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Ornament Perspectives on Modernism: Ornamental Prints from Dürer to Piranesi at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg
Installation shot Ornament - Perspectives on Modernism Ornamental Prints from Dürer to Piranesi at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg (June 2, 2012 to January 6, 2013). Photo: Marek Kruszewski.

WOLFSBURG.- The Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg is known for the thematic exhibitions with which it regularly takes looks back at the classic and early periods of modernism. With Ornament, the museum ventures even further back into the past based on a special theme from the history of the graphics art—the ornamental print. Beginning with Albrecht Dürer’s famous series of knots, six impressively decorated Renaissance woodcuts, the exhibition brings together around 100 precious prints and several ornamented objects from the 15th to the 18th century. Most of these art historical treasures come from the comprehensive collection of the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in Braunschweig; others are from MAK in Vienna. This survey of the history and development of the ornament as an art form makes the unbroken currency of the ornamental in contemporary art particularly evident. On show will be woodcuts, engravings and etchings, for example after Raphael, by Cornelis Bos and Cornelis Floris, by Daniel Hopfer, Albrecht Dürer and Heinrich Aldegrever, by Stefano della Bella, Christoph Jamnitzer, Benigno Bossi, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, François de Cuvilliés and after Antoine Watteau. The exhibition was assembled by Dr. Julia Wallner (Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg) with the collaboration and expert accompaniment of Prof. Thomas Döring and Dr. Regine Nahrwold (both Kupferstichkabinett Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum).

The space-forming power of the ornament that knows no before and no behind as a motif is especially fascinating. The concept of surface and space pervades each other in this way. This idea is fundamental for the development of 20th-century art. Especially the work of the American painter and sculptor Frank Stella, to whom a large retrospective will be devoted from September in the great hall of Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, draws on the ornament’s space-forming quality. In order to give special emphasis to this extraordinary dialogue of form, a cabinet within the exhibition (open from September 8) will be devoted to Frank Stella’s drawn sketches and studies.

The idea behind this exhibition arose against the backdrop of the approaching Stella retrospective, and both projects belong to an overriding art historical context. The ornament was long seen as modernism’s original sin. Adolf Loos’s famously notorious polemic from 1908 entitled “Ornament and Crime” documents the general ban that had been imposed on this once so effectual art genre during the early 20th century. The exhibition “Ornament and Abstraction” took place in 2001 at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, where the director of the Kunstmuseum Museum Wolfsburg previously worked. This cross-border project attempted for the first time to comprehensively document the previously underestimated significance of the ornament for the origins and development of abstract art. The number of studies concerned with this central aspect of modernism has grown immensely since then in conjunction with numerous publications and exhibitions. The debate will be taken up again in the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg with a specific contribution in order to provide a more profound understanding for this connection, but also as regards the future of abstract art in the 21st century. The parallels between the development of the ornament from the 15th to the 18th century and Frank Stella’s unconventional development from Minimalism to Maximalism in his work leads to the question whether the history of abstraction coalesces with that of the ornament in the American artist’s oeuvre.

Nowhere else are the changes in the universal language of form more evident than in the development of the ornament. Before the modern era, the ornament was the aesthetic field in which abstraction could unfurl it experiments with form and in which it could develop its own history, an “art history without names” (Heinrich Wölfflin) alongside high art. Starting with the Renaissance, names can be attached to the history of the autonomous genre of the ornament print, in some case such prominent draftsmen and engravers as Albrecht Dürer. A distinct stylistic history took shape over the course of the centuries that manifested itself in the so-called grotesque, in strapwork and scrollwork, the moresque, in bandwork, the cartouche, the auricular and the famed Rocaille, a characteristically curved, shell-shaped form found in the Rococo period. The ornament print—graphics were closely related to the history of the ornament from the beginning—can show pure ornaments or any kind of ornamentation on items of daily use or objects of art ranging from the goblet and the pendent to picture frames, wallpaper and book bindings and from the fireplace or furniture to wall and ceiling decorations. The universal force of the ornamental can be seen here that encompassed entire decorative schemes until the 18th century and played an important part in courtly culture, for example at the court of the Louis XIV.

The term “ornament” derives from the Latin word “ornamentum” meaning “adornment” or “decoration.” Ornament prints served as patterns and models in the applied arts (by painters, carpenters, potters as well as gold and silversmiths) in addition to architecture. Ornaments were used in buildings on columns, vases or balusters, as friezes, on capitals and pilasters and within framed surfaces.

The experimental field of the ornament frequently yielded some surprising and innovative pictorial inventions, and occasionally even peculiar ones. Particularly in the ornamental form of the grotesque, which developed in 15th-century Italy based on the model of ancient Roman wall decorations, figures from ancient mythology or children with animals, fruit, grimacing and scurrilous hybrid creatures—half human and half animal or half animal and half vegetable—hurry about in an architectural or floral setting.

The motifs of the ornaments include piers that turn into a human shape at the top, multi-armed candelabras imitating stalks, vases, festoons showing wreaths and garlands of fruit or flowers, trophies, cornucopias, animal skulls, dolphins, griffins, sphinxes, cupids and putti, rosettes, masks and cartouches. There are furthermore such floral ornaments as palmettes, acanthuses and other tendrils and leaves. Such antique ornaments were frequently not only reproduced by artists, but also varied, thus transforming them in the process into new shapes.

The ornament was always also an area in which artistic fantasy, freed from the narrow confines of the canon of high art, could unfold over and above practical functions. The Viennese art historian Alois Riegl determined in 1889 that the ornament also represents an autonomous art genre with its own inherent developmental rules and regulations. He likewise provided the theoretical foundations for the link between the history of the ornament and the history of art that was in process of becoming abstract at that time.

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