To see but not to notice

I’m enjoying a bag of M&M’s while I’m thinking about ornaments. If you look closely, you can see them everywhere: on cabinets, chairs, doors, window frames and in the form of floral patterns on wallpaper and clothes. The list is almost endless. Why are they there? Who finds them attractive?
During my second year at the Fotoacademie, I attended a portfolio review, where a complete stranger would comment on the photographic work for which I had received so much praise at school. What made this event extra special according to the organisation, was that the reviewer was a mystery guest. Unrecognisable, wrapped in blankets, she commented on my work and asked me: “What is the need?” A question that has stayed with me ever since that day.

Searching for this need for ornaments and floral patterns, I came across a book about ornaments and decorative arts: The sense of order; A study in the psychology of decorative artby E.H. Gombrich. It is a big, heavy book filled with pictures. A sticker on the cover quotes a recommendation by The Sunday Times: “It would be hard to imagine a more intelligent discussion of the natural history of decoration and ornament.” It is 411-page long discussion and hard to grasp. The book is a showcase of knowledge, incorporating many citations and references. The 4.5-page introduction alone contains a total of 23 references, three of which to Gombrich’s own work. A Google search offered pictures that reminded me of my granddad. Someone who lived for his work and never allowed himself some fun.

The book already mentions my question in the introduction, only halfway into the first paragraph. “We don’t really notice all the decorative patterns that we are surrounded by”, states Gombrich. And: “We rarely ask ourselves why human beings feel the need to make the effort to decorate things with dots, lines and floral designs.” Although Gombrich doesn’t explain the background of this desire, apart from saying that the rhythm and structure of such patterns are related to people’s need for order, he does provide a clear overview of the history of decorative art and lists some important historical proponents and opponents.

Cicero for example, recognised the power and value of Atticism, a rhetorical movement that was against the unnatural, bombastic rhetoric that was common in those days. He did add however, that in case the decorum required it, a bombastic style was allowed.
There are many different reasons why people disapprove of decoration. When a decoration adds something to a celebration (an haute-couture dress at your own wedding for example), this is only objected to when it is inappropriate (the same dress worn to someone else’s wedding for example), because it violates the decorum. Decoration must also be authentic: cheap imitations, tinsel, glass, gilding and stucco are eye-catching disappointments. According to Gombrich, it is up to the sociology of taste to provide us with the skills to distinguish the elite from the ordinary and infantile, as in his opinion, the latter categories always opt for showy trinkets.

The absence of rhythm was considered a characteristic of clear and factual prose by Cicero. Gombrich on the other hand, said that admiring a decoration that brings together rhythm and abundant floral patterns, is closely linked to what psychoanalysts call regression: reverting to an earlier stage of development.

Followers of the Aesthetics of Simplicity in their turn, loathed the seduction tactics that are inherently linked to ornaments and decorating. The lack of decoration was compensated by the use of high-quality materials and outstanding craftsmanship, demonstrating that simplicity was a choice and had nothing to do with a lack of means. As a result, the Aesthetics of Simplicity became inaccessible to the common man and material choice and finish became the characteristics of true refinement.

For craftsmen, the ornament was a way to showcase their skills and distinguish themselves from their competitors. Before the Industrial Revolution, only rich people could afford the luxury of decorated objects, but after that, they became accessible to everyone. Furthermore, the attitude towards interiors was changing; it started to follow seasonal trends, in the same way that fashion did. As C. Percier and P.F.L. Fontaine pointed out in Recueil de decorations intérieurs, there were three reasons why fashion also became relevant to interiors. The first one was related to people’s desire for change. Secondly, the nature of social contacts was changing, it became more important for people to impress others. And finally, producers saw an opportunity to sell more, as the luxury objects would go out of fashion after a while and be replaced by the new trend.

All of this eventually resulted in what Gombrich referred to as ‘a crisis in good taste’, which erupted during The Great Exhibitionin 1851, where cheap imitation and overly decorated, industrial kitsch was exhibited, and decoration had turned into copying entire paintings on cups, dishes and carpets.  The exhibition was widely discussed and criticised by art critics. The proposed solution for this decorative art crisis was to study the use of ornaments in foreign traditions. A classic in this field is The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones from 1856, which can be found in the library of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The book contains 37 propositions, including:

Proposition 1: The Decorative Arts arise from, and should properly be attendant upon, Architecture.

Proposition 4: True beauty results from that repose which the mind feels when the eye, the intellect, and the affections, are satisfied from the absence of any want.

Proposition 37: No improvement can take place in the Art of the present generation until all classes, Artists, Manufacturers, and the Public, are better educated in Art, and the existence of general principles is more fully recognised.

The book was considered a revolution and led to new forms of decoration patterns and a higher level of self-esteem for designers, who began to feel superior to painters. “Mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways” wrote Oscar Wilde in The Artist as Critic. Some critics said that painting was a form of decorative art. The object wasn’t considered of importance, it was the coloured areas, the colour tones and the combination of lines that made the work and elicited the viewer’s emotions.

An interesting response was the one of American art historian Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, who had lived and worked in Japan and specialised in Japanese art. In an attempt to steer away from the literal translation of nature, he developed an educational system that opened the doors to a new style. According to Gombrich, The Fenolla system of Art education (1928) indirectly influenced the development of Mondrian.

Before that though, there was a group of artists and designers in England that joined forces under the name of Arts and Crafts Movement, as a form of protest against the cheap and ugly industrially manufactured mass products. Their goal was to restore the unity between design and production. William Morris was the leader of this movement. As a socialist, he condemned the dehumanising effects of industrialisation. His designs were rich in natural motifs. He rejected the synthetic dyes that had been used since 1850 and instead, he used natural raw materials derived from plants and animals.

However, a study conducted by Andy Meharg in 2003 suggested that Morris didn’t take his own rules too seriously. The green in his Trellis pattern paper, the first of his commercially produced wallpaper designs, is a synthetic composition of copper and arsenic, found in Scheele’s green or emerald green. Both pigments were relatively cheap, which made them very suitable for mass production. But when the wallpaper was brushed against, the toxic substance was released. In damp environments, which most houses were in those days, the wallpaper caused a toxic dust. The story goes that Napoleon was poisoned on Saint Helena by similar green wallpaper. Morris denied the problems, but the wallpaper producer drew his own conclusions. A noteworthy detail is that Morris had shares in his father’s company, Devon Great Consols (DGC), the largest arsenic producer of that century.

Art is decoration

Photography and art fairs are the Great Exhibitions of our times, and we seem to be facing the same issue that dominated The Great Exhibition of 1851. The fairs are all about temptation and sales. What is still considered art these days? Anyone expressing him or herself in a creative way is referred to as an artist. Artists, galleries (the famous ones in particular) and traders all want to make a profit, and the institutes that make art accessible have become commercial organisations with a focus on the largest possible visitor numbers and achieving the performance standards imposed by their sponsors. Writer and philosopher Coen Simons wrote in an opinion piece in Dutch newspaper NRC on 28 April 2018 that art has become feeble and is lacking the imagination to reinvent itself. “That’s because it is created in a splintered, contentious cultural landscape and it has to maintain its position in a society dominated by neo-liberal ideas, where market forces gradually destroy all art.”

Photography museum FOAM in Amsterdam is a good example of an organisation that tries to do the right thing and yet, unwittingly, ends up playing a role in the doomsday scenario described by Simons. FOAM has an excellent marketing strategy. They promote young talent via their own magazine and by educating collectors, they stimulate the sale of these talented people’s work. Until recently, they organised the annual photography fair, called Unseen. The museum uses a product-leadership strategy (Tracey and Wiersema), which can be compared to the strategy used by brands such as Nike or Apple. It is characterised by a continuous flow of launching new products or models, or in the case of FOAM, new talents. The way in which the new product or talent is hyped, is an essential aspect of this strategy. There must be a novelty, something that nobody has seen yet, all the time. The strategy contributes to the reputation of the organisation and helps the museum reach its commercial objectives. The run on new talents in the art and photography scene has in fact been playing a role for many years and is not that different from the innovation rhetoric in the business sector during the first decade of this century when new, newer, newest was the motto.

Art is decoration. Art has become something pretty to hang above the sofa. It is the outside that counts. Peter Sellars (theatre director) already said it in an interview in Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad in 1998: “When nothing affects us anymore, when everything simply runs off the exterior, we lose our ability to distinguish. It’s one of the biggest afflictions of this time, that we’re so fixated on the outside.”

Mémé Bartels, 2018


Wallpaper consists of an installation, a book in an edition of 20 copies and a portfolio box containing 4 prints on handmade paper in an edition of 3 copies.

Mémé Bartels lives and works in Amsterdam. She studied African Languages and Linguistics, Theatre Studies, Market Strategy and graduated from the Fotoacademie in Amsterdam with honours.


Literature cited in this article:

Arts and Crafts traditionalist manufactured and used arsenic based greens in Nature, 12 June 2003

Essay kunstkritiek, Joke de Wolf, Trouw 28 April 2018

Meer geld voor de culturele elite, Coen Simons, NRC Handelsblad 28 April 2018

MT 500 – Innovatie is meer dan holle frasen: Pierre de Winter, 2007

Persoonlijk, interview met Peter Sellars, Het Financieele Dagblad  9 May 1998

The Discipline of Marketleaders, Tracey and Wiersema, 1997

The sense of order, E.H. Gombrich, Phaidon Press Limited, 1984