Giorgio Griffa: The Golden Ratio And Inexplicable knowledge – Revd Jonathan Evens

Giorgio Griffa

Camden Arts Centre is currently presenting the first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom of Giorgio Griffa, an Italian abstract painter who has been closely linked to the Arte Povera movement. The exhibition provides a rare opportunity to discover the breadth of the artist’s practice, incorporating works from the 1960s through to today.

Giorgio Griffa’s minimalist approach reduces painting to its essential elements

Giorgio Griffa’s minimalist approach reduces painting to its essential elements: raw canvas, colour and brushstrokes. Suggesting the ongoing and organic life of the painting, lines and brushstrokes are deliberately cut short, and the canvas is never filled; never a finished or complete object, but a process viewed in the moment, Griffa’s works remains open as a metaphor for a permanently unfinished space.

Griffa has stated that, ‘The unfinished painting addresses the temporary nature of knowledge. It is not a metaphor; the painting itself is provisional knowledge.’ A series of paintings begun in the early 2000s entitled Canone aureo signs this reality utilising infinite means and connects Griffa’s work to an under-recognised endeavour within modern art.

Giorgio Griffa
Giorgio Griffa, an Italian abstract painter who has been closely linked to the Arte Povera movement.

‘Canone aureo translates as the ‘Golden Number’ or ‘Golden Ratio’. Articulated by Euclid in the third century BC, and implicated in the geometry of the pyramids, the pentagram and the Fibonacci sequence, this enigmatic number has captivated mathematicians, philosophers, artists and architects for thousands of years. Infinite in its decimal manifestation, the number spirals in on itself, collapsing into smaller and smaller spaces of reality. In the 2000s, Griffa began painting the number directly onto the canvas, titling the work by the final three numbers that he ends on, signifying a pause within an ongoing trajectory. Seeing the number as a fold or fissure opening into the unknown and the unknowable, for Griffa the presence of the number represents the possibility of approaching the infinite in mathematics, physics, culture and existence.’

The Golden Ratio – also known as the Golden Mean Proportion, the Golden Section, and the Divine Proportion – has found expression, since the Renaissance, in many works of art in the form of Golden Rectangles, pentagrams, spirals and triangles. Within the development of modern art, it featured as part of a quest for an objective, scientific approach to art. That search began with Georges Seurat, who was widely believed to have developed a scientifically based understanding of colour known as Neo-impressionism or Pointillism in conjunction with the mathematician Charles Henry. This style spread across Europe, with the Italian Divisionists becoming strong proponents and paving the way for the development of Futurism.

Peter Brooke, writing in the ‘Afterword’ to The Aesthetic of Beuron and other writings, notes that Paul Sérusier, a member of the circle around Denis, was ‘dissatisfied with Seurat’s solution, mainly because he felt it did not offer an adequate account of form in painting.’ Sérusier found the science he was seeking in the work and writing of Benedictine monk Desiderius Lenz: ‘who as painter and sculptor in the late nineteenth century anticipated many of the ideas associated with twentieth-century art – the rejection of naturalism and perspective and an insistence on ‘abstract’, geometrically based principles for painting. The artistic school he founded in his monastery at Beuron in Southern Germany had a great influence on ecclesiastical art and gained admirers among the European avant-garde, including Alexei Jawlensky, Alphonse Mucha and Paul Sérusier.’

Dutch artist, Jan Verkade had joined the circle of Denis and Sérusier, the Nabis, on his arrival in Paris in 1891. He studied with Sérusier in Brittany where he converted to Roman Catholicism. After time spent in Italy, Verkade ‘joined the Beuron monastery as an artist-oblate in 1894.’ He ‘worked under Lenz on St Gabriel’s in Prague in 1895 and on the refectory in Beuron in 1897’ before becoming a priest in 1902. Sérusier and Denis were introduced to the Beuron School by Verkade. Sérusier visited Lenz in Prague in 1895 and becoming Lenz’s champion in France publishing his translation of Lenz’s essay The Aesthetic of Beuron in 1905 (with an introduction by Denis), on, as Brooke notes, the eve of Cubism.

Sérusier claimed to have been ‘the father of Cubism’, a remark which has generally been treated as far-fetched, but which, Brooke suggests, is understandable in the light of Lenz’s essay: ‘Sérusier (and Lenz) pose the problem of form in painting. They believe it is a problem to be tackled objectively. Which is to say that the characteristics of form (straight line, curve, circle etc.) interact with the human sensibility in a way that is predictable, almost, one might say, measurable … Particular importance is attached to the most elementary geometrical figures (square, triangle and circle), to elementary symmetry and to the Golden Section.’

Brooke notes that ‘all these characteristics are clearly relevant to the general history of Cubism’ and that when Sérusier’s later book ABC de la Peinture (setting out ideas which are very similar to those of Lenz) was published in 1921, it was ‘quite clearly part of the same intellectual world’ as Gino Severini’s Du Cubisme au Classicisme (also published in 1921), Albert Gleizes’ Du Cubisme et les moyens de la comprehendre (1920) and La Peinture et ses Lois (1922 or 23), ‘and the arguments constantly repeated in [Amédée] Ozenfant and [Charles Edouard] Jeanneret’s publication L’Esprit Nouveau.’ He concludes that ‘it would be very easy to see Sérusier as the father of the Cubism of the 1920s, or at least as the oldest participant in that particular debate.’

Brooke writes, in his introduction to Du Cubisme au Classicisme and La Peinture et ses Lois, that: ‘Both Severini and Gleizes … believed that there were objective principles behind the act of painting analogous to the laws of musical harmony; that these had been lost or had become obscured; and that Cubism was an attempt to recover them. Both were responding to one of the most dramatic moments in the history of modern painting – the moment when Cubism seemed to be losing its impetus, to be yielding the ground to other ideas.’

Severini had ‘turned to a numerically/geometrically based figurative painting, arguing that painting had been discovered as a science at the time of the Renaissance and that this was a progress which could not be negated by a return to the Egyptian or the Romanesque.’ Severini writes in his autobiography The Life of a Painter that ‘many artists liked to discuss geometry and mathematics’ but that he found their discussions insufficient thinking ‘that artists should apply, and would benefit from, strictly observed rules of geometry and mathematics’ which had value ‘beyond their constructive value’ through ‘something strictly innate to artistic creativity.’

Severini writes that he ‘glimpsed the path leading to the infinite, towards absolute purity, superhuman poetry and perfect harmony, in numbers’: ‘In fact, somewhere beyond a painting, a statue, a poem or a symphony, lies the art and poetry contained therein. Poetry and art belong to a profound stratum of being, common to all forms of expression, and therein is the pure source that animates everything, holds everything together, that is, the artist to the universe, the work to the cosmos, the individual to the collective soul; the measurement of all this is in numbers. This accounts for its metaphysical value, beyond human values …’

Severini ‘confirmed that clear and precise rules had dominated artistic creativity in ancient times’ and saw that there was, therefore, ‘a whole metier to be restored’, a vocation was being ignored by the academies and that only some of the artists of his generation had envisaged. Of these, he specifically mentioned Denis and his references to such laws in the book Théories where he writes of the Beuron School. Severini had also read The Aesthetics of Beuron and noted that their aesthetic could be summarized in these few lines: ‘The simple, the clear, the typical, whose roots are in numbers and the simplest of measurements, remains the basis of all art, and measuring, counting, weighing are its most important functions. The aim of all great art is the transmission, the characteristic application of fundamental geometrical, arithmetical, symbolic forms, originating in Nature, to serve great ideas.’

Brooke notes that ‘soon after writing Du Cubisme au Classicisme, Severini entered into relations with the Roman Catholic Church, initially in the person of Jacques Maritain, the Thomist philosopher who had a particular talent for presenting Roman Catholic doctrine in such a way as to appeal to the intellectuals of the cultural avant-garde.’ Severini wrote of Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism that he ‘was amazed at the extent to which it agreed with the most modern goals, and at the profound sense of freedom, from what supreme heights of intelligence, the author could observe, put in order, and clarify, everything related to art.’ Maritain recommended Severini for commissions as a mural painter for churches in Switzerland and Severini went on to become particularly successful at obtaining commissions for the painting of religious works.

Brooke also writes that: ‘Gleizes had converted in 1918 to a belief in God which he expressed regarding the Christian and Roman Catholic tradition, though he initially made little effort to enter into contact with the church itself … He took the view, which he expresses in La Peinture et ses Lois, that Christianity had manifested what was great in it in the period we now characterise as the ‘Dark Ages’, from around the fifth to the twelfth centuries, in Western Europe … But, from the twelfth century, this Christianity, which had given rise to the art we call ‘Romanesque’, is in decline. The early Renaissance – the period Severini had indicated as the moment when painting became known as a precise science – is a symptom of this decline. Thomism – the basis of Maritain’s philosophy – is another. In this period, an understanding orientated towards time (immeasurable, immaterial, of the nature of consciousness) gave way to an implicit materialist understanding based on space. In other words, the quality that had been possessed in the early period was precisely the quality which had been rediscovered in Cubism. To go back to the Renaissance as Severini was proposing was to deny what was essential and truly (indeed, literally) revolutionary in the Cubist achievement …

La Peinture et ses Lois represents the moment when Gleizes began to see [this argument] clearly, very probably in reaction to Severini’s book.’

Brooke notes that: ‘In opposition to Thomas Aquinas, Gleizes saw Augustine as the philosopher of the Benedictine spirit … In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the conflict Gleizes saw between this Augustinian spirit and the Thomist spirit took the very acute form of a public quarrel between Gleizes and Fr Pie-Raymond Régamey, a Dominican, director of the journal Art Sacré, and leading champion of the efforts to engage leading modern artists in the service of the Church … Régamey’s hostility to the influence of Gleizes was an extension of the hostility he already felt towards the influence of the School of Beuron. And … it was a matter of principle.’


 Giorgio Griffa,
Giorgio Griffa

Thomism, Brooke argues, ‘draws a sharp distinction between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’, and argues that there is no passage between them.’ For the Thomist, humanity ‘lies wholly within the sphere of the natural’ where the ‘highest faculty is reason, and reason cannot aspire to the supernatural, which can only be known by revelation.’ Therefore, for the Thomist, it is impossible ‘that an artist should come to a knowledge of the divine through the practice of his craft.’

However, ‘in the early Christian writings of Augustine admired by Lenz and Gleizes … continuity [between the human and the Divine] is stressed [by means of the spirit, the ‘noetic’ faculty, which is the means by which we enter into union with the Divine and the ‘supernatural’ becomes included in human nature in all its fullness], and the manipulation of numbers – the business of the poet, the musician, or the artist – is presented as part of it.’

Brooke, although a promoter of the issues and ideas that preoccupied Lenz, Sérusier, Severini and Gleizes, is not unaware of the weaknesses in their arguments. Each insists that ‘there are objective laws that are appropriate to liturgical art’, each insists that ‘they have found these laws, or at least elements of them’ but ‘their laws are different’ and none ‘succeeded in compelling those around them to accept their findings.’

So while Sérusier, Severini and Gleizes were each at the forefront of a Modern Art movement – Post-Impressionism, Futurism, and Cubism – and in their explorations of geometrical and mathematical rules for art were engaging in current debates and teasing out the implications of Cubism in particular, eventually their practises and arguments became more about theology and liturgy than the continuing development of modern art and the balance that was held initially between faith and art became subsumed by faith. Modern art developed in alternative directions through different movements and the work undertaken by these artists and those around them has become overlooked, dismissed or treated as a footnote to their earlier work.

The work of Griffa revives awareness of the Golden Ratio in contemporary art and, therefore, could also revive awareness of the part that the Golden Ratio has played within artistic searches for an objective, scientific approach to modern art. However, for Griffa, as for Lenz, Sérusier, Severini and Gleizes, this search is fundamentally religious.

Painting, Griffa states, ‘is knowledge of the inexplicable.’ He uses the Golden Ratio to demonstrate infinitude and, thereby, the limits of human understanding: ‘The irrational number without end, which resolves the equation of the golden section (1,618003398… ), symbolizes the area of knowledge that has been devoted to art since the time of Orpheus – that is, knowledge of the unknowable. It is an important aspect of Greek knowledge. Rather than proceeding towards a larger number, this number spirals into the unknown: 1.6 will never become 1.7 or / 1,61 will never become 1,62/ 1,618 will never become 1,619/ and so on, and yet the numbering continues without an end.’

In conversation with Rafael Pérez Hernando, Griffa says that he cannot imagine life without the unknown: ‘The unknown is a basic part of life which we carry within ourselves. Even in modern science, there are theorems about uncertainty (Heisenberg): “L’incompletezza”. Even within scientific theorems, there is a place for the unknown which belongs to the world of art and religion, and is not at all a part of other scientific disciplines. Let’s not forget that religion is humanity’s “reality”. I witness that it exists, although it is accepted or rejected by each individual.’

Words: Revd Jonathan Evens  © Artlyst 2018 Photos: Mark Blower Courtesy Camden Arts Centre, 2018 

Giorgio Griffa: A Continuous Becoming, Camden Arts Centre, until 8 April 2018

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