This handful who listens to us deserves beauty
but also truth
that is to say — terror
so they are brave
when the moment comes

(Z. Herbert, Pocztówka od Adama Zagajewskiego)

The definition of beauty is probably among the most heavily criticised and, simultaneously, most commonly appearing term in conversations about art. Much is written about beauty, especially in the context of its dethronement in favour of other aesthetical categories at the beginning of 18th century, when beauty is interpreted by categories different than classical harmony and appropriateness, becoming a subject to alienated subjectification, and, importantly, it is not anymore understood in a metaphysical way – as a term of relation with that which is beautiful and true.

Nowadays, beauty is discussed as subjectivistic category of tastes that result directly from our senses’ predisposition or as a category historically responsible for driving advancements studies on theory of proportion. The incessant criticism of beauty seem to revolve around claims of its incompatibility with modern art, let alone a modern human. Taking the above into account, it would appear fitting to quote one of the less known theories found in philosophy of art that, over a hundred years ago, pointed towards similar problems and doubts as the contemporary debate on the crisis of art and culture and shed some light on the ideal aspect of beauty.


Rudolf Kassner (1873-1959) was an Austrian writer and essayist, known mainly for his translations of William Blake’s poetry into German language. Kassner’s works is usually divided into three parts: aesthetical writings from 1900-1908; works on physiognomics from 1908-1938; after 1938, autobiographical writings, mystical and religious essays as well as meta-political commentaries on contemporary history[1]. Most important Kassner’s writings involve philosophy of culture and focus on the problem of human alienation in time and space, for which the author blames modernistic advent. His stories and subsequent biographies[2] attempt to manage intellectually the cultural chaos of atomic power world, which, in author’s own words, outgrew and lost the essence of man[3].

Rudolf Kassner’s outline of physiognomy and physiognomics is, in general, a collection of notes on the theory of universal physiognomics, written by the author after 1908. Kassner’s physiognomics is not merely a guidebook on how to read someone’s character from features of one’s face but rather a general theory of culture embedded in what can definitely be described as conservative views of the author. Kassner sees a certain type of crack in the development of civilisation and humanity which branded the face of the latter with alienation mark. Observing man and their behaviour, he states that something had happened to human nature which cannot be traced in earlier history and in parallel examples from the animal world, therefore this occurrence is impossible to explain on the basis of nature itself. Kassner’s views are sometimes described as “conservative revolution” which, from the historical and philosophical perspective of 20th century, is not a stance that would come as a surprise.

It appears that Kassner understands physiognomics as characteristic phenomenology of being, based on anti-Kant principle of Goethe claiming that the most important step in observing the world is to understand that facts constitute theories in themselves. Consequently, scientists should not reach further than the description of facts available to them. According to the above, Kassner’s physiognomics is an attempt to describe the world from the perspective of all its manifestations, i.e. available facts. Kassner’s theory differs from traditional physiognomics defined by works ranging from pseudo-Aristotle to Johan C. Lavater, which were generally met with the same criticism; i.e. the denial of scientific rationalism according to which no conclusion should be drawn about person’s inner characteristic on the basis of their physiognomic features. For instance, in the middle of 18th century, Lavater tried to develop a theory that would describe man’s character through the lens of physiognomic features. By reducing the differences between human faces he attempted to abstract a set of common denominators, interpretable with an accompanying dictionary of symbols. Eventually, Lavater’s efforts resulted in publishing a book under the title Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe, between 1775 and 1778, and it was met with a significant criticism of scientific society – Kant, for instance, believed that such attempts were too pretentious a task for the nature of scientific study[4].

Kassner’s theory proposal seem to defy the theory of psychoanalysis. In his work he endeavours to analyse rhythmics and variables of the face (which is again a distinctive feature differentiating his work from others on physiognomics), whereas Freudian tradition of psychoanalysis treats every face as a mask that should be taken off in order to find the truth hidden underneath; in keeping with conviction that no one is who they seem to be[5]. It appears that Kassner believes the opposite to be true. An axiomatic of Kassner physiognomics is the statement “[…] a person is only what he looks like, because he does not look the way he trully is”[6]. The very thing that seems to be a paradox, for Kassner constitutes the claim of significant explicatory force, on which main axis for discussed problems is based. Apparently, from the thicket of characteristic analysis and author’s commentaries, three fundamental ways of reading this axiom can be distinguished: 1. quite an obvious statement that the thing that can be perceived does not exhaust the thing in question in its essence (which alone represents a change in the tradition of physiognomic inquiry), nevertheless, it is sufficient as a fact to observe the determined order in the real world; 2. the question of relation between what is a feature and what is an entity: both in the context of causative relation (what determines what?) as well as the way of influence; 3. referencing pre-Kant aesthetic tradition that, in a major degree, concerns Aristotle’s theory of transcendentals[7].

Kassner’s physiognomy, in contrast to earlier traditions, does not constitute an attempt to infer individual physical properties. Traditional understanding of the countenance as the face is extended in definition to form a term Gesicht[8]. For Kassner everything that could take a form: animals and people, ideas, philosophies and religions, real things and products of pure imagination, things of the present and distant past, all that could be Gesicht. The term Gesicht understood in such fashion becomes, for Kassner, a source of union between the soul (of an entity) and the entire universe, requiring an interpretation. Kassner believes that physiognomist is a mistic for the whole world created[9].

The essence of Kassner’s thinking rests primarily on a paradox; similarly to the general physiognomic axiom, a paradox is the key to understanding contemporary human diagnosis. The author notices a clear incompatibility between human’s outward appearance and character (nature); something has disturbed the harmony between physiognomics and the entity of man, altering the order observable throughout the history. Contrary to psychoanalysis, Kassner does not try to explore the facade in order to determine the cause for crisis that destroys human from within. Quite the opposite – he examines most inconspicuous aspects of contact with another human, i.e. their actions and behaviour, making them a basis for physionomical analysis. Kassner seems to understand that purely external phenomena (e.g. actions) should be explained by determining cause and effect sequence (by answering the question “why?”), whereas true forms that cannot be reduced to a simple causality analysis must be submitted for interpretation through imagining. Seeing true forms, however, is possible only through activating critical thinking centers and creative imagination – something he calls räsonnieren. Thus a significant part of Kassner’s essays resembles a simple “what if…” type of writing that joins contradictory (sometimes illogical) subjects in order to show connections between them. Utilising this method, Kassner attempts to disprove elements of reader’s rational and analytical thinking, cause surprise in them, so that a reader knowing merely a part of the puzzle opens for searching a new perspective and begins seeking the remaining elements[10].

Kassner uses analogy referring to terms such as: form, gestalt[11], the one, order, idea etc. to make his approach as holistic as possible. Furthermore, he believes that activities enabling such process of perceiving the reality are seeing and interpreting (deuten), thus he encourages common synoptic vision. For this reason Kassner negates the existence of “a thing in itself”, as it never expresses a phenomenon.

Kassner believes that every image contains motion, its dynamis. Due to that, phenomena cannot represent only an external form for the content. A form and content constitute a whole that somewhat exists in complicity with imagination while critical thinking sees it separately; imagination in synthetical, the reason is analytical. Therefore imagination, in Kassner’s view, becomes the most important human ability because it is the only thing that allows human to see the world as one; seeing both a form and content, merged as one. He writes:

"A careful observation of human face and body will teach you Sir, shortly, how rich they are in these dichotomisations and bridges, the correspondence: between a forehead and a hip, a forehead, or better, eye socket bones and a hand. In front of me, in my mind, I see a narrow forehead as if plotted by a gentle brush, smooth, the forehead of Venus de Milo divinely bereft of thoughts, and her broad, softly curved hips, this harbour of all world instincts. For contrast, allow me, Sir, to present a forehead that aims, with extended eyebrows, the forehead of David by Michelangelo and his long shoulders with huge, arms honeycombed with thick veins. Sir, pay heed to omnipresent relationship between them, the line, the rhythm between the forehead and the hand! The sculptor must reflect the idea of a hand on a forehead […] Do you remember the forehead of Zeus at Olympia in Vatican? With a hump, right in the middle, above the base of the nose? As if world-creating thought, thought existing only there was to protrude similarly to a horn on a unicorn’s forehead, as if thought itself were an entity here[12]."

It is the very imagination that allowed Kassner to see that in the old (aristocratic) society, every face resulted from a relationship between a person and their wealth [Kassner seems to have in mind not the financial position but rather the social one as well as way of being and manner of speaking connected with it], while contemporary human lost their standard, this very feature of belonging that anchored him in the society (placed and enabled interpretation of their status). According to Kassner, the face of a contemporary man is branded with gradually widening wound, as human’s place in the society is lost[13].

Kassner’s theory of physiognomy and physiognomics is without a doubt one of the most complex theories of interpretation oscillating between aesthetics and cosmogony of reality. It is also one of the most intriguing philosophical concepts that has not been yet analysed by art historians to a sufficient degree. Kassner’s intuitions create a perspective for analysis both works of art[14] as well as art world in their substantial dimension.

When contemplating Kassner’s writing it is impossible not to notice similarities with early ideas of John Ruskin’s – the most influential critic and theoretician of 19th century art, a founder of Arts&Crafts movement. Ruskin noticed negative influence that social modernism on an individual, half a century before Kassner. Postulating a necessity of reforming the way in which contemporary world is a subject to technocratisation, he based his ideological, political and artistic programme on the definition of beauty. In order to understand in the name of what beauty exactly Ruskin wanted to reform and change the world, let us quote the introduction to Marcel Proust’s La Bible d'Amiens (1904), where Ruskin’s desire for beauty is referenced:

"Ruskin's special gift was the feeling for beauty, in nature as in art. It was in Beauty that his nature led him to seek reality, and his entirely religious life received from it an entirely aesthetic use. But this Beauty to which he thus happened to dedicate his life was not conceived by him as an object of enjoyment made to charm, but as a reality infinitely more important than life, for which he would have given his own life. From this, as you will see, the whole aesthetic system of Ruskin follows. First, you will understand that the years when he became acquainted with a new school of architecture or of painting were the principal landmarks in the development of his ethics. He would speak of the years when Gothic art presented itself to him with the same gravity, the same emotional nostalgia, the same serenity with which a Christian speaks of the day the truth was revealed to him[15]".

Beauty is not always an expression of, colloquially speaking, something nice or satisfying to our senses; it might manifest itself in sorrow, misery and grief as an embodiment of truth. Post modernistic reluctance towards beauty results from the fact that it imposes a question about hidden elements of reality, things which cannot be experienced with senses – it opens the gates to cognise transcendence. Hemingway said once “Madame, all stories, if continued far enough end in death, and he is no true story-teller who would keep that from you”. The honesty of cognition, in art as well as in life, leads to unrelenting truth that hits a receiver like a hammer – there is no happy end in life on a material level. Without transcendence, human is doomed to live in despair. And if it is a human, then humanity is bound to share their fate as well. Beauty risen to the rank of an axiom, cannot be limited to the materialistic version of the world. Let us ask ourselves whether by questioning the idea of beauty we reduce art to mediocre ornamentation, because:

“if the subject of art
will be a broken jug
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity

what will remain of us
will be like tears of lovers
in a small dirty hotel
when wallpapers dawn”.

Drawing: Ignacy Czwartos

Translation: Jakub Bujno

Jan Tarnas

Polski historyk sztuki, filozof, krytyk artystyczny i literacki. Od 2018 doktorant na Wydziale Filozofii Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego. Od 2021 redaktor prowadzący magazynu „Obieg” wydawanego przez Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski w Warszawie.

[1] An online list of Kassner’s works or information about Kassner himself is available here: (access: 31.08.2018).

[2] For which Kassner were nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature as many as thirteen times..

[3] Kassner’s book contains a number of curious remarks about human change throughout history. One of the most interesting would be “Europe of all epochs have been teaching the ethos of fight and was wary towards peace. I na fight of body and soul, one must yield. The prominent faces of Europe were faces of apostolic nature. Europe’s great saints were always great apostols as well” (R. Kassner, Number and Face, op. cit., p. 46) [translated by Jakub Bujno].

[4] E. Shookman, The Faces of physiognomy : interdisciplinary approaches to Johann Caspar Lavater, SC: Camden House, Columbia 1993.

[5] Kassner refers to analogous phenomena of “masking” in reference to the process of embracing pain, yet, it is not at any point acceptance of Bacon’s philosophy of the mask; cf. R. Kassner, Zahl und Gesicht, op. cit., p. 46.

[6] R. Kassner, Number and Face, op. cit., p. 24; following the original: “Paradox jeder Physiognomik, daß der Mensch nur so sei, wie er aussehe, weil er nicht so aussieht, wie er ist” (R. Kaßner, Zahl und Gesicht: nebst einer Einleitung: Der Umriss einer universalen Physiognomik, 1919, p. 6.) [translated by Jakub Bujno].

[7] From the perspective of aesthetical study, it would be interesting to contrast Kassner’s views with Henryk Elzenberg’s theory of absolute values. Elzenberg outlined an aesthetical programme that generally refers to the old Aristotelian tradition (the theory of transcendentals), according to which, values like truth, beauty and good are inextricably bound together. Consequently, ugly and dirty things cannot be good and, conversely, beautiful things cannot be evil by nature. One must remember that ancient aesthetical understanding of beauty does not refer to external beauty, as in post-Kant aesthetic tradition. Since ancient times, the question of beauty have been associated to a large degree with quality of an entity – i.e. good. A manifestation of such understanding were art theories that interpreted purposefulness of art through the lens that its functional influence on man offers (an example of which can be the kalokagathia ideal and experiencing katharsis). One of the most famous artists invoking Elzenberg’s works was his student – Zbigniew Herbert, a poet who in a natural way treated the theory of absolute values as the universal order of the world: see i.a. Herbert’s poem entitled The power of taste (Potęga smaku in the original).

[8] An untranslatable term that refers to that which is visible, a face, physiognomics, countenance, facial expression as well as that which is seen, i.e. a vision.

[9] Kassner’s physiognomics, by rejecting a division into a phenomenon and a thing “in itself”, aspires not to be a theory of physiognomics but rather an independent cosmogony in which a physiognomist serves as a mistic who interprets the rhythm; cf. R. Kassner, Number and Face, op. cit., p. 176, note 7.

[10] According to some opinions, this is a method similar to maieutic method by Socrates.

[11] A structure comprised of two or more parts, that we perceive as a whole and which has an additional quality in regard to sum of all its parts’ values. An example of such structure are living beings e.g. humans, because despite the sum of extremities, eyes and internal organs, first of all, they are alive (which is not a value of individual parts), and, secondly, they can e.g. see (an impossible feat without the support of the organism). The term gestalt was used to additionally emphasise holistic nature of things.

[12] R. Kassner, Number and Face, op. cit., p. 34. Translated by Jakub Bujno.

[13] Kassner seems to use the term face in a rather wide sense; as imagination, countenance, visibleness and physiognomy (features).

[14] It concerns mainly the reference to so called: “fourth dimension”, which was not further elaborated in this work. In very simple terms, it is about an interpretation of an ideal piece of art from the perspective of its influence on blurring the line between a work of art and a viewer: see R. Kassner, Number and Face, op. cit., s. 77-94; Another interesting statement is acknowledging that it is not an artist that tries to reflect the shape of space using form, but it is the very form of painting created by the artist that shapes the existing space: cf. R. Kassner, Number and Face, op. cit., p. 135. According to the above, one may predicate that a shape of the eye, created by the artist, artfully painted figure, is the maker of the relation (in a sense of causality) that we enter upon seeing a portrait. That is due to the fact the painting is actively watching – it is the source, a noumenon that exists to be seen.

[15] Marcel Proust, preface to La Bible d'Amiens (1904), Proust's translation of Ruskin's The Bible of Amiens; from Marcel Proust: On Reading Ruskin (Yale University Press, 1987, ISBN 0-300-04503-4), trans. Jean Autret and Philip J. Wolfe, pp. 33-34

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