The Language of Ornament explores the history of ornament in the Western design tradition. It examines a series of motifs, charting their appearance and reappearance in design from Classical Antiquity through to the twenty-first century. A wide range of works of art drawn from the NGV Collection illustrate how motifs have been translated from one medium to another and have been borrowed and reinterpreted over the centuries.
In debates about art and modernity taking place in the cultural ferment of Europe in the nineteenth century, the nature and meaning of ornament occupied a significant position. For German architect Gottfried Semper, architecture was the first and most significant of all arts. The forms and decoration of architecture were, Semper argued, materialist in origin, reflecting individual materials and their working techniques; thus, the visual structure of a brick wall derived its form from cultural memory of the woven rush or grass textiles that were among the first human-built shelters.1 Gottfried Semper, Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten; oder, Praktische Aesthetik. Ein Handbuch für Techniker, Künstler und Kunstfreunde, Verlag Für Kunst und Wissenschaft, Frankfurt, 1861–63.
The English theorist of ornament Owen Jones knew Semper and embraced his demand that ornament befit the materials for which it was intended. Jones looked to the natural world as a key to understanding ornament. The precisely ordered structures revealed by the science of plant morphology were, in the years prior to the advent of Darwinism, taken to be proof of a divine architecture in nature and impressed many as a potential basis for a science of ornament.2 Deborah Schafter, The Order of Ornament; the Structure of Style: Theoretical Foundations of Modern Art and Architecture, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2003, pp. 22–32. In 1856 Jones published his Grammar of Ornament, richly illustrated with plates providing examples of flat ornamental patterns from diverse cultures from across the globe. The name of his book was pointed; Jones did not intend it as a source of pattern to be copied by designers (although that was frequently how it was used), but instead as a textbook. Just as the natural world possessed a divine ordering principle which determined its outward forms, Jones in his preface to the Grammar invites the reader to study the patterns presented and discern their ordering principles – the ‘grammar’ underlying them – thus equipping the student to generate patterns of their own.
By contrast, Viennese textile curator and art historian Alois Riegl rejected the materialist theories of Semper and his followers. Riegl argued that ornament was a fundamental human impulse that expressed humanity’s ideal vision of the world – that through ornament people transformed the appearance of objects, including their own bodies, and made the world look the way they needed it to look, regardless of the materials involved.3 Alois Riegl, Stilfragen: Grundlegungen zu einer Geschichte der Ornamentik, George Siemens, Berlin, 1893. Riegl proposed the abstract concept of the Kunstwollen, or ‘will to art’, to define this historically contingent human impulse to shape the world around us. For Riegl, to understand the development of ornament employed by a given culture in any given place or time was to gain profound insight into that culture’s worldview because it was that worldview, not concern for function or nature of materials, which shaped ornamental forms.
Riegl remains of enormous interest, as he places the concept of ornament at the very centre of how humans interact with their world. In the Kunstwollen he too posits a ‘grammar’ of ornament – an ordering principle of visual form unique to a given culture. Many motifs that form the basis of ornament across time and space are widely shared, drawn as they are, ultimately, from the natural world around us. We can certainly speak of a ‘vocabulary’ of ornament in the Western tradition. Scrolls, vegetal motifs, animals, shells, strapwork – these motifs and many others manifest themselves time and again adorning artefacts, from buildings to sculpture, tools to textiles, found across Europe and the Near East, from the Stone Age onwards. As cultures interact, ornamental imagery travels from one place to another, changing subtly in both form and meaning. With both a grammar and a vocabulary in place, the basis of a language of ornament is established.
Many of the ornamental motifs in this exhibition have a lineage stretching back to Classical Antiquity; for example, the putto, the scroll, the shell, drapery and festoons and the mask. The revival of Classical motifs and architectural principles formed the basis for ornament in the Renaissance Period; in the Baroque Period of the seventeenth century; Neoclassicism in the late eighteenth century; the Empire and Regency Periods of the early nineteenth century; and at various points throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What is remarkable, however, is that it is difficult to confuse the Renaissance use of an ornamental motif, such as the mask, with that found on an ancient Roman vase or a nineteenth-century Neoclassical silver object. The motif, the item of ornamental vocabulary, may remain the same but the way it is employed, or its grammar of use, has changed, subtly altering a reading of the image to reflect the ideas and concerns of the age which produced it.
Self-conscious attempts to emulate precisely the ornamental language of the past rarely succeed; individual artists and designers often employ motifs with considerable freedom, combining elements from a range of sources and imposing their own interpretation on a design. This phenomenon became more frequent from the sixteenth century onwards as the invention of the printing press allowed a large range of design sources to circulate widely. Pattern books, architectural renderings and ornamental prints were produced in large numbers in major urban centres and disseminated across Europe, giving artists access to models from a wide range of places and periods. Prior to this invention of graphic reproduction techniques, and the proliferation of prints, patterned woven fabric was the principal means of disseminating ornamental motifs on a significant scale. The absence of a division between the fine and decorative arts that characterised the period prior to the Industrial Revolution meant that artists were also ornamentalists and, as such, were commissioned to produce models – a drawing or a print – for diverse media: embroideries, fabrics, tapestries, ornamental paintings and sculpture, stucco, furniture, woodwork, bronze fittings, wrought iron, metalwork, jewellery, armour, clothing, ceramics, glassware, book bindings and stained-glass windows. The same print source might have been adapted for a range of artworks, artists delighting in adapting the original print to new and novel contexts and materials.
Although European interest in non-Western art was longstanding, it was only with the opening up of sea trade routes to Asia from the sixteenth-century onwards that works from Far Eastern cultures became increasingly available. By the seventeenth century a flourishing trade between China and Japan, via the various European India Companies, brought porcelain, textiles, lacquer and furniture to Europe in great quantities. European attempts to imitate such exotic luxury goods saw the rise of a decorative phenomenon known as Chinoiserie: inspiration was taken from Asian art, which provided a new ornamental vocabulary, but this vocabulary was deployed according to Western design principles, producing a European fantasy of Asia. The nineteenth-century European colonial presence in North Africa and the Near East saw Islamic ornamental motifs become a significant influence on Western decorative arts. For centuries, Persian decorative arts have been a rich source of exotic motifs for many European designers who have not only drawn on Persian floral and vegetal ornament but also on their complex geometric design work and sophisticated use of script as a decorative device. The late nineteenth-century Italian designer Carlo Bugatti was particularly inspired by Islamic architecture and design when creating decoration for his furniture, which nevertheless remained idiosyncratically European in conception.
At times we observe a turn against ornament, a conscious rejection of decorative embellishment such as that pursued by the more stringent strands of twentieth-century modernism. Adolf Loos’s 1913 essay ‘Ornament und Verbrechen’ (‘Ornament and Crime’) attributes a sense of immorality to inappropriate ornament. But Loos’s rhetorical attack on ornament is a tacit acknowledgment of the overwhelming authority of the ornamental tradition in Western art and design. Any attempt to deny ornament has tended to be short-lived, as may be seen in the reassertion of ornament by the Memphis designers of the 1980s – the revenge of ornament on modernism. Today the ornamental style of every period is available in reproduction, and the ornament of the past is given new currency through the work of contemporary artists and designers who draw upon it for inspiration.
Gottfried Semper, Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten; oder, Praktische Aesthetik. Ein Handbuch für Techniker, Künstler und Kunstfreunde, Verlag Für Kunst und Wissenschaft, Frankfurt, 1861–63.
Deborah Schafter, The Order of Ornament; the Structure of Style: Theoretical Foundations of Modern Art and Architecture, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2003, pp. 22–32.
Alois Riegl, Stilfragen: Grundlegungen zu einer Geschichte der Ornamentik, George Siemens, Berlin, 1893.