This section began by defining formalism, which is an analytical way of looking at artwork and describing how its elements and principles of design work together to as a composition. It’s also a way of discussing how the visual effects of composition can contribute to our understanding or interpretation of artwork.
Point, line, shape, space, color, and value are all elements of design. These basic building blocks of form are arranged using the principles of design. Principles act on elements as the various ways of organizing them in a composition.
Formalism allows anyone a way into an artwork without any prior knowledge of the artist or knowledge of deeper contexts that impacted how and why it was created.
Take another look at Picasso’s Guernica.
With the knowledge of formalism you gained in this section, let’s reconsider the question of how formalism can be applied to understanding its composition? First let’s start with elements. What elements feel like they are strongly represented? Likely your answer is shape and value, and possibly implied line as well as space.
Which principles of design feel strongly engaged in this composition? It is an asymmetrical composition with considerable movement created by the repetition of directional triangular shapes. These bold shapes point and pull the viewer’s eye around the composition.
What about the type of representation? Picasso at this point is engaged in semi-abstraction. Now that we have analyzed form through elements, principles, and type of representation, let’s focus on how these contribute to interpreting meaning or feelings produced by these compositional choices. Visually the space is very active, almost to the point of visual discomfort. This combined with the subject matter affects how we feel, and ultimately the meaning we take away from experiencing the painting.
Visit the Museo Reina Sofia in Spain to learn more about the interpretations of Guernica and consider how these interpretations correlate with the formalist reading of its composition above.