MODULARITY
IN ART
Slavik Jablan
As the modularity will be considered the use of several
basic elements (modules) for constructing a large collection of
different possible (modular) structures. In science, the
modularity principle is represented by search for basic elements
(e.g., elementary particles, prototiles
for different geometric structures...). In art, different modules
(e.g., bricks in architecture or in ornamental
brickwork...) occur as the basis of modular structures. In
various fields of (discrete) mathematics, the important problem
is the recognition of some set of basic elements, construction
rules and an (exhaustive) derivation of different generated
structures.
In a general sense, the modularity principle is a manifestation
of the universal principle of economy in nature: the possibility
for diversity and variability of structures, resulting from some
(finite and very restricted) set of basic
elements by their recombinations. In
all such cases, the most important step is the first choice
(recognition or discovery) of basic elements. This could be shown
by examples from ornamental art, where some elements originating
from Paleolithic or Neolithic art are present till now, as a kind
of "ornamental archetypes".
In many cases, the derivation of discrete modular structures is
based on symmetry. Using the theory of symmetry and its
generalizations (simple and multiple antisymmetry, colored
symmetry...) for certain structures it is possible to define
exhaustive derivation algorithms, and even to obtain some
combinatorial formula for their enumeration.
As the examples of modular structures laying on the border
between the art and mathematics could be considered:
"Things are not always what they seem". If we try to explain what
we see as an object, we could conclude that we always make a
choice between an infinite series of real threedimensional
objects having the same flat retinal projection. From
this infinity, our perception selects usually only one "natural"
(most probable or, sometimes, simplest as possible)
interpretation. In the perception of the usual 3D world, such
interpretation is strongly connected with the coherent interpretation
of complete picture, but in the cases of isolated objects,
when the common reference system not exists, sometimes occurs the
ambiguity: impossibility to determine a unique "natural"
interpretation. The situation is even worst, if such
"natural" interpretation is an impossible
3D object.
The interest of the mathematics and psychology of vision to
research impossible 3D objects is mostly stimulated by Penrose
impossible triangle and works by M.C.Escher, but their
interesting interpretations could be found in the works by
Piranesi, by Albers or in some
Opart works. If we search for the history of such objects,
we need to remember the mosaics from Antioch. One of them,
that consists of Koffka cubes, represents at the same time
a regular plane ornament and the possible 3D structure. In
the both cases, it is modular.
Let us consider first its basic element: a Koffka cube. It is
multiambiguious: it could be interpreted as three rhombuses with
joint vertex, as convex or concave trihedron, or as a cube. If we
accept its "natural" 3D interpretation  a cube, than for a
viewer they are three possible positions in space: upper, lower
left and lower right, having equal right to be a point of view.
So, for the corresponding three directions, a Koffka cube
represents a turning point. Having such multiple symmetry, it fully
satisfies the conditions to be a suitable basic modular element.
Now, we could return to the well known
impossible objects: Thiery figures (proposed at the end of
XIX century) consisting of two Koffka cubes, objects created
by Oscar Reutesward in 1934, Penrose tribar, Vasarely
constructions, alphabet by T.Taniuchi...
All of them could be derived as modular structures from a Koffka
cube. For each of them, it is possible even to simply
calculate the volume: for example, the volume of tribar with each
bar formed by five cubes is 12. According to E.Jonesco, we
all know sounds applause by two hands, but how sounds the applause by
only one hand? What will happen with tribar, getting smaller and
smaller, when its edge consists of three, two or even only one
unit. In the last case, the result is a singular Koffka
cube. If the edge is 2, the result is the next impossible object,
having as an envelope another interesting geometrical figure:
onesided Moebius band. Going in the opposite way, from Koffka
cubes we could construct an infinite family of impossible
figures. In the process of their growing, in every point we have
a possibility to proceed in three directions, i.e. to choose each
from six oriented ways.
Our vision of some 3D objects could be reduced on the perception
of their consisting parts, regarded from different points of
view. For example, for the corners of a rectangular frame, we
have only three such possibilities (or four, if we distinguish
enantiomorphic forms). Then, the drawings of its constitutive
parts could be the basic elements (prototiles) of a modular plane
tiling. Having in mind that in plane they are only three regular
tilings (by regular triangles, squares and hexagons), I derived in
1995 the modular puzzle "SpaceTiles" for
the construction of pictures representing possible
and impossible objects in plane.
For example, if we compose the corner pieces of a rectangular
frame, only three combinations will result in possible objects,
and the others will be impossible. One of them that
represents the frame in opposite perspective could be associated
with the mentioned mosaic from Antioch, with some M.C.Escher works,
or with many of middleage paintings using counterperspective.
The basic elements of "SpaceTiles" describe
different possible vertexsituations, and could be used for the
experimental research of visual perception, in attempts to find
criteria for realizability of a 3D object reconstructed from its
drawing. If we introduce in our game Archimedean (or uniform)
plane tilings, we could obtain an infinite collection of
(possible) and impossible figures, beginning from the elementary
ones, and including more sophisticated forms,
similar to that occurring in the book L'aventure des figures
impossibles by B.Ernst, or to the artistic creations by T.Farkas.
"Are impossible figures possible?" This question is the title of
the paper by Z.Kulpa, explaining that the property "to be an
impossible figure" is not the property by the drawing alone, but
the property of its spatial ("natural")
interpretation by a viewer. We already noticed that the
vision is a choice among infinity of objects, where some of them
are possible, and others are not. From the same drawing of
impossible object, we could derive also some of its objective
realizations: a possible object having the same retinal projection.
Anyway, in every such situation when the impossible object is
simpler than the possible one, the eye and mind will accept it as the
interpretation of a drawing. After that, checking the space
relationships of its constitutive elements, here comes the
conclusion: this is an impossible object.
The next question concerning impossible objects is
their "degree of impossibility",
this means, our ability to recognize them as
impossible. For example, the impossible frames will be
easily recognized as impossible, but for the "truncated
tetrahedron", and especially for linesegment figures (where the
first is not possible, and the other is), it is very
difficult to make the conclusion. In the same way, for the
wellknown Borromean rings the visual
arguments are not sufficient, so we need the mathematical proof
of their impossibility (this means, that they could not be
realized by three flat rings).
Such a threecomponent link is named
"Borromean rings" after the Borromeas, an Italian
family from the Renaissance that used them
as their family crest. As it is proved by B.Lindstrom and
H.O.Zetterstrom "Borromean circles are impossible" (this is the
title of their paper), but Borromean triangles are possible. A
hollow triangle is the planar region bounded by two homothetic
and concentric equilateral triangles, that is, a flat triangular
ring. The Australian sculptor J.Robinson assembled three such
triagular rings to form a structure (entitled Intuition),
topologicaly equivalent to Borromean rings. Their cardboard model
under its own weight collapses to form a planar pattern.
Peter Cromwel has find it as the detail from the
picturestone from Gotland. This and other symmetrical
combinations of three and four hollow triangles are considered by
H.S.M.Coxeter.
Borromean rings are only a simple example from the large field of
knots and links. In the practice, knots and links occur as the
result of knotwork, weaving or plaiting, the human activities old
as a world. From the mathematical point of view, a knot is a
homeomorphic image of a circle, this means, some placement of a
circle in 3D space, and a link is such a placement of several
circles. As the plane representations of knots and links, we use
their projections. In the mathematics, the
golden age of knot projections is the end of the XIX century. To the
most of the knots correspond more than one projection. Anyway,
in all tables of knot projections, that are some kind of mathematical
tradition transferred from one author to another, you will find
only one representative projection for each knot. Their first
choice maybe belongs to K.Reidemeister (Knotentheorie,
1932), and it is interesting to find some consequent principle
for the choice of particular projections.
In the art, the knot designs are present from the ancient
times. One of their highlights are Celtic
knotworks, analyzed from the mathematical point of view by
P.Cromvel. Their symmetry is distinguished by P.Gerdes,
discussing socalled mirror curves
resulting from knot and link sand drawings from Lunda region
(Eastern Angola and Northwestern
Zambia) or Tamil designs. If we have a some polyomino in a
regular plane tiling, with the set of (twosided) mirrors incident
to the edges or perpendicular in their midpoints, the ray of light
starting from such midpoint, after series of reflections will
return to it, forming a closed path: a mirror curve. If the
polyomino is completely covered by a singular curve, it always
represents a knot projection; otherwise, if it is exhausted by
several components, it is a link projection. The drawing will be
symmetrical or asymmetrical, depending on the placement of
internal mirrors, so the symmetry is not a necessary property of
mirrorcurves. Anyway, they possess the other remarkable
property: the modularity. Each such knot projection could be
obtained as a plane tiling, using only five basic elements,
that I have introduced in 1994 and named "KnotTiles". The
possibilities for the modular design of such structures are
unlimited. The variety could be obtained by using topological
variations of the prototiles, but also
if we use different basic polyominoes, resulting
from Archimedean (uniform) plane
tilings. It is interesting that the modularity of knotworks is
maybe for the first time discovered by M.C.Escher, who created
several prototiles for their production.
Analyzing mirrorcurves, P.Gerdes discovered Lunda designs: if
the successive smaller squares through which the curve passes are
colored in a coloralternating manner (blackwhite), we obtain
the blackandwhite mosaic. Such designs possess the local
equilibrium property: each edgemidpoint is equally surrounded by
black and white small squares. Certainly, from the local
equilibrium results the global equilibrium in every row and in
every column. Every square Lunda design is a modular blackandwhite
design, formed by only three kinds of prototiles (two kinds of
internal and one kind of border prototiles).
Because P.Gerdes derived Lunda designs from mirrorcurves by
their blackandwhite coloring, the natural question is: could
you find any sample of Lunda designs in ornamental art? Many of
them possess amazing property: equality between figure and ground
(black and white). This means that they are
antisymmetrical. To find the answer to this question, we
will return to the origins: to the Paleolithic and Neolithic
ornamental art.
The term "keypatterns" is used to denote
keylike patterns occurring in the Egiptian, Greek, Roman, Maya,
Chinese, and especially Celtic art. Because they are specific
in visual sense, they are distinguished in G.Bain book
Celtic Art in a separate chapter. In
mathematical books (even in Tilings and
Patterns by B.Grünbaum & G.C.Shephard) they are
considered as usual patterns. But, in the same book, in the
comment of the coverillustration of the
chapter about patterns, it is noticed that this pattern is
inspired by mazes. G.Bain explicitly noticed the connection
between keypatterns, spirals, meanders, mazes and labyrinths.
The oldest example of keypatterns,
given in my monograph "Symmetry, Ornament and Modularity",
belongs to the Paleolithic art, (23000 B.C., Mezin,
Ukraine). If we compare this ornament with other
ornaments existing in Paleolithic art, we
will conclude that it strongly differs from all the other
Paleolithic ornaments and represents absolutely unexpected and
even unbelievable scope of the Paleolithic art. All the ornaments
from Mezin represent a systematic study of possibilities to
derive different ornaments from two basic prototiles: squares with
a set of diagonal parallels. Similar
constructions could be obtained by using only one or two
such prototiles.
The next peak of keypattern ornaments are Celtic ornaments. In
the book by G.Bain there is an attempt to explain their
construction, where every keypattern is described by a series of
numbers denoting the number of steps in a particular direction,
so from each keypattern it is simply possible to read the
corresponding series. Anyway, it is not clear how to obtain such
series for the first time. Also, we could see the very strong and
specific visual impression that
ornaments make to an observer, similar to the effects produced
by opart works. Such opart works are considered by C.Barrett
as "interrupted systems", where
"the pattern or system is broken or interrupted". The result
is an extraordinary degree of flicker and dazzle. Similar
structures are well known in the theory of visual perception.
Some of keypattern ornaments produce
the same strange and somewhat frightening visual impression,
so they are used as a charm against enemies or
as a symbol of labyrinth. The mazepattern from the Wall
of Palace (Knossos) with the motif
of doubleaxe (labris), from which maybe originated
the name "labyrinth" also could
be constructed by the symmetrical repetition of such single prototile.
Analyzing Roman mazes we can
register the same elementary
meanders or meander friezes occurring also in keypatterns. In
searching for the common ground on which are based the both, we
can conclude that this is antisymmetry. In the first example
(Roman maze, Avenches, Switzerland), we can see a regular
system formed by concentric circles, which is interrupted by four
"dislocations": three rectangles with 4, and one with 5 diagonal
lines. They are obtained from the rectangle of the dimensions 6x4
with 9 diagonal lines, using the principle of antisymmetry. But
now, we must remain that antisymmetry is not only the contrast
of opposites ("blackwhite"), but also the principle of
complementarity: two opposites giving a unity. The other examples
of Roman mazes (and their reconstructions) are only the
variations of the same idea: the regular system of concentric
squares is interrupted by several (regularly arranged)
antisymmetric rectangles. The circular mazes are the
simple topological equivalent of square mazes, and are derived
directly from them.
If we consider again the Paleolithic keypatterns, Celtic
ornaments and opart works, now we can see their
joint basis:
basic (anti)symmetric prototiles obtained by a division of a
rectangle with their diagonal lines into two antisymmetric
(complementary) prototiles, where one of them or both are used.
Also we could consider its division into two blackwhite
prototiles. For a rectangle with the sides a and b,
the number of diagonal lines is a+b1, so we
distinguish the cases a=b, a=b(mod 2) and
a+b=1(mod 2). Considering the simplest case
(a=b=2), and following also the
alternation of the direction of diagonals ("ascending
descending" or "leftright"), we have the twomultiple
antisymmetry scheme. In such ornaments we can recognize its
"black" and "white" (red) component, which are equivalent if the
multiple antisymmetry is consequently used. This also
explains somewhat hesitating visual impression that such patterns
produce: the constant effect of flickering, when the eye
recognizes black or white pattern and oscillates between them.
From "blackwhite" prototiles we can obtain the corresponding
blackwhite patterns. The series of such tilings derived from the
four prototiles is represented by "OpTiles".
Analyzing the blackwhite ornaments occurring in the history,
there is the simplest method for their construction: alternating
blackwhite coloring of some isohedral tiling, but for some of
them it is very difficult to comprehend how they are constructed.
Maybe in that cases is used the multiple
antisymmetry: the division of a fundamental region
into several parts, and then use
of multiple antisymmetry. Let us only notice that multiple
antisymmetry is not a very sophisticated rule: it is only multiple
01 way of thinking (or the simple use of binary numerical
system, i.e. of Boolean spaces) in geometry. This idea,
introduced in my paper Periodic Antisymmetry Tilings is
used, e.g. in order to obtain
some nonstandard isohedral tilings
by use of multiple antisymmetry.
The Paleolithic keypatterns mentioned represent probably the
first use of antisymmetry in ornamental art, and Celtic
keypatterns, Roman mazes and some opart work are based on the
same principle discovered 23000 B.C., so the question: "Do you
like the Paleolithic Opart?" is maybe not a nonsense.
After the discovery that many of antisymmetric ornaments could be
derived by recombination of few basic "Optiles", as a modular
structures (or simply, patchworks), my recent research connected
with archaeology and ethnical ornamental art, concerns the basic
elements (modules) and origin of such ornaments. Such modules
are, for example, a square with the set of diagonal lines, two
antisymmetrical squares, blackwhite square (abundantly used in
the prehistoric or ethnical art, known also as the element of
mosaics: Truchet tile), and
their topological equivalents obtained by substituting
straight diagonal lines by circle arcs.
After finding that keypatterns are based on antisymmetry, I
proceeded my research of the antisymmetry in ornament. If you
start from simplest antisymmetrical squares with only one
diagonal field, you could derive a infinite series of
blackandwhite ornaments, including in this class many
keypatterns, different neolithic ornaments, as well as
Kufic writing. The same prototile
is well known in the Renaissance and later European ornamental
art as a basic element for the Persian
scheme. Certainly, Kufic writings could
be obtained from different basic
elements (e.g. from a unit black and white squares),
but in this case they may appear 2x2 squares,
and the proposed antisymmetric prototiles guarantee that
the thickness of all the lines will be exactly 1.
In many cases, the mathematical symmetryapproach differs from
the construction rules used in ornamental art. For example, the
mathematical concept of the basic asymmetrical figure or
asymmetrical fundamental region multiplied by symmetries is not
always used in ornamental art. There are used basic symmetrical
or antisymmetrical figures (modules): rosettes,
friezes..., and their overlapping
(e.g. many of Islamic ornaments are probably obtained by
superposing very simple patterns).
Also, the mathematical approach gives us the answer to the
question: "which ornaments are derived", but not to the questions
"how they are derived" (or why?). Their origin could be some
working procedure (e.g. matting,
plaiting or basketry), or the very simple rules for
making different arrangements of modules.
As examples there are the similar or the same ornaments derived
from some modules, occurring in different cultures
(e.g. neolithic blackwhite ornaments from Tell Halaf or Cacaudrove
patterns from Fiji). After Neolithic, it is almost impossible
to find the culture that have not used that kind of patterns,
derived from a blackwhite square. The question is only how
many of them are derived from the same prototile (in the sense of
exhaustive derivation according to symmetry rules) by particular
cultures. Researching the history of (intuitive or visual)
mathematics expressed in ornamental art or its ethnomathematical
aspects, it is important to follow the use of such basic elements
in different cultures, their (geometrical and topological)
change in time and possible intercultural relationships.
Such relationships could be followed
considering the basic prototile used in Mezin (Ukraine),
the similar paleolithic artefacts from Schela Cladovei
culture (Romania), and its occurrence in all neolithic cultures:
Cucuteni (Ukraine, Moldavia, Romania), Gumelnitsa (Romania),
Tisza (Hungary), Vincha (Yugoslavia), Dimini (Greece).
In the Ph.D. dissertation L.Tchikalenko for the first time noticed
the possibility that ornaments from Mezin are composed by
repeating one module: a rectangle with parallel diagonal lines.
Its blackandwhite variant appears as the result of matting.
According to this, having in mind the occurrence of
the similar or the same blackandwhite ornaments in the ethnical
ornamental art, as well as in the neolithic ornamental art of
different cultures, suggests the idea that all of them originated
from textile, and after that have been transferred to the other
materials (ceramics, woodcarvings, stonecarvings...). In the
book Gotter aus Ton by Nandor Kalicz, such antisymmetrical
ornaments are qualified as textile ornaments.
The same conclusion follows from Vincha, Tisza or
Vadastra figures, where they occur
as the dresses. For the most of
them it is strictly respected the
equality (congruence) between figure and ground (black and white
part). From some completely preserved neolithic
ornaments, this follows immediately. On the other hand, this rule
could be the very important basis for the reconstruction of many
neolithic ceramic ornaments, that are preserved only in parts, or
even of some uncolored ornaments originating from the colored
ones. Because it is not so probable that some part of a certain
ornament, after its multiplication will completely cover the
plane, respecting at the same time such very strong counterchange
condition, I believe that the most of my proposed
reconstructions are also correct.
The most interesting problem is to explain the way of planing
of such ornaments. How it is difficult to construct that kind of
ornaments, we could see from Escher notebooks, or even if we try to
construct them independently. We already mentioned some of possible
modular solutions: different kinds of optiles,
multipleantisymmetry tiles or Lunda designs.
Let us notice that this such blackandwhite monohedral patterns
are more general than Lunda designs: they satisfy the global
equilibrium condition (the congruence of black and white part),
but usually not satisfy the local conditions for Lunda designs.
Anyway, it is interesting that all monohedral Lunda designs with
some plane antisymmetry group from P.Gerdes book Lunda Geometry
are discovered in the Neolithic. Therefore, as an open
field for research appears the connection between technology of
work (matting, plaiting, knotwork, textiles, fabrics...) and the
complete paleolithic and neolithic ornamental art preserved on
stones, bones or in ceramics and the implicite mathematical
knowledge as their underlying basis. In all such ornaments we
could notice the domination of
binary systems (blackwhite, leftright, abovebelow...),
i.e., of simple and multiple antisymmetry.
As a style in art we will consider the specific properties in art
expression, the mode and the manner of execution, and
construction rules characterizing a particular epoch. By time,
in the concept of a pattern, inseparable from the idea of symmetry,
prevailed the descriptive theory of ornamental styles. By
classifying ornaments according to their concept: the underlying
symmetry, it is possible to follow the constancy  symmetry rules
discovered and the change  their ornamental variations. From
that point of view, every epoch or ornamental style will be
characterized as well by the geometrical and constructional
problems solved in ornamental art.
The style is a term mainly used in the art analysis of modern
epochs: you will not find the terms as "paleolithic style" or
"neolithic style". On the other hand, in a collection of
ornaments it is not difficult to recognize paleolithic or
neolithic ornaments from the others: they posses their "style".
We will try to explain exact geometricalsymmetrical criteria,
closely connected with the theory of visual perception, appearing
as defining properties for every ornamental style.
The approach to the ornamental art from the theory of symmetry
point of view is almost completely taken from the mathematical
crystallography, giving us the answer to the question: "which
ornaments are derived", but not to the questions "how they are
derived" (or why?). Trying to explain the origins of ornamental
art, and to understand anthropological, social, cognitive and
communicational sense of ornaments, together with the symmetry
recognition and evidence, for every epoch we need to reconstruct
the complete process of the construction of ornaments. This
especially concerns the oldest periods, from which we have
preserved only archaeological artifacts. In construction of
ornaments we could distinguish two possible ways: the symmetry
extensions from local to global symmetry, and desymmetrizations
("symmetry breaking") going from highsymmetrical structures to
their symmetry subgroups. By a comparative analysis, we will
follow the use of some basic ornamental (and geometrical)
elements and patterns in different cultures, their (geometrical
and topological) change in time, and possible intercultural
relationships.
This work was supported by the Research Support Scheme of the
OSI/HESP, grant No. 85/1997.
jablans@mi.sanu.ac.yu
