Gestalt psychology & aesthetics

Introduction Click here
Gestalt perceptual laws Click here
Gestalt and aesthetics Click here
Contemporary perspective of the Gestalt contribution Click here
Gestalt and landscape Click here
References Click here


Gestalt psychology developed from the realization in the late nineteenth century that the atomistic approach to psychology and perception which reduced phenomena to their smallest possible quanta failed to explain characteristics that could derive from the combination of the individual parts. This approach assumed that sense data comprised pointillist mosaic of bits and pieces that were then aggregated into larger entities (Ehrenzweig, 1967). A similar atomistic approach characterizes many contemporary landscape analyzes, e.g. Shafer et al, 1969, Daniel & Boster 1976, Dearden 1980. Typically these divide a landscape into its constituent parts, assess responses to the parts and then recombine them.

In 1890, Christian von Ehrenfels identified the form quality or Gestaltqualitat as a key aspect of features. Form qualities are properties of a whole or an entity which does not reside in its constituent parts (Wolman (a), 1973). A square is more than the sum total of four equal lines and four right angles; its most important characteristic is its squareness. A melody is not just a collection of notes but a set of certain notes in a particular order and style. If the relationship between the notes changes, so too does the tune, but significantly the melody is retained if it is transposed into another key. Similarly, a square shape retains its essential form regardless of size. Fractals have the same property of being an identical form at varying scales. An idea can be expressed in different languages but remain identifiable.

Thus the Gestaltqualitat is retained provided the relations between the elements remain unchanged. Transferability does not depend on having common elements, as under the atomistic approach, but rather they have similar formal or structural properties. Relationships of elements and transposability are key properties of form qualities. Von Ehrenfels advocated the inclusion of form qualities along with sensations to understand the perception of forms, music and movement.

In 1900, Friedrich Schumann demonstrated the subtlety of form qualities; for example, he showed that rotating a square through 45º produces a diamond, still a square but, in contrast to the stable and substantial square, a rather unstable delicate form.

Abandonment of the constancy hypothesis followed research by Max Wertheimer (1880 – 1943) at the University of Frankfurt and later together with Wolfgang Kohler (1887 – 1967) and Kurt Koffka (1886 – 1941). All three rejected the atomistic approach.

In 1912, Wertheimer published the paper that gave birth to the Gestalt movement. It was a paper on the phi phenomenon – the projection of two slightly separated spots of light in succession on a screen to give the impression of a single spot of light moving across the screen. Although the individual images remain stationary, there is an “apparent movement” that does not derive from a series of sensations but is a new outcome from the effect of two stimulus events working in cooperation. The effect is similar to that of motion pictures where the viewer actually sees a series of discrete images. Wertheimer deduced that the apparent movement was the result of a sequence of successive images and that this occurred outside the perceptual field.

In the German, “Gestalt” has two meanings (Kohler, 1947):

  • It connotes a shape or form as an attribute of things;
  • It has the meaning of a concrete entity per se, that has, or may have a shape as one of its characteristics.

Kohler recognised, however, that the use of the term has extended well beyond the content of shape, such as learning, recall, thinking, acting, and biology.

Wertheimer’s definition of Gestalt is broader and allows for its wider use:

“a whole whose characteristics are determined, not by the characteristics of its individual elements, but by the internal nature of the whole” (Katz, 1950).

Myriad droplets of water act independently but are seen together to create a splendid waterfall.       Blue Mountains waterfall, Australia

In contrast to the atomists, the Gestaltists made organization the key. They examined the organization of whole objects – music, forms, faces – concentrating on mental processes as being dynamic, structural units rather than bundles of sensations linked by association or imagination. The Gestaltists likened the atomistic model to a telegraph exchange, and their own model as the distribution of stresses on soap bubbles (Hochberg, 1974); the atomistic object containing myriads of operations each operating independently without affecting others, the Gestalt object comprising a form dependent totally on the contribution of each element to the whole.

Wertheimer, Kohler, Koffka and other Gestalt psychologists extended the approach to other areas of perception: problem solving, learning and thinking. Kurt Lewin applied it to social psychology, motivation and personality, Kohler to animal behavior, while others applied it to economic behavior and aesthetics. Rudolf Arnheim (1974) who was prominent in art and aesthetics considered that the foundations of our present knowledge of visual perception were laid down in the laboratories of the Gestalt psychologists.

The Gestalt approach of holistic perceptual processing, as distinct from an elementalistic approach, has gained support over recent decades. Nevertheless, the dominant theories of form perception have tended to be elementalistic and neuro-reductionist in concept and language (Bruce & Green, 1990).

Gestalt Perceptual Laws

People organize objects perceived through their senses in accordance with certain grouping principles. The Gestalt laws of perceptual grouping or unit formation are summarized in Figure 1. Some theorists have speculated that there are principles underlying these laws. One that originated in the nineteenth century is the principle of maximum likelihood, i.e. in Gleitman’s words (1981): we tend to interpret the proximal stimulus pattern as that external (i.e. distal) stimulus object that most probably produced it. The proximal stimulus is the stimulus of the scene on the eyeball.

Fig 11
Gleitman, 1981; Hockberg, 1974; Lindzey et al, 1988.  Figure 1 Gestalt Laws of Perceptual Grouping

In an ambiguous scene the observer derives the most likely explanation from experience or expectation. The similarity principle is explained by containing areas that are similar in color and texture; the proximity principle generally represents the same object in close proximity. 

Gestalt as organized wholes

Regardless of the chaotic appearance of shapes and forms, Gestaltists believe that the brain will project order into them (Ehrenzweig, 1953). Gestalt laws governing the appearance and behavior of organised wholes are as follows (Wolman (b), 1973):

  1. Wholes are primary and appear before their so-called parts (Law of Primacy);
  2. To perceive and react to wholes is more natural, easier, and occurs earlier than perception of parts;
  3. Wholes tend to be as complete, symmetrical, simple, and good as possible under prevailing conditions (Law of Prägnanz);
  4. Wholes tend to be governed by internal rather than external factors (Law of Autonomy);
  5. Parts derive their properties from their place or function in the whole.

The emphasis of these laws is on the ‘whole’, rather than the parts. Wertheimer and his colleagues showed that understanding had to occur by viewing organised wholes “from above down,” not as the sum of elements “from below up”.

“The whole quality is not just one more added element. The qualities of the whole determine the characteristics of the parts: what a part has to be is determined by its relationship to the whole” (Wertheimer, 1974).

Analysis must be top down rather than bottom up so that the qualities of the whole that determine the parts may be determined. The Gestalt view implies that wholes are prior to their parts, and that complexity occurs, not through the aggregation of parts but by the differentiation of a whole.

While Von Ehrenfels had coined the phrase: “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” to describe Gestaltqualitat, actually the Gestalt psychologists held that the whole is different from the sum of its parts (Wertheimer, 1974). Nevertheless, Von Ehrenfels’ formulation is the more common. The concept has entered the landscape literature: e.g., Aiken (1976) refers to the environment as being greater than the sum of its parts, while Duffield & Coppock (1975) state that the landscape is greater than the sum of the component parts.

The importance of wholes is emphasised by Kohler:

“Gestalt Psychology claims that it is precisely the original segregation of circumscribed wholes which makes it possible for the sensory world to appear so utterly imbued with meaning to the adult…” (Kohler, 1947).

The Kreitlers (1972) state that:

“a form may have such a high degree of organization that it appears as a self-contained whole, separated from its background and surroundings, (so) that the whole and its parts mutually determine one another’s characteristics, … the qualities of the whole dominate the qualities of the parts.”

They note that any whole can be regarded as a Gestalt: a sentence, an idea, a melody, a painting, a play, an action, as well as colors, movement, and tactile sensations. Wholes can contain sub-gestalts, these being dominated in turn by the qualities of the whole.

Interestingly the Kreitlers note that a powerful Gestalt, whether it be an idea, or a way of thought can be very difficult to change:

“in the sphere of concepts, this clinging to Gestalts may be responsible for social prejudice stereotypes with all their attendant dangers, and it may sometimes take a genius to destroy a given Gestalt, so that the field is again open for new constructions of solutions” (Kreitler & Kreitler, 1972).

It could be argued that this may be extending the significance of Gestalts too far, although it is an interesting notion. An example of its possible application relevant to landscape is the ethos that prevailed among farmers in Australia until fairly recent times that farms had to be free of all weeds or stubble or trees – clean and tidy was the prevailing ethos. Now the value of stubble retention and farm trees is being recognised for land care, soil protection, soil carbon and biodiversity reasons; a powerful Gestalt is giving way to a new one.

Gestalt psychologists believed that rather than passively receiving sensory information, the mind actively organizes the information it receives. A book with pages of text is seen as black type against a white background, not merely black and white shapes competing for attention. A passage of music is more easily identified than a phrase, and a phrase is more memorable than a note. It explains why individuals can fail to understand a problem until they see the “whole picture” when suddenly insight comes, derived from a holistic approach rather than by logical deduction.

The mind organizes and reorganizes the parts into a satisfying whole that is different from, not just more than the sum of its parts. The coherent whole has characteristics not apparent in its parts, and its parts have properties that they neither possess alone or in another whole.

Notterman notes that by:

“asserting that the whole possesses its own inherent reality, the Gestaltists made direct contact with the Kantian view that human beings possess an innate tendency to organize events” (Notterman, 1985).

Through their work, the Gestaltists showed that perception was more than a mechanical process:

“They held that reality, and perhaps beauty too, are not in the eye of the beholder, but merely begin there. What we conceive as being ‘true’ depends upon the organization we bring to sensations”  (Notterman, 1985).

Arguing against the behaviorist’s stimulus-response model, Kohler (1947) considered that the correct psychological formula is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2 Psychological formula

Kohler considered that responses are not simply an automatic outcome from stimuli but rather that humans actively interpret and organize the incoming stimuli. Using a range of examples as illustrations – constellations of stars, ornaments, patches of color, flies on a table, leaves and stones on the ground – Kohler showed that:

“organization is a sensory fact when there are no corresponding physical units. Not only groups but also continuous sensory wholes may occur in the absence of corresponding physical units.” 

According to Arnheim (1970), Gestalt psychologists do not suggest that a Gestalt shows up with automatic spontaneity but rather occurs through repeated exposure to the stimuli.

“Good” Gestalt – Prägnanz

Werthmeimer regarded the Law of Prägnanz or “good” Gestalt as his fundamental thesis and inclusive of all others as of particular importance in perception. “Prägnanz” means the goal directed tendency to restore the balance of the organism. Koffka formulated it thus:

“psychological organization will always be as ‘good’ as the prevailing conditions allow; (where) the term ‘good’ is undefined (but) embraces such properties as regularity, symmetry, simplicity and others…” (Koffka, 1935).

To these characteristics, Katz (1950) added unity, harmony, inclusiveness, and conciseness. Pickford (1976) regarded ‘good’ Gestalt as meaning that the stronger patterns will dominate psychologically weaker patterns.

The Prägnanz principle is that grouping tends toward maximal simplicity and balance – that we tend to see whole objects or forms rather than parts and that such forms are seen as being as simple or “good” as possible. Prägnanz is the “tendency to see an object as being simple, regular, symmetrical, continuous, closed” (Hamlyn, 1957) and is equated with good form or good Gestalt.

Faced with ambiguous conditions in which the outcome is not fully defined, the Prägnanz principle produces the completion of form and resolution of contradictions so that all parts satisfactorily fit the whole – a ‘good’ Gestalt. This is the “pressure of the Gestalt” – the feeling of a need to complete the whole by straightening a line, completing a circle, improving a form or even cleaning a blackboard. The uncompleted whole creates a tension or psychological disequilibrium (Wolman (a), 1973) that completion of the whole eases.

Figure 3 Prägnanz application

Prägnanz allows prediction of missing parts. In the figure below, few would have trouble completing the letters F and E (Figure 3). The predictability inherent in Prägnanz also means that the maximum information can be grasped through a relative minimum of means and effort (Kreitler & Kreitler, 1972). Artists frequently employ Prägnanz in their art, allowing the viewers to complete the picture or sculpture for themselves.

“The overlooking of little gaps and bumps in otherwise coherent and simple shapes correspond to important functions within the general Gestalt tendency towards a pregnant, coherent, and simple Gestalt. If we … listen to a jumble of nonsensical syllables we will unfailingly project a rhythmical and melodious pattern into them. When we are asked to repeat them we will reproduce them in a better Gestalt. The gap-filling and erasing of bumps recurs: syllables obstructing the easy flow of rhythm are apt to be suppressed; missing feet are readily interpolated to make up the complete rhythm” (Ehrenzweig, 1953).

Thus recollected landscapes are likely to appear better in our memory through the emphasis of factors that make for good Gestalt, and the editing out the factors that distract. This may explain the pleasure that familiar landscapes give us.

Ehrenzweig described Gestalt theory in Prägnanz terms:

“all perception or creation of form is subject to a tendency towards perceiving or producing as pregnant and simple a structure as possible” (Ehrenzweig, 1953).

He also stated the:

“incisiveness of form, such as the comparative sharpness of its outline, or its pregnant shape, or the conflict or parallelism between superimposed or juxtaposed forms” are qualities of ‘good’ Gestalt (Ehrenzweig, 1967).

Arnheim (1966) asserted that:

“the ‘law of the good Gestalt’ is typical for people – it will be found statistically in a majority of subjects tested by experiment. More essentially, it means that such behavior is typical for perception: When perception is pure and neutral, uninfluenced by the expectations or needs of the person, the simplest possible structure will prevail.”

Kreitler & Kreitler (1972) summarized Gestalt research as follows:

  1. Asked to draw a beautiful and pleasing line, subjects draw a smooth, continuous and straight line and when asked to introduce change into it, they draw rhythmic and repetitive lines; all of these are good Gestalts. When asked to present an ugly line, they draw disorganized masses of lines, lacking continuity, mixed angles and curves with intersections and unrelated spaces – a non-figure that is bad Gestalt.
  2. When asked to change visual patterns to make them good and pleasing, they left unaltered simple good Gestalts such as isosceles triangles, circles, hexagons, rectangles and squares. Open and asymmetrical shapes were changed either into geometrically good Gestalt or into familiar objects.
  3. Simple and symmetrical patterns were regarded as beautiful and “strong” whereas highly complex and asymmetrical forms as ugly and weak. Highly complex patterns, (i.e. irregular and asymmetrical), caused heightened arousal as indicated by the usual indicators of desynchronization of EEG and increased incidence of psychogalvanic skin response.
  4. Very simple and regular Gestalts were found to be boring, but more complex and less organized Gestalts provided stimulation. The more complex and the inferior Gestalts created more curiosity and more intense and extended visual assessment than simple and good Gestalts.
  5. There appears to be a correlation between people with experience with art or visual patterns and a preference for more irregular and complex forms.
African tribal art  African tribal art

6. Primitive art comprises mainly good Gestalts: abundance of planes, straight lines, curves, including circles and spirals, symmetry, rhythmic repetition and separate forms. In his book, Primitive Art, the anthropologist, F. Boas, admits to astonishment at this finding because such forms “are of rare occurrence in nature, so rare indeed, that they had hardly a chance to impress themselves upon the mind” (Boas, 1955). The Kreitlers consider that it was the creation of good Gestalts in a context of the relative disorganization of primal life that constituted their fascination and which gave the artists, who “lured order out of chaos and (who) vanquished the formless by forms”, the status of gods or magicians.
7. Patterns of complex parts arranged in a rectangular form are easier to grasp as a unified whole than circular or triangular arrangements – this explains why most paintings are rectangular. Photographs are also generally rectangular. The many landscape studies which have used photographs of the area being assessed thus present it to the respondent in a form which facilitates its viewing as a whole, which is entirely unlike its view in situ where it lacks a reference frame. However, where the parts are fewer or simpler, they are more easily seen as wholes in triangular or circular forms rather than rectangles.
8. Symmetry or balance is an important Gestalt characteristic. Asked to place various forms in a pleasing manner, subjects arranged lines of greater length or narrowness, figures of greater area, and darker colors nearer to the center of a square background than shorter or wider lines, smaller figures, or brighter colors respectively. Subjects also tended to favor depth perception rather than two-dimensional flat pictures, and forms suggesting movement outwards rather than inwards. Bigger and heavier-looking forms tend to be placed in the lower part of an area to compensate for the relative instability of forms in the upper area.

Figure and Ground (Visual Segregation)

Edgar Rubin’s 1915 University of Copenhagen doctoral dissertation studied the difference between figure and ground in visual perception – between the thing-character of the former and the formlessness of the latter (Asch, 1968).

Visual segregation involves the separation of an object from its background, e.g. a tree against the sky. A figure has stronger form-properties, such as coherence, than the ground. The figure-ground phenomenon is not confined to visual perception, as in the well-known cocktail effect when one conversation can be heard over competing conversations. It is also asserted to apply to ways of thinking and of personality organization (Hochberg, 1974).

Reversible figures occur where the figure and the ground can be interchanged, e.g. a goblet, which can also appear as a face in profile (Figure 4). Formerly, psychology asserted that only one figure is noticed, and the other goes unnoticed. Gestalt psychology rejects this by asserting that contours have only a single function, or at any rate, one function at a given time (Katz, 1950).

Fig 12
Figure 4 A reversible figure

Examining an example of reversible figures establishes an important principle: that shape belongs to the figure, not to the ground. In the figure, the contour ‘’b divides the visual field, giving shape to one side or the other but not both. One sees either a vase or pair of faces. The line marked ‘a’ appears to extend to the edge of the contour ‘b’, and no further, but the region marked ‘x’ has no definite terminus other than the outer frame, ‘y’ and seems to extend indefinitely behind the contour ‘b’. However, when ‘x’ becomes the figure (i.e. faces) the relationship at the edge reverses and now a appears indefinite in extent and formless. Thus “shape” belongs only to the region that is figure, not to the ground (Hochberg, 1974).

To see a given object, the perceptual field must be organized so that the object is the figure.

In Gestalt terms, a figure is indivisible and irreducible. The function that each part of the figure plays is determined by the whole configuration, not by the local characteristics of the part. The part doesn’t exist except for the whole that gives it meaning (Hochberg, 1974) (Figure 5).

Fig 5
Figure 5 Examples of Gestalt figure and ground

According to Kohler (1947):

“figure and ground behave quite differently in the visual field. Color constancy, for instance, has been shown to be stronger for figure than for ground… After-images are more vivid when observed upon a figure than they are upon mere ground”

Koffka (1935) establishes several properties of the figure and ground phenomenon:

  • They always involve, in however low a degree, a third dimension of space;
  • The ground serves as a framework in which the figure is suspended and thereby determines the figure;
  • The horizontal and the vertical exert an actual influence upon the processes of organization by making figural organization easier;
  • The smaller unit will, ceteris paribus (all thing being equal), become the figure and the larger, the ground;
  • If two areas are so segregated that one encloses the other, the enclosing one will be the ground, the enclosed one the figure;
  • Those parts having the greater internal articulation will, ceteris paribus, become figures. Koffka (1935) noted as an example, sea charts which, contrary to ordinary maps, detail the sea and not the land so that the sea becomes the figure and the land ground.
  • The figure-ground distribution will, ceteris paribus, be such that the resulting shapes are as simple as possible; symmetrical figures are simpler than asymmetrical figures.

Ehrenzweig (1967) noted that:

“color interaction between figure and ground stands in inverse proportion to the good Gestalt of the figure. … the ambiguity of a weak figure on a strong ground immensely increases color interaction.”


“Isomorphism” means groups or systems corresponding in form and in relations between their elements. Psychophysical forms as ‘seen’ by the brain are not essentially different from the physical forms (Katz, 1950). In Gestalt terms, it refers to the brain preserving the functional relations of symmetry, closeness and adjacency, not the exact sizes and angles of patterns (Asch, 1968). Arnheim (1949) describes the principle of isomorphism as processes that take place in different media being similar in their structural organization.

Isomorphism is significant in two ways (Katz, 1950):

  • The parts of a physical form are sub-ordinated to the whole they constitute;
  • Physical forms tend towards precision and maximal simplicity.

Isomorphism involves a correspondence between bodily expression and one’s mental state. Arnheim suggested that a painter representing Cain and Abel would seek to show the different figures as reflecting good and evil, murderer and victim, acceptance and rejection. Isomorphism is this correspondence in structure between meaning and pattern – a correspondence between form and function. He defines isomorphism as the structural kinship between the stimulus pattern and the expression it conveys.

Gestalt and aesthetics

Sir Herbert Read, the eminent art historian, has noted that modern art does not comply with Gestalt theory because it makes the eye “wander.” Traditional painting excludes eye-wandering by its good Gestalt. The eye is presented with a pregnant pattern, is attracted to it at once and so is given a stable centre of attention (Ehrenzweig, 1953). A good Gestalt is “always an aesthetically pleasing Gestalt.”

Koffka (1935) touched on aesthetics. He postulated that aesthetic taste is dependent on “class schemas” by which he means categories or classes of objects (e.g. books, houses, paintings, Chinese people). The class schema determines the characteristics of the class object. Generally, the class schema is unaffected by deviations in class objects. The class schema forms a sort of framework, or standard, and what does not fit into the framework, or does not conform to the standard, appears as inferior.

Using van Gogh as an example, Koffka noted that art critics refused to take van Gogh seriously during his lifetime and thus kept him from selling any pictures. Yet now his art is appreciated. The art has remained the same; what has changed is the class schema. The contribution of the Impressionists and others subsequently established a schema whereby his work could be assessed. A work of art is not condemned on its own merits but rather, because it does not fit the prevailing schema. Thus class schemas are not immutable in historical terms; whether in painting, architecture, music, poetry and fashion, schemas change and that which was initially rejected can become de rigueur.

Wikipedia Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889

The parallel with attitudes towards landscapes is the shift in public taste that sees landscapes formerly rejected or disregarded by the community, elevated to the position of eminence. Australians’ interest in the tropical landscapes of Kakadu and Daintree, or in the arid inland may derive in part from promotion, but also reflects significant changes in public taste. A significant historical example is the changed attitude towards mountain landscapes in Europe that occurred in the early eighteenth century.

Contemporary perspective of the Gestalt contribution

The Gestaltists roamed far wider than the areas touched on here. Overall, they have:

“had a salutary effect of restraining behavioral scientists … from oversimplifying their subject matter. By itself, that is a major contribution…. (They) have demonstrated … holistic phenomena within perception” (Notterman, 1985).

Similarly, Asch (1968) concluded that Gestalt:

“was productive of new discoveries and concepts; it generated new questions and proved relevant to basic issues of psychology. Its contributions laid the foundations for the modern study of perception; it broke new ground in the investigation of thinking, memory, and learning; it initiated new steps in social psychology. These achievements deeply affected the outlook of psychology, not least so when they provoked opposition. They spurred a sharpening of issues and the revision of alternative positions; there is little work of consequence in psychology that has been wholly untouched by Gestalt ideas.”

Following a detailed review of the Gestalt contribution to organization, Hochberg (1974) concluded with a somewhat critical conclusion:

“…many of its demonstrations offer what appear to be both the potential foundations of a useful and applicable science of perception, and an insight into the nature of psychological and physiological process. … The Gestalt explanation of perceptual organization must be regarded as a first stage in an evolving formulation of both problem and solution, neither a closed issue nor a successful theory.”

Avant & Helson (1973) considered that while certain lines of evidence support generalizations regarding the tendency of forms to be as simple, complete, and “good” as possible, …there are others that limit their applicability.  The latter comment refers to a finding that different geometric figures did not have significantly different absolute thresholds. Overall, Avant & Helson considered that Gestalt theory has been and continues to be a most fruitful and stimulating approach to perception.

A criticism of Gestalt perception theory is that it is largely descriptive but lacks explanatory power. Bruce (1996) concluded:

“The physiological theory of the Gestaltists has fallen by the wayside, leaving us with a set of descriptive principles, but without a model of perceptual processing. Indeed, some of their “laws” of perceptual organization today sound vague and inadequate.”

Gestalt and landscape

The frequency with which landscape analysts have referred to the landscape as comprising more than the sum of its parts indicates that the Gestalt concept, whether understood completely or not, has been influential in describing landscape perception. But the relevance of Gestalt goes further than the principle of holism; it also covers Prägnanz (good Gestalt), the influence of Gestalt on recollections, and visual segregation (figure and ground).

The importance of the whole compared with the parts is perhaps more relevant to landscapes than to any other area of perception. It is not disputed, according to the Gestaltist view, that parts are important but rather that the whole is perceptually dominant. Landscape analyses in the literature are often characterized by an over-emphasis on the parts with virtually no focus on the totality, a case of “not seeing the wood for the trees.” It is also possible that in some of the analyses undertaken, respondents may actually be responding to the presence of good Gestalts and other Gestalt features within the scenes being assessed. Unfortunately, the scenes used in the analyses are rarely reproduced in the research papers so it is difficult to test this hypothesis.

Arising from the foregoing discussion about Gestalt theory, there are aspects having relevance to landscapes.


The qualities of the whole determine the characteristics of the parts (using “qualities” in the sense of the physical qualities of the whole, not necessarily its aesthetic qualities). What a part has to be is determined by its relationship to the whole (Wertheimer, 1974). A landscape is usually considered to reflect the aggregate impressions of its constituent parts – land forms, land uses, trees, color, textures and so on. The holism principle turns this on its head and suggests that the parts are a reflection of the whole. The key to understanding this is the Gestalt emphasis on the organization of the whole.

As an example, the outward appearance of an automobile comprises panels of various forms (e.g. hood, doors, roof, and trunk) which together constitute the external appearance of the automobile (Figure 6). The individual panels are designed by reference to what the designer seeks to achieve overall. Similarly, a sculpture or a painting comprises individual elements and segments that lack meaning unless related to the whole. Therefore, for artefacts (including automobiles, planes, houses, roads, can openers, and works of art), the whole determines the parts. Indeed, the parts lack meaning apart from the whole which provides them with purpose and form.

Fig 6 Figure 6 The panels of an automobile don’t make sense until combined

Does the same principle apply to landscapes in which a conscious design is not necessarily evident? If Wertheimer’s term “qualities” is taken to mean the character of a landscape, not its aesthetic qualities, but simply the overall physical appearance that enables differentiation of one landscape from another (such as a desert landscape opposed to an alpine landscape), then clearly the whole will, at least to a significant degree, determine the likely composition of the parts. One would not expect to find tropical vegetation in the Sahara, or sand dunes in the English countryside.

Similarly, human artefacts in a landscape such as dwellings, roads, fences, sheds, signs and livestock constitute an expected and an acceptable range.  Beyond these, an unexpected artefact may be regarded as alien to the whole and out of keeping with the landscape – e.g. advertising hoardings at Grand Canyon, or a chair lift to the summit of Mont Blanc.

In localities of recognized outstanding landscapes (where new houses and even commercial developments in towns maintain the character of the area by using traditional materials, colors and forms), a development that disregards these traditions and which introduce new characteristics will be out of character and may be disliked as a consequence. Change within a landscape comprises the introduction of an element that is contrary to the character of the whole, which may differ in scale, color, texture, form or any combination of these and other factors. Drawing on the Prägnanz principle, anomalies in the whole disturb Prägnanz and are therefore disliked in consequence.

There can be, however, a place for radical introductions. In Paris, for example, the Pei – designed pyramid outside the Louvre, the inside-outside Georges Pompidou Centre (Figure 7), and even the Eiffel Tower (which was at first despised and later came to be loved by Parisians), are examples of parts which conflict with their contexts (wholes) but are regarded as having sufficient inherent quality to be accepted. They cease to be regarded as “a part”; they define their own unique whole, a new Gestalt, which differs from the extant.

Fig 7          Figure 7  George Pompidou Center, Paris

In general, however, the prevailing landscape character largely determines its constituent parts. This is not absolute as it would obliterate diversity. But clearly, change must be relatively minor for a landscape to maintain a consistent character.

Landscapes do undergo change. For example, areas on the borders of cities or in the commuter range of cities often comprise mixtures of two (or more) landscape characters. A rural farming area is gradually replaced by the characteristics of an urban area, but for a period comprises neither and will be unattractive as a result of the mixture of characters. In Gestalt terms, there is an admixture of parts but no clear whole.

An aesthetic principle that is often cited in landscape literature is that of unity and variety (or harmony and diversity). The principle is that aesthetic quality is dependent on an overall unifying character that contains a sufficient variety to give it interest. The aesthetic concept of unity and variety and the Gestalt principle of wholes and parts are clearly parallel concepts; they both refer to the same idea. Unity is the Gestalt holism, the prevailing character of the landscape, while variety comprises the parts that provide it with a measure of difference and interest.

We have thus seen how Wertheimer’s concept of the whole determining the parts can relate to landscapes through their organization into typical landscape characters. Generally, parts that are out of character are disliked there can be instances of outstanding changes, however, that redefine the character by virtue of their own qualities. Can Wertheimer’s use of the term “qualities of the whole” relate to its aesthetic qualities as well as to character? Before addressing this, the relevance to landscape of good Gestalt and visual segregation is examined.

Good Gestalt

The Prägnanz principle is of considerable relevance to landscape assessment. The Prägnanz principle asserts that simple symmetrical forms possess beauty and strength while the highly complex and asymmetrical are ugly and weak. 

The qualities of good Gestalt are summarized as:

  • Comparative sharpness of the outline;
  • Large round forms – e.g. boulders, hills, bushes, and circular tree canopies;
  • Conflict or parallelism between superimposed or juxtaposed forms – e.g. a series of spurs or similar tree forms receding in the distance;
  • Isosceles triangles – e.g. pyramid or peak mountain forms;
  • Circles – e.g. round trees, boulders, river meanders;
  • Symmetrical figures – e.g. mountains, hills, trees, bushes, boulders.

Landscapes containing aspects of the above features will generally be preferred over landscapes without them. A landscape need not be unpleasant without them; there can be other redeeming features such as color, texture or an outstanding feature to create interest and appeal. Ceteris paribus (“all things being equal” – a rare occurrence in landscapes), a landscape with strong forms, symmetry, roundness of form, and repetition of forms will be the preferred landscape.

Gestalt examples

Figure 8 Examples of Gestalt principles in New Zealand landscapes

The qualities of good Gestalts are not difficult to detect in landscapes. Scenes of rural landscapes, forest and woodland scenes, mountain landscapes, and coastal scenes are often replete with such qualities. The author, however, knows of no assessment of a given landscape in Gestalt terms. Surprisingly, Gestalt principles are not referred to in the various landscape analyses.

The more significant question is whether the frequency of incidence of Prägnanz in a given landscape correlates with landscape preferences of viewers. If the principle of good Gestalt is to have any bearing, then it would imply that the presence in a landscape of more Prägnanz or the presence of higher quality Gestalt (however judged), would be reflected in the quality attributed to landscapes. Again, no such surveys are known to have addressed this issue.

While Prägnanz can be readily identified, recollections will improve it by diminishing bad Gestalts through filling in and by smoothing gaps and imperfections. Landscape surveys that are based on recollections of areas are likely to display this characteristic, making the results less objective than a field survey.

The absence of Prägnanz may provide one reason why some landscapes are considered lacking in appeal, mediocre, dull and uninteresting. Landscapes considered ugly may be due to the presence of asymmetrical features, incoherent forms, a cacophony of forms lacking unity of character, or are possessed of a blandness or sameness of features.

Visual Segregation

In landscapes, the figure – ground phenomenon is constantly apparent with multiple figures (trees, rocks, mountains, rivers, features which attract the eye), and multiple grounds (many trees, mountains, rock scree and water bodies). The figure may also comprise the ground in different views; in one scene, a tree is a figure, in another it comprises ground to a view of birds or of clouds. A featureless scene may comprise ground without a strong figure; conversely, an interesting scene may comprise multiple features or figures with or without ground.

Koffka’s (1935) properties about figure and ground are applicable to landscapes:

  • Visual segregation of figure and ground reinforces the depth of landscapes, thereby creating a greater sense of the spatial dimension and adding interest to an otherwise flat landscape;
  • The ground serves as a framework in which the figure is suspended and thereby determines the figure; in a painting, the main feature is placed to advantage against the ground;
  • The horizontal and the vertical exert an actual influence upon the processes of organization by making figural organization easier; in landscape photography, a vertical element such as a tree is often set in the foreground to provide entry into the scene and assist in its understanding;
  • The properties of figures being smaller than the ground relates to the experience of figures in landscapes.

Building on the concept that the meaning of the figure derives from the whole, it can be hypothesized that the significance of the contribution of a feature to a landscape is determined largely by the ground, its setting or its context, rather than by the feature itself. A rock of impressive appearance high on a mountain will be far less impressive if located deep in a ravine or gully. The striking quality of a mountain range that is the culmination of a succession of lower ranges is greater than if the range appears in isolation. The lower ranges, being closer to the viewer, provide a scale against which the distant, higher ranges can be judged. The ground provides a measuring rule for the figure, a basis for comparative judgement.

Unlike the properties of good Gestalt, which correspond to aesthetic qualities, visual segregation appears to be more relevant in understanding the character of a landscape than in contributing to its visual quality, although this possibility cannot be dismissed.

Returning to the question of whether Wertheimer’s term “qualities of the whole” can relate to aesthetic qualities as well as to character, the concepts of good Gestalt and visual segregation provide a further basis for a response. It was hypothesized that the presence of good Gestalts in a landscape are likely to correlate to visual quality as assessed by viewers. To the extent that good Gestalts contribute to the qualities of the whole, it follows that such properties can relate to aesthetic qualities. 


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