Common places and encounters
September 3, 2021
What is art for? We ask to ourselves, standing in front of a work of art exhibited in the white, neutral, sanitized, long and almost empty walls of a modern gallery. Why we made art? we think while contemplating colours, shapes, signals, symbols; feeling, decoding or understanding them. What is it? It depends, might be the appropriate theoretical answer, for sure. During the opening days of the art season in the city, I went to the market of the art galleries, the art fair, noisy and overpopulated by paintings, artworks in general and artists of all schools of style and aesthetics. There, between the stands, I meet an artist, a painter, who graciously took the time to show me the work she had in exhibition. Once there, she described the why and the what of the feelings that her paintings and drawings were trying to convey.
The theme was the melancholy of the street landscape, of spirituality and discovery. The paintings, made with acrylic on canvas, worked in the manner of a watercolour, depicted somehow realistically, the blurriness and the foggy nature of some days in his own city. It was a melancholic approach to the places where we live and where we exist. Yet, curiously, her words also involuntarily reminded me of another artwork, not far from there, some stands beyond. A work of a different kind, but curiously, inspired by the same topic. It was a kind of installation, using boxes of plexiglass, videos, and something else, like rubber ribbons trown around, an appeal of mechanical and digital nature. For me, both works couldn't be further in the spectrum of contemporary art, and nevertheless, to my eyes they were inspired by the same inquietude, the same existential restlessness.
What is art for? I said to myself, standing in front of the profuse facade, a playful and mutual understanding of lights and shadows. What is that structure in front of me? Flowers, faces, hands and clothes contort themselves in the flux of the divine to the extreme of unnatural tension, only connected to our world by the very tactile, realistic and familiar description of every each one of those elements, tellings us that the flesh and the bones of our daily journey were the same of those celestial visions of angels, saints, kings and virgins- also sinners and demons- all summoned to the spectacle of profusion and ecstasy of the form. The baroque was an exaltation of the senses through emotions, immersing in the world, and then in observing the world, appreciating the creation and the divine. Thus the exaltation and the emotions break the forms while flooding the spectator with materiality, materiality twisted by the power of the inner world. That is the joy of Rubens, Bernini, the one that permeates the senses in the middle of the Cartuja de Granada.
On the other hand, devoid of any being of non-mathematical, rational origin, but playing a similar architectural role, there is also the joy of the thinking evidence of the trigonometrical reflection, where Borromini and Guarino Guarini express themselves, compass in hand, projecting and overlapping, crossing and multiplying, lines, angles and spaces. Older in time, are the muqarnas, designed in the stern path of space abstraction; they look like an inner structural development of the building, but they are not; there you will find no faces nor gestures of dramatic emotion, as they are born of a different path, the products of the evolution of a crescent complexity of patterns that somehow get translated to the architectural nous, breaking the flatness of the geometrical design, evolving in those alluring games of light and shadow formed by their elevated cascades of the shapes.
It turns out, there is more than one way of dissolving yourself in the universe, it could be either a Baroque altar or an Islamic muqarnas. Between the sinuous volumes of infinite reflection in the domes of the mosques of Morocco and the tortuous shapes of the altars of Granada, you feel the subtle familiarity, the sensorial connection. From Iraq to Spain, from Spain to Mexico, from one side to another of the map, you can trace a lineage of forms and styles.
What is art for? When people talk about common places, usually they refer to something similar to a cliche, a stereotype, an obvious reference, a template of the language, a pret-a-porter of words ready to allude and use in dialogue and thought. But in the greater scheme of the history of art, common places are something similar to the vital structure of connective tissue that expands across generations, cultures and styles, in the same way, Joseph Campbell traces the common roots of myths across civilizations in his book the hero of the thousand faces, those places are the aesthetic spaces where cultures, in virtue of their similar experience of the world, visit once and again to leave their imprint. in those places, there are no copies, and the influences are not anything different than another form of an imagined, universal dialogue.
You find the absence, at one side, and the abundance, at the other, of the human element, of the representations of passions, of expressions and feelings, both aiming for the depiction of the sacred space, building a lineage of unofficial references and furtive encounters in the commonplaces of the artistic realm, where the impulses of the human aspirations reach their common language, their references, their plenitude.
Both equally profuse, expanding themselves monumentally, and also part of an understanding of the world in the same spirit, the profusion of the shapes ends dissolving the very essence of them, unifying them perceptually in something greater, namely, the aesthetic intuition of the divine, the impulse for transcendence through form and perception. This is just one of many examples that anyone, given a certain time to observe, can find and enjoy in the vast universe of art; let's enjoy the trove of the aesthetic human experience. Let us enjoy Art.
References and notes
1) Tabba, Yaser.: The Muqarnas dome: its origins and meaning. Muqarnas (vol III,1985), Brill Publishing. https://www.archnet.org/publications/4158
2) Garofalo, Vicenza. Methodoly for stydying muqarnas: the extant examples in Palermo, 2010. https://www.archnet.org/publications/9481
3) Bayley, Gauvin Alexander. Baroque and Rococo. Phaidon ed.
4) Hillendrand, Robert. Islamic Art and Architecture. Thames and Hudson,1999.
5) Necipoglu, Gulru. The Topkapi scroll: Geometry and ornament in Islamic architecture. https://www.getty.edu/publications/virtuallibrary/pdf/9780892363353.pdf A review of the practice of drawing as a tool in the creation of muqarnas in the West and Central Asia.
6) Frishman, Martin and Khan, Hassan Uddin, ed. The Mosque: History, architectural development and regional diversity. Thames and Hudson (paperback, 2002). A comprehensive review of the architectural traditions within the geographies considered part of the Islamic and Arab cultures, from Spain to China, an must-read reference book,.
7) Imani, Elena. Historical and geometrical analysis of Muqarnas and prospect of its reflection on today's architecture. Thesis. https://etd.lib.metu.edu.tr/upload/12621155/index.pdf
8) Carrillo-Calderero, Alicia. The Beauty of the Power: Muqarnas, sharing art and culture across the Mediterranean. International Journal of History and Cultural Studies (IJHCS) vol 3, issue 2. 2017. p 1-18. About the evidence connecting the muqarnas traditions within the Mediterranean.
9) Marani, Salma. Illumination and Geometry in Islamic Art. Humanistics Mathematics Network Journal, Issue 15, article12. 1997. Although not specifically about muqarnas, this article is about geometry and patterns in the islamic tradition. http://scholarship.claremont.edu/hmnj/vol1/iss15/12
10) Castera, Jean-Marc. The Muqarnas Dome of the Hall of the Two Siters in the Alhambra in Granada. In: Mathematics and Culture V. Emmer, M(ed.) 2007. Springer. . A very specific case study, very detailed in the formal analysis. http://www.springer.com/978-3-540-34277-9
11) Ghazarian, Armen and Ousterhout, Robert. A Muqarnas drawing from 13th century Armenia and the use of architectural drawing during the Middle Ages. p 141-154.
12) Badillo, Noe. Correlativus Geometricum Lucis: The relation between geometry and optical theory in the design of Muqarna Domes. Zaytoon, Journal of the Southwest graduate conference in Middle East studies. Spring 2012, volume 1.
13) Wittkower, Rudolph. Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750. Pelican History of Art, Nicolaus Pevsner ed.
14) Arnheim, Rudolph. Gestalt and Art.
Now that I come to think about it, comes to mind the delicate profusion of another form of patterns, the Mocarabs, those stalactite-like (also) flourishing structures that can be found in places of world-reaching fame such as the Alhambra of Granada, the zenith of the stylistic evolution of the Andalusian art, a Mudejar and Gothic fusion in a Spain that slowly-and arguably- bypasses a Renaissance that rarely felt comfortable in the Iberian peninsula-being after all brought from the Italian trading cities-to finally land in the contra-reformist Churrigueresco style. But maybe, from some point of view, it is the differences that strike the eye, more than the subtle familiarity.