Formalism in Art – The Significance of Forms

Formalism – The Concept and History

Different art historians give credit to different artists and critics for proposing the concept of Formalism. Greek philosopher Plato (428 BC-348 BC) made a reference of ‘edios’ (forms) in his Theory of Forms or Ideas. According to him, human eyes can see an object as a fundamental form, modified by the plurality of its existence. For instance, color red is a form, which can exist in various tones and shades. We do not perceive each one of these variants as different factors, rather as single color (factor) in different settings. Around the late nineteenth century, French writer and painter Maurice Denis (1870-1943) argued in his article ‘Definition of Neo-Traditionalism’ that the visual aspects of an art work is more significant than its theme. English painter & critic Roger Eliot Fry (1866-1934) and English art critic Arthur Clive Heward Bell (1881-1964) took the idea forward. During the early twentieth century, the duo promulgated the sensory distinction between ‘significant form’ (structure and arrangement) and representational factors in an artwork, giving priority to the former.

Style and Influences

Formalism emphasizes on the style of execution, like brush strokes, color combinations, lines, light, and other structural aspects. In effect, such works are measured in the terms of their perceptual impact, instead of their sentimental force. Abstract art genres Impressionism and Post-Impressionism (particularly, the works of Paul Cézanne) were the significant influences on the development of Formalism.

The Artists and the Artworks

One of the most prominent works in Formalism came from German painter Josef Albers (1888-1976). His highly acclaimed series ‘Homage to the Square’ (1965) was composed of over one thousand paintings created over a period of twenty-five years, commencing 1949. He famously called this series ‘platters for color,’ where superimposed squares in different colors created the desired Formalist appeal. Albers did not attempt to represent any emotional undercurrents, definite theme, or storyline in this series. The focus here was to create different optical responses for the fundamental form (square) in varying situations (color combinations). For example, some paintings may appear bright and optimistic, while others may seem gloomy. Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) developed a new style of Formalism known as ‘Neo-Plasticism.’ He painted oil canvas variants of thick black grid partially painted in the three primary colors namely, red, blue, and yellow. Examples of this style include ‘Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow’ (1930), ‘Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red’ (1937-42), and ‘Composition 10’ (1939-42).


Formalism continued defining the Modern Art landscape until the 1960s. Most of the abstract styles and artists have supported the dimension in one form or the other. Genres, like Structuralism, Constructivism, Color field painting, and Geometrical Abstraction have been on its forefront. Therefore, Formalism is considered the most significant factor leading to the transition from traditional Representational Art to the Modern Art.