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Rudolf Arnheim (born July 15 1904) is a German-born author, art and film theorist, and perceptual psychologist. He himself has said that his major books are Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (1954), Visual Thinking (1969), and The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts (1982), but it is Art and Visual Perception for which he is most widely known. Revised, enlarged and published as a New Version in 1974, it has been translated into 14 languages, and is very likely one of the most widely read and influential art books of the twentieth century.

Formative years

Arnheim was born in Berlin, where his father owned a small piano factory. Despite the expectation that he should become a businessman, he enrolled at the University of Berlin in 1923. There, he majored in psychology and philosophy, with secondary emphases in the histories of art and music. It was there (in makeshift research facilities in the abandoned Imperial Palace) that he studied with the Gestalt psychologists, including Max Wertheimer (his Doktorvater), Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Lewin. His doctoral dissertation, which he completed in 1928, was a study of expression in human faces and handwriting.

Early writings

While a graduate student, Arnheim wrote weekly film reviews for progressive Berlin publications. In 1928, having finished his dissertation, he became a junior editor for film and cultural affairs at Die Weltbuhne, and on one assignment was sent to Dessau, where he wrote an article on the new Bauhaus building there, designed by Walter Gropius.

His preoccupation with film led to the publication in 1932 of his first book entitled Film als Kunst (Film as Art), in which he examined the various ways in which film images are (and should always aspire to be) different from literal encounters with reality. However, soon after this book was released, Adolf Hitler came to power, and because Arnheim was Jewish, the sale of his book was no longer allowed.

In 1933, he moved from Germany to Italy, where he remained for six years. He continued to write about film, and, in particular, contributed to an encyclopedia of the history and theory of film for the League of Nations (forerunner to the United Nations). While living in Rome, he also wrote a second book, titled Radio: The Art of Sound (1936), in which he discussed the characteristics of radio with more or less the same approach with which he had looked at film.

Arnheim grew very fond of Italy (he felt as if it was his home, his casa propria). Unfortunately, in 1938, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini withdrew from the League of Nations, and adopted racial policies that were consistent with those of Nazi Germany. As a result, Arnheim moved to England in 1939, where he took on a position as a radio translator with BBC Radio, in which, as a person was speaking, he translated simultaneously from German to English and vice versa.

Immigration to the U.S.

In the fall of 1940, he left England for the U.S., arriving at New York harbor at night, with all the buildings were filled with lights, in sharp contrast to the blackout policies of London and the ship on which he sailed. Arriving with only ten dollars in his pocket, he received assistance from other Gestalt psychologists, including Max Wertheimer, who arranged for his appointment to the psychology faculty at the New School for Social Research. He was also prompted to apply (given his expertise in radio) for a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation, by which he became an associate of the Office of Radio Research at Columbia University. He was given a fellowship, with which he conducted a study about the extent to which American radio listeners were influenced by the content of radio soap operas.

Only two years after arriving in the U.S., he also received a Guggenheim Fellowship, with which he proposed to research perceptual psychology in relation to the visual arts. In 1943, he was hired to teach psychology at Sarah Lawrence College, an undergraduate school for women in Bronxville, New York, where he remained on the faculty for 26 years.

Later years

About ten years later, having received a second Rockefeller Fellowship, he took leave for fifteen months and wrote his pioneering book titled Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (1954). In 1959, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, with which he studied in Japan for a year. Ten years later, in 1969, he accepted an appointment at Harvard University as a Professor of the Psychology of Art. And then, in 1974, he retired from Harvard University and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where (formally and informally) he has been connected with the University of Michigan for many years. In 1981 Arnheim received a Litt.D. from Bates College.


  • 1928: Experimentell-psychologische Untersuchungen zum Ausdrucksproblem. Psychologische Forschung, 11, 2-132.
  • 1932: Film als Kunst. Berlin: Ernst Rowohlt. Neuausgaben: 1974, 1979, 2002
  • 1943: Gestalt and art. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 2, 71-5.
  • 1949/1966: Toward a Psychology of Art. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • 1954/1974: Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • 1962/1974: Picasso's Guernica. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • 1966: Toward a Psychology of Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • 1969: Visual Thinking. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • 1971: Entropy and Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • 1972/1996: Anschauliches Denken. Zur Einheit von Bild und Begriff. Erstausgabe 1972, nun Köln: DuMont Taschenbuch 1996.
  • 1977: The Dynamics of Architectural Form. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • 1977: Kritiken und Aufsätze zum Film. (Hrsg.: Helmut H. Diederichs) München: Hanser.
  • 1979: Radio als Hörkunst. München: Hanser. Neuausgabe: 2001 (Suhrkamp)
  • 1982/88: The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • 1986: New Essays on the Psychology of Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • 1989: Parables of Sun Light: Observations on Psychology, the Arts, and the Rest. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • 1990: Thoughts on Art Education. Los Angeles: Getty Center for Education.
  • 1992: To the Rescue of Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • 1996: The Split and the Structure. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • 1997: Film Essays and Criticism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • 2004: Die Seele in der Silberschicht. (Hrsg.: Helmut H. Diederichs) Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

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