Formalism and Symbolic Content

Formalism is a fundamental theory of aesthetics (the study of art and its values) emphasizing the overall appearance of a work of art. The appearance is judged for how well the formal arrangement of elements within a painting, sculpture, etc., manages to convey a successful “internal logic.” All formal elements must work together to convey a unified whole. Formal analysis judges how well a work of art succeeds in creating a pleasurable aesthetic experience separate from its inherent symbolism or interpretations.  

Formalism studies just the forms that compose a work of art. Formal analysis weighs how the subject of the painting, say portrait or landscape, uses color, shape, line, texture, scale, pattern, and framing to make its “statement of content.” For any symbolic content to be conveyed successfully the formal elements must all work together in harmony. The more successful formal harmony, the more successful the symbolic content in a work of art.  

Walter Benjamin once said, “A literary work can only be politically correct if it is also literarily correct.”  

Georges BraqueViolin and Palette, 1909, oil, 36×17”, Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 

In the early 20th century, Cubism developed into the most emphatic, game-changing art movement since the Renaissance. Fifteenth century Italian artists had successfully worked perspective precision into the visual arts. Five hundred years later, Cubism broke decisively from the perspective method. Together, Picasso and Braque developed Cubism. Picasso was particularly interested in how the “object” itself could be fully portrayed without using the scientific precision of the perspective method. Braque in turn was interested in how empty “space” itself could be represented as three-dimensional form in a two-dimensional medium.  

The young Paul Strand first saw Cubism and works by Cézanne and Picasso in Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 art gallery. Strand studied Cubism and the innovative new works of modern art learning how and why an artist arranged the pictorial elements.  

Strand asked “What do Picasso and those other painters mean? Why do they do it that way?” By 1914, Strand was implementing his insights from modern art into his photography— particularly abstraction and sense of composition.  Strand: “We all talked the same language….  It has to do with understanding a painting like a Villon or a Braque. You have to go into a picture; it has to have three-dimensional movement, lovely to the eye, full of variety of color and shape.”

Paul Strand (1890-1976), The White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916, Gelatin silver print, edition #15/100, Gift of the Paul Strand Estate, Michael E. Hoffman, © Aperture Foundation, Cedarhurst Collection 1987.8.1a

Strand would in turn apply his newfound methodology of formal arrangement to his work in photography and filmmaking. Strand successfully applied modern art’s formal approach to composition to his photography.  White Fence 1916 ushered in the era of modern photography.  

Georges Braque (1882-1963) invented Cubism with Picasso, 1907-1914. Cubism is the art of three-dimensional space—taking objects and space apart—revealing multiple sides simultaneously on a two-dimensional surface.  

Paul Strand (1890-1976), Georges Braque, Varangéville, France, 1957, Gelatin silver print, edition #18/100, Gift of the Paul Strand Estate, Michael E. Hoffman, © Aperture Foundation, Cedarhurst Collection, 1987.8.2f  

Strand met Braque in 1957 at his home in Varangéville, France. Notice how Strand composed his portrait. He surrounded the artist of space with “cubistic planes” and literally had Braque opening a spatial threshold and emerging from one space into the next. There is a terribly intriguing inclusion of a giant crab seemingly out-of-context, until one remembers that Picasso and Braque also invented collage, the use of disparate elements to compose pictures rich in symbolism.  

A near-perfect example of Strand’s and Cubism’s influence on modern photography may be seen in David Gilmore’s, Crossville, Illinois.  

David Gilmore Crossville, Illinois, 1992, black and white photograph, Cedarhurst Collection  

If we put aside for the moment any likely implicit content or symbolism in the photograph and look only at the picture’s “formal elements”—shapes, lines, geometric forms (diagonals, angles, rectangles, trapezoids), black and white tonalities, and most of all, repeating forms—we can begin to see why Gilmore stopped right here, in front of the trestle and composed this rather fascinating and intriguing work of art. Not only is it an intersection from real life, it is an intersection of Gilmore with History, with Strand, and Strand’s study of Cubism.  

The content of any work of art (visual, music, film) owes everything to its formal arrangement and composition.