Focillon, Henri


Henri Focillon (1881-1943)
Henri Focillon belongs to the small group of thinkers (half a dozen or so) who have had the greatest impact on the way we tell the story of Gothic architecture. His world reach was enhanced by the years he spent teaching at Yale and the role of his former students and colleagues. His intellectual contributions have been celebrated by those who knew him best: his big book Art d'Occident, (Paris 1938), translated and with a new preface by Jean Bony (The Art of the West), has been used as a text in countless courses on Gothic art. Let us begin with an assessment of his working methods and assumptions, as recounted by his colleagues and represented in his publications; then turn to the story of Gothic that unfolds on the pages of Art of the West.
Those who knew him best reported on Focillon's extraordinary ability to animate the work of art with his eloquence--everything begins not with abstract "methodology" but in discourse. He had "a gift for effortlessly casting his thoughts in an urgent yet sober speech, as perfect as if it had been carefully crafted in advance, yet always open to constructive improvisation." Focillon's initial artistic formation in his father's print workshop left him with a sense of how the power of art is enhanced through the application of the artist's technique and imagination. Thus, he was particularly receptive to Viollet-le-Duc's ideas about the techniques and inventions of the builders, and it was to be anticipated that he would question the more abstract ideas of Riegl and Wölfflin which were then filtering into France from Germany, and which he himself applied in his teaching while a professor at the Sorbonne. Focillon was wary of false universalizations -- especially Hegelistic notions that each age has its own unity that allows the correlation of all cultural phenomena. Resisting the imposition of any kind of "system," he placed more trust in his own experiences and observations. He believed in the unevenness of history, with its knots and paroxysms, not in any kind of uniform grid pattern. Although, as we will see in the pages of Art of the West, he could not escape the concept of stylistic evolution understood in three periods: experimental, classic and baroque, he remained fascinated by works of art that refused to fit-- examples of anticipated evolution -- the way Romsey or Soissons Cathedral south transept could be "rayonnant" well before the "rayonnant" style was widely current.
Focillon understood history as a bundle of three forces -- traditions, influences and experiences. Tradition involved the collaboration of the past with the present in a vertical configuration. Influences, understood horizontally, are found in the exchanges and interactions in the present time; experiments are stimulated by the instinct for research and creation, enriching and renewing history -- they chew on the future. A period is not like a river that flows at constant speed, but is "rather like a layering of geological strata, in which certain abrupt fault lines, certain canyons, reveal at a single glance the existence of simultaneity within duration." At a given time all regions do not exist in the same period. The present is not made up of an ensemble of happy coincidences -- it is above all a play on discordances. Experiences, accomplishments and decadence exist side-by-side. "History is a conflict of the precocious, the current and the retardataire."
In Focillon's view evolution is subject to all sorts of exceptions and disruptions that impact upon its diachronic unfolding with synchronic layering. Older, long-forgotten forms and images remaining residually active may be suddenly reactivated. There are also blind alleys or brilliant developments without aftermath (déchets). This approach owed much to the philosophy of Henri Bergson (1859-1941) who contrasted the scientific conception of time whose unfolding is measurably regular and the more active heterogeneously structured durée réelle produced by individual consciousness.
Focillon's enterprise, then, was the struggle to uncover the fundamental laws or principles that are operative in the sphere of artistic activity in its broadest spatial and temporal dimensions. Yet he was convinced that formal laws and principles did not inhibit artistic freedom or detach the work from the complexities of life.
How do these ideas work out when Focillon. in the opening pages of his Art of the West II, Gothic Art, begins to tell the story of Gothic? It is hard to avoid a sense of disappointment when one turns from such exciting premises -- dynamite, surely, in the interactive environment of the seminar or classroom--to what happens when the story of Gothic submits to the linear tyranny of the page and the publisher. "In the first years of the twelfth century, there appeared in France -- in the Midi, in Anjou, north of the Loire, and particularly in the domaine royal of the Capetians -- a new structural member which proceeded, by a sequence of strictly logical steps, to call into existence the various accessories and techniques which it required in order to generate its own architecture and style. This evolution was as beautiful in its reasoning as the proof of a theorem . Everything that sprang from the vault rib -- in the course of a few years, rather less than two generations -- revealed the consistency, continuity and vigour of a closely-reasoned argument." This could be Viollet-le-Duc talking!
The start of the thing was to be found in the intense experimentation undertaken by twelfth-century builders in the Ile-de-France with the recently-developed rib vault. These builders (Focillon calls them "architects") were able to draw "the inevitable conclusions from it," so that it became "the progenitor of an entire style," developing it to an "ultimate conclusion" in the rayonnant architecture of the mid-thirteenth century. However, at the end of the Middle Ages the meaning of the forms of Gothic "was forgotten and their functions misapplied by the masters of the Flamboyant style." Here we have the familiar three-part narrative: a first phase of experiments or period of infancy is followed by the period of maturity when the full implications of early experiments were finally realized followed by a period of decline or old age when the sense of forms had been lost. Here the power of evolutionary "logic" has overwhelmed the possibility of multiple essays, false starts and failures.
What were the circumstances that produced the initial creativity? Here again there is a contrast between the excitement generated by the possibility of conflict and contradiction, and the story of propitious circumstances combined with the architectural tabula rasa of the birth area of Gothic. The most important factor, we are told, was the absence of any strongly entrenched architectural "style" in the Ile-de-France: Gothic would be impossible in Burgundy, for example, where Romanesque was too powerfully established. Focillon's language leads the reader to the belief that Gothic had a life of its own -- it chose the Ile-de-France as its preferred cradle: "The facts of history help us to understand why it chose the Paris area above all others ?." The rapidly-growing population (particularly urban) of the Ile-de-France created a need for new churches; patronage was abundant with the emergence of an energized Capetian dynasty and the building interests of the bishops. But more important than this was "a quality of mind which here, more than elsewhere, was capable of logical thought and the realization of its own potentialities. ? These thoughtful workmen attained an epic plane through the daring of their calculation of forces and the closely reasoned sequence of their experiments. Gothic art, so long thought of as mysterious and chaotic, was in fact based on an orderly and crystal-clear thought and on a practical ingenuity, which were regional characteristics. No doubt its whole future was implicit in the single proposition of the rib vault, leading to the distribution of thrusts, the subdivision of the vault and the independence of parts-but the conclusions had to be drawn." The notion of the le génie français and specifically of the lay artisan emerges in a way much like Viollet-le-Duc.
The story of the beginning of Gothic is told in terms of the buildings of the Ile-de-France where rib vaults were deployed, at first "as a workshop device" in the first half of the twelfth century: Morienval, S-Etienne of Beauvais, S-Martin des Champs, S-Maclou of Pontoise, S-Leu d'Esserent, S-Germer de Fly and finally S-Denis. Here Focillon returns to the question of the function of the rib vault: does it actually support, or is it "no more than a mask for the intersection of plans in the groined vault." His solution brings only a slight modification of the structural dogma propagated by Viollet-le-Duc: "the earliest experiments with the true vault rib show that it was beyond doubt conceived to exercise the function of support." Like Viollet-le-Duc, Focillon privileges the role of the artisan in the application of the new form: "The vault rib was an invention of the stone mason." Having reviewed criticisms of the structural understanding of the function of the rib Focillon concluded that three roles were involved: "The rib gave form, emphasis, and -- more important, strength to the place where the main pressures were located, following a line of development whose intermediary stage must have been the rib tailed into the groin and working with it." In addition to this, he suggested that the rib would settle less than the cell -- in other words, it played a key constructional role. Having been introduced for constructional and structural reasons the rib addressed itself to the sense of sight, inviting further experimentation that would produce a complex and increasingly graphic visible skeleton.
Focillon's story is remarkably conservative staying very close to the ideas of Viollet-le-Duc. Gothic develops under peculiar local circumstances owing to experiments with an architectural element (the rib) introduced for constructional and structural reasons. Builders were quick to see the visual implications of the rib, and extended its graphic qualities throughout the interior of the building, ultimately reaching the logical conclusion of rayonant architecture of the mid thirteenth century. And the critical monument was the abbey church of S-Denis where it is claimed that "Suger personally directed the activities of architects, sculptors, goldsmiths and painters. His thought constantly pursued new and powerful forms."
We have found, then, something of a gap between the excitement of ideas and oral discourse and the rigidity of the words, sentences and chapters of the story of Gothic as told in Art of the West. The very structure of the book frustates Focillon's essential mission -- to recognize in Gothic something infinitely fluid and subject to perpetual re discovery.

Focillon, H., Le problème de l'ogive. Moyen Age, survivances et recueils.
-----, Vie des formes, Paris, 1934
-----, Art d'Occident, le moyen âge, roman et gothique, Paris, 1938
-----, "Le problème de l'ogive," Recherche, 1, 1939, 5-28.
-----, The Life of Forms in Art, transl. C. B. Hogan and G Kubler, New Haven and Oxford, 1942
-----, Moyen Age: survivances et réveils: etudes d'art et d'histoire, Montreal, 1983
-----, The Art of the West, ed J. Bony, 2 vols., London, 1969

Jacques Bonnet (ed.) Pour un temps/Henri Focillon, Paris, Editions du Centre Georges Pompidou, 1986
Walter Cahn, "Henri Focillon (1881-1943) in Medieval Scholarship 259-271

  • Born 1881
  • Died 1943
  • Firstname Henri
  • Lastname Focillon
  • Wikipedia