I am out of my depth here, in enquiring into the mechanics and mathematics of the common French Curve or Burmester Curve. But some observations about their relationship to the work of Osaka printmaker Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 – 1864) and how European artists have traditionally approached a mathematical analysis of the human form will I hope, stay just the right side of ignorant comment.
Hirosada’s woodblock prints of the 1840’s are some of the most remarkable and penetrating portraits of the nineteenth century. They appear at first glance to be drawn in an idiosyncratic style that is reminiscent of European modernism in its fluid and minimal description of features and in the way that the artist collides the abstracted and flattened patterns of costume against the stillness of the sparse but effective portraiture. They seem to be all the more remarkable because of the jewel-like and lavish technique afforded to the printing process – the embossed paper, the metallic inks, the dusted mica, the rich, overprinted, blended colours and so on. These outstanding objects that shimmer and evade your glance as you hold them to the light are relatively unknown and remain somehow locked in the cultural backwater of the Japanese town in which they were made.
Some of the tension in these works arises from the disjunction between their idiosyncrasy and the seemingly tightly structured almost mathematical quality of the lines of the drawing – the key-line. It has been fashionable for some time now to look for the hidden mathematics in renaissance and post renaissance art of Europe. Even before Dan Brown’s use of Golden Sections and Sacred Geometry as the plot-line for a thriller, respected scholars were looking at how subtle meaning (heresy even) could be interpreted from the concealed mathematical clues in the works of neo-platonist artists such as Piero della Francesca. This is to say that the art of the west is platonic in its structure… it has its roots in the enlightened, observable and measurable shape of the world. This use of mensuration lends the European work of art the sense of scaffolding – the grid, that is essential in holding and anchoring the subject to the real world of perspective and perception. In Piero’s Flagellation of Christ (1460), the artist subtly changes the mathematics of the left hand room to show the supernatural presence of Christ – a mathematics for an alternate realm, as it were.
Eastern art struggled with the newly imported western ideas of perspective during the early nineteenth century. Some artists (such as Toyokuni I) became adept at creating the box like spaces seen in Dutch engravings smuggled into Edo by early European traders. But on the whole, the fluid non-linear space of traditional oriental art refused to conform to this rational order. Time and again artists as skilled as Kuniyoshi or any number of his followers attempted to imitate the shallow space of the Italianate style but the effort appears forced and ultimately unsuccessful.
Osaka School artists rarely attempted these tricks. The work of these artists is naturally more fluid, more ethereal – more gestural. Despite the influence of Edo artists, Osaka printmakers remained doggedly mannered in their natural, provincial style. It is around 1840 – the period of censorship when nearly all artistic and theatrical activity was prohibited – that the style of the Osaka School changed. As the laws restricting art works were relaxed, a new, more confident style emerged. The leading exponent of this rigid style of portraiture was Hirosada. His chuban portraits (of which there are several hundred), have a uniform design and structure. They are tightly composed, and seemingly constructed from what appears at a glance to be a limited repertoire of arcs, curves and components. One feels almost as if the noses, eyes, ears, mouths and hair pieces could be assembled from a kit to create the subtle variations of longing, melancholy and despair which these actor portraits communicate so well.
Attempts to impose a grid upon these restrained pictures fails – they do not respect the rules of golden sections, diagonals, grids or vanishing points. They do however conform to the various regular arcs and curves found in the standard set of Burmester or French curves – as the illustration at the top of the page demonstrates. It is very easy to impose a geometry of arcs from a tiny library of similar curves which is quite impossible to do with any comparable European art work.
The origins of the French curve are seemingly lost. The first reference to them appears in 1849 in an encyclopedia of masonry tools. They are reputed to be a naturally developed set of instruments that mimicked in some way the inherent range of movements of the hand, fingers, arm etc. Amounting to a kind of dictionary of gesture, they were clearly codified at some point and then reimagined by a German mathematician, Ludwig Burmester (1840 – 1927). Since then they have been used in geometry and by engineers for plotting regular curves between a series of fixed points. They are available in most stationary shops as plastic templates for very little money. The Hirosada that I have chosen to experiment with, using some cheap curves and a sheet of tracing paper fell very naturally and easily into the shapes of the three commonest templates – almost as if it had been originally constructed along those lines. It would be fanciful (and entertaining) to discover that some enterprising Dutch trader had off-loaded a crate of Burmester curves in Osaka at that time, but I don’t think that the answer lies there. I think what is likely however is that Hirosada developed a codified set of gestures – distinct from the rod and line of western art – and within that self-imposed limitation, allowed himself the space to make a great and magnificent variety of emotions. A great many artists have used arbitrary and self imposed limitations to create an arena in which to work; Hirosada is not alone in that. His work (and his life) remain hermitic, revealing tiny amounts and requiring a working knowledge of the kabuki scene, the actors, the plays and their characters as well as the oblique references, puns, knowing jokes and allusions that contribute to the meaning behind these elegant – seemingly mathematical creations.
The work of the Osaka School remains tragically under valued and ignored. The Toshidama Gallery is showing a selection of their work, and especially that of Hirosada, until the 14th March 2014. If you wish to purchase anything from the show then I urge you to join the gallery mailing list which rewards you with a 10% discount on everything in the show.