In addition to those artificial laws decreed by state and church our lives are also defined by innate laws, those of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and Murphy.
But is there a law of harmony? A law which defines perfect proportions and thus the ideal form of any object?
Proponents of the Golden Ratio would answer yes.
With their exhibition Divine Golden Ingenious. The Golden Ratio as a Theory of Everything? the Museum for Communication Berlin aim to explore the question, and answer, in more detail.
Although the Golden Ratio was first proposed in Ancient Greece, it only became a matter of serious study during the Renaissance where an increasing interest in, and ability to investigate, questions of nature, science and philosophy led to an increased interest in the question if there was a natural, unifying proportionality. An ideal proportionality.
The question presumably arising because Renaissance questioning invariably took Ancient Greece as its first reference point. And like the Ancient Greeks Renaissance Europe was very much concerned with questions of natural orders and systems; in many respects a shared desire to find a foundation for existence more powerful than our mortality.
In the course of the sixteenth century the Renaissance concluded there was such a ratio and discoveries in later centuries of evidence of this “Golden Ratio”, or more often the closely related Fibonacci Sequence/Fibonacci Spiral, in nature and natural systems, underscored this conclusion. If you will, the presence of the Golden Ratio as an underlying principle of life, proving the validity and universality of the rule.
The question mark at end of the Museum for Communication’s exhibition title however neatly highlights that despite its longevity and universality the relevance of the Golden Ratio remains challenged.
Divine Golden Ingenious. The Golden Ratio as a Theory of Everything? tackles that relevance.
Divine Golden Ingenious opens with a presentation of the so-called “Cabinet of Wonders”, a representation of the Golden Ratio, or at least the alleged Golden Ratio, in a broad range of objects including a sunflower, dodecahedron and rabbit, before quickly moving over to explain the history of the Golden Ratio, its prevalence and variety. And for all what it is. Not only a necessary nicety in a museal exploration of the subject, but a necessary necessity, for while many of us are aware of, and may even make confident reference to, the Golden Ratio, fewer can actually offer a definition.
In its simplest form the Golden Ratio is 1.618…
Practically, that means that, and to quote the exhibition information boards, “a line is divided into the golden ratio if the ratio of the shorter to the longer section is the same as the ratio of the longer to the entire line”
And that means?
Or put another way, when something, be that a building, painting, vase, whatever, features the Golden Ratio it is understood as having perfect proportions, and thus we perceive it as being harmonious. And thus appreciate it as clearly structured, accessible and potentially attractive.
A connection between the immutability of geometry and the intangibility of the soul, and thus a phenomenon which artists, architects, craftsmen, musicians and designers have long attempted to capture in their work, some examples of which are included in the exhibition’s Werkschau presentation.
The history of the Golden Ratio is one of objects where the Ratio has been discovered after the fact and with no direct evidence that it was considered, far less actively applied, in the object’s creation. For the Museum for Communication Berlin it was therefore important that in order to produce an authentic and authoritative exhibition they present only objects where a direct connection to the Golden Ratio exists, something which wasn’t always so simple, for as exhibition curator Katharina Schillinger explains, “objects aren’t necessarily stamped with the fact that they have been created according to the principles of the Golden Ratio, rather it is something that was in the original idea or which played a role in the development, but which isn’t always so immediately discernible in the final object, and that made finding appropriate examples very challenging”
One of the better known, and best documented, examples of an applied use of the Golden Ratio is that of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier who crafted his famed Modulor system of measurement on the correlation of the Golden Ratio with the proportions of the human body, and thus, as justifiably as invariably, a goodly section of the Werkschau is given over to Le Corbusier and his work. But not only. In addition to other examples of Golden Ratio inspired architecture, including the Altes Rathaus in Leipzig which is held up as a prime example of Renaissance architecture employing the Golden Ratio, Divine Golden Ingenious also demonstrates how the Golden Ratio has been and can be utilised in the fields of music, photography, fashion, typography and product design, the last section including works by, and amongst many others, Thomas Schmitz, Janne Kyttanen and Mark Braun.
And thus the Werkschau presents a collection of works which not only help you understand the Golden Ratio in context of human creativity, and certainly in ways more accessible than the Renaissance era paintings depicted in the preceding room, but which could leave you believing in its contemporary relevance.
For just when you have started to come to believe the Golden Ratio could have some claim to the relevance it has been prescribed, the curators lead you into the world of patterns and standards, and the first doubts arise.
From the tatami mat as the eminently sensible basis of Japanese architecture over paper size standards and on to the Euro pallets and shipping containers on which global trade depend, our contemporary world is one of standards: standards however based on a combination of practicality, functionality and form, invariably also as the basis for a wider system, rather than on a dogmatic adherence to a relatively abstract, geometrically derived, ratio.
And objects which, yes, have, or at least can have, a claim to harmony. Even beauty. Or at least which, arguably, aren’t less harmonious or pleasing on the eye than they would have been had the Golden Ratio been applied in their creation. Then there is the problems the curators had finding objects for the Werkschau, something which could, but needn’t, imply that for most creatives the Golden Ratio plays no role. And yet our world is still full of objects which respond positively to our understandings of aesthetics.
Is the Golden Ratio therefore really relevant today? Or is it just one of those lingering Renaissance hangovers that we just can’t shake off despite the very different nature of society, technology and belief, despite the evolution in our thinking on aesthetics and despite the fundamental changes in our understanding of and relationship to the world around us; and not least for as Katharina Schillinger states, “the Golden Ratio is often completely impractical when realising objects, and that is also a major weakness of the Golden Ratio, that working to it exactly can be a hindrance.”
Has the time therefore not come to disregard the Golden Ratio as nothing more than an interesting natural phenomenon, a nice toy, and maybe even relieve it of its “Golden” status and demote it to that of a mere “ratio”?
For next to the examples of how and why the Golden Ratio is (still) considered the foundation of human beauty, Divine Golden Ingenious also provides numerous examples of how proponents of the Golden Ratio continue to find it in objects popularly considered aesthetically pleasing. Yes, including photos of cats.
And thus its fascination clearly remains.
A fascination arguably reflecting exactly the same primitive desire to locate order in our physical and metaphysical universes which initially motivated the Renaissance to search for the Golden Ratio.
But a fascination which makes it relevant?
The pleasing aspect about Divine Golden Ingenious is that gives you the freedom and space to weigh up the arguments for yourself, to search for your own relationship to and understanding of the Golden Ratio, and thus derive your own interpretation of its contemporary relevance.
If we did have one complaint it would be the largely Euro-centric nature of the exhibition. Although the Golden Ratio has been unquestionably important in the development of European culture, it, or at least similar concepts and ideas, exist in other regions, other cultures. An exploration of those could have helped place the subject in a broader context and thus helped visitors better understand why the idea of a perfect ratio arose and why it so fascinates us.
And if we were to add a second complaint to our first, it would be the way the exhibition jumps, in effect, from the Renaissance to the mid-20th century; (almost) literally from Michaelangelo to Le Corbusier, with no real reference to the role of the Golden Ratio in some of the intervening eras. Perhaps most logically given what is on show in the Werkschau our thoughts here are specifically the Golden Ratio in context of 19th century historicism and the subsequent Art Deco.
Not that such complaints distract from the exhibition. Featuring some 250 objects and numerous hands-on activities, including an opportunity to test theories of perfect, Golden Ratio, beauty and to create your own personal Fibonacci Spiral and thus continue the search for the Golden Ratio outwith the museum’s walls, Divine Golden Ingenious provides a very accessible and coherent introduction to a complex subject and, and partly thanks to the well considered exhibition design, also manages to eloquently present what is essentially very, very dull geometry as something vibrant and personable. Even interesting.
Which does all leave just one question unanswered. The Golden Ratio is about geometry, aesthetics, biology, architecture, arithmetic, art, chemistry, philosophy. Why has a museum for communication decided to curate and present such an exhibition?
“As an institution we have a wide understanding of the term “communication””, answers Katharina Schillinger, “and one aspect which greatly interested us was the question how is the Golden Ratio used for communication and for advertising, but much more objects communicate with us, we can appreciate them, we can find them harmonious or beautiful, and with this exhibition we want to offer visitors a chance to explore why that might be”
We cannot guarantee you’ll come to an answer, but you will understand the Golden Ratio and why it is considered the answer.
Divine Golden Ingenious. The Golden Ratio as a Theory of Everything? is a bilingual German/English exhibition and runs at the Museum for Communication Berlin, Leipziger Straße 16, 10117 Berlin until Sunday February 26th.
Full details, including information on the accompanying fringe programme can be found at www.mfk-berlin.de