The Decorative Element in Minoan and Modern Art


Minoan Prince circa 1600BC

The mural painting of the young Minoan nobleman (C 1600 BC) above seems surprisingly modern. The reason for this is immediately evident when we compare it with the Matisse painting, The Romanian Blouse. Matisse said about his painting, “I do not insist upon the details of the face,” indicating that the overall effect of the painting was his main concern. Both works are examples of abstract painting in the sense that a great deal of detail has been omitted in favor of a few bold elements of form and colour.


Matisse, The Romanian Blouse

Each painter (the Minoan artist being unknown) has created a work according to his own style but has achieved a similarly pleasing result. Both paintings are examples of figurative art, that mainstay of painting over the 3,600 years between the two. Matisse writes:

What interests me most is neither still life nor landscape but the human figure. It is through it that I best succeed in expressing the nearly religious feeling that I have towards life.

Both the Matisse and Minoan paintings express a sunny optimism and refinement that is conspicuously absent in many contemporary works of art.

The Minoans painted animals and fish as well as the human figure, but the immediate aesthetic aims of the two artists can be examined for what they have in common. They drew on the forms of nature but also on their skills of subordinating visual experience to composition, colour harmonies and the balance between descriptive detail and the division of the surface into shapes.

Notice how the white area in the Minoan mural corresponds to the white area of the Romanian blouse, and how these areas are decorated with calligraphic or geometric details, serving to interest the eye rather than the mind.

In the Minoan work, the white area is negative, but in the Matisse painting it represents the positive form of the woman’s torso. The lack of modelling in the face, which relies on the almost undifferentiated pink tone, corresponds to the similar treatment of the Minoan youth’s body. The mind is left free to “read” the implied form from the bounding tonal areas; and the effect of such simplification is to increase the impact of the coloured areas and the importance of the overall design.

In this context, the radical departure from three dimensional modeling, usually attributed to Gauguin and the influence of Japanese prints, can be seen as a return to the simpler forms of the past. Picasso takes up this approach in his rose period, but soon abandons it to establish a hefty neo-classical modelling of the figure, post cubism. However, Picasso’s intensive studies of Greek vase decoration place him closer to Minoan, Etruscan and Greek linear art than Matisse, who drew much of his inspiration from Islamic decorative art. It is evident from the Minoan murals that have survived, that Minoan culture was hedonistic. The early paintings, despite heavy stylisation, reflect the similar kind of joi de vivre found in much of Matisse’s work.

Picasso’s portrait of his eldest son Paulo as a clown provides another example of extreme simplification of form and the suppression of detail in aid of composition. The white of the costume and the black accoutrements define the figure with the red, grey and pale blue elements, and the decorative balcony defines the background. The message of these apparently simple works is that less can be more in presenting a feast for the eye, especially when it is used to being bombarded with thousands of messages an hour via computer and television screens. These works, and many more like them from all periods of history, evoke a contemplative state of mind that appeals to the sensualist in those of us who hanker after a simpler life.


Picasso, Paulo as Pierrot


Picasso, Portrait of a Woman

In the final example, Picasso leaves the white area of the figure and the red chair undecorated, but he uses the wallpaper and the panelling of the background as decorative elements. These elements create the illusion of space while retaining the high impact of large areas of “flat” pigment in the foreground. The result is that sensuous and relaxed feeling evident in the previous examples.

While a great many complex styles of painting have evolved since the Palace of Knossos was decorated, the involuntary responses of the human eye and brain to areas of colours on a flat surface remain the same. Learning to appreciate different styles educates the mind to accept a wide range of images as aesthetically valuable, but the underlying principles used by painters to please the viewer remain. These are the fundamentals that the good painter seeks to understand. Matisse expresses this idea best in his aphorism:

A work of art must carry in itself its complete significance and impose it upon the beholder even before he can identify the subject matter.

TTcutTony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: writing fiction, poetry, and blogging political diatribes. Other abiding interests include political and social philosophy, with occasional forays into logic and the foundations of mathematics.

2 responses to “The Decorative Element in Minoan and Modern Art”

  1. […] The rest is here: The Decorative Element in Minoan and Modern Art | Escape Into Life […]

  2. Philiia Polites says:

    Hi Tony, I am not very good with FaceBook etc, so I don’t know if you received my small message – small, because the space ran out!  I also live in Brisbane with my partner Neil in Murrumba Downs, near North Lakes.  I enjoyed your analysis – I am a Matisse fan and I first saw the newly excavated Minoan site in 1957 when I first went to Greece with my parents – I was only nine but I felt the powerful pull of history as I walked through the few rooms that had been excavated.  We are landscaping the outside of our new home which is really a clay pan.  f course it will need to be a Mediterranean style garden; lots of paving so I can get around with my walker an,later on, a wheelchair.  I hope to create a couple of mosaic panels, and am looking at Minoan and Byzantine examples of stylised flowers.  If you have any ideas re other sources please let me know.
    Perhaps we could all get together over a Greek meal sometime – I am a better cook than mosaicist!
    My email is:, or mobile:  0423 630 206.  I am also a former public servant from Canberra – Education, Immigration, DFAT and PM&C.  Cheers,  Philia

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