Alois Riegl’s Kunstwollen: Influences and Influenced

ieBy Thomas Oommen

for Prof. Sarah Deyong, ARCH 639

History & Theory of 20th century architecture

Texas A&M University

Alois Riegl’s influence on art history cannot be overstated. Most importantly, his concept of Kunstwollen, prevented a mechanistic conception of the evolution of arts and architecture in history. Kunstwollen was also an integral concept that attempted to keep Riegl’s theory as a rational and scientific explanation while allowing sufficient freedom for appreciating the varied phenomena in the history of art and architecture. In proposing a theory of “continuous growth” in art, each with its unique Kunstwollen, Riegl emphasized the fallacy of looking at history as high and low periods and further the attempt to judge the art of different cultures as good or bad. The concept of Kunstwollen thus deserves inquiry even today, because it opened the door to a multicultural, secular and open minded conception of art history, perhaps for the first time in its history.

This paper attempts to study Kunstwollen in two parts. The first tries to discuss the influences on Riegl in the formulation of this concept. An eminent researcher, scholar and professor at the Vienna Academy, the plethora of influences on Riegl and thus on the equally wide range of concepts in his work, can hardly be simplified in any way. However the undeniable influences of Hegel and Kant in the development of the idea of Kunstwollen is singled out for review.

Alois Riegl’s influence on the development of modern architecture is the focus of the second part. This represents a particularly difficult task because of a number of factors. First, the influence of Gottfried Semper and his emphasis on material, technique and function as the generator of arts and architecture is widely documented as the biggest influence of the initial period. While this influence is almost obvious, it eclipses any further study of influences in the monographs of the leading architects in that period – in this case by the more “conservative” historian, Riegl. The abstruseness of Riegl’s voluminous texts is a second and very important factor. As Riegl himself mentions in the introduction to his second draft of the Historical Grammar of Style, his writings are for an advanced scholar in art history (293).  Documenting the influence of Kunstwollen is especially difficult because almost all the initial champions of modern architecture talk about the “new spirit” of the age. But we cannot assume that this points to an understanding of Riegl, much less establish it, because “the will to art” is not a simple concept but a complex one that works on many levels.

This author feels that it is very important to understand that despite its deep significance for a wide range of disciplines, and especially in any understanding about the future evolution of art and architecture, Kunstwollen was fundamentally a concept that was formulated to explain antique art history in a scientific, rational way, and was not in any way directed for the future – least of all to the early modernists- in art or architecture. Thus we should be aware that the influence Riegl had on the early modernists owes a great deal to their personal interpretation, and their individual understanding of its validity in their time (Campbell 22).


Part  I


Hegel’s Aesthetics informs Riegl’s Kunstwollen in its fundamental structure.  Riegl himself in the introduction of the Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts acknowledges the birth of the discipline of Art history occurred in Hegel’s seminal work (287- 288).  Hegel implies that the work of art, the first embodiment of absolute mind, shows a sensuous conformity between the idea and the reality in which it is expressed and the perfection of art depends on the degree of intimacy in which idea and form appear worked into each other (6).These are quite evidently the basis of the Rieglian theory, especially Kunstwollen.  Hegel further classified Art into three phases based on his formulations, establishing the way for Riegl’s own classification of art history (Iversen 42 , Olin 94).

When the idea, itself indefinite, gets no further than a struggle for its appropriate expression, it is called the symbolic. This for Hegel is the Oriental form of art, which seeks to compensate its imperfect expression by colossal and enigmatic structures. The second phase is the classical form of art in which the idea of humanity finds an adequate sensuous representation. However according to Hegel, this form disappears with the decease of Greek national life, and on its collapse, the third form of art- the romantic- is born; where the harmony of form and content again grows defective because the object of Christian art – the infinite spirit – is a theme too high for art (6).  Iversen argues that for Hegel these stages or classifications simply demonstrated the role art played, “in the mind’s project of overcoming its alienation in objects or nature and its self recognition as pure spirituality” which according to her was his main thesis (44). The artist thus according to Hegel, “transforms the external nature into an object in which the mind can decipher itself ”, that is he modifies external things upon which” he impresses the seal of his inner being and then finds repeated in them his own characteristics”(Iversen 44). Riegel makes good use of Hegel’s morphology of these different stylistic types as different attitudes to the world in his Kunstwollen and he extends this further by theorizing that fundamental attitudes towards the world, even those not clearly articulated can be found given realization in works of art (Iversen 44).

Thus we find Riegl moving beyond Hegel’s philosophical precepts and as we shall see later even disagreeing with his theory on many points. Nevertheless, this only serves to underline Hegel’s influence on Riegl’s thought process and thus his concepts.

According to Hegel art is one of the ways in which spirit wills itself into thought, before it eventually dies out, absorbed in and transcended by the higher disciplines of religion and philosophy. Riegel however not only just disagrees with any such negation or end of art, but conceives Kunstwollen as a dynamic principle- at work in each period in a unique way. Riegel breaks out of Hegelian theory in another critical way.  As opposed to Hegel’s art which is “symptomatic of developments in other spheres” and paints the picture of the mind “unfolding through history, while art follows after, providing sensuous embodiments” – serving in the end only as a tool of self realization, Riegl’s art embodies itself in each age by means of aesthetic ideals that imply “ a whole range of attitudes, values, ideologies” without serving any other ends(Iversen 44- 45). As Margaret Iversen further suggest the biggest break with Hegel is Riegl’s Kantian perspective that the world “remains a stubborn alien thing in itself” outside even our most “complex and internally coherent formulations” as opposed to Hegel’s basic premise that the mind is capable of lucid knowledge which comes about by a process of making more and more refined articulations of the world, in the end discovering the world is just minds own formulation(Iversen 45). This Kantian influence is discussed separately, but Hegel’s influence on Riegl- especially in the context of Kunstwollen as “will” and the higher spirit or idea that wills art into being can hardly be disputed.


Kant had specific discourses on aesthetics in treatises like the Critique of Judgment,  but his basic philosophies concerning the structure of knowledge and the way we perceive the world around are of more interest, as they profoundly changed most of 19th century academic thought including that of Riegl and his mentors. In highly simplified terms Kant claimed that sensible presentations were of only appearances, and not things as they are in themselves(6,7). This was because according to him, space and time, which describe the basic structure of all sensible appearances, are not existent in things in themselves, but are only a product of our sense organs and that perceiving things in space and time is a function of the mind of the perceiver. This naturally highlights the limitation imposed by the normal concept of a realm of ‘noumena’/ ‘things in themselves’ which necessarily lies beyond knowledge in any ordinary sense. But more important than this to the academic discourses on art was the philosophy that the noumenal world is made sensible only through our mental interpretation of its sensations. Thus the “thing” in itself is ultimately unknowable and the world we perceive it is hence a product of our cognitive facilities (Smith 16). These new and often startling ideas, with a few important modifications, are the basis of Kant’s philosophical project. The Kantian model of knowledge which had as one of its basic precepts the subject’s intellectual understanding of the noumenal world as the producer of knowledge, was a profound influence on aesthetic thinkers..

Margaret Ivensen postulates that this “unknowable” quality of external world is important for the historiographic implications of Kunstwollen(45). This is as she says, because in this Kantian basis, there is no culmination of history, the concept of progressive development in history is weakened, and thus as a result artistic production of any age, for any purpose, of any type or of any style, has equal status(45).

Scholars like Kimberly A Smith observe that according to Riegl’s theories, the object’s form harbors within it, “the complex processes of mental exertion necessary for comprehension and, therefore, possibility of the artists perceptual reality” (16). This argument is clearly justified in Riegl’s writings. We see him arguing in Problems of Style that “The abstract linear patterns of the Geometric style are not obvious in nature, releasing them into an independent existence in art, requires a conscious mental act”(qtd. in Smith 17). Thus Riegl in the rejecting the materialist metaphysics of art production granted the artist a crucial role in the evolution of form by asserting that art “does not duplicate the appearance of the natural world but results from the individuals cognitive apprehension of the world”.(Smith 17). Thus the work of art is an intellectual act – an act of the mind that performs “an epistemological as well as aesthetic task” (Smith 17). Thus in short Riegl believed the formal properties of any artistic production makes evident a particular way of looking at the world and understanding what is real.

Riegl was influenced by Kant in significant other ways, most importantly by the contemporary neo Kantian thought and philosophers of his time. The most important of such influences were Konrad Fiedler who published in the 1870’s and 80’s who represents a key theoretical precedent for Riegl’s ideas (Smith 17). Fiedler also  adopted a formalistic approach to evaluating artistic production, and used this “concentration on style to argue that the individual artist’s comprehension of the world can be understood as a generative act in both philosophical and aesthetic terms”(Smith 17). In short Fiedler used Kantian philosophical methods in evaluating visual art.

Fiedler postulated that artistic problems are also philosophical problems and he writes

“ The decisive turning point in our quest for knowledge occurred in the moment where , upon deeper reflection, the reality which is apparently endowed with absolute reality was revealed as a deceptive appearance;  where the insight formed that the capacity of human knowledge does not stand across from an external world  that is independent of from it, like a mirror before the object whose picture appears in it, but what one calls the external world is the eternally changing result, ceaselessly created afresh from out of itself, of a mental event. As significant as this insight has been for the development of human knowledge, still, because of a curious restriction it has always remained unutilized for investigations into the essence of artistic activity…..The question of what truth is concerns not only the realm of philosophical knowledge…it likewise concerns the realm of artistic production ”(qtd. in Smith 17).

We find similar Kantian concepts when Riegl says

“All life is a constant antagonism between the individual ego and the surrounding world, between subject and object. Man in state of culture finds a purely passive ole towards a world of objects impossible, and sets out to regulate his relation to it as one of independence and autonomy. He sets out to do this by seeking a further world outside himself by means of art(in the widest sense of the term) alongside that natural world that was none of his doing” (qtd in Iversen 45).

Thus Riegel also believed that art was a way man constructed the reality around him albeit in his own personal intellectualized way. For him, it was also a pursuit of knowledge, because art “represents the sensory perception on which thought works to create scientific knowledge”(Olin 95). This definition of knowledge by Riegl’s professor Robert Zimmerman is also quite post Kantian in nature. However Riegel managed to synthesize Kantian thought into something essentially higher for art, namely that the artists perceptual reality or the intellectualized cognitive understanding of the world is meaningful not just by itself but as the product of a unique historical moment. He also identified a cultural relation between knowledge and belief that determines the intellectualized cognitive understanding of reality of the artist and thus art (Olin 94).The scientific basis of Riegl’s art theory is definitely from Kantian concepts. However the “universal gem” in art is Riegl’s own concept, yet in a large measure it owes to the post Kantian thought of Fiedler. But it has to be credited to Riegel that he moved beyond the singularity of an artist’s cognition/perception to a collective/societal perception at a given time in history.

Part II

Influence on Modern Architecture

Riegl’s influence on Modern architecture as stated in the introduction is quite subjective and open to interpretation. However the influence of the concept of Kunstwollen is decidedly dependent on understanding the various levels of its meanings. The author feels that the various intellectual positions or influences of Kunstwollen was a result of architects  identifying with certain levels of meaning while distancing themselves or quite possibly even not comprehending the other implications of the concept.

Kunstwollen at its essence thus it implies two facts often propounded at its two extremes by historians and architects for their own purpose.

  1. That in each work of art there lies a “gem of universality” that it contained as a link in the developmental chain of art, “in its capacity to elucidate general law” (Olin 87) . Olin even states that this view was not based  “ on the respect for the individuality of an isolated fact or situation ”, but by its implication on the rational explanation of the work of an age(87).
  1. The diametrically opposite component of Kunstwollen was the freedom it gave to the individual artist, with respect to the “will to art” or “artistic volition” or even the “will to form” as some historians suggest. As described in detail before Kunstwollen integrated the Kantian concept of art as the intellectualized abstraction of the cognitive or perceptual understanding of reality. Thus it was essentially connected with the artist’s personal process or ideas.

The definitions however do not cease here. Though it must be assumed that within the framework of the modern architectural discourse the understanding of Kunstwollen moved between these diametric opposites, a reading of modern historians like Benjamin Binstock suggests to one that Kunstwollen is considered even as “arts evolving formal and visual language”(Riegl 14) . His quote of Woody Allen elucidates his point beautifully, “Art wants what it wants” (Riegl 14).

The subscription to the varying opposites of this concept mark the conflicting viewpoints in the German Werkbund held By Van de Velde, Muthesius, Behrens and Gropius. Key to the understanding of their beliefs as expressed in speeches and writings is also Riegl’s redefinition of style from a narrow “individualistic and negative sense” to a positivist attitude. Riegl attributed style to a “liberating intellectual act”, “defined precisely through its independence from nature” denoting “freedom from the necessity to copy appearance” (qtd in Olin 81 72). Even so, Riegl is abstruse and he uses style in a wide range of contexts and his contemporaries interpreted it in various and quite often different ways. However it is quite clear that before Riegl “style” as a term was used mostly to characterize personal distinctions/traits in the work of an artist and even in later periods it came to denote specific individual expression and invention (Smith 16).  Riegl’s view of style seems to be interpreted among the major Werkbund architects as what resulted when the Kunstwollen manifested itself in physical form. In essence style was what the three dimensional manifestation of Kunstwollen.

This interpretation is most evident in the words of Behrens and Gropius. Behrens in a  lecture of 1910  states

” The goal which I earlier termed culture, and which has found throughout history, perceptible expression in Style. This sense of visual unity is at the same time the precondition for, and the evidence of a Style. For by style we mean nothing but the unified formal expression, the manifestation of the entire spiritual life of an epoch. Unified character, not the particular or the peculiar, is the decisive factor” (Campbell 18).

In a lecture of 1911 at Osthaus’s Folkwang museum he tells his audience

“ The beauty of a work of art is a function of an invisible law inherent to the creative will, not of the natural beauty of the material: and that all material things are only subordinate mediating factors with whose help a higher state of the soul – the Kunstwollen-is given material expression”  (Campbell 21).

Gropius writes very similarly in the 1914 Werkbund Jahrbuch

“The beginnings of a strong and unified will towards culture are unmistakable today. To the degree that the ideas of a time rise above material considerations, the longing for unified form, for a Style, has also been newly awakened in the arts. People recognize once again that the will to form is always the true value of the work of art. As long as the spiritual conception of the time hesitates and falters in the absence of a single, firm goal, art will not have the opportunity to develop Style, ie the unification of the creative will into a single conception” (Campbell 23-24)

But the point is that it is clear that both these architects, seem to stress the “unified character” of an expression (style) that results from a single will (Kunstwollen). These are quite decidedly their individual interpretations of the concept of Kunstwollen. In effect they are expressing their own Kunstwollen shows through in their interpretation. We know from history that Gropius though perhaps fully aware of the individuality of the artist’s conception and his will to form will speak out more on this unified character – in spirit and in style of the work of art. Whether this was due to a growing influence of Muthesius is debatable. It must quite simply be in Kantian terms be the result of his fierce individual idea of how the Kunstwollen and the expression of the age must be, because in Kantian philosophy  the natural result of the activity of judging beauty is that such a judgment causes us to expect others to agree with us. (6)

Anyway in conclusion the effect of Kunstwollen can be summarized into certain key points for a very preliminary understanding of its influence.

  1. Riegl’s concept of a single “harmonious world view” in Kunstwollen is expressed in modern architecture as the single absolute necessity to have any meaningful work of art and architecture. The mutated form of the concept of “will to art” is used time and again as “spiritual expression” or the “will of an epoch” or the “spirit of the age” by influential modern architects ranging from Behrens to Mies and historians from Pevsner to Giedeon to Banham.    Moreover Riegl wrote that works of Architecture “next to the crafts” reveals “the basic laws of the Kunstwollen with an almost mathematical clarity”(qtd. in Iversen 73 Olin 131). For the Werkbund architects especially Gropius and Behrens this of course not only underlined the importance of architecture, but made it a moral responsibility of the architects to embody and identify the underlying “worldview” of their age.
  1. Riegel writes that “each object arising from an external purpose is more or less a work of art”. For his analysis of history Riegel took to the artifacts of fine and applied arts with equal interest. In fact for him both these were equally relevant and were fundamentally interconnected elements of an age – “the universal laws in effect in all media” (qtd. in Campbell 22). Riegel made his object of study the seemingly trivial applied art objects, giving everyday objects an importance in the culture as evidences of Kunstwollen of a period. In fact it would have symbolized to the Werkbund architects the importance of “aesthetic and spiritual activation of all visual production” art as well as non art (Campbell 22).  Riegl himself mentions that there was in previous ages no difference between “high” and “industrial” art  and that earlier periods were “blissfully unaware” of such a difference(Riegl 122). This appears to be a decisive influence not only on the Werkbund but on Gropius for the integration of arts into one Art – ie Architecture and the idea of a common will and thus “style” that runs through all creative, artistic production.
  1. Both Behrens and Gropius (at least initially) strongly believed in the power of the Kunstwollen over material factors. The author believes that all modern architects including Corbusier have had this dichotomous relationship between personal expression- “ the will to art ”  and the expression of modern materials and industrial technique -which was crowned to be the Kunstwollen quite early in the history of modern architecture. For a creative artist/architect both these dichotomous parts of Kunstwollen can turn out impossible to be synchronized. This dichotomous nature is at the same time the brilliance of Kunstwollen in “quasi – scientific” Art history and its fallacy as a failsafe rule to guide current artistic process.
  1. The formalistic view of art as celebrated in Alois Riegl’s interpretation is decisive for Modern architecture. Form as an embodiment of the spiritual content of an age, means Form is content for much of modern architecture. In fact Riegel himself says “mankind wants to see sensory phenomena presented in the outline and in color in the plane or in space in different ways in different times”(qtd. in Iversen 72, Smith 19). Thus the definition of Art itself for him, as he remarks in “Late Roman Art Industry” is “the appearance of objects as form and color in the plane or in space ”(qtd. in Iversen 72). Thus Kunstwollen perhaps resulted in being interpreted in a way by architects and modern architectural discourse that, every historical style and even the current production was excessively looked upon as carrying a “heavy epistemological burden” to represent and define culture (Smith 19). This, often came to mean, for many architects like Muthesius and at many times in modern architectural psyche, that not only is it enough for form to follow function, to use and express modern materials and techniques, but that the whole work of architecture looses considerable merits and significance if the form did not look like the machine or produced by it in a very literal visual way. This was definitely an interpretation of Kunstwollen and not in any way a direct derivation of the theory that Riegl used to rationally explain art history.


This view about misinterpreting Kunstwollen or interpreting it partially is perhaps contentious, but it is true that many modern architects and the architectural discourse were misguided by this. The typical example is Van De Velde’s Werkbund theatre and Gropius Bauhaus building. Van de Velde’s building is industrial in spirit, a product of a modern material and technique being made of concrete and expressing its potential as a material  of moldable, plastic qualities, but in spite of all these merits it was and perhaps is seen as an inferior expression compared to Gropius straight edged, prismatic formed Bauhaus building. Both are of the same period, use the same material and technique but Bauhaus building is deemed a better expression of the age by virtue of its quite literal visual association (Campbell 3).

The history of a formalistic view of art or the emphasis on its visual character of thought alone is of course not credited to Riegl alone, he has undoubtedly a long line of influential predecessors as well as successors. But at the turn of the century, interpretation of Riegl’s theory permeated the architectural thinking directly and indirectly (in a greater way indirectly through other historians like Walter Benjamin and Worringer) and gave the formal expression of art and architecture a position of paramount importance. Was the nature of modern architecture’s tendency to give organized and manipulated form almost a deitical status, a resultant of an interpretation of Kunstwollen?  The belief that form was the embodiment of not only the relationship of belief and knowledge, but the very expression of cultural reality  might have been due to the influence of Kunstwollen, of course as interpreted by modern architectural discourse.  It is interesting to wonder how the “machine aesthetic” would appeal to Riegel – the historian, who was definitely fond of abstraction and geometric art in art history(Olin 70, Riegl 124) and identified it with both the beginning and the highest levels of creativity. But however he may choose to explain the development of this phase of modern architecture, he would not be able to deny the unintended, yet strong causative connections- direct and indirect- to his theory of Kunstwollen.


  1. Riegl, Alois , transalated by Jacqueline .E .Jung and foreword by Benjamin Binstock.   Historical grammar of the visual Arts
  2. Campbell, Joan, The German Werkbund
  3. Iversen, Margaret, Alois riegl: Art History and theory
  4. Smith,Kimberly. A , Real Style : Riegl and Early 20th century central European Art.
  5. Olin, Margaret ,Forms of representation in Alois Riegl’s theory of Art
  6. Encyclopedia Britannica,  Hegel article/entry
  7. – The internet encyclopedia of philosophy

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