The Squares that decorate the Tesselated Heavens



In this continuing saga of little squares, brought here in contradistinction to the art of Ellsworth Kelly, which I criticized in a much earlier blog, we now turn to a perhaps strange conjunction of interests.

In the Middle Ages little squares were often a feature of the skies which illuminated Bible stories in innumerable decorated manuscripts.  In those pictures the tesselated sky seems to harken the divine presence.  Certainly the use of tesselations in art is often associated with divinity and not merely in Western cultures.  The example above comes from a manuscript at the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicting the Last Judgement.

Whether Bonnard was inspired by illuminated manuscripts or by other medieval imagery — or not — he certainly uses little squares to achieve something of a similar result.  Only in Bonnard’s world the “heaven” has become a bathroom where Marthe his wife plays the role of a kind of “Eve.”  Interestingly enough, though, when Bonnard painted the series of pictures devoted to Marthe and her bath, his wife was quite elderly.  Indeed, Marthe died before the picture above was completed.

The bathroom that was the real setting for the picture was not multicolored either.  It was simply and completely white.  The colors of Bonnard’s many squares are entirely inventions, quite similar in their way to my little invention of squares described in a previous post.  Here this “exercise” in arranging colors becomes a  metaphor for something like a paradise on earth as well a kind of prevision of theoretical physics.  In Bonnard’s bathroom the tiles twist and distort into a warped space/time of memory, regret and desire.  We can note certainly that the squares are not rigorously defined in a representation of true perspective.  Yet they are not disorderly in an unmeaningful way either. Bonnard possessed a great ingenuity and feeling for distortion. It becomes a crucial aspect of his art. These distortioned tiles contain a method in madness both as regards perspective and color.

So, we still have little squares quite like Ellsworth Kelly’s — in their way — yet invested with meaning and with roots that flow back deeply into history.  So far our squares are still part of the picture, but there are ways also that squares play a role in picture making without being at all visible.  We’ll turn to these invisible squares in the next post.

Bonnard’s painting, Marthe in the Tub, belongs to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.

The Story of Little Squares Continues


An image from the Rouen Book of Hours takes us down another path in the journey away from Ellsworth Kelly, while staying inside the land of little squares.  One could easily suppose that squares lack meaning, particularly in an exercise such as I described in the last post.  However, the square itself (along with the imperfect, but square-ish box) is an intriguing shape and one that does not occur in nature — so far as I know — at least not on the scale of things visible to ordinary sight.  If it exists in the microscopic world of small scaled things, or in the subatomic world of the structures of things perhaps some scientist will let me know.

However, the square as an idea — as a perfect form — holds a certain fascination for some people, and in the medieval world, squares play a very prominent role in images of divine events.  Squares appear in medieval art in a variety of ways.  The image posted here shows how three squares are used to decorate the left side of a page illustrating the Kiss of Judas.  Each of the three squares has illuminations within it of patterned flowers.

I can’t say why the squares are there or what the particular significance is of three squares — whether it relates to the Trinity or to something else — why two squares are colored pale gold and one is red or why the squares are decorated with flowers — or why these squares share so much of the page with the narrative picture which is quite small in comparison.  All I can say with certainly is that squares have an important, playful/serious role in the art of very early times.

This post is part of a series of short essays related to answering why Ellsworth Kelly is not a “real” artist, while I take the reader into a meditation on the meanings and “true” uses of squares in art.

Thus the “sterile” use of Kelly’s squares has had a vibrant, adventurous life elsewhere in art’s long history.  But stay tuned for more squares.

Find picture here.