Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Viewpoints: introduction

I had intended to do something on Steampunk but after reading Peter S Wells, How Ancient Europeans saw the World:  Vision, Patterns, and the Shaping of the Mind in Prehistoric Times, Princeton University Press, 2012, that will have to wait. Wells speculates about doing the sort of things that I have been doing and writing about for thirty years. In chapter nine, he compares the layout and something of the styles of the Celtic La Tène 1 scabbard from Hallstatt (detail illustrated right) with the "procession plate" of the Thracian work for Celtic clients, Gundestrup cauldron (illustrated below). While such layout and style could have influenced thinking, such thinking would have been outside of the culture. The Greeks, for example, seeing the two examples would think of mainly Thracians, but perhaps also of Etruscans: people who were still following something of the styles that the Greeks had followed in an earlier age. It might be seen as slightly barbaric or just "old fashioned", but it might have also been seen in a better light by people interested in "ancient wisdom".

Within the culture, however, such compositional devices act as a familiar roadmap through the composition. In the procession plate to the left, it is read from right to left on the bottom and then left to right on the top. This would confuse an ancient Egyptian used to reading hieroglyphs from the direction that the figures face. The branch forms a register to tell the observer that the scene is divided into two "episodes" and the large figure on the left spans both of the episodes and is also the director of the scene.

Meaning, however, existed prior to the artist creation and the latter is an expression of it. While the mythological subjects of both examples are related, they are not the same. A better parallel to the wheel turner on the scabbard is the wheel turner on the cauldron, but its significance apart from its use just as one of the elements on the scabbard composition is ignored, even though it is discussed by Jacobsthal and the Megaws deemed it important enough to get a colour plate in Celtic Art.

In this series I will discuss the vocabularies and grammars of decorative art focusing on the Celtic but drawing from other cultures as well. It is related to semiotics but the latter approaches the subject deductively, by offering, first, its own grammar. I can only work with this material in an inductive manner.

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