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Mariusz Bryl


The oeuvre of Michael Brötje, the creator of a new existential-hermeneutic research perspective in art history, includes numerous analyses of old art employing traditional religious iconography. The analysis of Otto Piene’s work published in the current issue of Sacrum et Decorum is one of his rare interpretations of abstract art. In a key moment in the analysis, he invokes the famous concepts of tremendum and fascinosum, which were introduced over a century ago by Rudolf Otto to express the dual nature of the human experience of the sacred as something at once menacing and fascinating. The article seeks to present Brötje’s theory and thus set the ground for the understanding of his analysis of Otto Piene’s work. Brötje’s theory grounds the human experience of art in the soul [Seele]: it is in the spiritual [seelisch], rather than the intellectual or the psychological, dimension that we can actualize our essential disposition, transcend towards that which determines us, and project the Absolute onto the mediating plane of the work of art. In the spiritual [seelisch] experience of the self, this process is unconscious; nevertheless, it remains firmly grounded in the logic of viewing. It is this logic that Brötje sets out to capture in his analyses.

The analysis of Otto Piene should also be seen in this context. In the process of analysis, a gradual but systematic reconstruction of “the viewing logic” brings the categories of Rudolf Otto up to the surface. The concepts of tremendum and fascinosum, however, are only used as indicators, which point back to the knowledge shared between the author and his readers and thus outline an area of reflection, which is parallel to the previous, “fully valid perception” of the meaning of the work.

keywords: abstract art, hermeneutics, theory of interpretation, Michael Brötje


Michael Brötje, the creator of a new, existential-hermeneutic research perspective in art history[1], is the author of many analyses of works of old art, of the traditional religious iconography[2]. However, the analysis of a work by Otto Piene, published in the present volume, belongs to the small set of Brötje’s analyses of abstract art[3]. The original context of its publication was a collaborative work devoted to a collection of modern art, gathered in the University Museum in Bochum by Max Imdahl. The context of a religious art magazine, in which now the Polish translation is being published, directs the reader, shifting the reading of Brötje’s text towards the religious dimension. And indeed, in one of the crucial points of the analysis, the author uses the well-known terms of Tremendum and Fascinosum, with which nearly a century ago Rudolf Otto[4] described the dual nature of human experience of the sacrum: as something both terrifying and fascinating.

Therefore, a warning could be issued to the readers of Brötje’s text, similar to that issued by the author himself to the potential careless viewer of Piene’s work. Paraphrasing his words, a cursory reading, aimed merely at general skimming of the text, may yield an impression that it presents another liberal interpretation of abstract art, which, by means of a rhetorically-proficient discourse, imposes on the artwork any possible meaning that is convenient to the interpreter (it may be especially irritating that in this case the imposed meaning is religious one, while the abstract composition is evidently “non-meaningful”). Moreover, when such superficial reading is accompanied by equally superficial knowledge of Brötje’s theory (with his categories of the absolute, the soul, and transcendence), a simple explanation of the nature of this over-interpretation is reinforced in the reader: it must be the author’s inclination, rooted in the metaphysical thought, to imply religious meanings in the semantically innocent artworks.

Cursory reading is juxtaposed by cautious reading (in the light of what will be said below, it might also be described as engaged reading, i.e. engaging the Self). In cautious reading, the reader verifies the pictorial state of affairs, stated by Brötje, by repeated viewings of the piece of art. Yet, not every viewing will allow the reader/viewer a possibility of such verification, just as not every viewing could have become the basis for an existential-hermeneutic analysis of Piene’s work (and any other). Between a viewing by the author of the analysis and by the verifying reader an essential agreement must occur, consisting in the acceptance of the basic assumptions that in the process of understanding an artwork, “every viewer (before every picture) establishes – unconsciously but conclusively – the plane, created by the viewer as all-containing, ultimately significant authority, functioning both as a comprehensive horizon of all possible cognitive acts, in other words, as the Absolute, and as the present, own location of the viewer before the centre of the picture, owing to which the vertical axis of the viewer’s body (directional coordinate of man’s bodily identity) and the vertical axis of the picture are aligned. The artwork is revealed to the viewer as meaningful only if the “reality” of the picture accepts these two premises, thus leading to negotiation between them[5].

[1] Cf. especially: M. Brötje, Der Spiegel der Kunst. Zur Grundlegung einer existential-hermeneutischen Kunstwissen­schaft, Stuttgart, 1990; idem, Bildsprache und intuitives Verstehen. Exemplarisch: Dürer, „Das Schweißtuch von zwei Engeln gehalten”; „Melencolia I”; Magritte, „Die Suche nach dem Absoluten”, HildesheimZürichNew York, 2001. On Brötje, in the context of other modern art-history theories, cf. M. Bryl, Suwerenność dyscypliny. Polemiczna historia historii sztuki od 1970 roku, Poznań, 2008.

[2] Besides the two above-mentioned works (which contain, among others, analyses of Giotto’s frescos, Rembrandt’s Supper at Emmaus, and the second graphic by Durer, mentioned in the title) it is worth recalling in this context the following publications: M. Brötje, ”Zur künstlerischen Aussage der Werke des Januarius Zick”, in: Januarius Zick. Gemälde und Zeichnungen, Exhibition catalogue, Städtische Galerie in der Reithalle Schloß Neuhaus, Paderborn, 2001, pp. 3152; “Die Entdeckung der inneren und äußeren Welt. Zur niederländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts“, in: Die Entdeckung der inneren und äußeren Welt. Meister der niederländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts aus dem Staatlichen Museum Schwerin, Exhibition catalogue, Städtische Galerie in der Reithalle, Paderborn, 2008, pp. 1766.

[3] Cf. M. Brötje, “Otto Piene: ‘Bronze und Gold III’, 1959“, in: Erläuterungen zur Modernen Kunst. 60 Texte von Max Imdahl und seinen Freunden und Schülern, Kunstsammlungen der Ruhr-Universität Bochum, 1990, pp. 185190; idem, “Bram van Velde: ‘Ohne Titel’, 1962“, ibidem, pp. 289293; idem, “Bild-Begegnungen”, in: Fragen an vier Bildern, Exhibition catalogue, Westfälischer Kunstverein Münster, Münster, 1993, pp. 3865 (this text includes e.g. analyses of abstractions by Agnes Martin and Ad Reinhardt).

[4] Cf. R. Otto, Das Heilige. Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen, Berlin, 1917; Polish translation by B. Kupis: Świętość. Elementy irracjonalne w pojęciu bóstwa a ich stosunek do elementów racjonalnych, Warszawa, 1968.

[5] Cf. Brötje, “Bram van Velde: ‘Ohne Titel’, 1962“ (ft. 3), p. 289.

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