Bazon Brock: „The Dowry of the Princess of Trebizond“ – Pisanello frees design from the clutches of the art monster.
On an early expedition to Verona with Linde, François, Melusine as the royal household of the Princess of Trebizond.
Ever since she started her working life, Linde Burkhardt has had to endure and overcome a basic conflict of Modernity that arises from the rivalry of artistic/ architectural efforts, on the one hand, and from designer activities on the other. The shape this conflict has taken in Germany is denoted by the juxtaposition of creation and design or, with other equally customary terms, that of creative artists to application-oriented designers.
The exaggerated institutional variant of this was the contrast between colleges or academies of the fine arts on the one hand and colleges of applied art on the other. The conflict was played out historically at the even more fundamental level of art as opposed to crafts.
The Bauhaus attempted, by obliging all students to attend foundation courses on design, to put the conflict to bed, hoping that the challenges of everyday practical life would at the end of the day spare the graduates the decision, who would quite naturally opt to take up the offer of work in a field of design in full-fledged industrial production rather than proudly eke out an existence as a free artist. In another attempt to mediate between the two sides, as of the early 1980s I proposed that the history of so- called abstract art be included from the point of view of cultural history in the ancient history of the ornament.
I felt there were good grounds for assuming that in the so-called non-figuration and abstraction in the field of painting we were seeing the much older validity claim of the ornamental tradition asserting itself. I was then forced soberly to concede, above all in discussions with Gerhard Merz, that contemporary art-faithful youngsters definitely did not feel their status enhanced by being assigned to a tradition of the ornament that went back at least 6,000 years; all of them preferred to consider themselves marginal figures of art history, which went back just under 600 years. In his Ph. D. thesis on “Ornament and Abstraction”, which I supervised, Markus Brüderlin offers an admirably differentiated account of the entire complex of themes.
To this day, Adolf Loos’ polemic against the ornament as a crime continues to hold sway such that even the palest imitator of an artist feels justified in boosting his self-esteem by passing disparaging remarks on the “lower” artists of design. Even the slightest willingness to learn a lesson from historical facts soon helps us realize that Loos was more intelligent than he was allowed to appear to be in order to still be considered a radical member of the avant-garde. For his polemic was only leveled against the ill-fitting surface beautification of Wilhelminian times, as he sought to highlight the design logic at work beneath the surface. And to this day it reads “less is more”. The “less” (meaning reduction) leads us back to the origins of design as creating a coherent shape of things. And the earliest form that coherence takes was that of unit. The earliest form of the unit is the decoration, which bonds the parts through creative expression. Anyone who places an ornament, e.g., a meander or a dentil, across the most heterogeneous of worldly items has claimed that they cohere. The proportional shift of elements of a design to an expression of the evident logical coherence of their unity generates the basic form of all decorum. And such decorum also denotes each and every meaningful context in social and political action, as Siegfried Kracauer clearly showed in his standard reference work on the “Mass Ornament”.
Linde Burkhardt has sidestepped the fruitless polemic between artists and designers by postulating as a teacher and practitioner that artistic and design work should only be understood as the steady development of the skill set needed to unleash the basics of design; what is masterful is then not something beyond all efforts regarding the fundamentals, but is the enhanced ability to use them productively.
Precisely when we first formulated that slogan of postmodern pathos “Anything goes” (and if it doesn’t, then it simply doesn’t) we, and with us essentially all our contemporaries, were discussing something similar; be it because we had to distinguish design work clearly from the commodity propaganda of advertising or because we wanted to opt by the design of everyday appliances for influencing the public sphere far more than we could by relying on the impact of individual artworks.
I would like to recall such a discussion here. In 1973 I traveled with Linde and François and my girlfriend Melusine to Verona, in order to try out the food at the Dodici Apostoli for the planned excursions of the Petrarca Prize Association. In order to practice mutually shared criteria for judging things by means of art historical exercises, among other things we confronted ourselves at Sant’ Anastasia with Pisanello’s marvelous fresco dating from the 1430s, which takes up a universally much-liked theme, namely the liberation of the princess, the virgin, purity herself, from the clutches of sinister forces. According to the title, Pisanello described the Princess of Trabizond being liberated from the dungeons of an awful exile where she had landed owing to dynastic squabbles over marriage. The husband imposed on the fair woman was, in Pisanello’s piece, a veritable monster, whose virility and pestilence threatened to bring down even those champions of loyalty and faith trained in the virtues of chivalry. Inspired by the emigration of Byzantine scholars of all fields to Florence, Pisanello declared his work to be not that of an artist, but of a zoographos, i.e., a source of life, analogous to the power of women who brought forth life by giving birth. The life that the zoographer could create was something we experienced for ourselves when contemplating the Pisanello piece: we were enthusiastic, moved, and were prompted to argue about it.
Let me simply reduce our responses to a single issue: We asked ourselves what this theme could mean for our own day, back then. We all felt that those who gave life to our world were those who sought to augment, intensify and stimulate the everyday life of our contemporaries, by designing everyday objects, architecture, urban infrastructures, in short by socio- design. Socio-design means to use design to influence social behavior and a person’s particular attitude in a manner desirable. And what is desirable is anything that enhances the intensity of perception and the expression of life. Nothing is more beneficial than the loving, the educating, the heroic dedication of women to men and men to women. To this end, the fetters of convention, of confession, of competition need be burst asunder. Liberation is the precondition for free decision-making. Meaning St. George was a critic of ideology, someone who did battle with the prison of self-confinement and subjection to purportedly immutable compulsions. The idea: to liberate the live-giving power of meaning as imbued in our daily lives by creative design. The dragon that prevents this potential free unleashing of our own powers is the attitude inculcated in us that we have to disguise ourselves as existentially deep-thinking holy artists, or so the arts page critics and potential patrons demand.
Given the distribution of roles among us animated observers, in light of our biographies and demonstrated sphere of influence the question arose as to which of the figures and situations portrayed we would associate ourselves with. I at any rate with no further ado saw myself as the liberator of the design potential locked away in Linde. François, as Director of the International Design Center, and her husband had to identify with the powerful lindworm of the social institutions. Melusine Huss as a bookseller had the wish as the person reading to Pisanello and his companions to have inspired the theme. And then “as we always did Sundays”, we all repaired to lunch in the Twelve Apostles, in joyful self-affirmation. Since then, Linde has enjoyed an astonishing liberty in asserting her notion of the work. She has succeeded in freeing herself from the terrorist diktat of over-emphasized design in favor of artistic creation and has uniquely, meaning self-confidently, found expression for this in carpets, ceramics, textiles, glasses, decors, all of which have a socio-design impact. She has decisively contributed to the fact that we must now accept how far harder it is today to gain sway as a designer rather than an artist. For even the weakest artist can lay claim to the validity of his work by suggesting that the perceived tangible resistance to it confirms just how extraordinary it is. This flight into the role of the mistaken genius-cum-artist is something designers simply cannot do. That is and remains their claim to fame.