Editor's note: The following article, which originally appeared tin the Fall, 2005 issue of El Palacio Magazine was reprinted, without illustrations, in Resource Library on December 21, 2005 with the permission of El Palacio Magazine, a publication of The Museum of New Mexico, a Division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs . If you have questions or comments regarding the article, or would like to subscribe, please contact El Palacio Magazine directly through either this phone number or web address:
Fruit of the Divine: Dynamic Symmetry and the Spiritual Ideals of Emil Bisttram
by Joseph Traugott, Ph.D.
Kachina Series 4, a pencil drawing by Emil Bisttram from 1936 (see Figure 1), offers viewers an insider's look into the creative process. When Bisttram drew this image, kachinas captivated the imagination of visitors to Pueblo villages throughout the Southwest and came to symbolize outsider views of Native spirituality. Closer inspection of this drawing, however, reveals a network of spiritualist ideas that permeates Bisttram's work from the mid-1930s.
Bisttram and Raymond Jonson are well known as the organizers of the Transcendental Painting Group, an association of non-objective painters active in New Mexico from 1938-1942. The group promoted abstract paintings that would free viewers from the constraints of daily life and political affairs. Bisttram painted both representationally and non-objectively, but he imbued his works with a subtle, spiritual quality.
Bisttram became deeply involved with mystical ideas and was attracted to a movement called Theosophy during the 1920s, while living in New York City. Theosophy is a blend of Eastern spiritualist ideas that Madame Blavatsky synthesized into a universal theology during the late-nineteenth century. Blavatsky, from a Russian noble family, studied in Tibet from 1868-1870 and then promoted her message of the knowledge of the divine. Bisttram also became fascinated with a mathematical ratio called the "golden section," or the "divine proportion," thought to have spiritual powers.
Bisttram used dynamic symmetry to construct the underlying grid in Kachina Series 4. The core of the drawing is four squares with diagonals drawn back and forth between the corners. The intersections of the lines in the understructure define cardinal points for organizing Bisttram's abstraction of a kachina figure. The use of the golden section and dynamic symmetry imparted a spiritual quality and visual harmony to Bisttram's drawing, a sacred character that mirrored the spirituality of kachinas in Pueblo society.
The most spellbinding of Bisttram's paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts collection is his self-portrait from 1935 (see Figure 2). Bisttram posed at his easel wearing his smock and painter's hat, with brush in hand. The painting on the wall behind the artist shows one of his abstract kachina paintings.
Bisttram also used dynamic symmetry to construct his self-portrait (see Figure 3), although most of the traces of the underlying grid are concealed by his controlled applications of oil paint. The vertical composition is composed of twelve squares-four high and three across. As if by magic, the edge of the canvas on Bisttram's easel lines up with the squares on the right side of the composition. The waist of his smock corresponds with the centerline of the composition. The brush in Bisttram's right hand looks randomly placed, but it follows a diagonal drawn between the corners of two squares. The jar in the lower left of the composition aligns with the corner square in the understructure. And Bisttram's eyes sit just above the bottom of the first line of squares.
The careful painting in Bisttram's self-portrait masks the rigidly geometric structure of the composition. Understanding that he consciously used dynamic symmetry to organize this painting illuminates a spiritual ideal that Bisttram carefully incorporated into his visual persona. The combination of a kachina image in the background with the use of dynamic symmetry alludes to the idea of spiritual universality. What first appears as a haunting self-portrait quickly turns into a theological statement about the artist and his beliefs.
Sidebar: A Brief History of Dynamic Symmetry
The Egyptians discovered the golden section and used dynamic symmetry to construct their pyramids and the burial chambers within these massive tombs. The Greeks learned of the divine section from the Egyptians, and used it to construct important buildings including the Parthenon. Knowledge of divine proportion was lost during the Dark Ages and rediscovered during the Renaissance.
Early in the thirteenth century, an Italian mathematician named Fibonacci popularized the divine section with an additive series of numbers-5, 8, 13, 21, 34 . . . on to infinity, called the Fibonacci Series. Any two adjacent numbers in this magical series approximates the divine proportion; any two consecutive numbers when added together create the next number: 5+8=13, 8+13=21, 13+21=34, on and on to infinity.
After the First World War, Jay Hambidge popularized this mathematical oddity and demonstrated how it could be used to organize visual compositions. He devised the term "dynamic symmetry" to describe artistic compositions organized through the use of the golden section. Dynamic symmetry produces asymmetric compositions that seem animated and powerful while simultaneously balanced and visually harmonious.
Emil Bisttram's Self-Portrait will be on display as part of the reinstallation of the Museum of Fine Arts' permanent collection, beginning in October, 2006.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above article, which originally appeared tn the Fall, 2005 issue of El Palacio Magazine was reprinted, without illustrations, in Resource Library on December 21, 2005 with the permission of El Palacio Magazine, a publication of The Museum of New Mexico, a Division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, or would like to subscribe, please contact El Palacio Magazine directly through either this phone number or web address:
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Debora Bluestone, Managing Editor, El Palacio Magazine for help in connection with reprinting of this article.
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