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.