What is mosaic and what is not? Art consultant & mosaic scholar Daniele Torcellini asks The Question
What is “mosaic?” What is not “mosaic?” Is mosaic relevant in today’s art world? Are these questions even worth asking? Ravenna-based docent, art consultant, writer and expert in the history, restoration and use of color Daniele Torcellini tackles these questions in this scholarly and fascinating article. Torcellini begins by comparing the classical definitions of painting and mosaic, makes a startling comparison between the historical acceptance of photography as fine art and the state of contemporary mosaics and concludes – well, we’ll let you discover his final thoughts yourself. MAN is indebted to Mr. Torcellini for this thoughtful and provocative paper.
Note: Translator Julie Richey has stayed true to Torcellini’s original transcript. For purposes of this paper, the word “technique” in regards to mosaic refers to the use of mosaic design concepts (e.g. the use of color, andamento, reflectivity and texture).
Comments: Comments will be taken for two weeks following the publication of this post and will be moderated by the editor.
Mosaic? Post-Mosaic? Neo-Mosaic? Non-Mosaic?
The objective of this discourse is to propose a reflection dedicated to the mosaic technique from various definitions posed by encyclopedic resources and in relation to an artistic context, growing in diffusion and quality, relating to this technique.
The Italian encyclopedia Treccani calls mosaic, “decorative technique which, through the use of fragments (ordinarily small cubes, called mosaic tesserae) of natural stone, terracotta or glass paste, white, black or colored, applied to a solid surface with a cement or mastic, reproduces a determined design.” The same dictionary defines painting [technique]: “the art of painting [action], portraying something, or expressing other intuitions of fantasy, by means of lines, colors, masses, values and tones on a surface. The processes which permit the affixation of colorants or pigments to a surface (support) according to the will and the project of the artist, have had over the centuries, variations and preferences,” defining the act of painting as “representing artistically or with artistic intention a real or imaginary object using colors.”
This definition doesn’t differ much from that of the Encyclopedia Britannica, even though here mosaic explicitly belongs to a much larger field of art. About mosaic, it says “in art, decoration of a surface with designs made up of closely set, usually variously coloured, small pieces of material such as stone, mineral, glass, tile or shell” and for painting, “the expression of ideas and emotions, with the creation of certain aesthetic qualities, in a two-dimensional visual language. The elements of this language – its shapes, lines, colours, tones, and textures – are used in various ways to produce sensations of volume, space, movement, and light on a flat surface.”
Certain reflections can also be made from these definitions. Mosaic seems like a “decorative technique,” a “decoration of surface,” that reproduces a pre-existing design. Therefore a technique not appropriate to express that which painting is allowed to express: “the intuition of fantasy,” “according to the will and the project of the artist,” and “the expression of ideas and emotions.” In the world of mosaic, these expressive possibilities seem to belong to the design being reproduced.
From this point on the discussion may retrace the steps of a historical discussion analogous to the technique of photography and its rapport with painting. A dialectic in which the photograph, for a long time, was considered a mechanical discipline limited to the reproduction of that which is posed in front of the lens, because of the optical and chemical properties of the photo camera. A technique unable to express the will of the artist, i.e. the photographer, who is apparently and simplistically deprived of every artistic freedom. In analyzing the definitions, something analogous seems to be attributed to the work of the mosaicist: a mechanical, decorative reproduction of a pre-existing design, made with the juxtaposition of little separate elements, according to a procedure strictly decoded rather than on the basis of the expression of an artistic intention.
As it happened with photography that has seen, over the passage of time, recognition of its expressive values in addition to its reproductive ones, we could then admit that someday mosaic too can be considered something else as opposed to an exclusively decorative technique. In this case, the definition that the Encyclopedia Treccani gives to painting [action] could be used in a generic but appropriate way to describe mosaic. Isn’t it also possible, utilizing the mosaic technique, to “represent artistically or with artistic intention an object, real or imaginary, utilizing color?”
But the definition of painting [technique] could be even more adequate: with the technique of mosaic isn’t it possible to portray something or express an intuition or fantasy, “by means of line, colors, masses, values and tones on a surface?” If one responds affirmatively to the previous question, mosaic would appear to be a pictorial discipline.
Now the next question we can pose is the following: does it make sense to talk about the artistic level of a technique? Personally, I think it doesn’t. It is not the technique itself that can be defined more or less artistic, more or less decorative, but the thing that is realized by means of the technique to be an artistic, decorative or design object. An object that expresses the visual culture of a given period.
This question seems to be accompanied or preceded by another one: does it make sense to talk about the modernity of a technique? Photography is a technique of image production more modern than painting, but only and exclusively in reference to the fact that the latter has origins much older than the former. In this sense, digital technologies are even more modern. Perhaps, from this point of view, they are the only truly contemporary techniques. But a visual culture of a defined period develops through the use of a multiplicity of techniques, more or less ancient, recovering at times forgotten ones, developing new ones, abandoning and reevaluating others.
Mosaic, from this point of view, certainly can’t be called modern, just as painting or sculpture, and no less architecture. Yet the fact remains that it’s possible to create contemporary works using these techniques. Therefore, in a way most analogous to the question of the artistry of a technique, the issue of the “contemporariness” of mosaic could be resolved. It is not about contemporary mosaics, but contemporary works realized in mosaic.
Contemporary mosaic doesn’t exist, but contemporary artists that utilize mosaic as their preferred technique or expressive language do. And for a work of art to have value, regardless of the technique chosen to accomplish it, it is necessary that the artist has something to say and knows how to say it. In the world of mosaic, it often happens that we come across those who have something to say but don’t know how to say it, and those who know how to say something but have nothing to say.
Therefore, perhaps it’s better to ask ourselves, as Linda Kniffitz, curator of the International Center for Documentation of Mosaic in Ravenna, brilliantly did when referring to the thoughts of Nelson Goodman: “when is it mosaic?” instead of questions like, “what is mosaic?” or “is mosaic art?” “Is it contemporary?” and “can mosaic be an artistic expression of our times?”
To be honest, I think it’s futile to force a definition of mosaic, and I consider misleading, or at least constricting, the definitions taken into consideration.
At any rate, if we want to restrict the area of possibilities, I believe that today, amongst the most interesting artistic expressions tied to the techniques of mosaics, there are those in which the mosaic is analytic. In other words, those in which the use of this technique is also an analysis of the very same technique. Here one sees the best results and, to respond to the question posed by Linda Kniffitz, this could be a definition: a work is contemporary mosaic when it analyzes mosaic, when it deconstructs and then reconstructs the forms and the rules of composition, when its aesthetic value is based upon them [forms and rules], when it pushes their [forms’ and rules’] limits and the possibilities to the maximum. The analytic mosaic creates works in which the methods of mosaic realization are investigated, going beyond the mosaic itself.
In this way one defines the possibility of creating works-that-are-mosaic even if one doesn’t use the technique of mosaic. It’s also possible to investigate mosaic through materials that aren’t typical of mosaic or by means of other techniques. I believe it is possible to analyze mosaic through an image in jpeg, an assemblage of rubbish or whatever else. In this case one could talk of structurally mosaic works.
On the other hand, it’s also possible to make works-that-are-not-mosaic utilizing the mosaic technique. This is the case with sculptural works covered in mosaic or translations of paintings, cartoons or drawings. In this case one could speak of decorative mosaic-like works.
In one case and the other, it’s possible to conduct artistic, esthetic and conceptual research. In one case and the other it’s possible to express “the intuition of fantasy,” “according to the will and the project of the artist,” “the expression of emotions”, creating mosaic or anything else.
Whether the pieces that are created are works of art or not, will be for critics or future generations to decide, provided the traditional definition of art is still valid.
Daniele Torcellini, February 2012
Translation courtesy of Julie Richey, juliericheymosaics.com
Daniele Torcellini (born in Fano, Italy in 1978) is a docent of Contemporary Methodologies and Techniques at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ravenna and is a Ph.D. student in Contemporary Art History from the University of Siena, where he is conducting research on the history and technology of reproduction of colors in works of art.
Since 2006, Torcellini has been a collaborator with the International Centre for Documentation on Mosaic at the City of Ravenna’s Museum of Art. His principle themes of research are those of visual perception of colors, particularly regarding the history, conservation and reproduction of the art form. He has presented his research findings at seminars and conferences and has published numerous opinions and articles in national and international locations. Among the publications is the book The Perception of Colors in the Practice of Restoration.
Derivations, in “O(Ax) = dO(Am) Impossible Equations” exhibition catalog, MAR (City of Ravenna Museum of Art) November 4 – 20, 2011 edited by the Marte Cultural Association
Medium or Message? Limited Episodes of the Reproduction of Colors in Works of Art in “Colors and Colorimetry; Multidisciplinary contributions” Proceedings of the Sixth National Conference of Color (Rome, Sept. 15 – 16 2011)
Sparkles, Colours and other light effects. The problem of the photographic reproduction of mosaic, in “The Proceedings: Interaction of Colour & Light in the Arts and Sciences, 7-10 June, 2011 Zurich, Switzerland”. Midterm Meeting of the International Colour Association.
Torcellini is a member of the Italian “Group of Colors” (www.gruppodelcolore.it), of AIC (International Colour Association (www.aiccolour.org) and of CREATE, Colour Research for European Advanced Technology Employment (www.create.uwe.ac.uk). He is a founding member and president of the Marte Cultural Association and is a contributing editor for the French mosaic magazine, Mosaique.
The knowledge that the light emanating from the materials used in mosaics has the power to move a viewer into a deeper realm of looking – to commune with the divine – has inspired British artist, author, and lecturer Dr. Elaine M. Goodwin for over 20 years. The new works seen here – her own personal search for the Absolute – will be part of her upcoming traveling exhibition “Homage to Byzantium.” The monograph below in which Goodwin speaks on why mosaic is her medium of choice will accompany the exhibition.
My personal understanding of the extraordinary power the Byzantine mosaic Masters were able to conceive for the mosaic medium, how they achieved this technically and how this influences my present work.
In the 1990s, I uncovered a Byzantine secret which completely changed the way I work in mosaic. The revelation provided me with the possibility of creating a truly personal voice.
I had worked in mosaic since leaving Art college and knew of its attraction as a wonderously decorative medium and its beauty and durability as a functional one, but I had not realized its power as a medium capable of producing spiritual awe and personal insight.
I was in Italy, in the city of Ravenna, in the 6th century Basilica of San Vitale, studying the Byzantine mosaics which embellish the presbytery, when a shaft of light fell across part of the surface, enveloping the whole area in a beam of light – light made up of a myriad of variously light/dark particles – and my perception was transformed.
The actual mosaic image I was looking at had, in effect, dematerialized into light. This gave me a far deeper insight into my looking. All was enhanced and more profoundly comprehended – the images had been transubstantiated and this took my understanding into another realm.
I knew immediately that this way of perceiving mosaic could also be obtained in my other work – if I allowed that which was looked at to be marvelled upon and act as a catalyst to a greater consciousness.
And the key to unlocking this deeper response was simple. It was in the very materials used in mosaic – it was they which had the ability to both hold and dispel the light.
So the shifting light which I saw ripple across the surface of a Byzantine mosaic owed its life to the materials of which it was made. And, it was the Byzantine mosaic Maestros who relished experiment who had discovered this latent potential in the materials they used.
Byzantine mosaics were made of two specialized glass materials called “smalti” and Venetian gold leaf glass. These hand-made materials are pressed into a setting of mortar at diverse angles – and it was the manipulation of the angling techniques which the Byzantine mosaic artists exploited for greatest effect.
For them, the precious golden glass was tilted toward or away from light to express Divinity – gold being a worthy vehicle to transport Divine ideas as its own purity was assured by having been processed through the element of fire.
Thus, the reflective quality of the materials of mosaic were used in the early mediaeval period as the most important technique for expressing the new religious ideas in pictorial form and in the expression of the sublime.
I returned home to my studio knowing I had found an art medium through which I too was able to pursue my ever-increasing questions on the nature of my existence and the whys and wherefores of Life!
I experimented within the boundaries of the mosaic medium – a medium whose paramount characteristic for me now had become the reflective surface qualities of its materials.
It would be impossible to express myself fully in any other materials but those having a reflective usage; Venetian gold leaf glass, Ravenna glass, Venetian glass smalti and Carrara marble. Each, when cut and placed in its own inimitable way, exhibits light.
Mosaic, for me, permits just the right amount of contemplation and reflection throughout the making of a work. Whether it is the cutting of the tesserae on the hammer and hardie, the mixing of various mastics in which to hold each piece, the question of whether or not to grout, or the size and the siting of a work, all these considerations and more are assembled time and time again with the making of each new piece.
My mind is a labyrinthine repository of things felt and sensed – one thread of which to be unravelled and held in each new work – one more enquiry into the Absolutes to be explored in a medium of acknowledged durability.
My work changed – from imitation of nature to abstract contemplation – from an outward looking to an inward attitude of mind.
My work now explores what I choose to leave out rather than what I put in – it epitomizes an eloquence of the less.
An artist’s life – my life – is one of continuous enquiry: questions are asked of the self – and answered through the work – again and again, with varying degrees of success. It is a never-ending dialogue between experience and creation.
Elaine M. Goodwin
“Homage to Byzantium” Exhibition dates and venues 2012:
Dr. Elaine M. Goodwin works exclusively in the medium of mosaic using traditional materials of Carrara marble, Venetian gold and glass smalto. These specialised materials, so well understood by Byzantine artists for their light-emitting qualities and inherent spiritual power, provide her with a continual challenge. Her imagery includes the human form in abstract and associated forms and conceits. She travels extensively in Europe, the Middle East, India, and North Africa to research and record Roman, Byzantine and modern mosaics and to gather inspiration.
Goodwin was born in England and trained at Exeter College of Art and Design. Her homes and studios are in Exeter, England and Marrakech, Morocco.
2008 Founder member of TE21 (Tessellated Expression for the 21st Century): a group of international mosaic artists
2006 Member of the AIMC (International Association of Contemporary Mosaicists), based in Ravenna, Italy
1999-2005 Founder President, BAMM (British Association for Modern Mosaic)
England, Greece, Australia, Italy, Egypt, Canada, India, France, Macedonia, Turkey, Tunisia
Private and National Collections
England, Scotland, France, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy, North America, Australia, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Egypt, India, Greece, Germany, Morocco, Macedonia
England, Scotland, India, Australia, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Egypt, India, Greece, Germany, Morocco, Macedonia Public Commissions/Murals: England, Scotland, India
Forthcoming and Recent Exhibitions
2012 Homage to Byzantium, Gallery Annafietta, Ravenna, Italy (solo)
2012 Homage to Byzantium, Galerie, Château de Bourglinster, Luxembourg (solo)
2011 From Here to Eternity, The Street Gallery, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, England<
2010 Tesserae II, Galerie of the Musée de la Mosaïque, Briare, France (solo)
2010 Tesserae I, Municipale Galerie d’Art, Diekirch, Luxembourg (solo)
2009 First International Exhibition of World Mosaic, Comune de Ravenna and AIMC, Ravenna, Italy
2009 The Human Form in Mosaic, Gallery of the British School at Rome, Rome, Italy
2009 International Mosaic Workshop and Exhibition, Biblioteca Alexandrina, Alexandria, Egypt
2009 Looking Through to You, Lawrence-Arnott Gallery, Marrakech, Morocco (solo)
2008 The Human Form in Mosaic, Dorset Country Museum and Art Gallery, Dorchester, England (solo)<
2008 7ème Rencontres Internationales de Mosaïque, Chapelle St Eman/Chapelle Fulbert, Chartres, France
2008 Tripping the Light Fantastic, Galerie, Château de Bourglinster, Luxembourg (solo)
2007 Pulsations of Marrakech II, Le Rondeau, Bridel, Luxembourg (solo)
2007 Points of Perception II, The Street Gallery, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, England
2007 Points de Perception, Galerie of the Musée de la Mosaïque, Briare, France, (solo)
1996 Museum of Fine Art, Alexandria, Egypt (AIMC)
1995 European Parliament Gallery, Strasbourg, France (solo)
1994 Palace of Art, Kamakura, Japan (AIMC)
1993 Arno Art Gallery, Brussels, Belgium (solo)
1991 The Barbican, London, England
1991 The Constructed Image International Mosaic, Leighton House, London, England
2008 Mosaic Today, David Porteous Publications, UK and Trafalgar Square USA UK ISBN-13: 978-1570763991
2007 The Human Form in Mosaic, Crowood Press, UK ISBN-13: 978-1861269812
2003 Encyclopedia of Mosaic, Batsford/Chrysalis UK ISBN-13: 978-1570762666
2000 Classic Mosaic, Quintet UK (also trans.) ISBN-13: 978-1840923285
1999 The Art of Decorative Mosaic, Crowood Press, UK (revised ed. 2008) ISBN-13: 978-1847970565
1992 Decorative Mosaics, Letts/New Holland, UK (also trans.) ISBN 1-84537 055 4 (2005 ed.)
Ilana Shafir has been called The Grand Dame of Contemporary Mosaics and, indeed, the only way to describe the eighty-seven year old Israeli artist and teacher is as a master of the medium. Using her signature materials of handmade ceramic, pebbles, found objects and gold smalti, Shafir weaves fantastic stories and creates fruitful universes filled with joy, exuberance and strength. Shafir’s work has won numerous international awards and the artist was recently honored with the only solo exhibition organized in conjunction with the biennale RavennaMosaico 2011. Shafir was selected by jurors Emma Biggs and Matthew Collings as one of the eight artists in MAN’s Exhibition in Print 2011. Classically trained in drawing and painting, Shafir began making mosaics in the 1960s. Here, she takes us into her studio and how she finds “constant renewal and endless inspiration” in the making of her mosaics.
Tapping into the Spiritual Potential of Each and Every Piece: My Spontaneous Mosaics
My mosaic garden is an outdoors exhibition space where plants and mosaics coexist peacefully and harmoniously together. Over the years, my mosaic garden has attracted many visitors, all of whom enjoy their tour of the garden but feel utterly baffled when they enter my studio.
My studio is habitually packed with loads of mosaic materials. The casual observer is often surprised to find my enormous collection of ceramic shards, natural stones, handmade ceramic pieces, pebbles, seashells, and broken sculptures and china of all shapes and colors. “I can’t understand how you make beautiful mosaics out of all this trash!” a dear friend once memorably exclaimed. His reaction was rather common.
Visitors are always astonished to see the enormous collection I have, and often deem it excessive. They fail to see the inherent potential in these fragments. To them, these shards look useless and unattractive, lacking any artistic or aesthetic value.
I find it difficult to explain – how I put together totally disparate pieces in a way that makes them indivisible. It does not happen instantly! To create this tight bond, I search for days and weeks but when I find the right match I feel enormous joy and happiness.
I tap in to the spiritual and aesthetic qualities inherent in each piece, I feel its energy and how it interacts with other pieces. When this new configuration transforms the parts into a whole – that is, when it becomes alive – I know I have found the right result.
I marvel at this phenomenon in which two disparate pieces attract, influence each other, and miraculously become inseparable. To me, this is magic, and I am always delightfully surprised when it happens.
This process, which I call Spontaneous Mosaic, offers me a rich and exciting artistic life. My work keeps me open-minded and engaged. It offers a sense of constant renewal and endless inspiration. I consider myself fortunate to be able to lead such an exciting and interesting creative life while approaching my 88th birthday.
Ilana Shafir, February 2012 Ashkelon, Israel
Learn more about Ilana Shafir here on MAN.
We absolutely expected to see beautiful photographs of the ten opulent and impressive mosaics that make up this body of work. Begun in 2002 and completed in 2009, the Queen Esther series has garnered a number of honors for Broca including a gold medal at the 2003 Florence Biennale and a spot in Mosaic Art NOW’s 2011 Exhibition in Print.
The story of Queen Esther is delicious Biblical thriller about a Hebrew beauty contest winner who conceals her religion, becomes a queen and, through the courageous use of her womanly wiles, saves her people from a massacre sanctioned by her husband. Broca’s ten mosaics follow Esther from frightened teenager to mature and confident queen.
Because we know her, we weren’t surprised to find Broca very eloquent as she shares the personal bedrock that lies beneath her mosaics – the affinity for the Byzantine aesthetic formed by a harsh childhood in Communist-ruled Bucharest, an accomplished artistic career spanning multiple mediums, and, most important, her unswerving commitment to turn a spotlight on the “societal issues involving women and their plight in historical times” through the use of symbolism and metaphor.
In this book, Broca walks the reader through her process as an artist with excellent illustrations following the creation of each mosaic from initial sketch to completion. She spends just the right amount of time talking about the physical process of mosaic-making and even manages to make the process sound almost mystical. Broca clearly revels in the making of mosaics.
Broca’s narrative is especially rich for us when she speaks of her use of symbolism. Here, she discusses the element of wrought iron she employs throughout the series.
This work establishes Mordechai as the other hero and as, in effect, her (Esther’s) co-conspirator in the plan to counter Haman’s evildoing. Here, the wrought iron motif – which elsewhere symbolizes the oppression and segregation of women in an ancient patriarchal society – takes on a different meaning, becoming part of the opulent palace gate, with the royal initial appearing in its center.
And here, Broca points out how she uses the basic components of mosaic in creating a symbolic visual moment.
In the right panel of the triptych, the image of the column melts down at the bottom, first becoming two dimensional and monochromatic, next a line drawing, and finally the line pixelating into small colored fragments that form a shapeless mound of tesserae. This visual degeneration symbolizes the defeat and destruction of the Persian empire soon after the reign of King Ahashvayrosh and Queen Esther. The falling pixels or tesserae also form Esther’s name in Hebrew and Farsi.
Yes, Broca’s thoroughly satisfying portion of the book met and exceeded all our expectations for a good mosaic read.
What we hadn’t expected in The Hidden and the Revealed were the additional contributions made by feminist artist Judy Chicago, art historian Sheila Campbell and Rabbi Yosef Wosk that made this book an even richer, multi-faceted experience.
In her foreword, Chicago discusses the traditional struggles of women within the confines of historically patriarchal religions. She also finds the mosaic connection between her homage to the Empress Theodora from The Dinner Party and Broca’s Queen Esther series.
In fact, I included a place setting honoring Theodora in The Dinner Party (my monumental symbolic history of women in Western Civilization permanently housed at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum) because she is considered a pioneer of feminism due to the many laws she passed benefiting women’s rights. Moreover, the design for her plate and runner are based on the mosaic technique.
Campbell’s portion of the book, A Biblical Thriller, Told For Centuries, uses the “vignettes” from the myth selected by Broca to discuss how visual artists throughout the ages have approached the story of Esther. She cites works by Rembrandt, Gelder and Gentileschi and others, sometimes directly comparing their interpretations to Broca’s.
A Biblical Thriller, Told For Centuries is no dry art history lesson. We loved this portion of Campbell’s discussion of the Gentileschi painting below.
Perhaps the paramount factor here is that the artist was a career woman who needed to paint to support herself and her family. The story of her rape and the subsequent delayed trial are well known. After the trial she moved from her father’s studio in Rome to northern Italy, where she was quietly married off. At the time she executed this painting, she was in Venice, where the costumes depicted were very much in vogue. It seems evident, therefore, that this work was painted for a particular market, and successfully so since we know it sold quickly.
Rabbi Yosef Wosk describes his portion of the book, Beneath the Mask, as “. . . a combination of essay, poem, and narrative conversation in which I enter the text of Estr as a kinaesthetic experience.”
Illustrated with Broca’s preliminary sketches for the Queen Esther mosaics, this portion of the book reads like a personal journal written in a very contemporary voice.
I seduced the king and his first minister, made them jealous of each other for my sake, for our sake, for yours. Perhaps there were other ways but not then, not under those circumstances. Could it be that I, Estr, wore the greatest mask of them all? “Under this mask, another mask. I will never be finished removing all these faces.” (Claude Cahun)
The final section of The Hidden and Revealed is yet another lovely surprise. Here, one finds The Scroll of Esther presented in calligraphic type in both Hebrew and English facing pages.
It will come as no surprise that we highly recommend The Hidden and Revealed. Every time we pick this book up we discover something that engages our eyes and our mind. Broca’s beautiful mosaics serve as the anchor for others to explore the myth of Queen Esther politically, historically, and artistically. It really is quite an astonishing piece of work. You can order your copy by clicking here
Enjoy – Nancie
Theodora Place Setting, Part of The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago at the Brooklyn Museum