The Life of Forms

Cornelia Zumbusch


In the preliminary work for his Theses On the Concept of History, Walter Benjamin quotes a passage from Henri Focillon’s La vie des formes, using Focillon’s description of classical style for his own notion of the dialectical image. The Essay locates Benjamin’s surprising reception of Focillon in their common interest in a life of forms, not so much in the sense of aesthetic liveliness as defined by Kant (‘Beförderung der Lebendigkeit‘), but in its productiveness of other forms. Focillon’s idea of art history is based on the dynamis or potentiality of artistic shapes giving way to ever new figures and forms. This is not only a key to Benjamin’s concepts of Fortleben/Nachleben in the early Essay The Task of the Translator but also to the ‘dialectical image‘ outlined in the Arcades Project. Benjamin, this Essay argues, refers to Focillon’s life of forms to conceptualise disharmonious and sudden changes of form.


Walter Benjamin; Henri Focillon; dialectical image; aesthetic liveliness

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