Geometry in composition goes in and out of fashion. It was very much in fashion for many of the painters I count among my influences: the Cubists, Constructivists, and their offshoots, one group of which even called themselves the Section d’Or, or Golden Section, after a rather well known ratio that has long fascinated mathematicians and mystics alike. There is a fair amount of evidence that some Renaissance painters used some rather complicated geometries in their work, notably Piero della Francesca, and of course many books have been written about the use of geometry in painting, architecture and sculpture. For painting, the go-to book is probably Charles Bouleau’s excellent “The Painter’s Secret Geometry” (sadly out of print, but many libraries have it).
Geometry had quite a strong presence in the painting of the first half of the 20th century, but eventually it got a bad rap from the other big current in 20th century art, Surrealism and its offshoots, notably Abstract Expressionism. Painters from that side of the fence celebrated the irrational, the spontaneous outpourings of the unconscious, and chance. In the post-WWII era somehow the very concept of rationality itself came to be seen as a force of oppression, and Geometry came to be seen as the embodiment of rationality, so it was pretty much in eclipse during that time.
But the ascendance of this viewpoint probably had more to do with intellectual fashion than any kind of fundamental insight. By the time I was in art school, observations like this had become a kind of knee-jerk reflex: “The artists who came together in COBRA rejected rational Western culture, which, as could be seen from the Second World War, had shown itself to be rotten to the core.” Well sure, I guess, if you consider the Second World War to be a rational project, rather than one of the most collosal outbreaks of mass insanity in human history. I pulled that quote from Willemijn Stokvis’ book “COBRA: An International Movement in Art after the Second World War” (Rizzoli, 1987), but you could find similar sentiments expressed all over the place.
The “Geometry equals Rationality” idea is also questionable. There is no doubt that Euclid is incredibly rational, methodically constructing an amazingly complex edifice from a very small set of initial postulates. But geometry has also had a long-standing association with the mystical, by way of various sacred geometries and their symbolism. So it kind of points both ways, rational and otherwise.
In any case, I think we can move beyond the preoccupations of the post-WWII generation at this point, or at least we don’t have to take them at face value anymore. At the same time, we probably shouldn’t take the exalted claims of the earlier proponents of geometry at face value either, and here I’m thinking of some of the more strident pronouncements of, say, Torres-Garcia and other early proponents of the Constructive school. If we use geometry in our works, we’d need to have some kind of reason that would make sense for us now. I’ll talk about my reasons in an upcoming post.