Deanna White

Sarcophagus with depiction of Achilles and Penthesileia (c.230-240 CE). Marble, Rome.

Figure 1. Sarcophagus with depiction of Achilles and Penthesileia (c.230-240 CE). Marble, Rome.

Kunstwollen is a term originally coined by the art historian Alois Riegl (1858-1905) of the “First Vienna School” to explain stylistic development in art.1 Translated from its original German, kunstwollen  means “the will to form art.” For Riegl, it was the determining factor conditioning the specific appearance of a work of art. Riegel theorized that the development of stylistic differences occurred because of changing aesthetic ideals  over time.2 These ideals are socially and historically determined. Riegl argued that after an artist innately determines the aesthetic ideals of the generation before them, each artist actualizes their own ideal of beauty for themselves.3 He believed that if artists drew, carved, or painted in new ways than their predecessors, it was because they were innately compelled to produce something radically different. 4 The concept of kunstwollen has been used to explain the differences that arise between and within the formal elements of artworks.5   For this reason, art styles are not universal; they do not rely solely on technical ability nor do they follow one stable ideal of beauty. Riegl argued that the value of meaning in the work of art and the study of iconography have been overrated at the expense of form. 6 Riegl’s theory emphasises formal analysis over iconography to understand the visual difference between the development of forms, culminating finally in the development of cultures and cultural change.7

Riegl’s methodological shift from a hyper-focus on iconography to formal analysis meant analyzing art as a correlation of complex formal elements, internal to the development of works of art.8 These formal elements — line, shape, form, tone, texture pattern and color, composition—are, by default, products of kunstwollen. Riegl’s push for pure formal analysis allows for stylistic comparisons that cross histories,time periods, and media (he was as equally interested in decorative art forms such as carpets and textiles) Riegl demonstrates this formalist approach in Spätrömische Kunstindustrie (1901), where he analyzed the development of stylistic changes in Roman reliefs (a type of sculpture in which the figures project from a planar surface).9

Northside of Constantinian relief from Arch of Constantine (312-15 CE), Rome.

Figure 2. Northside of Constantinian relief from Arch of Constantine (312-15 CE), Rome.

One of the examples Riegl used was the Sarcophagus Representing Achilles and Penthesilea (225–235 CE), the front panel of a Roman sarcophagus from the Classical period [Figure 1]. Riegl writes that the rows of partially overlapping figures in this relief suggest various levels of depths, and do not reflect spatial composition in the modern sense of unity (i.e. Renaissance perspective).10 He supported this analysis by observing that the highest figures in the composition float above  the groundline of the relief, excluding a sensation of consistent space and recession.11 For viewers, Sarcophagus Representing Achilles and Penthesilea reads as more chaotic in organization because of the close proximity of the figures in the relief.

Riegl believes that the relief on the north side of the Arch of Constantine (b. 312 – c. 315 AD) in Rome shows a natural progression away from the Sarcophagus Representing Achilles and Penthesilea (225–235 CE).12  Although the 4th-century reliefs on the Arch of Constantine were often considered to be a decline in style, and inferior to earlier examples of Roman classicism, Riegl presented them as merely a new period of artistic development. The relief shows the Emperor Constantine isolated in the center addressing the Roman people from a platform [Figure 2]. The composition  of the 4th-century relief is more symmetrical, self-contained, and less chaotic because the individual figures are distinct from one another. The use of hard outlines further isolates background from foreground. Features are carved in one plane, and so are addressed to the viewer’s tactile sense, as in addition to the visual.

For Riegl the differences between the relief sculptures can be attributed to kunstwollen: the innate will to conceive  something differently which reflected the religious and scientific views of the age.


  1. Jonathan Harris, Art History: The Key Concepts. (Routledge, 2006),173.
  2. Otto Påcht, “Art historians and art critics-vi: Alois Riegl.” The Burlington Magazine (1963):190.
  3. Vlad Ionescu, “Zimmermann’s Aesthetics and Riegl’s Art Theory. Influences and Resistances.”ARS 46 (2013): 92.
  4. Ibid, 90.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Eric Fernie, Art History and Its Methods (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995), 173.
  7. Jas Elsner, “From empirical evidence to the big picture: some reflections on Riegl’s concept of Kunstwollen.” Critical Inquiry 32 (2006): 742.
  8. Vlad Ionescu, “Zimmermann’s Aesthetics and Riegl’s Art Theory. Influences and Resistances,” 88.
  9. Elsner, 743.
  10. Ibid.;Denis Cosgrove, “Prospect, perspective and the evolution of the landscape idea.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (1985): 45-62.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.