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Lesson Four – Curved lines

Arte and Zeuxis are strolling in the garden of the Alhambra of Granada. The time is early and tourists have not yet arrived to disturb the peace of the grounds. They walk through the long lanes of the Gardens of the Generalife while the water fountains spray their arches in the air. Flowers bloom everywhere, so that at the splendour of the colours develop to eager eyes. Arte grasps Zeuxis’ hand, and they walk in solemn silence towards the citadel. Arte gasps when they enter the building and walk on, until they arrive at the patio with the Fountain of the Lions. Arte looks up at the wealth of intricate stone decorations, where pattern after pattern intertwine in ingenious ways.

Arte: Wonderful, wonderful, Zeuxis. All this beauty and work was dedicated just to a few people in the fifteenth century. Yet, the masons and sculptors who made this and who have remained anonymous, must have been great artists in their own right.

Zeuxis: I am sure they were, Arte. The word "art" comes from "artisan". Artisans led to art. Artisans had to produce nice objects, and by and by the masters among them were honoured. They took more pride in their work until what they made was such a wonder we called it "art".

Zeuxis and Arte stay a long time in the citadel admiring the nicest corners. Then they return to the garden, and sit in a peaceful corner under a tree.

Zeuxis: I sense you wish to learn somewhat more, Arte.

Arte: Yes. It has been a fortnight now that we have travelled wide and long. So long that it bores me a little bit. What can you teach me here?

Zeuxis: Well, we have seen so much about straight lines before, and here we are in a decorative paradise. So I thought we would discuss for a change curved lines and decorative patterns.

Arte: All right. I look forward to it. What do you call curved lines? What do they represent?

Zeuxis: Curved lines are the lines of human emotions. They are not the lines of reason. Curved lines are the forms of fluidity, of liquids and of organic growth like you saw in the Gardens of the Generalife. They represent warm life. Curved lines are the lines of human flesh, of animals. They are the round curvatures of the bodies of man and woman, the lines of eroticism, but also of earthly poetic love, of lyricism. Curved lines are the forms of the clouds passing slowly by in the sky. Yet, these lines also can be modulated in thickness, and be painted as arrows to give senses of direction and to enhance the quality of flow.

Zeuxis draws the plates 29 and 30 in the sand.

Zeuxis: Curved lines can have various properties, just as vertical, horizontal or oblique lines. We have not much emphasised these characteristics before, but lines have width, direction, and they can be sharply focused or not. They can even be interrupted, and then lines can be dotted or consist of pieces of equal or of unequal length. Lines can be thick or thin, of equal width or of uneven width. They can be sharp or blurred in focus. They can have a direction like an arrow.
All these characteristics can be exploited by painters, but these qualities have mostly been used in drawings without colour other than black o nwhite or vice versa. In drawings or engravings, the characteristics of lines are more important than in painting. In painting, obvious, clearly visible lines have mostly been avoided, as they emphasise contours; lines then have mostly to be interpreted as directions or as delineations of coloured areas.
Curved lines are the lines of emotions that enter our heads and that vibrate throughout our bodies. Emotions induced by curved lines are powerful. They affect us, penetrate us, and cannot be stopped because they have an organic character that is so near to our own very nature. Curved lines introduce forceful rhythms in a picture. Let me illustrate that for you with an example.

Zeuxis lifts his hand and against a tree appears his magic screen. A picture lights up on the screen.

-> Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944). The Scream. Nasjonalgalleriet. Oslo. 1893.

Zeuxis: Look, Arte, Edvard Munch, a Norwegian painter, made a picture of the effect of screams on man. His "The Scream" of 1893 shows well how the curves of emotions penetrate the man, even though he tries to shield his ears and head. This image illustrates well how organic curved lines are, and Munch has captured this idea thoroughly. What do you feel when you close your eyes and think of curved lines?

Arte: The scream you show me is also a horrible painting, Zeuxis. It is not a picture for the peace of this garden. I hope curved lines and emotions never possess me the way this man Munch painted. To answer your question, curved lines represent for me the flowing movement of liquids as we just saw in the gardens. They are the lines of soft waves on water surfaces, of water flowing along a slope. They flow like water, the principal element of life. Curved lines are for me the lines of flowers we saw, of softly sloping hills of nature.

Zeuxis: And there is no limit to the combinations of curvature. Curves can be open or close. Fully closed curvatures form circles, ovals and other closed round forms. These are inward seeking and give an impression of protection like eggs protect embryos. Curved lines protect, don’t they? Let me show you a few lighter paintings.

Zeuxis changes the picture and a painting that Arte has already seen before appears.

-> Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné (1888 - 1942). Adam and Eve. Collection Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid. 1912.

Zeuxis: The painting of Adam and Eve by Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné well represents these concepts. Curved and circular forms form the whole picture. The warmth of the sun generates all life; thus the sun’s forms are everywhere and especially in Eve.
Circling and curved lines were used by a mostly French group of painters called the "Orphists" in first figurative and then abstract paintings of the beginning of the twentieth century. One may state that in Western Europe abstract art evolved out of these experiments. Frantisek Kupka, of whom we already showed a painting, was part of this movement, as were Robert and Sonia Delaunay. In a sense, though still figurative, Baranoff-Rossiné’s picture is very much an early Orphist image.
In Baranoff-Rossiné’s picture, the rays of the sun are straight and radiate outwardly. But to represent the sun’s benevolent warmth, the rays are often painted with undulating curves. Curved lines are smooth and soft and warm. Earth, sun and moon are round. The human organs have round forms. Curved lines in abstract paintings take away the hardness of vertical, horizontal and oblique lines, and they thus introduce a warmer, human feeling.
We have talked about straight and curved lines. Now, one can combine these. I’ll show you a painting of an artist who did that frequently.

Zeuxis projects a painting of Giorgio de Chirico.

-> Giorgio de Chirico (1888 – 1978). Meta-physical Interior with Hand of David. Collection of the Foundation Giorgio and Isa de Chirico. Rome. 1968.

Zeuxis: Giorgio de Chirico, a painter of - as he himself called - meta-physical images, combined angular, straight and oblique lines with organic curved lines. He was an Italian painter of the twentieth century. Look at his picture "Interno metafisico con mano di David", or "Meta-physical Interior with the Hand of David". In this painting, de Chirico set a frame with an image of the hand of the David of Michelangelo against the hard lines of the drawing tools of the engineer. But the hand of the David is not in marble and around the central scene are the curved lines of classic volutes, or the curves of the openings of the sound box of a violin. The curves and the hand represent the poetical, soft human element. De Chirico thus obtained a lyrical effect in a cold world.

Arte: That was a really nice picture, Zeuxis, and I liked the strange, ancient setting. Curved lines are to me also the lines of courtesy!

Zeuxis: Ah, then here is the summum of courtesy and grace!

Zeuxis projects a new picture.

-> Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510). The Annunciation of the Castello Church. Gallerie degli Uffizi. Florence. Around 1489.

Zeuxis: Curved lines, while indicating emotion, are the curves of elegance and grace, of courtly humans bowing to each other in respect. One of the best examples of this use of curved directions is Sandro Botticelli’s "Castello Annunciation". We see in this picture both the angel and the Virgin engaged in curved movements of respect and of the emotions of the Annunciation. This was for its time a new, very lyrical representation of the Annunciation theme and we feel how Botticelli through the curved directions expressed the elegant, soft emotions of the Virgin at the announcement of her pregnancy. Remark how far this grace is from the strict lines of the Gothic sculptures that adorn the cathedrals of the north of France.
We have always supposed that curves are generally strongly bowed, and in at least one place inwardly curved. But also only slightly curved lines can induce gentle, almost organic feelings.

Arte: You told me you would explain patterns of decoration.

Zeuxis: All the types of lines we have encountered previously can be combined to intricate patterns. These patterns have often been used in decoration, and as the patterns were copied over and over again, they are now the recognisable imprints of various cultures.
Since the seventh century for instance it is forbidden by Muslim religions to depict humans and even other elements of nature. The Prophet Mohammed read in the Hebrew Bible that Moses had forbidden making idols. The same concept is adopted in his Koran. Therefore, the Muslim painters have taken the decorative patterns of lines, as you saw in the Alhambra, as their sole means to express the originality of their culture. The inter-linking patterns are of the most elaborate, intelligent, graceful and surprising of the world cultures. Moreover, these patterns are usually patterns of straight lines.
Other patterns exist in other cultures, so that one can easily characterise a culture by its particular decorative pattern. I cannot show you all these patterns, and it would be boring at this stage to categorise them according to cultures of civilisation. But everybody knows the Celtic marvellous inter-twining patterns of lines, as for instance used in the Book of Kells. This manuscript book of the New Testament is a most wonderful example of Irish art dating from the 7th to the 9th century of our era and of Irish insular art. Here the patterns are not of straight lines, but of curved lines.

Zeuxis opens a book and he browses through the pages, showing them to Arte.

-> The Book of Kells. Folio 34r, Christi autem generatio. Trinity College. Dublin. Probably 9th century.

Zeuxis: Line patterns of either straight lines or curved lines have been used as ornament in architecture of all centuries and civilisations. You saw one of the most marvellous examples in the Alhambra.
The experimenting artists of the twentieth century could not but notice and be fascinated by these patterns. A Belgian artist, Pierre Alechinsky, took up this kind of art and combined the decorative patterns as friezes around similar larger themes. The patterns of curved lines have no meaning, and they exist for no other reason but to appeal to the inner mind of the viewer in undulating motions.

-> Pierre Alechinsky (1927 - ). Sometimes it’s the Opposite. Musée d’Art Moderne. Brussels. 1970.

Arte: I see, Zeuxis. But time runs out. That was only a short lesson but I have to go back.

Arte stands up and Zeuxis disappears.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: May 2010
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