Early Gothic figure from the cathedral at Naumburg
Henri Focillon (1881-1943) was an art historian of great repute and professor at the Sorbonne and later at the Collège de France. He died in the USA while teaching at Yale and working for the cause of Free France, then under the Nazi heel. Of his many books I was first attracted to his Vie des formes (1934),(*) which is a summary of his theory of art. A formalist, he is rather (poetically) abstract in this short text, since he is concerned primarily with the evolution of the morphology of art,(**) but I would like to summarize the aspects of the book that drew me to it in the first place.
In Vie des formes Focillon presents a typology of the evolution of style in art, wherein he proposes that every art form progresses through four stages(***) which he calls Experimental, Classical, Refined and Baroque. In the Experimental stage (which he also refers to as Archaic) a nascent style is casting about for its (often tacit) principles in order to define itself and is therefore experimenting with not always happy results. In the Classical stage the style has decided upon its principles and is, in a stable and secure manner, working out their consequences in concrete works. It is not yet manifesting conformism or academicism. In the stage of Refinement the style develops in the direction of increased elegance and often lands in a state of dry purity. In the Baroque stage, which Focillon asserts is "without doubt the most liberated", the principles of the style are taken to extremes that become their own ends and exhaust all the creative impulse of the style. Then one must recommence from a new beginning, a new stage of Experiment.