Lesson 8:
Relationships between Pattern and Modern Painting

Lesson 1
Ritual Geometry


Lesson 2
Group Elements

Color Theory

Lesson 3
Groups and Groups Acting on Sets

Block printing

Lesson 4
Klimt and the Computer

Color and symmetry in modern art I

Lesson 5

Islamic art

Lesson 6
Penrose and Rice

Color and symmetry in modern art II

Lesson 7
Escher 1

Escher 2

Lesson 8
Hundertwasser & Griffeath

Pattern and Modern Painting

Brian P. Hoke: Cellular Automata and Art

Student's Work

Since our work here has been to explore pattern as a formal element of art, we have created our own patterns with some of the same tools that fine artists use. Along with mathematical structure, we referred to many examples of painting as a guide in constructing beautiful patterns. How does the tradition of Western painting interact with the element of pattern?


  • To become more familiar with the art historical movements of Western painting primarily during the period of Modern art.

  • To observe relationships between painting, decoration and pattern.

Western Painting and Pattern before the Renaissance

Painting and pattern have often filled the same role: to embellish or decorate walls and objects. Yet in the last few centuries, painting as a medium has been elevated to the rank of a fine art. On the other hand, pattern, as an element of design, is associated with the less esteemed function of decoration. Let us look at some of the earliest paintings and how they functioned as either decoration or fine art.

1. Cave paintings, Lascaux 15,000-10,000 BC

H. W. Janson:"History of Art", Figure 30, p. 50
Harry N Abrams, Inc.,  1995

2. Tutankhamen Hunting, 1340 BC

H. W. Janson:"History of Art", Figure 86, p. 77
Harry N Abrams, Inc.,  1995

3. Athenian Krater, 750 BC

The Oxford History of Classical Art, Figure 5, p. 27.
Edited by John Boardman, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1993

4. Athenian red-figure calyx-crater, 520 BC

The Oxford History of Classical Art, Figure 74, p. 77
Edited by John Boardman, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1993

5. The Ixion Room House of the Vetti, Pompeii 63-79 AD

H. W. Janson:"History of Art", Figure 288, p. 203
Harry N Abrams, Inc.,  1995

6. Lindesfarne Gospel, 700 AD

From "Smithsonian"   April 1997, p.109
In a 12th-century manuscript from Constantinople, Saint Gregory of Nazianzos writes in his study.

7. Good Government in the City, "Country, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1338-40

H. W. Janson:"History of Art", Figure 527, 528, p. 378
Harry N Abrams, Inc ;  1995

8. The Limbourg Brothers, January, Les tres Riches Heurses du Duc de Berry

with and introduction by James J. Rorimer
Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1958.

What can you observe about the function of painting in these last examples?
What can you observe about the function of pattern?
Do pattern and painting play equal or separate roles in the artwork?
How do artists integrate pattern into painting?

The Renaissance: Illusionism and the Beginning of Modern Painting

The seeds ofModern painting can be traced back to the Renaissance. The revival of ancient Greek culture and new found sciences brought about a celebration of the individual. These cultural trends laid the basis for explorations in rational and formal approaches to the visual arts. For example, the invention of linear perspective, employed parallel lines that converged to a central vertical point. This created depth and volume on the 2-dimensional plane. Chiascuro, modeling, and foreshortening were also used to this effect. While many diverse styles evolved out of the Renaissance, the perfection of representational art superseded the flat decorative forms of Medieval art. Pattern and decorative art played a smaller role on the two-dimensional as artists grew more attentive to spatial depth. Illusionism became the foundation of all subsequent painting styles for the next four centuries, including the Baroque, and Neo-classicist and Romantic styles.

9. The school of Athens, Michelangelo 1508-12

H. W. Janson:"History of Art", Figure 666, p. 497
Harry N Abrams, Inc.,  1995

10. Interior of the Sistine Chapel showing Michelangelo's ceiling 1508-12,

H. W. Janson:"History of Art", Figure 649, p. 488
Harry N Abrams, Inc.,  1995

In the 1600s the Baroque style continued to mingle classical decoration with figurative painting to enhance the ceilings of monumental buildings such as St. Peters Cathedral in Rome, the Louvre, and the French palace, Versaille. In the following century, the French nobility moved from Versaille to live in small Parisian "hotels". These smaller homes were also embellished with lavish ornament and paintings, producing an intimate decorative style known as the Rococo. Critics have maligned Rococo painting for being frivolous, but these beautifully crafted environments, integrating pattern and illusionistic painting are among the great achievments of decorative design. Janson 602 and 603.

11. East Front of the Louvre, 1667, p. 595

12. Nicolas Pinaue, Room from the Hotel de Varengeville, Paris 1735

H. W. Janson:"History of Art", Figure 829, p. 603
Harry N Abrams, Inc.,  1995

13. Giovani Battista Teipolo Ceiling fresco, Wurzburg, 1751

H. W. Janson:"History of Art", Figure 852, p. 615
Harry N Abrams, Inc.,  1995

14. Ingres, Odalisque, 1814

H. W. Janson:"History of Art", Figure 885, p. 665
Harry N Abrams, Inc.,  1995

15. Delacrois,Odalisque,1845-50

H. W. Janson:"History of Art", Figure 889
Harry N Abrams, Inc.,  1995, p. 667

The Beginnings of Abstract Painting: mid-19th to early 20th Century

The arrival of industrialism in the early 19th century created radical upheavals in Western society. Mass-produced goods and the migration of rural populations to the cities created economic and social changes. These conditions provoked a Romantic rebellion against conventional society, and a reverence for nature based on the fear that the man's contact with the earth and "his deeper nature" were fading. Others believed that technology would benefit humanity. Lynton 9. In painting, the invention of photography marked a crucial turning point, and significantly decreased the demand for portrait and history painting. This freed artists to explore visual realms beyond representation. The changing priorities of two-dimensional art provided fertile ground for pattern to appear in multiple roles, as painting moved swiftly toward abstraction.

William Morris

William Morris, the leader of the Arts and Crafts movement in the 1850s, designed many beautiful patterns for wallpaper and tapestries. He yearned to improve life under industrialism, replacing "shoddy products" with handcrafted objects in intimate domestic environments. Morris envisioned art made for and by the people, "as a happiness to the maker and the user." Ironically, only the rich could afford such quality.

Morris' architecture, textile designs and furniture reflect the 19th Romantic revival of Gothic craft, with its interest in Medieval guilds and interlacing patterns. Janson, 726. The architecture of his buildings, matched the interior and the functional objects within, creating a total design of harmonious character that "captured the spirit of the medieval tradition rather than copying it." Janson 736. His meticulous craftsmanship and idealism elevated pattern to a fine art, producing "the first original system of ornament since the Rococco."

Janson, 727

16. Billiard Room, Wightwick Manor, Staffordshire

From "William Morris by himself", p. 164
Edited by Gillian Naylor
Copyright 1988 by Macdonald & Co Ltd

17. Design for Honeysuckle Printed cotton, 1874

From "William Morris by himself", p. 176
Edited by Gillian Naylor
Copyright 1988 by Macdonald & Co Ltd

18. Pimpernel Wallpaper, 1875

From "William Morris by himself", p. 165
Edited by Gillian Naylor
Copyright 1988 by Macdonald & Co Ltd


In the 1870s, the Impressionists launched a revolutionary painting movement in Paris. Because of their unpolished style and informal subject matter, they were initially scorned by the French salons. Eventually, the Impressionists were recognized and celebrated in their own day. Impressionism remains popular for it's engaging portrayals of 19th century French life. J, 706. However, Impressionists such as Monet were scientific in their approach; whether painting landscapes, still life or figures, they were not so concerned with making pretty pictures or evoking emotions, as they were with rendering the effects of light. "This meant that brush strokes became flecks of paint displaying an extraordinary range of visual effects." J ? Brush strokes create an abundance of beautiful patterns and texturesin their paintings, but in a random,natural form.

19. Claude Monet Red Boats, Argenteuil, 1875, p. 706

Post Impressionism

Post Impressionism included many divergent styles. Whatever their priorities, these painters tended to use color to level shapes toward the picture plane and distort images. Since pattern also flattens space, it naturally infiltrated Post-Impressionist styles. Functioning decoratively, expressively, or as repetitious brush strokes, pattern proved a useful tool to explore the two-dimensional plane.

Pointilism, Symbolism, Expressionism, are among the many styles assigned to Post-Impressionism.

Seurat, a Pointillist, studied color interaction and carried Monet's investigation of color and light several steps further. Rather than mixing paint ahead of time, Seurat placed small dots of pure color next to each other on the canvas. This meant that colors were mixed in the eye of the viewer, and the painting shimmered with the light of vibrating hues. J, 733. The process of breaking images into dots flattened and schemitized Seurat's shapes in contrast to the loose naturalistic style of the Impressionists.

20. George Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,1882. 732

The Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh, is known for a completely new use of color, and is often seen as an early Expressionist. Van Gogh's use of brilliant color departs from objective reality to convey a highly charged atmosphere in his paintings. The painter's brush strokes create a swirling pattern that fuses with color to create a turbulent, emotional landscape.

21. Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield and Cypress Trees,1889. 736

Paul Gauguin also used color expressively. He was interested in the character of the subject as it was revealed by colors: "noble lines leading to eternity." Gauguin and many of his colleagues were part of the Symbolist movement. Symbolist painters stopped working from observation and painted from memory. The painting became a record of the painter's internal responses, rather than his observations. Gauguin and many other symbolists preferred spiritual subjects, and grew attracted to exotic and mythological themes. Moving away from direct observation, his work exhibited flat shapes and arabesque patterns, in vivid colors. This marked another distinct separation from pictoral realism and continued the direction toward abstraction among 20th century painters.

22. Paul Gauguin, The Vision After the Sermon,1888.

Eduouard Vuillard, who initially painted under Gauguin's influence, concentrated on "decorative projects from the drawing rooms of domestic life." J, 739.

Vuillard lived with his mother, a seamstress who worked with patterned fabrics. He often chose patterns from her fabrics as part of his subject matter. The flat shapes of Symbolist painting freed him to use pattern as a formal element in his work, and Vuillard was part of an artists group called the Nabis, the Hebrew word for "prophet." The Nabis believed painting should be recognized as a great decorative art. They claimed that for every emotion and thought there "existed a plastic decorative equivalent, a corresponding beauty." 124.

23. Eduouard Vuillard, Interior at L'Etang'la Ville, 1893.

Art Nouveau

The work of Pointillist painters, the Nabis and Symbolists, and Van Gogh generated further experimentation. In styles such as the Jugenstil in Germany, and Art Nouveau, artists integrated Symbolist ideas of internal experience, political idealism, mythology and dreams with decorative patterns and architecture. J "The avowed goal of Art Nouveau was to raise the crafts to the level of the fine arts, thereby aboloshing the distinction between them." Janson, 749. Art Nouveau is well known for organic and elongated decorative shapes. Like the work of William Morris, Art Nouveau aimed to improve the environment of the lower classes, and greatly influenced the applied arts. Simularly, the production of such designs proved expensive, and was available only to the wealthy.

24. Victor Horta. Interior Stairwell, Tassel House, Brussels,1892-93.


Gauguin and Van Gogh influenced the paintings of Northern Expressionists such as Edvard Munch. Munch was a Norwegian who created paintings of extreme emotion. The Expressionists manipulated color, pattern and line to convey their emotional state. In Austria, the painter, Gustav Klimt, was so moved by Munch's painting, The Scream, that he launched the Secessionist movement to elevate national art. (Janson 744) As we have seen, Klimt used patterned surfaces in his otherwise illusionistic paintings to introduce rich symbolism.

25. The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893.

Klimt: Watersnakes

To what end do the last four images make use of pattern?


Fauvism, another Post-Impressionist movement, continued to investigate the expressive powers of color already introduced by Van Gogh and Gauguin, but in a more formal manner. The most celebrated Fauve, Matisse, flattened his shapes into the flat decorative shapes introduced by Gauguin. Yet, as he coaxed his subjects into, these ornamental shapes, their contours formed strong and vibrant shorthand of color compositions. Matisse exploited the sensuous and abstract possibilities of color and pattern more than its Romantic symbolism.

26. Henri Matisse. The Red Studio, 1911.

Cezanne and Cubism
Cezanne, a contemporary of Seurat, represents a different but equally important direction in Post-Impressionism. Cezanne also flattened shapes to the picture plane, but in small planes of color. He employed these color planes in his landscapes and still lifes to articulate spatial relationships between figure and ground. Cezanne was the forerunner of the first Cubists, Picasso and Braque. Cubism presented disparate spatial views of the same subject in the same plane. Color and value were used to create spatial tension, rather than emotional expression. In these formal works, experimentation with the two-dimensional surface pushed painting anoather crucial step toward abstraction. plane.

27. Paul Cezanne, Mont Saint-Victoire, 1897-1900.

28. Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Ambrois Vollard, 1910.

29. Pablo Picasso, Still life with Chair Caning, 1912.

20th Century Abstract Paintings and Surrealism

Some early abstract paintings emerged out of the themes of Cubism, Fauvism and Expressionism. The artist Kandinsky 1906-1909 used color to express strong personal emotions. In his early work, he painted themes based on peasant life in the Bavarian hills. Kandinsky depicted their folklore with overtones of the supernatural. This emotional exploration rapidly moved him away from representational art, and he began to express his spirituality by transforming colorful shapes into purely abstract paintings.

30. Wassily Kandinsky. Sketch 2 for "Composition VII", 1913.

While Kandinsky and the German Expressionists abandonned realism to explore emotion or spirituality in complex abstract compositions, artists such as the Suprematist and Constructivist, Malevich, and the Neo-Plasticist, Mondrian integrated the planar forms of Cubism into their geometric work. Though Suprematist art is hard-edged and minimal, it is spiritually motivated too. Malevich believed that the pure aesthetic of a square represented spiritual perfection in space; Mondrian claimed that geometric shapes freed Man from subjectivity and drew him toward a higher universal consciousness. The early work of Constructivism laid the basis for the Bauhaus School of Architecture in the 1920s, evenutally establishing Mondrian's square as the dominant shape in contemporary architecture and Minimalist art. While these serious, formal artists placed little interest in ornament, their work does refer to pattern in an archetypal way. Mondrian's squares cannot help but remind us of the simplest pattern, the grid.

31. Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918.

32. Gerrit Rietveld. Shroeder House, Utrecht, 1924.

33. Piet Mondrian. Composition wiht Red, Blue and Yellow, 1930.

Surrealism and Dadaism

Experimentation with abstraction fused with the violent events of World War I to create even more revolutionary forms of art. The Dada movement lead by Marcel Duchamp, evolved as a protest against society and aimed to show mainstream values as meaningless in the context of the "Great War."

34. Duchamp, Mona Lisa

Surrealism followed Dada in 1924,led by the poet Andre Breton. Between World War I and World War II, Modern art continued to evolve under the influence of psychology and the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. It's chief components were the illustration of the dream, and Automatism. Automatisim meant that the artist allowed the unconscious to dictate the execution of his work. J 785 The painter, Max Ernst adopted collage, using photographs to create humorous but disturbing images. Janson 784 Like Ernst, Paul Klee drew upon the unconscious through cryptic symbols and signs, and developed a unique visual language. J. 787.

35. Max Ernst, Yachting from La Femme, 100 Tetes. 1929, Lynton 174

36. Paul Klee, Park near Lucern,1938.

Post War Art in Europe

World War II presented Europe with another major disaster. Artists again raged at the hypocrisy of society -- it's willingness to destroy life in spite of pretensions to humanism and justice. Wheeler. The existentialist writer, Sartre expressed the core philosophy of post-war art movements in Europe. "Man is alone in the world in a metaphysical void... the individual is free to seek his own way." Wheeler. In this case, angst over the brutality of war produced "an anti-aesthetic primitivism" rather than the cool and absurdist expressions of Dadaists. Wheeler. Their approach encouraged the concept of man's inner life as a valid subject, producing an and intuitive style, which came to be known as Art Informel or Tachism. Wheeler. It was characterized by loose, unconfined marks and shapes, as distinct from the hard edges of geometric abstraction. Wheeler. Expressive areas of texture were created by mixing paint with metal and other materials. The paintings of Dubuffet, reveal these features through flat, grotesque figures. These images express his low regard for conventional standards of beauty and composition. Wheeler. European Op artists countered his crude, accidental shapes with highly ordered patterns that made vibrating optical effects. Janson 804.

37. Jean Dubuffet, Le Metafisyx (Corps de Dames), 1950.

Do you see any pattern in Dubuffets painting?


A Viennese post-war artist, Hundertwasser adopted automatism and tachism into a style that exhibited strong biomorphic patterns. Hundertwasser was born in 1928 in the repressed atmosphere of pre-war Vienna, and found inspiration in Klimt's paintings. Strongly individualistic and talented, Hundertwasser left art school and went to Paris in 1949 where he was exposed to the work of Paul Klee and the Tachists. He invented his own style of painting, transautomatism. Briefly, transautomatism is planned automatism, or as Hundertwasser described it, the ability to identify with the process rather than the creation. Still in his youth Hundertwasser began a bohemian nomadic life and devoted himself to a philosophy based on the organicism of art. Hundertwasser opposed the Bahaus and its square geometry. He eschewed the straight line in preference for the spiral which he regarded as a symbol of natural cycles -- the continuity of life and death. "The spiral is a moral rejection of a rational mechanistic world with destructive and straight line." The organic shape of the spiral infused his work with repeating "onion slice" patterns in bright jeweled colors. Hundertwasser's anti-establishment theories on the environment, and his sense of art as a happening and consciousness raising process presaged the Sixties. His enthusiasm led him to write the Mouldiness Manifesto, a treatise on the "organic law of expansion, and rejection of rationalistic and functionalistic architecture." In this eccentric piece he proposes that a building should embody organic patterns of mildew.

Hundertwasser images from Dorothy's class

Postwar American Painting

While there was artistic growth in Europe after the war, the center of attention shifted to America where many great European artists sought refuge from Fascism. The United States had emerged as an unscarred victor from the preceding two wars, and provided an inspiring environment for artists. At the same time, existentialism and Carl Jung's concept of the collective unconscious influenced the mindset of American artists as it had European artists.

Janson, 794.

In post-war New York City the early Abstract Expressionist movement blossomed, and evolved into two bold styles: Action Painting and Field Painting. The painter, Jackson Pollock exemplified the style of Action painting in his famous drip paintings where the painting process became a "counterpart to life itself." Pollock's paintings developed into a record of the artist's psychic and physical journey with the medium. His marks, as they splashed the surface, recorded thickness, velocity and color of the paint pigment. The resulting paintings possess lavish textural patterns and energy. Page 796.

38 Jackson Pollock Autumn Rhythm: number 30 1950.

The Color Field Painter, Rothco reduced the wild elements of action painting into large patches of color that establish a subtle balance on the canvas. Other Color Field painters eliminated brushwork completely. Morris Louis poured thin paint onto the canvas producing a delicate pattern of stained colors that make a composition approaching bilateral symmetry.

39 Mark Rothko, Orange and Yellow, 1996.

40 Morris Louis, Blue Veil, 1958-59.

Later developments of Abstract Espressionism are seen in Minimalism and Conceptualism. Minimalism, presents the painting or sculpture as its own subject. Descended from Suprematism and Constructivism, these sculptures and paintings are based on primary geometric shapes that are impersonal, and have "minimal" internal relationships.

41 Donald Judd, Untitled. 1989.

42 Frank Stella. Empress of India. 1965.

Minimalism had reduced the content of art to simple geometry. Conceptualism went a step further, removing any emphasis on the art object to the artist's conception. This resulted in statements and presentations rather than actual physical works of art with aesthetic value.

Conceptualist Art challenges our definition of art ... insisting that the leap of the imagination, not the execution is art. According to this view, works of art can be dispensed with altogether, since they are incidental by-products of the imaginative leap. The creative process need only be documented in some way. Sometimes this is in verbal form, but more often it is by still photography, video or cinema.

43 Joseph Kosuth, One and three Chairs. 1965.

Post-Modernism: Pattern and Design Movement

Post-Modernism is a term used to label art after 1960. It rejects the ideals expressed by previous movements, including Modernism and its utopian visions, or any other principle that would organize the diversity of styles it contains. Democracy and Science as part of the Modern sensibility are seen as a hegemonic forces, rather than a virtues. Therefore "nontraditional approaches" from the Third world and the avant garde are celebrated. This generates a pluralism of styles where all aesthetics are equal. In spite of it's attempt to eschew all connections with the past, Post Modernism, like Dada, adopts an anarchistic, avant garde role that challanges the, established culture. Janson, p.886

The Pattern and Design movement (P&D) evolved along with many other Post-Modern styles in the 1970s. Young artists with recent BFAs and MFAs rebelled against the emptiness and exclusivity of Minimalism and Conceptualism Wheeler. Pattern which was considered an inappropriate subject matter for "high art," provided a strong tool for rebellion, and literally filled that emptiness. The young artists of the P&D movement sought inspiration from the great decorative painters, Matisse, Klimt and Gauguin. They recognized that Matisse "had shown abstraction and decoration to be interchangable .... and that Fauvism had arrived three years before Cubism." Wheeler. Added to these sources were the inclusion of the "nameless decorators" and folk artists who had designed patterned fabrics and garments throughout human history. Precolumbian, Indian, Moroccan, Native American design, Medieval and Celtic art, etc., provided endless inspiration. P&D was also a populist movement in the spirit of the Sixties. Solidarity with artists from the working class and the 3rd World merged with Feminism and a desire to change the culture into a more inclusive environment. The womens movement encouraged egalitarianism and brought new sensibilities to the male dominated establishment in the fine arts.

Miriam Shapiro called her pieces femmages, in reference to Cubist collages. Instead of objects such as cigars and newspaper clippings from the male world, she embroidered and stitched, substituting buttons, thread, sequins, and silk, to construct a feminine environment. She created a bridge between fine art and craft by assimilating "womens work" into modern styles.

44 From Daniel Wheeler: "ART Since MID-CENTURY 1945 to the Present"
Figure 553

In tune with the contradictory nature of Post-Modernism some P&D artists adapted minimalism to their new ideas. Wheeler

Zakanitch, used wallpaper patterns as subject matter. Incorporating field painting, he enlarged the scale of these decorative images, and organizes them on a grid. These elements are combined with a broad, painterly style.

45 From Daniel Wheeler: "ART Since MID-CENTURY 1945 to the Present"
Figure 554

Jaudon, is a Minimalist who was much influenced by the field paintings of Frank Stella. She uses large hard-edged geometric patterns in her work that appear as magnified details of the interlacing polygons of Islamic art.

46 From Daniel Wheeler: "ART Since MID-CENTURY 1945 to the Present"
Figure 559

Joyce Kosloff was also influenced by Minimalism. Her assemblages for public buildings exhibit clear compositions that utilize motifs and patterns from folk art. She exploits the naive beauty of pattern to make art more accessible to the public.

47 From Daniel Wheeler: "ART Since MID-CENTURY 1945 to the Present"
Figure 560

What is your view of Minimalism, Conceptualism.

Do you see Post-Modernism as useful or fragmenting.

Do you think that a movement such as P&D could create a bridge between the popular audience and artist?

Do you think pattern has more than a decorative role in the arts?

At what point does a pattern become a composition for you?

How does pattern reflect organic and inorganic reality in painting?

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© Copyright 1996, Pippa Drew and Dorothy Wallace, Dartmouth College