 1930 to 1938, which constitute perhaps his most interesting work from the first phase of his career.

[8] Gillo Dorfles, Lacerti della memoria [Fragments of memory] (Bologna: Editrice Compositori, 2007).

[9] All of Dorfles’s paintings and sculptures up to recent times appear in Catalogue raisonné [Descriptive catalogue], edited by Luigi Sansone (Milan: Mazzotta, 2010) in which we also find a commentary on the first interesting examples of pen-and-ink drawings from 1930. In this regard, the critic observes that the entire “hermetic, mysterious, and fantastic worlds that typify him are already contained in the three figures that the young Dorfles has drawn (…) a truly meaningful incunabulum of his work” (p. 11).

[10] We can, indeed, refer to his diaries in order to obtain the earliest information on the life of the author. In the introduction to the Catalogue raisonné [Descriptive catalogue], Sansone indicates that Dorfles’s first visit to Dornach occurred in 1934, while in Lacerti della memoria [Fragments of memory] Dorfles indicates 1928-1930 as the dates for his stay there: “Everything reminds me of my first visit to Dornach, in 1928-1930: he writes on p. 165.

[11] Rudolf Steiner, Introduzione agli scritti scientifici di Goethe [Introduction to the scientific writings of Goethe] (Milan: Editrice Antroposofica, 2008), p. 105.

[12] Rudolf Steiner, Goethe, padre di una nuova estetica [Goethe, founder of a new aesthetics], in Arte e conoscenza – I fondamenti di una nuova estetica [Art and knowledge – the founding principles of a new aesthetics] (Milan: Editrice Antroposofica, 2014), p. 30.

[13] See my introductory essay in Itinerario estetico [Aesthetic journey], op. cit., p. 24.

[14] Gillo Dorfles, “Momenti di una ricerca estetica” [“Moments in an aesthetic study”], in Itinerario estetico [Aesthetic journey], op. cit., p. 152.

[15] Gillo Dorfles, “Nota sulla Gestaltung goethiana” [“Note on Goethe’s Gestaltung”], in Aut aut, 28 (1955); also in Itinerario estetico [Aesthetic journey], op. cit.

[16] In an note from Lacerti della memoria [Fragments of memory] from 1932, we read: “(…) Book fair with Cagli. I meet Bontempelli (a friend of Cagli’s), who introduces me to Paola Masino (as “one of the most important critics”). And to think that in the morning I had an exam in pathological anatomy! And that I am surrounded by a mass of dirty, vulgar, coarse colleagues who spend the entire day studying a drawing of the liver, changes in the kidneys, and heart valves. I envy or want to be like these people, whom I see for a few hours each week. I wonder if it is really worth the trouble of spending my time frequenting literary circles, leafing through avant-garde magazines, and writing insipid articles in order to participate in sterile discussions. And I wonder if their complete ignorance of science, psychology, and real knowledge is truly enviable …” (p. 23).

[17] Rudolf Steiner, Introduzione agli scritti scientifici di Goethe [Introduction to Goethe’s scientific writings], op. cit., p. 18.

[18] Ibid., p. 19.

[19] See Longhi’s Scritti giovanili 1912-1922 [Writings from the early years 1912-1922], vol. 1 (Florence: Sansoni, 1946).

[20] Lionello Venturi, Il gusto dei primitivi [The taste of the primitives] (Turin: Einaudi, 1972), p. 219.

[21] Scritti giovanili [Writings of the early years], op. cit., p. 8.

[22] Ibid., p. 15.

[23] Roberto Longhi, Breve ma veridica storia della pittura italiana [A brief but truthful history of Italian painting], introduction by C. Garboli (Milan: Bur Supersaggi, 1994), p. 84.

[24] See Longhi’s Cinquecento classico e Cinquecento manieristico [The classic 1500s century and the mannerist 1500s] (Florence: Sansoni, 1976), especially pp. 12-13 of the essay cited.

[25] The writings from 1931 in Le arti plastiche include 2 articles dedicated to the painter, one titled “El Greco” and the other an abridged version of the first, titled “Spagna, antichi di moda” [“Spain, ancient artists in vogue”].

[26] See the catalogue Raffaello, elementi di un mito – Le fonti, la letteratura artistica, la pittura di genere storico [Raphael, elements of a myth – The sources, writings on art, historical paintings] (Florence: Centro DI, 1984), in particular the introduction by F. Borsi, p. 22.

[27] Salvador Dali, I cornuti della vecchia arte moderna [The cuckolds of the old modern art], translation by E, Bonfanti, with a text by A. Bosquet (Milan: Abscondia, 2008), p. 69.

[28] Lionello Venturi, Il gusto dei primitivi [The taste of the primitives], op. cit., p. 219.

[29] Rudolf Steiner, Storia dell’arte, specchio di impulsi spirituali – I grandi maestri italiani fino al Rinascimento [History of art, mirror of spiritual impulses – The great Italian masters up to the Renaissance] (Milan: Editrice Antroposofica, 1992), p. 105.

[30] Lionello Venturi considers Raphael the originator of a trend toward “art for art’s sake”. See Come si comprende la pittura [How to look at a painting] (Turin: Einaudi, 1975), the whole chapter titled “La torre d’avorio” [“The ivory tower”].

[31] Rudolf Steiner, Storia dell’arte, specchio di impulsi spirituali [History of art, mirror of spiritual impulses], op. cit., p. 109.


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