Thursday, March 01, 2007

Ancient Art principles: Redux

I was recently reading a book by neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran where he argues that Chola bronzes from ancient India were mocked at by the Victorian Englishmen as artistically primitive and unrealistic. They were unrealistic in the sense that the waist was too narrow, hips too wide and their breasts too large. They in fact decided that art like this was not art at all and labeled it primitive art. Professor Ramachandran goes on to say that some of the Victorians labeled the art thus based on prevailing standards of Western art (some of which was rooted in realism and stemmed from classical Greek and Renaissance art).

Today most people will readily tell you that most expressions of art is not really about realism and is not about creating a replica about what is out there in the world - rather it is a figurative way of communicating message(s) in an appropriate way to the viewer. He makes the assertion (a bit specious in my view) that the ancient Cholas really knew about this dictum long ago and that was the reason why they did not create ‘realistic’ statues but accentuated the hips and breasts of the goddesses such that they could abstractly communicate beauty of the female form (one among the many such subjects they tackled) to the common people.

On a related note, a finding by scientists at Harvard and Princeton shows that intricate decorative tile-work found in medieval architecture across the Islamic world appears to exhibit advanced decagonal quasicrystal geometry (mathematical concepts discovered by mathematicians and physicists just 30 years back). (Reported in the current issue of the journal Science)
“In their journal report, Mr. Lu and Dr. Steinhardt concluded that by the 15th century, Islamic designers and artisans had developed techniques to construct nearly perfect quasi-crystalline Penrose patterns, five centuries before discovery in the West. Some of the most complex patterns, called “girih” in Persian, consist of sets of contiguous polygons fitted together with little distortion and no gaps. Running through each polygon (a decagon, pentagon, diamond, bowtie or hexagon) is a decorative line. Mr. Lu found that the interlocking tiles were arranged in predictable ways to create a pattern that never repeats — that is, quasi crystals.” - excerpt from the New York Times (02/27)

This has oftentimes led me to wonder how many of our prevailing art movements could have roots in techniques practiced by our ancient ancestors. Have you come across any examples of this kind?
PS: The picture above is of Parvati, consort of Lord Shiva, circa 1000 AD, Tamil Nadu, India


Anonymous said...

Wonderful work as always. I was wondering if it's alright for me to add your link onto my blog. Links for other artists. If so please contact me at

Sunflower Optimism said...

What about Barbie then? LOL In my church (Eastern Orthodox) the iconographyis also not realistic, but is meant to interpret the "kingdom of God." They use reverse perspective and other tools to represent what they want to convey. In iconography, everything - colors, proportions, etc. means something to the knowing viewer.

Interesting post, many thanks.