Rudolf Arnheim

Psychologist and film critic
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The Independent Online

Rudolf Julius Arnheim, psychologist and visual theorist: born Berlin 15 July 1904; married 1943 Annette Siecke (one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved), 1953 Mary Frame (died 1999); died Ann Arbor, Michigan 9 June 2007.

In 1953, Rudolf Arnheim, a teacher of psychology at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, obtained funding for a sabbatical that enabled him to write Art and Visual Perception, published the following year. Subtitled "A Psychology of the Creative Eye", it sought to apply the theories of the Gestalt school of psychology to the study of the visual arts. He later described the book as

written at a headlong pace . . . I wrote it essentially in one long sitting, looking up only rarely to consult resources beyond those stored in my head, and I let the demonstrations and arguments follow one another as they presented themselves to my mind.

These remarks were made in the preface to a new version completely revised by its author 20 years later which remains in print to this day and has been translated into 14 languages.

The son of a Berlin piano manufacturer who had expected him to take over the family business, the young Arnheim instead enrolled in 1923 at the University of Berlin. His dissertation, "Experimentell-psychologische Untersuchungen zum Ausdrucks problem" ("Experimental-psychological Investigations into Problems of Expression") concerned, as he put it, "the expression of human faces and of handwriting and the correspondence between the two".

Berlin University was at that time at the centre of experimental Gestalt psychology and Arnheim conducted some of the earliest work in the application of Gestalt theory to the perception of art. He had already been writing features and film reviews for the satirical magazine Das Stachelschwein as early as 1925 (25 of which were collected in book form in 1928 as Stimme von der Galerie) and in 1928, a "little fed up with academics", chose to earn his living as a journalist and film critic. He joined the editorial staff of Die Weltbühne, an influential leftist political and cultural weekly journal then under the editorship of Carl von Ossietzky. After four years, a selection of Arnheim's writings on film was published as Film als Kunst (1932), which appeared in an English edition the following year titled Film.

At the time he had excitedly declared that "[for] the first time in history a new art form is developing, and we can say that we were there", and he recalled in a 1998 interview that "[my] interest in film originated with an interest in the expressive capabilities of the visual. For this film offered a wealth of new examples". Arguing that it was the very limitations of film as an accurate recording medium which made it an art, and that film images therefore have no business aspiring to reality, Film als Kunst went on to find a wide and enduring readership in a revised and expanded American edition of 1957, Film as Art; although by then Arnheim had ironically long since turned his back on the cinema as a field of study.

His sense of film aesthetics had been formed as an admirer of the silent film in its maturity ("For me the silent film possessed great artistic purity of expression") and he came to feel that "film has become a victim of the entertainment industry, which considers telling stories more important than form or expression". As late as 1938, he could still write of "a feeling of uneasiness that every talking film arouses in the author and that is not appeased by increased acquaintance with the new medium".

Even in 1969 he was still firmly of the opinion that

whenever these days some scenes of a new or old film exert the spell of art, they do so by the direct impact of moving shapes and sounds, not by talk. The indirectness of language, so magically evocative in its own domain of literature and drama, makes words fade into meaningless noise when they are forced to compete on an equal footing with the immediacy of visual and auditory action.

Film als Kunst meanwhile was banned by the Nazis, Die Weltbühne was closed down and Arnheim – who in the autumn of 1932 had published a short satirical piece on Hitler in the Berliner Tagesblatt – made himself scarce before fleeing Germany altogether in August 1933 for Rome, where he worked as a an editor at the League of Nations' International Institute for Educational Film. He was also a member of a team compiling a planned encyclopaedia of film history and theory and published his third book, applying the approach of Film als Kunst to radio. Titled in manuscript "Rundfunk als Hokunst" ("Broadcast as Art"), it was translated by Herbert Read and published in England as Radio: an art of sound in 1936.

Forced again to move on when Mussolini withdrew Italy from the League of Nations and instituted race laws targeting Jews, in 1938, with the assistance of Read Arnheim found work in London as a simultaneous translator at the BBC Overseas Office while he waited for a visa to the United States.

He set sail for New York in the autumn of 1940. Arriving with just $10 in his pocket, he was enabled by a grant in 1941 from the Rockefeller Foundation to put his expertise in the field of radio to use with the Office of Radio Research at Columbia University studying the influence on audiences of daytime radio soap operas.

His books after Art and Visual Perception included Toward a Psychology of Art (1966), Visual Thinking (1969), The Power of the Center: a study of composition in the visual arts (1982), To the Rescue of Art (1992) and The Split and the Structure (1996). He also published a selection of extracts from his journals, Parables of Sunlight, Observations on Psychology, the Arts and the Rest (1989), and two collections of his articles: Kritiken und Aufsatzte zum Film (1977, published in English 20 years later as Film Essays and Criticism) and Die Seele in der Silberschicht ("The Soul in the Silver Screen", 2004), the latter published on the occasion of his 100th birthday.

In 1968 Arnheim joined the faculty at Harvard University where they created the position for him of Professor of the Psychology of Art in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, and at the time of his death, five weeks short of his 103rd birthday, he was Professor Emeritus of the Psychology of Art at Harvard. Retiring from teaching in 1974, he settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan and was Visiting Professor in the Department of Art, History of Art and Psychology at the University of Michigan until 1984.

Richard Chatten