Messy Histories: Circles

This Histories post comes from a bit of whimsy – I’ve done squares, so why not circles? But just as with the squares post, researching the use of stories in history ended up throwing up some themes of their own.

Circles are more natural than squares – which sounds pseudo-profound, but is actually just a fact. Visible nature doesn’t really do sharp angles, but it does do curves. Things which I can quickly think of which are circular to the human eye: the centre of flowers, eyes, the sun, worms (cylinders but you get my point). Squares? Apparently perfect squares naturally occur at molecular level, but that’s not what I’m talking about this time. That’s not the level which has directly influenced thousands of years of visual perception.

Circles may be classed as a geometric shape alongside squares, but in popular perception they’re barely of the same class. If I wrote previously about squares being boringly masculine, circles are tediously feminine. This goes beyond my perception – it’s borne out in use and psychology. Pedigree charts use a circle for female descendants, a square for male. Modern psychology bears out how widely we consider some shapes more ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ than others. And each of those words still contain a heap of biases and stereotypes about ‘natures’ that we’re so conditioned with that we can’t – or perhaps don’t want to – shake. Circles aren’t just differentiated from squares by the number of vertices & corners, but by a whole range of cultural associations.

But art hasn’t necessarily leaned into this. Call it the effects of patriarchy (I won’t argue), but the need to rationalise this more naturally-occurring phenomena is strong. There is, for example, a story behind the Rembrandt below – perhaps more of a theory – that the circles consciously reference his lineage to some of great artists who had gone before him. The ‘first art historian’ Vasari told a story that Giotto proved his genius to the Pope by sending him a perfect circle drawn by hand. This anecdote itself is taken straight from an Ancient Greek story about Apelles, who accomplished a similar feat. Whether backdropping a self-portrait or marking out the heavens in 18th-century India, the perfect circle is the mark of genius. So what about the imperfect circle? I’ve chosen a couple of examples which show its status in early 20th century art as that marker of something not quite opposite to perfect, but certainly different. What Kandinsky and af Klint have in mind is knowledge, but not of the worldly kind Rembrandt seems to be striving to demonstrate. They show a humanity, a connection to nature. They admit our humanity, that we screw up. The same force which are partly – though the cultural circumstances also go deeper – at work in Tjangala’s “dot painting”, as it captures a culture’s communing with another world. We might have evolved to live in world of geometric rationale, but the imperfect circle is a symbol that we keeping in touch with the messiness of humanity it seeks to defy.

And then there’s the Hammons photo. It’s not by chance that his commodity on this day in 1983 was a range of perfect spheres (and I’m counting them because in 2D they *technically* read as circles). It’s the perfect ideal – a form given attention and care, formed out of an (increasingly) rare material. It’s also entirely transitory, with its perfection unable to sustain long-term human interaction. A commodity which literally evaporates once possessed. If you wanted a message about the transience of perfection in a shape, it may be in this image.

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