Thursday, August 17, 2006

Flatness, design reform, and the Carpet Paradigm

Art instruction has always been implicitly concerned with the way marks on a flat surface, known as the picture plane, correlate to make up a composition. To be sure, since the Renaissance it has been assumed that this concern must work in tandem with the procedures of illusionism, especially chiaroscuro and perspective, to create a convincing idea of depth. There was thus a tension between picture plane and its use to create a sense of space.

What happens when the first element, the picture plane, becomes dominant over the illusionistic effects laid upon it? The result is flatness, for which many analogies were found in medieval and non-Western art.

As such, the foregoing account is too schematic. The turn towards flatness as an ideal is first observable in Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century. The 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London was the first world’s fair. It assembled craft products from many countries. In the view of some influential observers the quality of the works shown was all too often pretentious and kitschy. Standards were low. How could they be improved? One criterion that emerged was appropriateness. While creation of the illusion of depth was appropriate for an easel painting, it was not for a piece of silverwork or a carpet. In these media a more limited depth should be presented, something in fact approaching to flatness.

The new aesthetic appears in an episode near the start of Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times (1854). Thomas Gradgrind, a martinet teacher whose gospel is facts and only facts, has a special guest in his class. This guest is a government official who proceeds to offer a disquisition on Taste in interior decoration. First, there must be no depictions of horses on walls because “horses do not walk up and down the sides of rooms in reality. Similarly, carpets must not display flowers because we do not walk on flower beds. Finally, crockery must not bear images of exotic birds and butterflies because we would not allow their presence in reality.

The unnamed government official was actually Henry Cole, one of the organizers of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and head of the Department of Practical Art, where he argued against excessive and inappropriate decoration. In retrospect we can see that Cole’s ideas were not only opposed to illusionism in decoration, but heralded the aesthetic watchword of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “Less is more.” In Victorian England William Morris sought to put these principles into practice with a profusion of designs for mass-produced furniture, weaving and wallpaper.

Joseph Masheck has identified the Carpet Paradigm as a key element in this aesthetic. While the elucidation of the principle is new to the era we have been discussing, it rests on a millennial experience of the human crafts. The invention of textiles stems from some 8000 (or more) years ago, during the Neolithic era. Together with plowing patterns and coiling of pottery, it ranks as one the key cultural innovations of that era. All of these innovations, reflect in one way or another the introduction of agriculture, with its regular patterns imposed on the environment.

The European Middle Ages excelled in the making of tapestries. Yet carpets were commonly imported from Arabic lands because of their superior quality. Because of the Islamic tendency to eschew images, these carpets were often abstract, dominated by geometric patterns and arabesques derived from vegetable ornaments. Sometimes the carpets are depicted as objects in Renaissance paintings (as by Jan van Eyck and Hans Holbein). But while the paintings include visual renderings of carpets, their principles of organization did not provide the basis for the compositions as a whole, which remained stoutly European in affiliation.

At the end of the nineteenth century the Austrian theoretician Alois Riegl, who had directed a carpet museum in Vienna, sought to work out the principles of arabesque designs in his book Stilfragen (1893). This achievement was part of a general reevaluation and upgrading of the so-called minor arts.

In 1910 a great exhibition of Islamic art was held in Munich, influencing Henri Matisse and other avant-garde artists. In the same year Paul Klee and August Macke traveled to Tunisia where they viewed characteristic Islamic designs, including carpets.

REFERENCES. Joseph Masheck, "The Carpet Paradigm: Critical Prolegomena to a Theory of Flatness," Arts Magazine, 61 (Sept. 1976), 82-109; Hans-Günther Schwarz, Orient-Okzident: Der orientalische Teppich in der westlichen Literatur, Ästhetik und Kunst, Munich: Iudicium Verlag, 1990.


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