In our last issue of the World Records of Art, we explored some of the oldest examples of visual art, focusing on a variety of paintings made on a variety of different media. In this issue, we are going to take a slight left turn. Rather than focusing on a single type of art, in this issue we will explore a shape — the teardrop.
As shapes go, the teardrop (or the ovoid, if we want to get technical) may not be the first shape that comes to mind as a favorite. Preschoolers across the globe will likely choose triangles, circles or squares as their favorites before the teardrop. And yet when you look back throughout art history, the teardrop is quite beloved.
An unsung hero, if you will, it has been an integral part of art since the beginning. There’s something about its horizontal symmetry and vertical asymmetry that makes it beautiful. And it evokes emotions — of sadness, of grief, of joy and even wonder.
The teardrop shape appears within intricately designed paisley tapestries from the East and in the geometric patterns adorning Mosques. It is a favorite cut for diamonds and other precious gems that adorn engagement rings and fine jewelry. The shape can be found as a recurrent theme within the tribal tattoos of the Maori people of New Zealand, and although they may not be seen as art in the “proper” sense, teardrop tattoos are an integral part of gang and prison culture.
Seyyed Hossein Mozhgani. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Lil Wayne. Image Source: Wikipedia.
The shape pops up frequently in Salvador Dali’s masterpieces that display clocks and faces and various other bodies and objects that drip and droop off the canvas.
Salvador Dali, Figueras (1904)
In short, it may not be the first shape to come to mind when we think of beauty, but as shapes go, the teardrop is beloved.
Most Notable Teardrop?
Arguably, one of the most notable (if not the most notable) examples of a teardrop featured in a piece of art is the teardrop earring worn in Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665). In this masterpiece, Vermeer presents a pearl earring of such weight and substance that it is unlikely that such a pearl could have existed in the real world, and if it had, it would have been even less likely that it would have appeared in such an ovoid shape. Whether the earring was inspired by a real example, whether it was inspired by a fake, or whether it was created out of Vermeer’s imagination is irrelevant to the fact that this painting has lasted the test of time and will continue draw people’s attention and remain one of the most notable representations of a teardrop earring.
Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665)
Largest Teardrop in a Piece of Art
Following the tragedy, Russia constructed a massive monument as a memorial to the victims of 9/11, titled To the Struggle Against World Terrorism (also known as The Tear of Grief and The Teardrop Memorial). Designed by Zurab Tsereteli, standing at the end of the former Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne, New Jersey, the 100-foot (30 m) monument presents a 40-foot (12 m) stainless-steel teardrop that hangs between two jagged sides of a tower split in two.
Zurab Tsereteli. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Most Teardrops Featured in One Piece of Art
In his critically acclaimed installation piece titled Golden Teardrop (2013), Thailand’s Arin Rungjang presents an immense sculpture comprised of 8,000 individual pieces of beaten bronze teardrops that dance and glitter in astonishing geometric patterns. Paired with a documentary, the installation piece explores the connections between thong yod, an old Thai dessert made from egg yolks that come in a teardrop shape, and a dance created around the same time called the Bomba. Tying together histories of the Thais, Portuguese, and Japanese, it traces the teardrop shaped dessert and how it moved through these various cultures and histories and comments upon the fragmentary nature of history and collective memory. Each one of the individual golden teardrops hangs on its own, yet they all come together to create a solid whole that changes and moves with a kaleidoscopic beauty.
Image Source: Singapore Art Museum.
Oldest Teardrop Art
What is most surprising and most impressive about the teardrop shape is that it inspired what was arguably the oldest piece of art — ever.
Denis Dutton, philosopher of art and professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, authored a book titled The Art Instinct and gave a TED Talk titled “A Darwinian Theory of Beauty,” in which he argues that humans are hardwired to seek out beauty and create art and makes the claim that the first piece of art came even before Homo sapiens!
Dutton argues that the Acheulian hand axes eventually became the first items that could be identified as art. These Acheulian hand axes, named after St. Acheul in France, go back about 2.5 million years, to the time when Homo erectus and Homo ergaster roamed the earth. At first, they were simple cutting tools made for a practical purpose, but sometime around 1.4 million years ago, as Dutton describes in his TED Talk, Homo erectus started shaping “single, thin stone blades, sometimes rounded ovals, but often in what are to our eyes an arresting, symmetrical pointed leaf or teardrop form.”
He argues that the sheer number of these hand axes shows that they could not have been made for butchering animals alone. But what’s more interesting, according to Dutton, “unlike other pleistocene tools, the hand axes often exhibit no evidence of wear on their delicate blade edges. And some, in any event, are too big to use for butchery. Their symmetry, their attractive materials and, above all, their meticulous workmanship are simply quite beautiful to our eyes, even today.”
He continues to make the lofty claim that “they were literally the earliest known works of art, practical tools transformed into captivating aesthetic objects, contemplated both for their elegant shape and their virtuoso craftsmanship.” He finishes by saying, “stretching over a million years, the hand axe tradition is the longest artistic tradition in human and proto-human history.”
Acheulian Hand Axe. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Dennis Dutton. Image Source: Steve Jurvetson.
Since Homo erectus’s teardrop hand axe, Homo sapiens has taken the form and used it to create the drooping images in Dali’s Figueras and the pearl in Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and the monument to human grief in the towering Teardrop Memorial and the kaleidoscopic beauty within Golden Teardrop and will no doubt continue to create even more art and beauty with the unsung beauty that is the teardrop.