CAMILLA PIETRABISSA // Histories of Ornament: From Global to Local | edited by Gülru Necipoğlu and Alina Payne

Histories of Ornament: From Global to Local edited by Gülru Necipoğlu and Alina Payne 464pp, Princeton University Press, 2016

Challenging the idea that modernism created a fracture in the discourse on ornament, the essays brought together, edited, and introduced by Gülru Necipoğlu and Alina Payne aim to show the manifold ways in which ornament has always been at work across historical periods and geographical boundaries. Altogether, they open up a new history of ornament without providing a definition of the term, acknowledging instead ‘the almost uninterrupted and instrumental function that ornament has performed, and continues to perform, with its perennial capacity to ignite the artistic imagination and give aesthetic pleasure’ (6).

This is not virgin territory. Several scholars contributing to Histories of Ornament have already published extensively their theses on the topic. Besides the number of articles and book-length studies by the two editors, the coming together of Antoine Picon and Gerhard Wolf, Jonathan Hay and Rémi Labrusse, form a state-of-the-art survey of the methodologies in the field, to the point that their essays read in part like summaries of the authors’ theses. What seems new and original here is the attempt to create a dialogue between such different approaches, and even to welcome tensions and disagreements. For example, the argument of Labrusse’s article on the trend for ‘grammars of ornament’ between the late-nineteenth and the early-twentieth century, is explicitly divergent from Payne’s account of the modern transference of the function of ornament to the objects of daily use as the main signifier of architecture.1 Dematerialisation and re-embodiment, rather than discard and transfer, are the processes that Labrusse sees at work in the beginnings of modern art.

Conscious of the originality of this dialogical approach the editors grouped the twenty-six disparate essays under loosely chronological or thematic headings: ‘Contemporaneity of Ornament in Architecture’ (I), ‘Ornament between Historiography and Theory’ (II), ‘Medieval Mediations’ (III), ‘Early Modern Crosscurrents’ (IV), ‘Ornament between Figuration and Abstraction’ (V), ‘Circulations and Translations of Ornament’ (VI), and ‘Internationalism of Ornament and Modernist Abstraction’ (VII). Historical coverage is not a central preoccupation, the balanced attention to period from the Middle Ages to the present day being an added benefit. Rather, the accent is on diversity (primarily of historical approaches and methods): historiography, intellectual history, and history of visual culture are placed side by side to form a historical narrative where art, design, and architecture converge. According to this structure, the narrative movement starts in medias res with a section on the use of ornament by contemporary architects, followed by one on historiography, then reaches towards increasing historical focus, and finally concludes by considering the status of ornament in the age of industrialisation with three essays proposing new approaches to twentieth-century ornament.

The last part brings to a close the main threads developed in the book: in particular, the enlightening essay by Jennifer Roberts on the function and use of machine-produced decorative motifs printed on nineteenth-century banknotes in the United States is a perfect example of ‘the real agency of ornament in the project of portability’ (308). Roberts’s argument thus concludes a stream of essays presenting earlier cases of semi-autonomous formal agency of motifs in essays by David Roxburgh, Daniela del Pesco and David Pullins, respectively focussing on faience, inlaid marble, and engraved vignettes. More generally, many essays reflect the original title of the conference of which this volume represents the proceedings: Ornament as Portable Culture (Harvard, 2012). One regrets that the editors have disposed of the title, ‘portability’ actually being the reigning principle which yokes together so many of the essays.

Ultimately, more than towards the continuous history of ornament, the study makes a decisive step towards the notion of ornament as an active agent of cultural exchange, thanks to the nuanced exploration of the relation between the contextually specific and the cross-cultural. The emphasis given to issues of genealogy, transmission, and material production rather than meaning, however, overshadows the latent interpretation of ornament as a device of socio-political communication. Although many essays criticise the essentialism of scholarly works on non-western cultures, or the current tendency to minimise cultural context, all in all the volume overlooks the social value and collective meaning of ornamental forms. There are exceptions, most notably the contributions by María Judith Feliciano and Christopher P. Heuer, but on the whole the authors resort to Alois Riegl rather than to Oleg Grabar. This problem is evident in the opening essay’s contentious political agenda. Picon seeks to counter the tendency of contemporary architecture to render historical traditions of ornament superficial and generic by arguing for a reassessment of architectural ornamentation ‘so as to give new meaning to collective action’ (19).

For the richness and complexity of the questions asked, Histories of Ornament is an outstanding overview of the field of ornament studies today. Its emphasis on historical examples of ornamental mobility and on comparable contemporary practices are perhaps the strongest contributions to the field. The care taken to ensure the high quality and generous number of images makes the volume very heavy to carry around, but very pleasing to read. This way, the inked lines of Renaissance drawings, the nuances of blue of Central Asian faience, and architectural decorations often withdrawn from view, which are hard to photograph and reproduce, can all best serve the authors’ arguments about the unexpected ways in which ornament operates.

book front cover histories of Ornament


[1] See Alina Payne, From Ornament to Object: Genealogies of Architectural Modernity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).