Ornament and Object-Ornament as Object

By Papapetros, Spyros | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Ornament and Object-Ornament as Object


Papapetros, Spyros, Journal of Art Historiography


Ornament and object-ornament as object Review of: Alina Payne, From Ornament to Object: Genealogies of Architectural Modernity, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012, 360 pages, 62 color + 108 b/w illus, ISBN: 9780300175332, Cloth: $65.00

During the mid nineteen-thirties, the art and architectural historian Hans Hildebrandt (also the author of the first survey of modern architecture and German editor of Le Corbusier's Vers une Architecture) was working towards a book project on a 'World History of Adornment' to be published by Propyläen Verlag as part of its well-known series on Kunstgeschichte.1 Over a period of several years, the scholar compiled massive bibliographies (some of them listing more than two thousand items), made a great number of notes and sketches, and corresponded extensively with museum administrators to obtain photographic reproductions. But in spite of the Sisyphean effort and although the manuscript and illustrations were more than half complete, the book never materialized. While there were insurmountable political reasons (such as the fact that the author's wife was Jewish, which cost Hildebrandt his academic position at Stuttgart), the publication also folded from the sheer enormity of the research endeavour. Hildebrandt was collecting not only ornaments around the world, but also the massive literature on the same objects - an army of books, journals, treatises, folios, and countless exhibition catalogues on bodily adornment that had been published over the course of a century, mainly in German, French, and English. Hildebrandt's unfinished history stands as a testament to the unique bond between ornament and historiography: a form of history that not only describes the development of decorative artefacts but also attempts to replicate their wealth, luxury, and variety, however arduous it may be to transcribe such qualities on paper. It is as if the massive quantities of ornament discovered in the nineteenth century during several archaeological and ethnographic expeditions were eventually buried by the books that were piled onto them. Could this mountainous literature be one of the contributing factors to what we customarily perceive as the ostensible disappearance of ornament from twentieth-century practice? The very profusion of historiography that enhances ornament with the allure of textual criticism also presages its demise and replacement by unornamented objects. This may be an instance of Victor Hugo's 'ceci tuera cela,' in which the book on ornament does not exactly 'kill' ornament but helps bury it following a fittingly ornate funerary oration.

This gradual eclipse of ornament that captures art historiography's negative dialectics is the main subject of Alina Payne's From Ornament to Objects. In sum, the book describes the transition from the endless stylistic iterations of architectural ornamentation in the late nineteenth-century to the unornamented household objects of early twentieth-century modernism, smooth sculptural artefacts that carry over the rhetorical function previously allotted to ornamentation. Payne begins her account with Adolf Loos's well-known lecture Ornament and Crime, a powerful invective against the use of adornment in buildings and furniture, which, due to its virtuosic rhetorical delivery, is itself a fine specimen of verbal ornamentation. Another architect, Le Corbusier, who, next to Loos, figures both at the starting point and the conclusion of Payne's story, rehearses the trajectory from ornament to object in his own writing and design practice. Once a jewellery and watch engraver (the profession of his father) as well as a careful reader of ornamental motifs (as evidenced in his careful copying of ornaments from Owen Jones's Grammar of Ornament and Alois Riegl's Altorientalische Teppiche), the young designer would fully ornament his first building commission, the Villa Fallet at his native La Chaux-de- Fonds (1906), with the stylized pattern of a pine tree rhythmically repeated throughout the façade and the interior of the house. …

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