Sunday, 12 February 2017

the Forgotten Symbolism of Ornament

Time to get your tin hats on folks, as this week I'll be rambling on about the forgotten symbolism present in the turn of the century design in Europe, inspired by a particular piece of plaster work in my own historic home.  From the symbols of catholic saints to the marks of the funny handshake brigade, I will try to get to the bottom of the odd ornaments chosen by the people who built this house in 1910. 

Let us start with a little lesson in art history: 

Towards the end of the 19th century and as a counteraction to what was seen as the emotionally poor strife for realism in art, the symbolists wanted to get back in touch with the the invisible and the mysterious - their psyches.  As defined by Michael Gibson in his book Symbolism: "Less an artistic movement than a state of mind";, the artists and artisans inspired by symbolist ideas never formed a defined style or a movement, but greatly affected the development of others such as Art Nouveau in France, BeNeLux and the UK, the Jugend Style in Central Europe, Russia, Scandinavia and Spain and the National Romantic Movement, most prominent in Norway and Finland.  Idealistically exhausting itself by the beginning of the First World War, symbolism acted as a bridge between the impressionist and expressionist way of seeing the world, standing between the old and the new at the dawn of modernism.  

Examples of symbolist painting (left to right): Gustav Klimt Hope 1 (1903), Félicien Rops Pornocratès (1878), William Blake The Great Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun  (1806), Francisco Goya Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-1823).  Klimt and Rops representing similar symbolist ideas that Goya and Blake were pioneering in the beginning of the 19th century. 

Although painters such as Paul Gauguin were known to travel far and wide for inspiration, symbolism was predominantly a European phenomenon, mixing together old superstition and Christian iconography together with themes of the early industrial age.  Allegorical, biblical and often melancholic, symbolist artists` favourite themes were love and loss - especially the loss of innocence, dreams vs. nightmares, coming of age and sexuality as well as passing of time and death.  Although not necessarily by a conscious choice, it was a dominantly male movement that had reserved two seats for women they so often fetishised in their works: the seat of a mother or a femme fetale - a whore. 

On a completely unrelated subject, I'll firmly recommend reading about the history of syphilis after the industrial revolution in Europe.  Illuminating read, truly. 

Paul Gauguin Arearea (1892), Hugo Simberg, the Garden of Death (1896). The red fox in the first picture by Gauguin symbolises sexuality and coming of age. 




But enough about the artsy-fartsy semantics: long before the adaptation of openly symbolist language into liberal arts, our ancestors, mostly illiterate and superstitious, used symbols to decorate and to communicate - just think about the image of a skull and crossed bones that today is near universally understood as a sign of danger and death.  The typical heart shape, 
an ideograph of the heart, has been used to express the idea of romantic love since the 14th century.  Folk art, religious iconography and the art of illustration, not even discussing the complex mannerism of literature and the performing arts, had been shrouded in symbolism long before the painters of the 19th century took notice.  The exotic and intriguing language of symbols was all the rage in the Victorian England, too, as the mood turned melancholic in the hangover years after the industrial revolution. 

Decorative symbols, warning symbols, coats of arms, pictorial traffic signs, badges, logos... the list is endless, are an integral part of the cacophony of visual information we are bombarded with.  The meaning of popular symbols, however, is not always fixed.  For example, the swastika - the feared and loathed symbol of Nazism in today's Europe, is a popular symbol of the god Vishnu when drawn clockwise and a symbol of the goddess Kali when drawn anticlockwise in Hindu religion, dating back a millennium.  Due to its easily repeated form, the swastika has been a common ornament in decoration, especially in embroidery, since the invention of embroidery.  For more of a contemporary example, just think of the "save icon" on your computer and how it has evolved, in less than 20 years, from a literal depiction of the format used to store data, into a general symbol of saving information. 



The times they are a-changin'...


Naturally, countless of symbols get ignored or become obsolete, and after a time, forgotten.  How long will it take for our insignia, lets say a sign for a wheelchair space or the Starbucks logo, to start looking like meaningless decoration?  

My home, like most homes built before the wars, was decorated with an array of ornamental detail from plaster reliefs to marble fireplaces.  A leading Victorian authority on ornamentation, Owen Jones (1809-1876), sees decoration as a fundamental desire of man to create.  In his Grammar of Ornament published in 1856, he has this to say about the nature of decoration:
"Construction should be decorated. Decoration should never be purposely constructed. That which is beautiful is true; that which is true must be beautiful."
Built originally with a neo-classicist flair mimicking the grandiose houses of the bourgeoisie in Mazamet, my home is a typical example of a townhouse from the beginning of the 20th century in the industrial South.  It was originally a crèmerie, habited by a family of cheese mongers, complete with two beautiful cheese cellars, three floors of living space, a garden and an outhouse, situated on a street dominated by businesses on both sides and a large protestant church.  The leather and textile industry here was just starting to pick up speed, drawing people from the surrounding countryside and streets such as mine could easily be built up within a decade.




From the original detailing chez nous, the most intricate piece of ornamentation is hands down the surviving plaster work.  What would have been a thick, possibly ornate crown moulding was removed in the sixties in an effort to mod this place up, but two full panels of decorative plaster work were kept above the fireplaces in two of the grandest rooms.  These plaster reliefs were commonly arranged into a shape of a frame, and mine are loosely neoclassical in style, featuring motifs re-popularised by the renaissance revival.   


Arabesque-style frescoes in late renaissance-style from Owen Jones' the Grammar of Ornament 



This is my lounge, there are many like it, but this one is mine. 


The detail in our lounge, what would have been the original formal salon, is pretty well preserved.  Most of the ornaments in this frieze are typical examples of classicist flora and fauna; the top horizontal panel is decorated with foliage of anthemion, a motif of ancient Greek origin, interspersed with heavily stylised bouquets of acanthus, in turn popularised by the ancient Romans.  Tops of the left and right vertical panels, featuring a shallow arabesque-style detail, are capped off by a suggested Corinthian capitals, again, archetypal for the periods classical revival architecture.  





This decorative panel was built to house a mirror and is a typical, if not an ordinary example of a period feature.  Several examples, some more sophisticated, some not, in both wood and in plaster, can be found in townhouses of a similar age - except for the fact that ours has snakes in it. A pair of Caduceus' to be exact.  Nested between a pair of primroses and a stack of branches, the staff of Hermes - two serpents intertwined around a winged pole, rests above a pair of crossed arrows, hiding in plain sight.  Although beautiful, it is clear this part of the frieze meant something beyond mere fashion to the people who commissioned it over a hundred years ago. 

The Caduceus, although often mistaken as the Rod of Asclepius - the symbol of medicine, is a symbol for commerce.  A fitting touch in a house built by merchants.  Commonly depicted with a pair of wings at the top of the staff, the symbols association with trade comes from being linked to the Greek god Hermes (or Mars, the Roman interpretation of the same divinity) who, among other things, was the protector of merchants and tradesmen.


The interest in the civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome had been growing steadily since the renaissance, but the archaeological discoveries in the 19th century around the Mediterranean and high profile exhibitions of classicist art, such as the anglification of the so called Elgin Marbles from the Greek temple of Parthenon, made the study of the antiques incredibly fashionable and helped to popularise the various classic revival movements in applied arts all around Europe. 



It is evident the family that built my home also appreciated classical symbolism, but what is the meaning of the rest of this motif?  The crossed arrows, for example, is a popular mark of friendship today, especially in contemporary tattoos and illustration where the meaning is derived from native American symbolism.  In Europe, however, arrows, especially in heraldry, are knows to symbolise conflict and war; single arrow standing for martial readiness and an arrow with a cross representing affliction on the battlefield.  It is reasonable to assume the crossed arrows are referring to a military conflict and the direction of the arrowheads, here pointing upwards, could indicate a victory, general defiance or hope.

It's by no means an uncommon symbol: before being adopted by the hipsters, the crossed arrows were used as a pottery mark by a German manufacturer Porzellanfabrik Kalk from 1850 until their closure in 1976 as well as a Japanese dupe company in the 1950's.  It was also a central motif on the old Swedish ör coinage before the introduction of krona in 1873 Here, too, the meaning of the symbol must have stemmed from heraldry, but my further investigation drew a blank.  Heck - I even checked the known symbols of the freemasons. Another blank. So I decided to turn to God and read about the symbolism of catholic saints, knowing this would have been a catholic household.  Frustratingly, nothing obvious cropped up; St. Ursula is often seen holding an arrow and St. Sebastian pierced by a few more, but the connection felt too loose.  


There must have been a concrete reason why the crossed arrows ended up on the background of the serpents, but I couldn't seem to figure it out. 






Then, after referring back and forth with a guide of heraldic symbolism I finally checked the actual heraldry of this region... and BINGO!  Or may I say Blauvac.  A mere four hours away from here, in the department of Vaucluse, nests a rural commune with a coat of arms of crossed arrows with their tips in the air, on a bright green background.  Could it be that my family came from Blauvac?  Short look at the history of the tiny village tells me about the arrival of the first telephone connection in 1926, followed by the first power lines and electricity in 1928, indicating that the area must have been pretty damn deprived at the time my cheese mongers settled in Mazamet - one of the richest provincial towns in the South due to the immense wealth created by the industries of the Montagne Noire.  

A closer inspection of the wings on the top of the Caduceus reveal another interesting quirk - that they are those of a honeybee rather than the wings of a bird as normally expected.  An insignificant detail if it wasn't for the fact that one of the symbols of Mazamet is - you guessed it - a honeybee, prominently present in the Mazamet coat of arms as a symbol of the heavy industry.  If you ask me, it seems who ever designed this little crest and placed it so prominently on the centerpiece of the grandest room in the house was proud about their trade as well as their roots.


Coat of arms of Blauvac featuring crossed arrows, a sign of military power and conflict with the coat of arms of Mazamet, featuring a cock, a sign of  great courage in battle and honeybees that stand for of industry and creativity.  There are three bees in the crest, one for each dominant industry: textiles, leather and pelts.  The colours of the crests are equally important: green stands for freedom, joy, beauty and hope where blue signifies steadfastness, strength, truth and loyalty.  


The other plaster relief, in our current bedroom, is a 1920's addition and in poor condition.  The detail has suffered after being painted with heavy gloss over the years and some of the trims are crooked or asymmetrical.  Situated above a simple wooden fireplace surround, this ornament is Greek-revival style with a hefty nod towards art deco.  There are no serpents and no crests in this frame, in fact, no symbolism at all that would go beyond the aims of decoration. 




The Greek revival-mantel.  Note the beautiful portrait of my dear James - he's changed glasses since it was drawn. Thank Cheesus for that. 
I would love to think the revamp of the third floor salon/chambre, that we know was finished around 1924, was done by the couple that built this house.  Homes like these used to be passed down in the family alongside the family business, often while multiple generations lived and worked under the same roof.  We know the crèmerie was still up and running, along with many of the other businesses on this street, in the late 1950's, as confirmed by our plumber who was born on this street.  Today, the Caduceus might be the only visual clue of the family that once lived and loved here, but perhaps the more we continue to dig around, the more there is to be found about their lives here.

My father is a builder and regularly collects things left behind by builders like him generations before; packs of cigarettes, coins, items of clothing and scraps of paper, letters even, but this is a first time, in a domestic dwelling, where I've seen a message or a brand left behind by the inhabitants, encrypted in symbols.  I am convinced leaving traces such as these, little clues, is more common than people think.  Just like with us, the signs were always there, just hiding in plain sight.

From all the symbols in the world, the caduceus seems oddly fitting, thinking about us, the current owners of this house, being both self employed.  The shop downstairs has been empty nearly fifty years, but I have plans to re-open it for the summer, this time, reincarnated as an artists studio and a gallery.  Somehow I think the family of the crèmerie would approve.






















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