The origin of the figurative ornament of the Upper Palaeolithic is not known but it is assumed that it has its starting point in the need of imitation and of register of the impressions that nature exerts on man. Ornamental collections decorate sanctuaries and mausoleums of the tombs of Kharraqan de Gazur Gah in the outskirts of the Herat city and the palaces of Nishapur from the 11th century and of Isfahan (Grabbar, 2000). For example, in Persian painting the ornament plays a role of mediation that allows the access to the image, delimiting the space and the pictoric structure and controlling the surfaces. A style that in a sensitive way captures the movement of a hunter in the capture of an animal requires more than the reproduction of the visible, it also requires the creative and imaginative skill of the one who produces the drawing, painting or ornament. In this sense the position of the psychologist Karl Buhler is interesting when considering that the ornament of the “primitive people” was directly developed from the game with lines, similar to a childlike scribble or also of the elementary lines and forms produced randomly during the production of utilitarian objects, from the action of scraping on a stone during the making of an axe, scraping on wood and of the fingerprints in the clay when modelling it (Heng, 1931) (Fig. 1).
The ornament is used in all cultural and artistic traditions. It is present in paintings, in sculptures, on clothing and everyday objects with the purpose to accentuate the quality of a utensil or the façade of a building. The ornament is understood as a decorative device incorporated in the non essential object for the functional and structural definition of this object. In its evolution, the ornament appeared as something that is above the functional form added for the visual pleasure of the individual. Through the ornament we can highlight or hide the structural elements of the objects and architecture. The ornament also has the capacity of transforming objects in particular realities. The new configuration of the object provoked by its use is at the origin of a relationship of belonging of its keeper identifying it culturally with a group. When ornamenting an object one glorifies the object. For example, the ornament unlike the painting may be used on big surfaces and found in any place and seen by everyone. If we want to know if a specific characteristic of a certain object is or not an ornament, we should try to imagine it without that same specific characteristic. If the object continues structurally whole and can fulfil the function it was made for, as James Trilling points out (2003), that specific mark may be considered an ornamental element. An ornament is always a convention. Its forms, styles and applications vary with time and the places in which they were produced. In this sense, the ornament is an important source of information about the socio-political values of a certain culture or of a certain people. The ornaments are developed within the constraints of history and of beliefs, in representations of these symbols and in the technical limitations imposed by the materials used in the creative plastic expression of the craftsmen and artists of various origins and periods.
The study of the choices and treatment method of the ornaments in various cultures allows the knowledge of the objective aesthetic quality predominant of the forms in those cultures. It is believed that the ornament was primarily used in a utilitarian and ritual way of its nature, but with time, it evolved for a purely decorative or artistic stylish effect, at times, largely now without its old rituals and symbolical meaning presenting itself with peculiar stylizations, reducing the forms to its abstract essence. The ornament frequently has a concrete narrative content, visually discernible, but its value resides in the sovereignty of visual pleasure that comes from it. If a certain decoration requires more information than what the actual forms transmit, if we can not enjoy them without knowing their narrative content, than that decoration is not an ornament. The imitation of nature may be in the origin of the ornamental element but this does not always happen. A similar evolution from the specific functional elements for the decoration in general may be detected in the artistic expression of various places.
Depouilly, Jacques (1998). Apprenez à regarder les dessins de vos enfants. Paris: Samogy.
Grabbar, Oleg (2000). Mostly Miniatures. An Introduction to Persian Painting. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Heng, Helga (1931). The Psychology of Children’s Drawings. London: Routledge.
Trilling, James (2001). The Language of Ornament. London: Thames and Hudson.
Trilling, James (2003). Ornament: a modern perspective. Washington: University of Washington Press.