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  • golden section as the known ratio

The Value of Golden Section in Contemporary Art

May 9, 2016
Alias of Ksenija Pantelić

How do we apply the golden section in art? Do we even have examples of this magical number and this mathematical equation as used by different contemporary artists today? The perceptions of the human eye, the search, and the analysis of the aesthetic theory, go hand in hand with major art movements, its major figures as well as the most influential works. The understanding of the world around us, and the need to present or to, in some cases, even become the idealized image, for centuries, was a major concern or a rule for many artists. Regardless of the art movement, we all agree that certain rules were applied to the reproduction and the representation of our surroundings. The reference to the classical and idealized human form in the Classical Art and later in the Neo-Classicism, or the breaking of the compositional rules by the Impressionist movement, showcase the interests towards the presentation that is most pleasing to the eye or that is most in service of the idea that the work needed to resonate. Regardless of its service, certain tools, such as the golden section as one of the most influential mathematical formula, are still in use today. But, to what degree is the golden section applied to or even seen significant as one of the compositional tools that contemporary artists and designers fall back to?

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Salvador Dali – The Sacrament of the Last Supper. Image via artmathmusic.com

What is the Golden Section?

Known also as the Divine Proportion, Golden Ratio, Golden Number, Golden Proportion, Golden Mean, and Divine Section, it represents a number that sparked the interest of the ancient Greeks, Renaissance artists, a 17th-century astronomer, and even a 21st-century novelist. The origins of the golden section are found in the Elements, the most influential mathematical textbook, written by Euclid of Alexandria, around 300 B.C., and also in the Divine Proportion, written by Luca Pacioli in 1509. Pacioli, a contemporary to the painter Leonardo da Vinci, who illustrated the book, explored the mathematics of the golden ratio, and advocated the application of the golden ratio to produce pleasing, harmonious proportions that saw the representation of the Catholic religious significance in it, which lead to the title choice. But what is the definition of the golden section? It derived from the division of the line and it states that two objects are in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities. The value of this works out to and is usually written as 1.6180, the magical number that since the 20th century has been presented by the Greek letter Phi. But, how and why was this applicable in art and more importantly, why did it spark such an interest?

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Seurat – Bathers at Asnières. Image via goldennumber.net

Golden Ratio in Nature and Art

The most famous application of the golden ratio is the golden rectangle that has been used by many artists of the past. It is said that if you draw a rectangle around the face of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, the ratio of the height to the width of that rectangle is equal to the Golden Ratio. Even though, there are no real documentations that indicate that the painter actually thoughtfully applied this, his long friendship with the author of the Divine Proportion, would have for sure informed the painter, already interested in the combination of science and art, to use this mathematical formula. Salvador Dali was one of the artists who on purposely used the golden rectangle in his famous painting The Sacrament of the Last Supper, and this interest showcases the painters need to celebrate the formula, which creates the most pleasing image to the eye. Alongside the famous surrealist painter, painters Raphael, Michelangelo, Piet Mondrian, Georges Seurat, just to name the few, are famous for using this formula for the creation of the perfect visual harmony. As one of the most important functions, applied to the golden ratio used in service of the visual art, is its role in human perception of beauty.

It is also significant how this simple line division marked the interest and the search for pattern designs in nature that supports the theory of the golden ratio. The golden ratio is found in the arrangement of parts such as leaves and branches of different plants, seed heads, pine cones and different fruits and vegetables. This merge of the mathematics and the creation in nature is supporting the idea of many philosophers that see this ratio operating as a universal law.

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Oli Kellett – Beauty or beast, Photograph Golden MeaningGD&. Image via theguardian.com

Value of the Golden Section in Contemporary Art

There are many debates that support or confuse the golden ratio applied to the visual art field. Today, as we are living in the world of mass image production, and in the world of the constant search for the beautiful image, the need to understand the human perception and to find the way to appeal and to create the perfect visual harmony, is a knowledge or a skill from the past, that is sometimes used as a reference, a compositional tool, but nothing more than that. Long gone is the time when rules were there to be obeyed. Artists today, seem to exist in the world, where the new paintings follow the trend of Zombie Formalism, or on the other end of the scale, show artists interested in producing the hyper-realistic images that purposely showcase flows in the human nature.

Seen as the tool used for the better understanding of the beautiful image, the value of the golden ratio is questioned and often criticized as standing for something that would always ask for the manipulation if on the quest for the most beautiful image. Many artists today play with the morphing of different parts of the body, especially the face, to construct the adored image. This by no means is any different from the artists in the past that used the golden ratio to appeal to the divine force. Today, on the other hand, the use is in the function of seduction, but like everything else, the seduction is brief and the mind quickly moves towards the chase of a new desire. For the fulfillment, the line division that sparked such interest in the past is a valuable knowledge, but not something that would be used as a must-have. In most cases, this rule would be broken just because it stands for a value that holds importance for the link between art and science.

Editors’ Tip: The Golden Ratio

This book is a comprehensive analysis of the history of this remarkable line division, and the astoundingly vast areas that the golden ratio is seen to have been used in. Covering many different fields, such as art and architecture, botany and biology, physics and mathematics, along side the more spiritual and the magical, this book offers an insight into the captivating journey of this old and influential mathematical equation. Seen as crucial for the creation of some of the most important architectural as well as design and visual art works, the book investigates the importance of this number for the better understanding of the world around us.

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image: Leonardo da Vinci – The Vitruvian Man, detail. Image via Wikipedia.com