Is there such a thing as an “algorithmic style?”

Back a few years ago on Orbit Trap, I wrote a post entitled, Fractals are the Mogao Caves of our time.  In it I described a sort of culturally universal art form called the “Divine Diagram”.  The concept first occurred to me when viewing photographs online of the Buddhist murals on the walls of the Mogao Caves in Northwestern China.  These sorts of religious and heraldic, “divine diagrams” exhibited the following visual characteristics which one also often finds in algorithmic imagery, particularly the fractal kind.

  • Symmetry (left/right mirror image)
  • Hierarchical structure (the details support the “macro-tails”)
  • Geometric (circles, squares, parabolas, shapes that are formulaic)
  • Abstracted/Symbolic (simplified and stylized but retaining a resemblance to real things, mainly natural: hills, sky, clouds, flowers,)

Just recently I stumbled upon some photographs online of murals on the walls of  the Gran Salon in the Museum of Archeology in Valetta, on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean.  My reaction was: “I want a copy of the program that made those!”

I noticed instantly a rare artistic beauty to these murals, but this time my mind instinctively assumed an algorithmic source rather than a human one.  When reflecting on the absurdity of thinking that 200 year old murals might have been made on a computer, something occurred to me:  “Is there such a thing as a distinctively algorithmic style?”  Think of it: Artists imitating computer programs rather than computer programs imitating artists?

Well, the murals of the Gran Salon came first, chronologically, so the artists who created them obviously weren’t imitating fractal or any other form of algorithmic graphics.  Or were they?  Could there be a form of algorithmic graphics that came before computers that they might have been, if not imitating, at least influenced by?

If you take a closer look at my bulleted list above (as I did when I reposted it) you’ll see the obvious “algorithmic” connection.  It’s as freaky as the concept of Ancient Astronauts and as commonplace as flowers.  Yes, there is a distinctive algorithmic style and it comes in the form of natural algorithms.  Like flowers!

If you know anything about the history of the development of fractal geometry, which is they key algorithm that fractal programs utilize, you’ll know that they were discovered by Dr. Benoit Mandelbrot in his attempt to explain the geometry of natural shapes like clouds, rivers, trees, coastlines and other completely natural and extremely ancient and ubiquitous things;  the commonplace, not the freaky.

It’s my theory that the religious/heraldic imagery of Divine Diagrams as well as the mural of the Gran Salon are imitations, possibly unconscious and unintentional ones, of natural geometric structures like flowers and just the abstract forms from geometry itself.  These shapes and structures are all the product of algorithms, natural ones, in the form of DNA, in the case of flowers and other biological forms; and just simple geometry in the case of symmetry and patterns.  There is then, something we can call “The Algorithmic Style”.

What is significant about the murals of the Gran Salon and which doesn’t exist in any of the other Divine Diagrams that I’ve seen from around the world is the refinement and distinguishing of this unique algorithmic style.  The Gran Salon images are algorithmica for the sake of algorithmica!  They have no religious, ceremonial or heraldic design function.  They have only one intended function in my opinion and that is to be art: images of beauty, enjoyment, mental power and wonder.  Or call it decoration!

There is a point at which decoration transcends that common label and category and ascends into the realm of the sublime.  The murals of the Gran Salon is one of those instances.

You can find some high resolution versions at the Arts and Culture Google site and some medium resolution ones at the Bank of Valletta site in videos of their restoration.

The entire hall is one massive illuminated “cave” of art. It’s reminiscent of King Tut’s tomb or the many religious shrines like the Mogao Caves.
A “fish-eye” lens view, I think, but how else can one capture the art “parade” here without some sort of panoramic tool?
A screenshot from a pdf brochure by the Museum of Archaeology. I’ve got this on my desktop. Apparently you can rent the hall.
A detail from the large version above. Note that none of the central elements are repeated, possibly with the exception of the top leafy thing.
Another detailed view. I think these three images are reproduced exactly on the opposing wall from other views I’ve seen.
A reduced version of one from the Google arts and culture site. Shows the detail (restored) well. Not quite as exciting as the others but still remarkably creative for what many might simply call “decorative”.
The full image of what is displayed above in detail. Looks better from a distance! Maybe a lot of great art is like that. I still think these things are pretty impressive.
This one and the one above are scaled down versions of the high res Google art and culture versions. Perhaps we don’t look closely at art like this and notice it’s sublime qualities when it presented a merely wall decoration instead of a “stylized mural”.
You can see the matching, opposing walls. The room is an image like each of the smaller panels and has its own symmetry. Or was it just a common decorative habit?
A little more detail and color. Without the restoration work, we’d have to use a bit of imagination to see this. I consider these works to almost be a lost art form. Until now with the advent of computer algorithms.

Compare the “algorithmic style” of those 400 year old hand-painted artworks, above, with these much younger computer made ones:

A fractal image from Sterling. Decoration or art? Either way I think one would call it baroque, like the Gran Salon murals (wall panels).
Computer algorithms are inexhaustible and the fractal ones are surprisingly creative sometimes. I think this looks like a new wing on the Gran Salon.
You gotta admit there’s at least some resemblance. Flowing, circular, floral and organic. I wish I could have gotten the background to be white so it would be an even closer comparison.
Made by photoshop filtering a photo which is now unrecognizable. The mirror image effect does the final transformation.
A well anti-aliased (smoothed) Sterling fractal. The image goes on forever in detail. The fractal Gran Salon is of infinite size.
Made entirely with various photoshop filters from scratch. Not your average baroque wall panel, except in the House of Usher.
Made in a similar way to the previous (above) one. With computer algorithms one can experiment with the final image instead of with sketches and ideas as a painter is forced to do.
Notice the one to one aspect ratio that is uncommon in most artworks but quite normal with decorative elements that are modular. This happens with some computer algorithms when working symmetrically because mirroring them vertically as well as horizontally makes them square.
A photoshop filtered fractal. Symmetry often produces instant and highly complex decorative works in computer graphics.
It’s hard to duplicate the level of detail that fractal algorithms can produce. This is a Sterling fractal and composed in seconds. You’ve already spent longer looking at it than it took me to make it.
One of the finest examples of the algorithmic style of the Gran Salon found in the fractal lands I explored. Each detail has its own details and yet blends into the whole image just like the voices of a choir. I hear the same music when perusing the photos of the Gran Salon as I do perusing a fractal program.

I think I might explore this idea of an “Algorithmic Style” some more in the future.  I think it ties a lot of things together and explains why many of the connections I’ve made between various hand-made artworks and computer algorithm made ones have appeared obscure and confusing to many (most) of my readers over the years.  It’s a question of artistic style and that’s a somewhat subjective and subtle thing to identify and define, much less compare and contrast.


The greatest photograph ever made!

Portrait of the Painter Vaclav Sivko, Photograph, 1955 by Josef Sudek (Czechoslovakian, 1896–1976)

What’s so great?  It’s the Triumph of the Medium.  It’s a photograph and yet it transcends the realms of all painted portraits and presents, photographically no less, the imagination of the artist.  Sudek has photographed the artist imagining what they will engrave on this engraving plate, which forms the “canvas” that reflects, by virtue of its metallic nature, the man (engraver) holding it.  Furthermore, the brushed surface of the engraving plate produces a fuzzier, more blurry reflection than a mirror would and produces the hazy, “imagined” image which contrasts with the sharp, clear image of the hands holding the plate which represents the “real world” waiting for the imagination to tell it what to do.  And further to the furthermore, it’s a portrait of the artist himself (engraver) and so the “imagined image” is the artist ruminating and musing on what image of himself he should present to the viewer.  It’s a moment of deep contemplation and high deception!  “Who do I want to be?  And what can I get away with? Will they believe it?”

I ran across this image like I do with everything great I find on the internet, by accident while browsing the site, Graphicine, in its posting on Josef Sudek, a famous Czech photographer.  The rest of his work is interesting and there’s a few I like but this one knocks the Mona Lisa off her chair.  Compare the “enigmatic smile” of Mona with the “inner existential game” on Sudek’s portrait’s face.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci 1503

And the hands.  Both portraits feature hands in the foreground and its interesting what they contribute to the portrait.  Sudek’s portrait is about to use their hands and establish the identity of the portrait as that of an artist (engraver).

I found some information about Sudek’s portrait on the Museum of Fine Arts Boston site’s exhibition of Sudek’s photographs:


The artist; given to Sonja Bullaty and Angelo Lomeo in the 1960s or 1970s; from whom purchased by the MFA, April 23, 2003

I take it the photograph is not one of Sudek’s most well known but I don’t know exactly how these things might be measured in the medium of photography.  I think the Mona Lisa wasn’t such a big hit when it was first released either until “The Smile” became something everyone must take a look at.

In conclusion I guess I’d say that Sudek’s portrait is better described as the best portrait ever made rather than the best photograph.  The medium doesn’t seem to be that big a deal and the similarities in artistic merit and “what makes it tick” artistically could be reproduced by hand in painting or drawing.  M.C. Escher certainly drew some very realistic and optically complex things, all by hand.  I’d call it, “Portrait of the Artist as an Imagination” or, following the existential overtones, “The Artist Invents Himself”.

From an algorithmic perspective it shows how great an automatic thing like a captured image can be.  Of course it took a lot of planning and skill, but Sudek was able to express something deeply profound and artistic without the use of the hand-made, plastic medium of painting.  In the end this piece of art’s merit lies in the image it presents us with and the photographic medium doesn’t detract from it even when compared with a great painter da Vinci and his legendary work, the Mona Lisa.

The image is what’s important.  That’s what we see and what we should focus on.

My definition of algorithmic art

I was over at the Wikipedia recently, curious about what the state of their pages on fractal art and other algorithmic things was. It was rather encouraging but also a little confusing. I’ve spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to understand these sort of computer art topics so when I get confused when reading about basic definitions and categories it makes me stop and think some more.

I get the feeling that “art made with computer generated imagery” (not CGI as in movies) is becoming a little more well known and mainstream and the proliferation of definitions on the Wikipedia shows this. I have gained what I think is a good grip on a meaningful category of computer art so I offer its definition because I think it helps to understand it. It helps me, so why not others like me?

When I say “algorithmic art” I’m talking about art made with computer programs that draw automatically, without human involvement, using algorithms rather than computer drawing tools for computer artists. My kind of “algorithmic art” might include some hand-made touches and modifications that make them “mixed media” in some people’s ultra scientific taxonomic minds, but the critical ingredient is imagery that comes from algorithmic expression rather than human expression. The mechanical “touch” is what algorithmic art focuses on for me.

Algorithmic artists then, use programs like fractal programs or applications that employ other kinds of algorithms, like cellular automata, iterated function systems (IFS), or even just photoshop filter effects and transformations. The main thing is that the imagery, for the most part at least, is not hand made and depicts the creativity of the algorithm used and not the drawing skill and imagination of the artist.

Fractals are the most common form of algorithm used in algorithmic art but they aren’t really any more distinctive than any other form of algorithm as far as what the imagery looks like is concerned. I don’t regard fractal art as a distinct form of algorithmic art because their expression of the essential ingredient in algorithmic art, the mechanical “mind”, results in imagery that has the same artistic interest and purpose as any other algorithmic form.

Including clouds! Clouds are a form of algorithmic art but not, obviously, a computerized form. Clouds are formed by automatic processes that follow rules, ie. algorithms, and not by human manipulation or creative involvement. Interestingly, fractal geometry came about as an attempt to explain natural phenomena like clouds, trees and other natural shapes and not originally to create an art form. Fractal formulas (algorithms) create very broad and wide-ranging types of imagery and in the context of visual art don’t warrant a distinct grouping because their appearance isn’t distinct enough. They look like a lot of other algorithmic art.  Or maybe it’s just me.

The key ingredient in algorithmic art then is mechanical creativity rather than intelligent, thoughtful, human creativity. It’s the machine thing that gives algorithmic art it’s distinctive appearance and appeal so it makes sense to me to define it by that characteristic since it’s the one responsible for its artistic traits.

Much of the “automatism” used by surrealist artists like Max Ernst like rubbings of rough surfaces, smoke patterns and squished paint imagery, looks like fractal art and other forms of algorithmic art because they feature non-human (non-thinking, mechanical) imagery. It was the non-human “look” that the surrealists were after because they thought it inspired and provoked the unconscious mind of the viewer in ways that the hand-made imagery of an artist, another person like themself, didn’t. Non-human imagery had a special weirdness to it that was surreal just like the surrealist works that they also painted by hand using their own graphical skill and imagination.

The weirdness comes from the algorithms and it doesn’t much matter what particular type they are. As long as the artwork features that weirdness of mechanical creativity, any hand made alterations and additions by the artist don’t change its algorithmic art categorization to me. Photo backgrounds, overlays or whatever, aren’t important taxonomic considerations as long as the algorithmic weirdness persists in the image.  Its a subjective classification and one has to judge it for themself just like many art categories like impressionism and cubism.  It’s a judgment call but there are objective criteria, if “mechanical weirdness” is something that can be objectively identified, that is.

So, that’s my definition of algorithmic art and I think it’s the most sensible and practical one. The others I find are just intellectual constructs and over abstractions but they probably serve good purposes in those sort of contexts like journal articles and science-oriented art exhibitions. I’m just interested in looking at pictures. Algorithmic art is a much simpler thing for me.