Thursday, 14 January 2010

Geometry of Art and Life

I’ve been reading/studying this book lately to get a better understanding of the mind-boggling nature of the golden section, root 2/3/4/5 etc rectangles and any related topics. I recommend it but would also say that a book on general geometry would be handy too. In fact, for designers, Geometry of Design by K. Elam is a great introduction and includes a number of good case-study pages where specific (and popular) examples are explained. Work of J Tschichold features.

Back to the book in question; there is quite an interesting quote from Plato’s Philebus that the author, Ghyka, puts down as a cubist manifesto: ‘By beauty of shape I want you here to understand not what the multitude generally means by this expression, like the beauty of living beings or of paintings representing them, but something alternatively rectilinear and circular [geometry], and the surfaces and solids which one can produce from the rectilinear and the circular, with compass, set-square and rule. Because these things are not, like the others, conditionally beautiful, but are beautiful in themselves.’ In other words then, the audience of a piece of art/design will see the geometry in its development but call the object, itself, beautiful. (Perhaps this explains the questionable fashion of fifties furnishings for their time: as long as the geometry works, can the designs be ugly?) I guess Ghyka puts it down as a cubist statement as he assumes Plato would find it more worthwhile for artists to employ the geometric shapes more directly, like Braque, for instance, has. Still, there’s a place for humanists and a place for cubists.

I’m slowly getting more and more use out of this book – in typography, layout and composition to name a few. As far as stifling creativity goes…I think many great paintings tell us that content and proportion need not be one and the same. Mixing the two in a skillful way is the real challenge though.

P.S. Try this if you’re really bored (as, admittedly, you may be after reading this post): Measure (a) your full standing height and then (b) from the floor to your navel. If you divide ‘a’ by ‘b’ and get roughly 1.618 then congrats – according to Ghyka you have ideal golden section body proportions.  Similarly, it is a pleasing bodily proportion if the length between your finger tips (when standing, arms stretched horizontally to the sides) is equal to your height (in other words, if you met all four edges of a square, were you to stand inside one with arms outstretched). Send any complaints to L. Da Vinci, Florence; no responses guaranteed.

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