Gestalt Theory and Art—- Part I

Posted: October 15, 2013 in Art of Photography

Introduction to Gestalt theory of perception is one of the basics which are part of curriculum of any art school. I am trying to present the gist of it.

Historical background:- After the middle ages and the advent of science, two major changes occur in European art circles.

1. Artists and scientists began to study and tried to understand common elements found in painting, drawing and sculpture that contributed to the beauty of a work of art.  Their observations were codified in the form of  Elements of Art and the Principles of Design.

2. Development of science , particularly human psychology, helped us to understand how our mind perceives its world and therefore its art. Inherent in this was why the Elements of Art and Principles of Design worked. They found there was something within the subconscious that accepted these foundations as more than just visual signals.  These observations led to the  principles of Gestalt. It should be noted, that Gestalt tells us what happens but cannot tell us why, shortcoming of our scientific knowledge,  So we must accept the empirically proven principles of perceptual Gestalt to understand artistic perception.

Definition:– Gestalt psychology or Gestaltism (German: Gestalt – “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form”) is a theory of mind and brain of the Berlin School;

the operational principle of gestalt psychology is that the brain is holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies. The gestalt effect is the form-generating capability of our senses, particularly with respect to the visual recognition of figures and whole forms instead of just a collection of simple lines and curves. In psychology, Gestaltism is often opposed to structuralism. The phrase “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts” is often used when explaining gestalt theory.”

The Wikipedia further explains:

“The concept of Gestalt was first introduced in contemporary philosophy and psychology by Christian Von Ehrenfels (a member of the School of Brentano). The idea of Gestalt has its roots in theories by David Hume, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Immanuel Kant, David Hartley, and Ernst Mach.”
Max Wertheimer’s unique contribution was to insist that the “Gestalt” is perceptually primary, defining the parts of which it was composed, rather than being a secondary quality that emerges from those parts, as Von Ehrenfels’s earlier Gestalt-Qualität had been.”

The bold line is important i.e.  the principles of art and the elements of design are by-products of the “Gestalt Effect”. No visual art is possible in the world without the effects of Gestalt on the mind. It is the profound influence of our mind’s quest for order and logic that allows us to view an image and find balance, beauty, motion and emotion within the walls of the frame.

For the photographer it is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Ganfeld Effect:-

Ganzfeld (. Gr. complete field) is an affect where the brain seeks differential information from the senses. The majority of sensory input comes from vision throughout the day, and it is rarely static.

So Ganzfeld is a blank space, an homogenous field with no differentiating details.  This fact leads us to understand one of the mental forces behind the eyes jumping around an image seeking details to hold onto. (Here comes the concept of leading lines , guiding eyes to point of focal interest).

Short periods of sensory deprivation  lead to a sense of relaxation and well-being but prolonged period may result in psychosis and hallucination.

Keep this in mind, our brain keeps on searching information,   seeking logic (Gestalt effect) is what motivates the brain to find what is and isn’t important within a frame. It is also this logic behind the elements and principles of composition and design

However it must be kept in mind that these ‘rules’ are not hidebound laws. They are guidelines to help the artist. He/She has to decide which principle needs to be applied and under what condition. What type of composition and color scheme is best suited to convey the intended message and mood.

One of the oft repeated example in this regard is Andre Kertesz image, Chez Mondrian.

This shows how one can break the rule and make the image work. As a custom artists avoid dividing frame in two equal halves. Whereas Kertesz has done exactly that in this image. A door post is dividing the frame in two equal halves. Normally it should leave the viewer wondering which half  carries the focal point of interest.

Yet the image works here. Why ? Kertsez uses number of Gestalt principles to unite the principles.

Try to identify the elements of grouping due to similarity, grouping  and proximity.

If you don’t know what these principles are and how they can help in success of your intended message, keep following this series of tutorial. I shall try to cover all these issues in next few instalments.

Style: "vvv"

In our next installment, I would explain Figure-Ground relations which would explain how and why negative space assumes importance in our perception of art


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