A 19th century "Masonic" Knights Templar hat.
WJ: Thank you for speaking to us today. You have what at first sight appears to be a pretty diverse array of interests, from arcane symbolism to modern design, and you’re involved in both artistic creation and with writing. What, if anything, pulls it all together?
AM: I think you have to begin with the idea of semiotics, of things standing for ideas or perhaps even timeless truths… You have to go back into history a bit to see how language and the visual were inseparable. Once you do that you can move forward to today, and you’ll have a much more accurate understanding of what design, or a painting, or a poem is saying.
WJ: Can you give an example of words and the visual work together?
AM: Well, for example, traditionally churches had large paintings on the walls, depicting scenes of the Bible. They weren’t meant to be nice pictures per se. They spoke to the illiterate, who couldn’t read the Bible, but who could read the pictorial language in front of them.
WJ: So pictures can be words… historically, I mean?
AM: Yes, of course, because they can signify particular ideas. The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer has attempted to show that the pictorial symbols of ancient cultures – such as the ancient Greeks – were intimately ties to their spoken language. He suggests that these cultures represented complex ideas – many of which we have allegedly inherited – in a pictorial way, whereas we represent them, primarily, through verbal communications.
Knitwear dress by Issey Miyake.
WJ: So the word for an emotion – like love – or some condition, was represented in a pictorial symbol?
AM: Sort of. It’s more that the image and idea – the external world and the way it’s perceived – is inseparable at a certain point in history and culture. If you look at the Old English Rune Poem…
WJ: It’s Anglo-Saxon isn’t it? like Beowulf?
AM: Yes, it’s about a thousand years old, so the language is completely different to contemporary English… But, if you study it carefully, and if you look at modern translations you’ll find that the original uses several words to describe what has been translated as “horse.” Sometimes it talks of a male horse or a female horse – a mare. The warrior rides a specifically female horse. Why? Because the poem makes an analogy of the life of the warrior at home with his wife, who he exchanges for the roughness of being away from home. He exchanges his wife for his horse. So the horse is spoken of as female, so that we can get the point that this is now the closest thing he has to a companion… The culture that produced the poem sees, quite literally, its values embodied in the world, and it uses the things of the world to illustrate its values. The bison is strong… it represents strength… it exemplifies strength, you see? Even today we say “as strong as an ox.”
WJ: I see. Turning to your study of Freemasonry, does it work the same there? Or is something else going on? I mean, it seems very elaborate, with very special clothing and imagery, and all sorts. It’s not drawn primarily from nature, surely?
AM: No, but it is drawn from the surrounding environment. That environment happened to be the stonemason’s trade, his work, his lodges, his tools, etc. Just as the primitive man saw his values embodied – in the world – in the bison, the horse, and so on, so the early Freemasons saw their values proved by the work of the builder. So, in drawing a circle with a compass he saw that the passions could be “circumscribed,” as he would say.
But, Freemasonry, which really emerges at the beginning of the 18th century, is a perhaps a much more complex and visual phenomenon than many that preceded it. Interestingly, it emerged at a time in which visual symbolism was being frowned upon by intellectuals and philosophers, who regarded it as a throw-back.
Let’s take the clothing aspect. The British philosopher Thomas Carlyle – now much forgotten – said thing imagined is a garment, or the clothing, of something higher and celestial. He meant “clothing” quite literally, and spoke of a “philosophy of clothes.” In Freemasonry the philosophy is literally embodied in the clothing. All Freemasons wear elaborate aprons over their suits, for example. The apron is tied in different ways so that at one point it’s square in shape, then triangular, and then like a pentagon. All of these are symbols in Freemasonry – the square, for example is tied to the builder drawing a right-angle for the first corner of the building, and to cut the building blocks themselves. So we can deduce that when the apron is worn as a square shape it’s because the Freemason wants to symbolize that he at the beginning of the symbolic building work – building himself into a better man.
WJ: There’s a bit of a joke about Masons wearing funny hats. I think some of them wear red fezzes. Can you explain what that’s about.
AM: Yes, sure. The hat you’re talking about is the one worn by Shriners. The Shrine is a club that is open to Freemasons, but is not really considered to be Masonic. It is mostly known for charity work – they run free burns hospitals for children – and for socializing and drinking. That’s kind of the most frivolous end of Freemasonry. But, sure, hats can be found in other Masonic fraternal bodies. The Masonic Knights Templars wear a kind of old fashioned military hat with a cross on the side in red – because you have to be a Christian to join that group, and there is a lot of Christian symbolism in it.
WJ: I didn’t know that there is an actual connection between the Templars and the Masons. Is that right?
AM: No, the Freemasons took the name and some of the mythology and created a new organization out of that. That was in the late 18th century. The historical Knights Templars had ceased to exist several hundred years before that.
WJ: But that’s the power of myth and symbolism.
AM: Yes, precisely.
WJ: Do you think Freemasonry is unique in symbolizing things through clothing?
AM: No, not at all. I think it is probably the most elaborate in this regard, but, no, not unique… If you compare a man’s suit to the traditional Chinese, or the ancient dress of probably all cultures, you’ll find that they are loose, and that the sleeves are just rectangles or folded squares. That tells us that those societies required men to move around a lot. The sleeves of the suit, by contrast, is made from two very tailored pieces, and they are stitched in such a way as to work best when the arms are hanging by the side, Lift them up and the suit will begin to lift up in a rather ugly way.
WJ: But isn’t that about function?
AM: Function? Yes, but it also tells us something about how the person is conceived, and conceives himself. You've heard the expression "upright man," right? Well the suit it literally tailored to fit someone standing upright...
In Zen Buddhism there was an interesting confusion created in the language – you see, we are back to language, even though we are discussing the visual. In Japan, the Chinese characters which were adopted for their writing system, were translated in two ways – the Chinese, and a specifically Japanese way as well. The character for “Zen,” however, had only the Chinese meaning. The early Japanese students of Zen mistook the character for the one meaning “loin cloth” because the two look virtually the same. Although this was a mistake, it became a part of Zen teaching, with Zen Masters giving their students metaphysical riddles about loin cloths and clothing. If they could solve these clothing riddles they simultaneously solved Zen, or reached Enlightenment.
WJ: Are there examples of Japanese decorating their clothing, like the Freemasons do, to create a symbolic look? Does it happen today?
AM: I think the Japanese are still very interested in their historical culture, and much of its design – whether architecture, fashion, or packaging – is clearly inspired by traditional Japanese aesthetics.
Knitwear by Rei Kawakubo.
Related to Zen is the notion of “wabi sabi.” Roughly translated, this means a kind of sense of the rustic, the imperfect, etc. So, in architecture you might want wood that looks a bit gnarled, a bit antique, worn by years of use. In fashion perhaps the best example is the sweater – which became quite famous – designed by Rei Kawakubo, which has holes all over it, as if it is a bit moth eaten. Wabi sabi is about the idea of peacefulness and – to use a much overused word – “oneness” with nature, related to Zen notions of Enlightenment – satori. So that is all in Kawakubo’s sweater.
I was, a decade or so ago, very interested in Issey Miyake’s design. I was interested by his use of different fabric, some very synthetic, and some almost rustic, fraying, rural, almost. Yet he was able to put them together. What he was saying, of course, is that the old is not to be abandoned, but that it is to be introduced into the modern world. The old traditions can be reinterpreted for the modern age.
WJ: Even with fashion.
AM: Perhaps especially with fashion, since clothing is something we wear all day, so you have to have the basic understanding of tailoring, of how fabric works, and how colors compliment the wearer. Even so, I really like Miyake’s knitwear, where they have these rectangular pieces that are folded around the body, almost separate from the rest of the garment. It was inspired by origami, but it reminds me a lot of the Masonic apron.
WJ: Yes, you mentioned that the apron is tied in different ways. Is it the most important piece of Masonic clothing, do you think?
AM: Well, it all has symbolic value, of course, but, yes, the apron is the most important. I think one can say that objectively because it is given the Freemason on his joining the fraternity, and it is laid on his coffin during his funeral. So, we can see, it’s an emotionally important object for the Freemason.
But it’s more than that, of course. The symbolism of the apron is very complex. On the one hand it represents the mortal body, and sometimes the soul, of man. The body is considered to be a garment, like an apron, that is taken off at death. Although they were very simple originally, if you look at the apron after the middle of the 18th century you’ll see lots of symbols, embroidered, painted or printed onto them. To put it succinctly, the apron is related to the Masonic tracing board – they have the same symbols on them. It is a fabric version of the board.
WJ: And what is that?
AM: The board represents the draftsman’s board on which the plans of a building are drawn. The apron appears to have taken this symbolism up, perhaps because the first tracing boards were painted on cloth. Probably the idea to paint on the apron came from here.
WJ: You’ve created Masonic-inspired art, and you’ve also written about it extensively. How does this inform your art?
AM: Well, first of all, I think that great art and design is usually produced by people who have a good knowledge of the history of art and design. You have to be able to draw on something. You need a kind of mental library of images and ideas that you can draw on whenever you create, I think.
Less abstractly, though, yes, I have certainly introduced motifs, compositions and so on from Masonic and other historical genres of art and design into my own work. My tracing board paintings are of course are the most literal rendering, but, even so, they are modern, and don’t really resemble the antiques that much. Sure the inspiration came from there, but we always have to do try to create something new, that is part of the time we live in.