Ornamental subtexts

One of the ideas guiding us in the creation of the portal Małopolska’s Virtual Museums is to draw attention to the details of the exhibits, often overlooked intricate decorations, which sometimes surprise when looking closer at the texture and shapes of the presented objects. We strive to use advanced technology to bring out these details and draw people closer to them. With the help of such “magnification”, we would like you to stop you for a moment, or maybe even sometimes make you feel delighted?
What do the ornaments want? What are they to a work of art? Could an ornament be a signature? These, and many other interesting questions, came up during the LXIII National Science Session of the Association of Art Historians entitled Ornament and decoration of a work of art (November 20-22, 2014, Kraków), in which we had the pleasure of participating, presenting exhibits selected for the conference subject matter from the collection of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums.

All presented objects, seemingly diverse, with a different purpose, being results of the work of manufacturers from different cultures, different types of crafts and artistic periods, are united by one thing: their own ornamentation.
The tendency to decorate, results from the inner need of a human being to aestheticize the surrounding space and the elements organizing it. The motifs and their sets, characteristic for particular periods of history — which created the ornament and thus a certain decorative form — covered and organized the surface of the works. We encounter ornaments in all fields of arts and crafts. It is an inseparable component of a work, even if it does not appear physically, it reflects conscious non-use: an absence. The relationship of an ornament to an object used to vary; it was an accompanying form, its decoration; it could determine the divisions of planes, but, over time, it distinguished itself and assumed the primary role. Treated autonomously, it created forms which constituted artworks in themselves. However, its relation to the surface vacillated from horror vacui to amor vacui, down to complete cleansing. Ornamental forms had their origins in nature, or they were treated as the main source of inspiration, hence the distinction between geometric, vegetal, and animal ornamentation. Its gradual transformation was aimed at achieving an abstract shape, which was, however, still intuitively rooted in reality, or was rather transformed reality:  a set of familiar elements combined in fanciful forms with a surprising relationship to each other.
Distinguishing its character, its accompanying motives and inspirations — including its essence — allows one to get a lot of information about the work itself. This can be done on many levels. A non-accidental juxtaposition of seemingly different objects in a single presentation — in each case adorned with ornamentation — opens up a new field for their interpretation and finding correlations between them.
The desirability of decoration is visible in each of the objects presented — whether in the works of “highbrow”, professional, or folk art — there is an evident need of the conscious or often intuitive use of sometimes very naive ornamental forms, which marked divisions contouring the shape of the object and filling its surface (see: Powder cone, Painted wooden chest with a drawer, Sculpture “Mother of God of Skępe”).
The variety of forms of decoration and ornamentation that has appeared on works from particular cultural circles has been conditioned by many factors. Undoubtedly, the most important was the fashion prevailing at that time, which specified the formal repertoire used, or access to sources of inspiration. However, in most cultures — especially eastern ones — there was a dominant tendency to draw inspiration from nature, which formed the basis for shaping ornamentation in multiple versions (cf. Enamelled vase, Besamin tower box from Vienna, Jewel box, A dyeing template). The ban on figurative art—particularly in Islamic and Jewish culture—led to developing ornamentation as the only acceptable form of art which fully utilized the repertoire of plant and geometrical forms.
The intended purpose of these objects, differing from one another to an extreme extent, allows one to notice that the ornamentation decorating them is not dependent on their function. An ornament is non-political and non-ideological; hence, it was possible to use the same motif on everyday objects and objects of worship (see: Armchair with handrails, Mug with a cover, Chalice). The situation was similar in the case of particular fields of craft, characterized by different techniques, where, regardless of their variety and degree of difficulty, the same ornamental forms appeared. Thus, the quintessence of the ornament is the manipulation of its form. And yet this form itself was specific to the era in which it crystallized. An example of this can be rocaille, containing in its shape, elements and behaviour, epithets corresponding to the Rococo period (see: A woman’s fan). A somewhat different usage and problem, however, was posed by the fact the decoration could take the form of representation, and thus carry specific information, often referring to the purpose of the work or its founder (see: Horn of Salt Diggers Brotherhood of Wieliczka, Baroque chasuble).
Many kinds of contextual trails—which combine different objects on different levels—can be created. Despite their otherness, we can find many correlational factors among them. We encourage you to look for your own links between the objects presented and the function of the ornaments and decorations, which allow you to see the work from a different perspective: both formal and interpretive.

Elaborated by Paulina Kluz (Editorial team of Małopolskas Virtual Museums),
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 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.