1902 Encyclopedia > Aesthetics > Gotthold Ephraim Lessing on Aesthetics

(Part 19)


Gotthold Ephraim Lessing on Aesthetics

Lessing’s service to the scientific theory of art are far greater than those of Winckelmann.

He is the first modern who has sought to deduce the special function of an art from a consideration of the means at its disposal. In his Laokoon he defines the boundaries of poetry and painting in a manner which has scarcely been improved on since. In slight divergence from Winckelmann, who has said that the representation of crying was excluded from sculpture by the ancients as unworthy of a great soul, Lessing sought to prove that it was prohibited by reason of its incompatibility with the conditions of plastic beauty. He reasoned from the example of the celebrated group, the Laokoon.

Visible beauty was, he said, the first law of ancient sculpture and painting. These arts, as employing the co-existent and permanent in space, are much more limited than poetry, which employs the transitory and successive impressions of sound. Hence, expression is to poetry what corporeal beauty is to the arts of visible form and colour. The former has to do with actions, the latter with bodies, -- that is, objects whose parts co-exist. Poetry can only suggest material objects and visible scenery by means of actions; as for example, when Homer pictures Juno’s chariot by a description of its formation piece by piece. Painting and sculpture, again, can only suggest actions by means of bodies.

From this it follows that the range of expression in poetry is far greater than in visible art. Just as corporeal beauty loses much of its charm, so the visible Ugly loses much of its repulsiveness by the successive and transient character of the poetic medium. Hence poetry may introduce it, while painting is forbidden to represent it. Even the Disgusting may be skillfully employed in poetry to strengthen the impression of the Horrible or Ridiculous; while painting can only attempt this at its peril, as in Pordenone’s Interment of Christ, in which a figure is represented as holding its nose. Visible imitation being immediate and permanent, the painful element cannot be softened and disguised by other and pleasing ingredients (the Laughable, &c), as in poetry.

As Schasler says, Lessing’s theory hardly makes room for the effects of individually of character as one aim of pictorial as well as of poetic art. Yet as a broad distinction between the two heterogeneous arts, limiting, on the one hand, pictorial description in poetry, and the representation of the painful, low, and revolting in the arts of vision, it is unassailable, and constitutes a real discovery in aesthetic.

Lessing’s principles of the drama, as scattered through the critiques of the Hamburg Dramaturgy, are for the most part a further elucidation of Aristotelian principles, of great value to the progress of art, but adding comparatively little to the theory. Its conspicuous points are the determination of poetic truth as shadowed forth by Aristotle, and the difference between tragedy and comedy in respect to liberty of invention both of fable and of character; secondly, the reassertion that both fear and pity, and not simply one of these, are the effect of every tragedy, and that it is false dramatic art to attempt to represent either the sufferings of a perfect martyr, or the actions of some monstrous horror of wickedness, as Corneille and the French school had urged; lastly, the interpretation of Aristotle’s purification of the passions as referring to this very fear and pity, and pointing to a certain desirable between excessive sensibility and excessive callousness. Schasler says that if Lessing had had an Aristotle to lean on in the Laokoon as in the Dramaturgy, it would have been more valuable. Others might be disposed to say that if he had been as free from the traditions of authority in the Dramaturgy as he was in the Laokoon, the former might have contained as much in the way of real discovery as the latter.

Read the rest of this article:
Aesthetics - Table of Contents

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries