"Design-theme" is a concept originated by Tore Boeckmann, and which he derived from the concept "plot-theme," an aspect of literature first identified by Ayn Rand, and which she defined as:
The link between the theme and the events of a novel. . . It is the first step of the translation of an abstract theme into a story, without which the construction of a plot would be impossible. A “plot-theme” is the central conflict or “situation” of a story—a conflict in terms of action, corresponding to the theme and complex enough to create a purposeful progression of events.1
Similarly, a design-theme is the link between the abstract meaning of a painting and the arrangement of the composition. In his essay, "Caspar David Friedrich and Visual Romanticism," Mr. Boeckmann defines it as: "a unity of representational content and design means that isolates thematic meaning and that can be structurally expanded."2 In other words, it is the central principle of arrangement for the content of a painting. But it is not a principle in the ordinary sense of the term. The content of a painting is some concrete subject matter, and so the principle of arrangement cannot be an abstraction, but must be some specific arrangement of content. This central arrangement, or "core-combination," as Tore Boeckmann calls it, must be specific enough to instantiate the theme in the body of the artwork, but generalized enough that it can to be expanded upon into all the details that make up a finished composition. The design-theme thus serves as a standard of selection for the subsequent elements of the work; their integration or harmony with the design-theme is the primary basis for their inclusion in the work.
Tore Boeckmann's identification of this concept is an important advance in the field of visual aesthetics, and provides art viewers with a means of deeper understanding. Let's see how the concept allows us to analyze the paintings of two artists of the Romantic school with very different sensibilities.
Arnold Böcklin's Spring Evening
Böcklin's thematic concern in this painting is the difference between the sexes. Specifically, he conceives of man as an earthly, natural, sensual being and of woman as spiritual, mysterious, otherworldly. He embodies this conceptual division with the compositional division of woman on the left, man on the right. On the right is Pan, the satyr-like god of nature and rustic music, on the left are two Dryads, or tree nymphs, who are wooed by his music. The mythological subject matter might be obscure to the modern viewer, but it's really only an incidental context-setter, and the meaning can be inferred even without a knowledge of pagan iconography.
The rustic and earthy looking Pan luxuriates on a rock in the vivid sunlight. His hairy body is rendered with a high degree of realistic detail, integrating him with the same realism used in the rocks and flowers around him. On the left the two dryads are framed by a grove of trees, the shade of which creates an artificial night. The dryads are wooed by the piping of Pan's flute, but in different ways. One, lost in the reverie of the music, dissolves into the shade of the trees; the other, seduced by the sensuous sound, steps forward into the light, removing the "purple veil of night" and exposing her flesh to the sun.
The design-theme can be stated as: The music of an earthy, sunlit Pan seduces a "shaded" otherworldly Dryad into the sensuous reality of the sunlight. Using this central combination of elements, which implicitly embodies the theme, Böcklin could expand his idea into the vivid reality of his picture, every element of which grows out of the design-theme and is therefore expressive of his theme. As Tore Boeckmann puts it, the artist "is not merely 'filling in' details. He is expanding the design-theme unity of representational content and design means."
In order to fully express his idea of sexual seduction, Böcklin used the background Dryad as a foil to the fore. By pushing her back into the shade, wrapping her in a golden veil, and placing her hands on her chest in a gesture of reverie, Böcklin makes her expressive of otherworldly spiritualism. Conversely, the Dryad who steps forward into the light removes her veil to expose her fleshy body. She looks not into the heavens but down at the earth, and by leaning lazily onto the tree trunk, she begins to echo the posture of Pan's body. All of these elements combine to produce the image of a surrender, not just sexually, but a surrender to the natural, the worldly, the masculine.
Having established this shape in the Dryad's body, Böcklin can echo it with the tree trunks that also stretch out into the sunlight and are more realistically rendered than those in the shade.
This contrast of realism vs. unrealism is a crucial structural element in the composition. The contrast is present in more than just the division of the left scene from the right. Notice how Böcklin uses it even in his depiction of the sunlit landscape. The abbreviated details of the hills, the choppy brushstrokes of the sky, and the unnatural ice-blue color of both might be regarded as fantastical or unrealistic. In the context of this scene, however, they are used as a foil to the intensely detailed and naturalistically colored foreground. Böcklin uses the unrealistic background to push forward and visually isolate the hyper-realism of the foreground, giving Pan a stressed 3-dimensionality and intensely physicalized presence.
Caspar David Friedrich's Great Enclosure
The great master of design-theme integration is Caspar David Friedrich. The sophistication of Friedrich's design-themes are a reflection of his intellectual concerns, which are much more deeply philosophical than those of Böcklin.
In The Great Enclosure near Dresden the clouds stretch out across the sky just as the inlets of the river stretch out across the floodplain. Together they become like two great hands reaching out, trying to hold this fleeting moment in place. But the intensely colorful sky is too ethereal and the pale earth is too solidly material for these two to echo each other. As the sense of similarity dissolves, the sky becomes something distant and unreachable, like the sun that will soon slip away.
This complex visual device—the clouds and river stretching out like open hands, echoing each other in shape but failing to echo each other in color and materiality—this is the central element of the design-theme. The theme that it embodies is: The radical division between this world and the next. More specifically, the predicament of man's consciousness, trapped between this world,which is vividly real but palely colored, and the other world which, though vividly colored in our imagination, is distant and indistinct.
The similarity of the clouds and river to the shape of hands is an instance of what can be called a "double image." The doubling of images is a central feature Friedrich's style and usually constitutes an adjunct strand of the design-theme. Take a very close look at the thin wispy clouds that jut forward out of the orange aureole of the sun into the blue sky above. As they project forward, the thin strands expand into flowery spikes, and suggest the shape of stalks of grain. In one context these clouds had been ethereal and withered; in this new context they are remarkably corporeal, an effect that Friedrich stressed by painting them with an impasto application of opaque paint.
Double images are used in the foreground as well. The rivulets and mud islands exhibit, at several different scales, the shapes of outstretched wings, suggesting a heavenly ascent. Through this series of double images, Friedrich communicates the idea that heaven and earth are in some kind of cosmic communication with each other. And while the theme initially suggests a dichotomy between body and soul—earth and sky—this strand of double images is Friedrich's means of insisting on their unity. What does this unity consist in? Friedrich doesn't have a clear answer in this painting, only an emotional certainty.
Though the design-theme can be stated in words, words are not enough to be used by the artist as a standard. A painting is a visual product and the groundwork on which it is built—the design-theme—must be retained in the artist's mind as a visual image. The Great Enclosure is an excellent object of study in this regard because it is one of the few paintings of Friedrich's for which we have still have the color study.
This sketch is a simplified statement of the design-theme and the elements suggested here would have served as Friedrich's standard for the innumerable choices he had to make in the finished painting. We can see very vividly the early idea of the rivulets stretching out like fingers of a hand.
Interestingly, at this early stage Friedrich suggested the idea of the sun slipping away via the red band of light at the edge of the horizon. He would later develop the much more sophisticated device of the sun resting on the upper edge of the lowest cloud, creating yet another double image of the sun as an eye, with the clouds as eyelids closing over it. This is a perfect example of the idea of the structural expansion of a design-theme. Since the device of double images is part of the design-theme standard, by developing another one—out of elements he is already using—Friedrich is allowing his design standard to unfold and develop into a new aspect of the composition.
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I must mention as an aside that Böcklin creates his own double image in Spring evening. The long shaft of the stone can be viewed as a phallus, while the V-shape opening of the trees can be viewed as a vulva or womb. This is a somewhat obscure symbolic element that I think is lost on modern viewers, though it would have been more readily recognized in the "Symbolist" era in which Böcklin worked.
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1 Rand, Ayn. "Basic Principles of Literature." The Romantic Manifesto, 1971
2 Boeckmann, Tore. "Caspar David Friedrich and Visual Romanticism." printed in the Spring 2008 issue of The Objective Standard.