Review of Ornament and European Modernism: From Art Practice to Art History | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Ornament and European Modernism: From Art Practice to Art History

Ornament and European Modernism: From Art Practice to Art History
Loretta Vandi, Editor

Routledge Research in Art History series Routledge Press, NY, NY, 2018
198 pp., illus. 30 b/w; 8 col.
Trade, £110.00; eBook, from £20.00
ISBN: 9781138743403;
ISBN: 9781315162560.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
June 2018

If one defines reads ‘Modernism’ as ‘High Modernism’ (approximatively 1910-1940), which in the European scope of this book certainly makes sense (the target of Ornament and European Modernism is England and Germany, not Europe), then this volume is as much about pre-Modernism and after-Modernism or late Modernism than about Modernism itself. It covers a period ranging from Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament (1856) till Ernst H. Gombrich’s The Sense of an Order (1959), a book written at the acme of abstract expressionism, with two of the five chapters of the book focusing on the pre-Modern starting point the (provisional) after-Modern endpoint of Western art’s involvement with ornament and decoration. This emphasis on the chronological margins of Modernism should not come as a surprise either, since Modernism and ornament are two notions that are often positioned in diametrically opposed way. The famous, but not always well read or contextualized slogan of Alfred Loos, ‘Ornament is crime’, is the best-known symptom of this antagonism, which the interesting collection edited by art historian Loretta Vandi aims to question. And it does so very successfully, thanks to the rich and sophisticated historical reconstruction and close-reading of many debates, publications, and realizations having to do with ornaments.

If contextualization and close-reading are the key words of the book’s art-historical methodologies (it would be a mistake not to put this word in the plural), the most important stance it takes is the rejection of any radical dichotomy in the study of the ornament. In this regard, it certainly obeys the main inspiration of all those, theoreticians as well as practitioners who make a plea for decoration and ornament, but it no less certainly differs from the general view which strongly opposes ornament to things such as structure (in the case of architecture, for instance) or form and function (as far as the visual arts and work in design are concerned). That ornament is not just decoration, that is a superficial element that can be taken away or ignored without harming the essence of a work, and that there is no distinction to be made between decoration and functionality are basic tenets of all contributions that enable them to frame the ornament in less simplified ways. More concretely, the five essays do this by stressing the complex relationships between ornament and primitivism and the various influences of this encounter on the role of abstraction in Modernism. They also strongly foreground the tensions between theory and practice in the treatment of the ornament, which allows a more subtle and in-depth study of the alleged rupture between ornament and functionalism. Finally, they all underline the dizzying network of historical and contextual influences on all those who were taking sides in the debates on decoration.

Each of the essays tackles a specific time frame – a period, if one prefers – and does so with its own particular accents (although the strong editorial hand of the book has produced a volume that demonstrates the countless opportunities of a single yet very open-minded disciplinary approach, in this case a good mix of art history and art theory). Isabelle J. Frank offers an excellent close reading of the alpha of all Modern thinking on the ornament, Owen Jones’s Grammar. She discloses the ambitions and the merits of the book, which continues to be read and discussed ever since its first publication but also the flaws of a lavishly illustrated book clearly suffering from under-theorization written by a generalist and whose program was not purely scholarly but also practical, if not commercial and economic, since it was triggered by on the one hand the debates on the decay of aesthetic quality in mass-produced goods and on the other hand the discovery of non-Western art at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (Jones’s defense of ‘primitive’ ornaments and his ideal of Islamic decoration as the perfect ornament were far from being a self-evident stance in these years). Debra K. Schafter’s essay discusses the importance of the ornament in the thinking of several major late 19-Century, early 20-th Century figures such as Riegl and Loos, with very stimulating observations on the changing perspectives on ornamental motives in a period when art history was being institutionalized as an academic discipline, on the one hand, and the rise of scientific thinking on images, on the other, with for instance a strong interest in issues of ‘normalcy’ and clashes between allegedly more or less advanced civilizations, groups, and individuals. Christiane Hertel’s chapter on August Schmarsow’s study of the ‘feeling of/for space’ (Raumgefühl) in the experience of architecture makes room for a reading of ornament and composition in an intermedial sense, with astute close-readings of the etchings of Max Klinger and several funeral monuments. Ole W. Fischer essay on the conflicting positions and personalities within the German Werkbund, an association of artists, architects, designers, and industrialists, established in 1907 that would play a key role in the creation of the Bauhaus, is perhaps the chapter that most readers will expect from a book on ornament and Modernism – and they will not be disappointed. Fischer’s meticulous reconstruction of the battle between those defending ornament and creative freedom (Henri Van de Velde) and those eliminating the ornament in the name of Modernist rationality (Muthesius) is a wonderful example of careful scholarship that supersedes all easy generalizations. Loretta Vandi’s and Pavlos Jereni’s analysis of Ernest Gombrich’s work – mainly a comparison of Art & Illusion and The Sense of an Order – may seem somewhat out of focus in this context, given the focus on theory of perception in general rather than on the topic of the ornament in particular – and not all specialists of Gombrich make always clear that his theory of perception cannot be separated from his thoughts on decoration. The authors are aware of this problem, however, and the strongly historical dimension of their discussion of Gombrich succeeds in disclosing the usefulness of a larger and very theoretical psychology of perception approach to reread the older debates on the ornament.