Since 2007, the exhibitions organised for the Venice Biennale by Axel Vervoordt and his foundation, in collaboration with the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, have been groundbreaking in their revelations from deep in the history of art. This year’s show, again at the Palazzo Fortuny, is on the hidden proportions that underpin the worlds of art and science.
‘For many years I have felt that proportion has had an important influence on what I do,’ Vervoordt tells me. In fact it was in 1972 that his friend, the Antwerp artist Jef Verheyen, a close collaborator and a disciple of Lucio Fontana, gave Vervoordt Le Nombre d’Or, a book on the golden section by the Romanian mathematician, philosopher and diplomat Prince Matila Ghyka. Verheyen had been introduced to the theories expounded by Ghyka through his artistic closeness to Fontana.
‘Jef told me to read it, study it and write to him with questions,’ Vervoordt says. ‘Since then, I have tried to study proportions in all that I see, so that I can feel the magic and the positive energy that underlie them. I really believe that they make you more serene and walk prouder.’
First published in 1931, Le Nombre d’Or has been in print ever since. It poses a number of questions. Is everything chaos and chance? Or is there order, harmony and proportion in life, nature and the finest art? Is there a natural aesthetic that corresponds to a universal order? What is the ‘true’ significance of the triangle, rectangle, spiral and other geometric shapes? Ghyka believed that there were such things as ‘the mathematics of life’ and ‘the mathematics of art’, and that the two coincided.
Starting with ideas from Plato, Pythagoras, Archimedes, Ockham, Kepler and others, he explored the outlines of an abstract science of space and examined the ‘golden section’. When we judge a work of art, Ghyka posited, we are making it conform to a pattern whose outline is laid down in simple geometric figures. The core of his book is the analysis of these figures in art and nature.
Vincenzo Scamozzi, The Idea of Universal Architecture. Parte one, first book (Venice 1615), p. 32 Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia – Mariano Fortuny Library
A clue to the contents of the new Proportio exhibition can be found in the illustrations to Ghyka’s book, all of which are concrete examples of the author’s analysis. Here are the Great Pyramid and tomb of Rameses IV, the Parthenon, Renaissance paintings and architecture, and the work of Seurat and Le Corbusier, together with images of flowers, shells, marine life and the human face.
‘Since we bought our castle of Gravenwezel in 1982, proportions have become even more important to me,’ Vervoordt explains. ‘They helped me to restore the castle, and in the process I discovered that not only was the golden rule used but many other sacred proportions in classical architecture as well. I was very lucky that a specialist in such proportions, who became a very inspiring friend, helped me a lot in this research, and now I draw them spontaneously in almost all my designs, then measure them afterwards to explain them to my collaborators.’
‘This wisdom has always been secret,’ says Vervoordt. ‘Only the initiated knew about it in the past, and they would only learn about it after many years of apprenticeship. But today knowledge should not be secret. After all, if a university invents something one day, the whole world can have access to it the next. I still have a lot to learn myself, but I wished to share what I have learned with others, because I believe that proportion is important for the evolution of our world.’ Which is why, after what Vervoordt terms several ‘think salons’, this exhibition was born.
As with Ghyka’s book, Proportio is articulated around a series of themes: Sacred Numbers, the Fibonacci Sequence, the Hypotenuse, Squaring the Circle and Le Corbusier’s Modulor. ‘It’s an invitation to reflect on the dynamic relationship between order and chaos,’ says Vervoordt. Contemporary artists such as Marina Abramović, Anish Kapoor, Rei Naito and the Belgian Michaël Borremans are featured, as are Francesco Candeloro and Arthur Duff, two Venice-based conceptual artists who use light in their work, and have collaborated on installations in the past. Then there are existing works illustrating the thesis, by Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, Alberto Giacometti and Mario Merz, among many others.
Ellsworth Kelly, Red Yellow Blue I, 1963. Acrylic on canvas, three joined panels. 90 x 90 inches (228.6 x 228.6 cm). Collection: Fondation Maeght, Saint Paul de Vence. Gift of Aimé and Marguerite Maeght, 1973 © Ellsworth Kelly
What makes this exhibition so inspiring, however, are its references to the proportionate past: the Egyptian artefacts, the series of Dutch Old Master architectural paintings, the Portrait of a Woman by Botticelli painted in 1485 and now in a private collection in Brussels, and a monumental sculpture by Antonio Canova from 1807. And there are many architectural works, including models by Le Corbusier and Richard Meier, among a series of artistic investigations of proportion by minimalists and the Zero artists of the 20th century. The top floor, with its wabi pavilion, will concentrate on proportions in the cosmos, through meditation and silence. It includes a sound installation by Marina Abramović in collaboration with Kim Stanley Robinson, the science fiction writer.
Sandro Botticelli (Firenze, 1444-1510), Portrait of a Woman, 1485,. Private Collection, Bruxelles
The catalogue for Proportio is very thick,’ Vervoordt tells me. ‘There are great texts by scientists, museum specialists and artists, and a lot of artists have also given us great quotes about why their work is based upon these proportions.’
With architect Tatsuro Miki, Vervoordt has designed five architectural pavilions on the ground floor, each built according to ‘sacred dimensions’ and providing a spatial embodiment of the proportional principles for visitors to experience as they walk through the empty, almost abstract spaces. ‘This is a new, unknown world for me,’ says Vervoordt. ‘It is the macro cosmos and the micro cosmos, where the same proportions appear.’
So has he created an immersive experience that aims to link and elucidate the work and philosophy of artists from the deep, primitive past to the present? ‘All I can say is that anyone visiting the exhibition will feel good, because it is very positive energy,’ he replies. ‘And I am sure that many collectors, and especially artists, will be inspired. It will become a defined concept like our other exhibitions, Artempo, In-finitum and Tra. Proportio is timeless and therefore also part of the future, and I will be happy if many other people are as inspired by this timeless knowledge and energy as I have been.’
Proportio is at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice from 9 May to 22 November. www.axel-vervoordt.com
Portait of Axel Vervoordt in main image by Michael James O'Brien. This article appears in the May 2015 issue of Christie’s magazine. Subscribe here
For more features, interviews and videos from Venice, see our Venice Biennale Blog