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Repetition in Art: Boring or Beautiful?

Updated on June 5, 2014

"The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition."

- W. H. Auden

Repetition is a device used in the arts to create emphasis, set up a structure for comparison, show the passage of time, unify disparate elements or develop an underlying pattern. Sameness is the foundation for universal rituals, routines, cycles of nature, human anatomy, emotion and instinct. It can produce comic effect, or express the tedium of daily life. Repetitious action and exact duplication may be used in the arts to suggest mechanical things, the workings of machines, mass-produced products and the broadcasting of information via technology. Does the human ear, as Auden suggests, have a greater tolerance for repetition than the human eye? Does a great piece of music depend on a repeated theme? Is variation the key to success in the visual arts or does repetition play an important role?


Ears, Words and Music

Writers and composers know that the basic rhythm of life - the heartbeat - is at the core of their work. Ears are satisfied by the resonance of a steady drum beat, a recurrent melody, alliteration in a line of poetry or the pattern created by a repeated word or phrase. The auditory nerve develops in the prenatal period, and the fetus listens to its mother's heartbeat, breathing and the swish of amniotic fluid as early as 18 weeks. Repeated sounds are the most natural, reassuring and pleasing for humans.

A brilliant piece of music that relies heavily on repetitive sound is Maurice Ravel's "Bolero." The work, created in 1928 as a ballet for dancer Ida Rubenstein, consists of a two-part theme built over an unchanging rhythm played on the snare drum. Each part of the catchy theme is repeated nine times in the same key, as the orchestra gradually builds to a crescendo. The duration of "Bolero" is a lengthy 15 to 17 minutes,(depending on the conductor) but it never gets boring, as different sections of the orchestra are highlighted throughout. Ravel was critical of his own work, and said that it had "no form, properly speaking, no development, no, or almost no modulation." Nevertheless, his repetitive experiment has demonstrated its extraordinary appeal; "Bolero" is the most frequently played classical piece of music in the world.

Ravel was influenced by the poet Edgar Allan Poe, another master of repetition. His poem "The Raven" written in 1845, uses alliteration, a repeated refrain (nevermore), internal and end rhyming to achieve musicality. Poe wrote an essay regarding the structure of this poem entitled "Philosophy of Composition" in which he stated that the refrain," depends for its impression upon the force of monotone - both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity - of repetition. "The Raven" was an immediate success, granting Edgar Allan Poe the status of most famous American poet of his day.

The last stanza of "The Raven" shows how repetition reinforced the structure and informed the tone of Poe's work.

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted — nevermore! - Edgar Allan Poe

Eyes, Focal Point and Pattern

Eyesight does not fully develop until several months after birth. When a baby is born, it is capable of seeing light and dark patterns, but not able to track movement or focus very well on anything. The visual cortex is not fully mature until age eight, and it seems to be a very specific type of vision that humans develop. With eyes located at the front of the head, unlike many other animals, we focus almost exclusively on what is in front of our bodies, not our general surroundings. The precise "foveal vision" focuses on a narrow two degree arc, and the human brain is too slow to process images more than a few degrees per second. These factors limit what we can see while in motion, and how we perceive objects. Our view of the world requires constant shifting and scanning, as we seek a significant point on which to focus our fine-tuned sense of sight.

When we look at a painting or sculpture, our eyes naturally gravitate to a focal point or incident in the work. The rules of composition - as taught by traditional art academies - state that the eye prefers odd numbers, off-centre focal points, asymmetry, and curved lines rather than straight. An all-over pattern with exactly repeated elements does not allow the eye a resting point, and like wallpaper, will not hold the viewer's gaze long enough to sustain interest.

There are many famous artists who have used repetition as a key element in their work. Andy Warhol's career was based on grids of repeated silkscreen images, sometimes with variations in the colour scheme. His Pop Art multiples provided commentary on the proliferation of products and the making of celebrities in North American society. By ganging up large-scale copies of Marilyn Monroe's publicity photo, Warhol was able to boost the initial impact of the image, while registering a certain level of irony about the process that leads to stardom. For him, more Monroe was more and if the end result looked like wallpaper that was exactly the superficial effect that Warhol had intended.

When I worked for a commercial art gallery in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, there was one artist whose oeuvre was devoted to the same image repeated over a 25 year period. David Cantine's work was based on a still-life composition - two apples and their reflections on a tabletop - reduced to a minimal form. This model served the artist as a consistent structural support for the subject that really interested him, the dynamics of colour relationships. The artist claimed that repetition was tremendously freeing because he never had to struggle in deciding what to paint, but instead could concentrate on selecting colours.

David Cantine, "From SW Still-life Warm" acrylic on Plexiglas, 2001 collection of the Art Gallery of Alberta
David Cantine, "From SW Still-life Warm" acrylic on Plexiglas, 2001 collection of the Art Gallery of Alberta

A solo exhibition featuring works by David Cantine was always an aesthetically beautiful show to present, but a difficult sell for the gallery. The installation of a series of very similar paintings tended to bore the average visitor and many people took one cursory look at the show, turned around and left. The challenge as a dealer was to slow the viewer down to the pace of Cantine's colour studies. We actually accomplished this through sound; playing Gregorian chants on the stereo helped visitors to relax, take time to look closely and discover what Cantine's reiterative body of work was all about.

Lazy ears? Impatient eyes?

Reviewing Auden's statement about the two senses, I would modify his claim by saying that the ears are tuned to history, while the eyes are focused on the future. Ears enjoy sounds that echo the past; eyes look straight ahead, intent on the next experience.


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    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 5 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      I'm glad that this information has added to your research. Good luck with your project!

    • profile image

      Christine K 5 years ago

      I am working on a project called Music and Painting and found your article very useful. Thank you!

    • Keri Summers profile image

      Keri Summers 5 years ago from West of England

      An absolutely fantastic hub. Ambitious themes, written about brilliantly. Made so much sense as well, from Auden's quote, through to your "reviewing" of it.