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The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts, 20th Anniversary Edition

The Power of the Center:  A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts, 20th Anniversary Edition

by Rudolf Arnheim
University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 2009
250 pp. illus. 157 b/w. $22.95
ISBN: 9780520261266.

Reviewed by Giovanna Costantini

Arnheim marked the twentieth anniversary of his The Power of the Center:  A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts with an entirely rewritten version, one that offers a more systematic analysis of what originated as a semi-improvisational study of universal principles of composition based in phenomena of perception that he set forth in Art and Visual Perception. The Power of the Center explores more fully the subject of composition, the schema of visual organization that springs from a foundational base of human functioning to be understood as an ordering principle.  Conceived in the earlier book as gestalt simplicity, the second edition of Arnheim’s Power differs from the first in advancing his argument from the primary features of salient artworks to the analytic resources of psychology rather than the other way around. He takes as his underlying thesis a belief in the power of compositional devices to elucidate the human condition epitomized by the interaction of centric  (gravitational) and eccentric (dynamic) tendencies.  His book argues that pictorial composition provides evidence of the innate and twofold action of all beings: human freedom that is aimed at overcoming resistance to weight also realized as the tension between the generating core of the self and the interaction with other social centers.  He compares this human condition to the activity of birds and insects “flying through the air to display their triumph over the impediment of weight,” with motion the “privilege of living things,” (dead things immobilized by their heaviness).

While Arnheim’s text is comprised of numerous geometric configurations of horizontal and vertical surfaces as axiomatic structures, his existential musings on the intrinsic significance of their spatial and kinesthetic effects provide stepping stones to deeper existential musings, many embellished with eloquent poetic metaphors:  “I feel like a mere husk,” he writes on gravity, whereby the “surrender of the self’s prerogative as a center puts the person…at the mercy of eccentric outer powers.”  One section compares the axes of a diagram to the branches of a tree or the arms of a person’s body, wherein he notes that the center “breaks up the unity of the horizontal bar and transforms it into a pair of symmetrical wings,” with the vertical [bar] barely acknowledging the crossing.  In another passage on the attraction exerted by secondary centers, we are “invited to sense the particular kind of equilibrium into which the partners of the action have settled.” Further on he laments quite purposefully the loss of the Temple of Vesta’s original crown, reducing it to a “flimsy replacement” with Corinthian columns that move skyward “all but flipping off the makeshift cover of the roof.”

The body of the text is given over to documentation in the form of chapters that detail such subjects as various types of optical centers (mid-points, mandalas, isocephalist arrangements); implicit, geometric and dynamic centers; eccentric foci, visual weight, energy fields and directional vectors.  He considers frames, enclosures, and referents beyond the frame as well as compositional divisions, borders, picture-boxes and prosceniums.  Representational formats such as the tondo and the square are shown to be models of radical centricity, duality and cosmic symbolism.   Extending a discussion of Michelangelo’s Donni Tondo to the geometry of the circle in Constructivist and Suprematist abstractions by such painters as Moholy-Nagy, Lissitzky and Rodchenko, he compares attributes of roundness and symmetry to holistic coordinates of a stabile and timeless universe.

Among the dynamic constituents of visual hubs he includes spirals, intersections, crossings and bridging devices, bipolarities, estrangements and separations.  The “curious tension” created dynamically by the spatial arrangement of figural groups in Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques (1905-6), for example, results in the centric symmetry of two inverted contradictions:  functional detachment counteracted by physical contact, and functional attraction overcome by physical separation.  But reaching past both groups is a strong eccentric vector that encompasses the whole to move beyond the confines of the frame in the directional glance of all but one of the subjects.  He interprets such an arrangement to express “a spiritual longing that transcends the episodic genre scene of the strolling acrobats.”

To those schooled on Winckelmann, Arnheim’s diagrammatic analysis of a selection of predominantly Western European artworks in terms of volumes and nodes, vectors and projections, reflects a formalist canon based on assumptions of noble simplicity and Cartesian attributes of stability and instability.  Add to this an overly formulaic treatment of perspective systems, vanishing points, frontal planes and illusionistic renderings in painting very much akin to John White’s classic The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space—comparisons further justified by a reliance on (implicitly metaphoric) Renaissance imagery.

Yet a more incisive line of questioning would challenge the scope of Arnheim’s investigation in terms of his own parameters.  He inquires at the outset whether compositional schemata operate at so high a level of human complexity that differences in compositional approaches outweigh the similarities he has outlined.  He returns to this question by alluding to other objectives of artistic enterprise to which his analysis is not applicable: i.e. reproduction, political statements, personal self-expression, commerce and popularity.  To the twenty-first century, such omissions have come to be encompassed by the body of post-modern criticism and theory that in some ways constitutes a seismic paradigm shift based in semiotic and deconstructive criticism, gender, post-colonial and other cultural studies whose multi-dimensional challenge to notions of centricity are tantamount to a Copernican revision of Ptolemaic cosmology.

Though Arnheim stops short of extending the significance of his theories beyond empirical evidence, he alludes to the broader implications of concentric symbolism to cultural studies as a whole:  “Our terms have profound philosophical, mystical and social connotations, undoubtedly pertinent to the full interpretation of works of art,” he reckons.  Referencing art historian Hans Sedlmayr’s phrase “the loss of the center” as a denunciation of modern civilization, Arnheim reasserts the formalities of composition as evidence of the powerful equilibrium that permits us to perceive in an object “an order that suggests purpose.”  Thus the reissuance of Arnheim’s Power takes on special meaning to a complex force field in which composition provides the structural skeleton of a work’s essence in an eternal balancing act.  It reminds us, perhaps even more emphatically, of the poise required of aesthetic judgment as the great world spins.


Last Updated 1 February, 2010

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