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Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim

Source:
The Oxford Companion to Western Art
Author(s):

Achim Timmermann

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim 

(1729–81).

German dramatist and critic. Although primarily remembered for his plays (e.g. Nathan der Weise, 1779) Lessing also had a keen interest in the visual arts. In 1774, whilst working as a librarian in Wolfenbüttel, north Germany, he discovered and subsequently wrote about the famous 12th-century treatise on painting, De diversis artibus. His main contribution to contemporary art theory was the essay Laokoon oder über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie (1766), in which he attacks the neoclassical conception of Antique beauty and Winckelmann's ideal of the tragic hero. Lessing attempts here to find principles by which to differentiate between painting or sculpture, and poetry, that is the spatial and the temporal arts. Whereas Winckelmann had assigned the notion of ideal grandeur to all of Antiquity, Lessing restricts it to the visual arts alone. Central to his argument is the artist's ability to select the ‘fruitful’ moment, which would simultaneously preserve physical beauty and encapsulate references to past and future action. For Lessing the Laocoön group represents a particularly masterly choice of moment, as it delights the eye but also stimulates the imagination.

Achim Timmermann