“Horror vacui” or “amor vacui” – reflections on the attitude to emptiness
The problem of emptiness has been an important issue in the history of thought. The first attempts to define it and, above all, to prove its existence or non-existence date back to the 5th century BC. Among the many philosophical assumptions, there was the view maintained for a very long time, right up until the 16th century, which was in line with the Aristotelian concept formulated as: “nature abhors a vacuum,” or horror vacui. Aristotle understood emptiness as a space devoid of a body (matter); however, he rejected its existence, not seeing any reason for it.
In Aristotelian terminology, specifying the relationship between matter and space has been transposed into an aesthetic principle concerning the relationship between decorations and the surface. Horror vacui meant the fear of an empty space, so its antonym was amor vacui – worship of emptiness. The former defined a trend towards a comprehensive coverage of the surface area with a multitude of motifs, ornamentation or architectural decoration; the latter was just the opposite – oriented towards an almost complete lack of it.
The concept of horror vacui in the context of fine arts was used for the first time in the 19th century by an art and literary critic of Italian origin, Mario Praz. He used it in his critical opinion on Victorian households which – as he wrote – were characterised by untidiness and a stifling atmosphere. The typical features of the Victorian style included a multiplicity of pieces of furniture covered by a multitude of diverse motifs and designs, which, when situated in one space, evoked feelings of heaviness and excess, according to the views of that time. Although the term is used in the history of art, it is not burdened with any aesthetic judgement, and it only defines some indicated qualities of a design.
Depending on the aesthetic principles of a particular artistic period, the amount of decoration used with regard to the plane changed. We can notice a continuous oscillation between these two poles over the centuries. An explosion in decoration can be seen in the artistic periods which departed from the principles associated with classical Vitruvian decorum (appropriateness/suitability of the form in relation to the destination of the work) towards exuberance and a multitude of forms, as well as exaggeration.
Undoubtedly, the relation of the ornamentation to the surface depended on the form of ornamentation. The situation was different in the case of classical ornamentation such as cymatium, meanders, and garlands, which emphasised some elements of a structure in a linear way, and in the case of auricular or rocaille ornamentation, which could outline the contour or fill in entire fields.
Aesthetics and an attitude towards emptiness also differentiate various cultures. Minimalism and purism suggesting amor vacui (see the sculpture “Miroir Rouge D” by Aliska Lahusen), typical of the art of Japan, may not be found in Arabic art, which sees beauty in a multitude of designs that cover the surface (see the brass vessel – the treasure box from Afghanistan).
At present, the principle less is more, espoused by the modernists, seems to be the predominant aesthetic characteristic, a still-popular term coined by Adolf Loos in the text Ornament and Crime. However, the aesthetic pleasure lies in diversity as variatio delectat (from Latin “there's nothing like change”), hence both purism and an excess of ornamental forms have evoked a continuous experience and a feast for the eyes through subsequent periods.
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Horror vacui: Throne for a church monstrance, Stipo (studiolo, scrigno) a bambocci writing cabinet with a table, Cup from Michael Wissmar workshop.
Amor vacui: Porcelain vase with a wooden base