Thoughts from Salma’s Studio – James Trilling and Ornament – go get his book !

This is a really quick post as I realised I have not posted anything for ages ! I finished reading this book, Ornament – A Modern Perspective, by James Trilling, a couple of weeks ago and wanted to put down a few quick summary points from his book that I found really helpful for thinking about and understanding ornament.

photo 1

Image of an English silk textile c.1728 page 53 figure 31 James Trilling’s book

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Image of a wool shawl, French, mid-nineteenth century, page 68, figure 50, James Trilling’s book on Ornament – A Modern Perspective


Intricacy and Ambiguity – two main properties of ornament

Ambiguity in ornament means mixed readings, depth, complexity, mystery, inexhaustibility. Such pattern and ornament can be both elusive and dynamic. Figure – ground confusions and movements keep the eye and brain active for example.

Ambiguity is the essential property of all ornament that allows it to transform surfaces and objects into something other. It can alter how an object looks, feels and even its shape to our eyes.

Intricacy and interlace – Trilling writes a fascinating account of knots and interlace functioning in an apotropaic way (like evil eye), by entangling the gaze and entrapping it so it cant go further. Intricacy also must then work to provide visual and intellectual pleasure and meaning, entrapping our gaze within it. Trilling says interlace is connected to to folklore of knots and spells.

Intricacy is an indicator of  labour, skill, high levels of craftsmanship and creativity, time spent, therefore luxury or degree of sacredness or status.

Intricacy is also mystery and complexity.

Ornament, Identity and Cultural Difference

Ornament is a powerful tool of ethnic and cultural self-definition. Trilling says that to grasp a culture’s ornament, from within or without, is to grasp its heritage, its uniqueness, its joy. Ornament is visual language, with complexities, containing tacit knowledge of a culture (that which cannot be put in to words), it has idioms and dialects, so we cant assume patterns and ornament from different cultures will be comprehensible to us – ornament is not a universal language, even in giving visual pleasure – different cultures perceive beauty very differently.

Learning to read the complex language of ornament of a particular culture is like like learning a new way of seeing and an important insight into another culture as well. 

Trilling says

“It is hard to like what we do not understand, and often easier to justify our dislikes than overcome them. Hence such epithets as barbaric, primitive, and vulgar, applied not just to styles of ornament but to the people or peoples who flaunt them. Taste in ornament can be one of the many barriers between one civilization and another, between groups within a society, or between a society and its own past” (pg 26)

How Ornament works

Fragmentation, transformation, recombination of forms, simplification or complication of outlines, symmetry, repetition, flattening – all this leads to making form predominate – that doesnt mean there is no content !

Transformation – ornament transforms surfaces and objects, and what the eye sees, ornament can cause dissolution and fluidity of metal, wood or concrete !

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Image of a burgonet (type of helmet), Filippo Negroli, Italian, 1543, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Page 78, figure 56, Ornament – A Modern Perspective by James Trilling

It creates energy, movement, changes visual momentum, stability or disruption. Ornament and texture cause shifts in light and colour and how we perceive it.

I just love this picture of the helmet above, how the undulating forms of the mer-creature and the movement of the fronds and lines and textures of the ornament make the metal look soft and make you want to run your hands over the it. See how the mer-creature holds locks of hair in her hands. It seems to be a helmet from a magical realm.

Ornament transforms the ordinary and the everyday into the sublime or beautiful, transforms ordinary into luxury.

Fear of transformation, fantasy and therefore ornament – Trilling explains how ornament in the West became identified with the senses, with artifice and illusion, deception and temptations of the body, it became associated politically and historically with excess and lack of control. Transformation of one form into another is what ornament does, both often with the way it alters and transforms natural forms, animals into plants into people, but also how it alters objects and surfaces it is applied to, defying the ‘nature’ of what is underneath.

Dissolution of forms and substance, oss of intrinsic shape was associated with monstrosity and a deep seated medieval Western fear.

More on this another day !

Visual pleasure is paramount in ornament, but ..

Ornament inextricably linked to status, wealth, rank, as is luxury, but luxury is a metaphor for the sacred.

Luxury and ornament in religious art makes veneration visible and tangible Trilling explains.

History of Ornament

Even the simplest ornamental forms often have complex ancestry, and most ornamental forms have been refined over thousands of years. Even the modern variations we see every day and take for granted have complex and ancient lineage.

Ornament may be ancient but making it is not primitive or instinctual – David Brett says, all societies have language, count and ornament.  Making ornament is complex, rigorous, formal, and visual forms are in themselves a form of cognition (Rudolf Arnheim).

Well not such a short post after all – got a bit carried away, but I find writing a blog a useful thinking and summarising tool.

I hope others find this helpful and interesting too !


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