When geometry becomes art

Euclid’s Elements was one of the first books on mathematics to be printed (Ratdolt Latin Edition, Venice, 1482), and is now thought to be the most widely published book after the Bible. The 1926 essay by Charles Thomas-Stanford clearly demonstrates that while subsequent early editions of Elements might have been graphically enhanced, all decoration and any vignettes were limited to the margins and did not include the visualization of Euclid’s proofs as part of the graphic treatment. The Ratdolt edition was austere in its design and remained the model over the next century. A page from Ratdolt’s 1482 book is included here.

Sebastien Le Clerc is widely regarded as one of the finest draftsmen from 17th century France. At age 31, before seriously pursuing a career in art, Le Clerc published an edition of Elements, Pratique de la Geometrie sur le papier et sur le terrain, Paris, 1669. Though a lifelong aficionado of geometry, living to age 77, his Pratique speaks more to personal aspirations than to elucidating the finer points of Elements. While the example below exhibits an earnest attempt to integrate the proofs into a visually pleasing design, it is no more successful the many works using graphic elements as simple marginalia.

The 20th century saw enthusiasm for the Elements wane as these teachings were integrated into books covering the entire spectrum of mathematics. Still considered a required component of any complete education, contemplation of the individual proofs has seemingly lost the magic to inspire. In fact, the bifurcation of text and image of Euclid’s work in recent books on mathematics tends to diminish the opportunity for easy understanding, especially for some of the more challenging proofs.

As Sol Lewitt began his assault on traditional definitions of what constitutes a work of art, it is possible he considered Elements a source of inspiration. In the early 1970s Lewitt began a series of work that used the basic tenants of Euclid’s proofs as a visual complement to passages of text satirizing the overblown verbal nonsense of post-modern intellectual commentary on the meaning of art. Whether Elements actually played a role in the development of Lewitt’s visual vocabulary cannot be clearly demonstrated, yet an example from 1974 is offered in support of this idea.

Perhaps most intriguing is the possibility that Euclid considered visual explication of the points, lines, angles and planes to be equally, or even more valuable, than commentary. The paucity of words used to describe each element might be a vindication of this notion. That Lewitt would use points, lines, angles and planes as his fundamental artistic palette suggests a similarity of thinking worthy of consideration (all books from the author’s collection).

This entry was posted in Books, Sol Lewitt. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *