Ornaments of Horror: Kubrick’s Carpet, Wallpaper, and the Rococo Survival

Curator's Note

Stanley Kubrick’s cult horror The Shining (1980) has received numerous cinematic, televisual, and video game tributes. While Danny’s eerie tricycle ride down the empty hallway on the 2nd floor of The Overlook Hotel past room 237 has become a teaching material for tracking shot and an exemplification of the director’s art of staging an impossible cinematic space full of vertigo-inducing spatial discrepancies, the famous hypnotic hexagonal patterned carpet designed by David Hicks that is ridden over may have seen many sales on Etsy (as “The Shining Rug”) and a few cultural citations, but its radical formal and affective impulse is discussed only rarely. A quarter-century after the film’s release, Czech visual artist Jan Šerých has paid tribute to the pattern, one that is a bold extension of what the semantically oversaturated cinematic masterpiece only implies. His 2005 large-scale mural Kubrick’s Carpet puts the horizontal rug upright, turning it into a wallpaper that reproduces the anonymous and desubjectifying trajectory of ornament, which, as Henri Focillon noted in his 1934 La vie des Formes, not only exists “in and of itself, but it also shapes its own environment—to which it imparts a form.”[1] Šerých’s piece rephrases Focillon’s suspicion into the following question: If the aesthetic force of the ornament is to shape its surroundings, what happens when someone gets too close to it? Does the subject become one of its curves?

What looks at first glance as an enlarged screen grab of the rug covering the Colorado Lounge’s floor is a hand painting of the computer rendering of the carpet design. It is crucial to experience the work in situ to fully appreciate its main compositional “gimmick,” whereby the classical two-dimensionality of the mural is generatively disturbed by applying the cinematic dispositif. The size of 24.5 square meters, along with the position of the wall, acquire the affordances of a screen upon which the image—as if projected—is set into motion by the camera effect of aggressive tracking in, exerting a disorienting force of what Shane Denson calls “discorrelated image.”[2] Both strategies, the media hybridity, and spatial confusion, put the beholder into an unsettling encounter with the vertiginous perspective underlying the whole unframed pattern composition through what the artist himself dubs a “levitating point of view.”[3] It would be tempting to read Šerých’s geometric lines through the film’s narrative, in which the carpet design allegedly echoes the hedge maze wherein the writer-turned-killer Jack Torrance, axe in hand, chases his son in the snow, its labyrinthine twists mirroring the descent into Jack’s brain and his growing madness.[4] Such a narrative framing, however, overshadows the affective and morphological agency of the patterns, which absorb the observing subject and follow the formal logic of ornament that has always been indifferent to its original source.

Indeed, this ornamental pattern doesn’t begin with Shining. Kubrick’s rug as well as Šerých’s painting are but arrays, twists, and folds of transhistorical ornament, whose organic rhythms of non-representational movement go back to the Rococo era whence they grow into contemporary culture. Around 1730, an aesthetic revolution took place in France thanks to several visual artists and architects serving at the court of Louis XV, such as Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier and Jacques de Lajoue, whose engravings find common ground in the themes and techniques of ornamentation rendered on the decorative cartouche designs, introducing a new form of ornament called rocaille, which consist of infinitely malleable shell formation along with the richly interwoven C-shaped curves and lines. Born as soon as “the shell motif, a common element of the edges and frames of grotesques, becomes the center of the composition,”[5] while refusing to remain constrained by its carrier—the frame—the rocaille leaves the edges of the picture and invades its center to become an autonomous aesthetic object. As rococo scholars have noticed, in order for the rococo ornament to “invade reality by ornament,” the frame, which had sustained the distance between the real and the fictional world until then, has been broken.[6]

Within the spectacular scenes of stone stairways, fountains, and human figures that adopt the undulating and coquettishly swinging movement of the surrounding fantastic architecture, something dramatic takes place—something that defies the notion of ornament which has prevailed in Western aesthetic discourse until today and whose founding definition was introduced by Kant in his Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) via the term parergon that signifies not only a non-functional embellishment but also a decorative “added” supplement which does not participate in the inner structure of artwork.[7] Playfully deconstructing the Kantian dictum, the visual movement of the rococo curves finds its conceptual correlation in the way Derrida elaborates on the concept in 1978. Faithful to the Greek etymology of the concept, Derrida explains parergon as something strongly atopic— “neither inside nor outside, neither above nor below, it disconcerts any opposition but does not remain indeterminate, and it gives rise to the work.”[8] Just as the rocaille moves freely between the broken frame and the center of the image, so does the Derridean parergon dissolve the alleged boundaries between interior and exterior, disrupting the hierarchical opposition of the visual center and the decorative periphery. This is precisely what happens in Šerých’s painting that sets the scene of a transhistorical survival of rococo ornamental curves and a reiteration of the radical event they brought about—that of the broken frame.

But how exactly does Kubrick’s Carpet unfold the rococo impulse? Reinforced by the absent distinction between the figure and the ground, equally puzzling are the outlined ornamental formations, which emerge as a temporal illusion only to quickly disappear. Insofar as Šerých’s piece forces us to constantly shift perspective, one might occasionally glimpse the hint of a key—though there is nothing to open or crack, the surface of an electronic chip, the macro image of an insect eye, the geometrically rendered design of a tiger’s fur, or the cryptic patterns of tropical butterflies. And this is where the insidious strategy of the painting lies: while in the wild such patterns serve to camouflage the animals’ presence, Šerých’s geometry hides nothing, constantly absorbing its beholding prey. Reframed by and sifted through the digital interface, the affective movement of forms confuses the eye and forces the viewer to adopt a flickering perspective that is radically different from anthropomorphic perception. Very well, so just another example of the current posthuman turn, one might easily conclude—but things are not that simple. Rather than eliminating references to subjectivity and carnality, as well as installing an inhuman perspective,[9] Šerých makes a different move by modifying the embodied scopic regime according to the rigid yet mobile patterns whereby the human subject is not ultimately removed but absorbed into a geometric framework of which it becomes a constitutive part.

When the background disappears, the eye cannot rest for a moment, and accommodation becomes physically impossible, the subject has no other choice but to follow the ornamental form—the wallpaper pattern that absorbs the beholder into its morphology, entangling them within its confusing geometric rhythm. As many literary and cinematic works such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper (1892), Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin (1957), Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961), and Jessica Hausner’s Amor Fou (2014) attest, the wallpaper molds the subject and adapts them to its own logic, regardless whether they want to or not.[10] There is a striking continuity between the excessive ornamental curves that once broke the frame to invade the pictorial space and the absorbing wallpaper patterns that reconfigure not only the surrounding space but also the subjects that happen to get too close. Without paying attention to the affective work of their forms, the ornamental patterns would have remained just innocent Kantian “free beauties,” as traditional aesthetics understands them until today.


Figure 1: Stanley Kubrick, The Shining (1980). Screen grab.

Figure 2: Jan Šerých, Kubrick’s Carpet, 2005. Dům U Kamenného zvonu, Prague. Courtesy of the artist.

Figure 3: Jacques de Lajoue: Second livre de tableaux et rocailles, 1734. Museum für angewandte Kunst (MAK), Wien. Wikimedia Commons.


[1] Henri Focillon, The Life of Forms in Art, trans. Charles Beecher Hogan and George Kubler (New York: Zone Books, 1992), p. 66. Portions of the following argument appeared in Tomáš Jirsa, Disformations: Affects, Media, Literature (New York: Bloomsbury 2021).

[2] Shane Denson, Discorrelated Images (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2020).

[3] Karel Císař, Jan Šerých Was Born on 24. 6. 2083 Minus One (Prague: Tranzit, 2008), p. x.

[4] Karel Císař, Věci, o kterých s nikým nemluvím (Prague: tranzit.cz, 2010), p. 38.

[5] Karsten Harries, The Bavarian Rococo Church: Between Faith and Aestheticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 22.

[6] Frank Ankersmit, “Rococo as the Dissipation of Boredom,” in Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History, ed. Claire Farrago and Robert Zwijneberg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 150. See also Harries, The Broken Frame: Three Lectures (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1989).

[7] Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 110–11.

[8] Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 9.

[9] See Tomáš Pospiszyl, “The Treachery of Words,” in Jan Šerých Was Born on 24. 6. 2083 Minus One, ed. Karel Císař (Prague: Tranzit, 2008), p. 49; and Václav Magid, “A May Morning and the Struggle with an Enemy, against which Victory Is Defeat,” in Jan Šerých Was Born, p. 13.

[10] Cf. “The wallpaper matters precisely because it poses—within itself—the question of whether it will be read scenographically or geometrically.” Eugenie Brinkema, Life-Destroying Diagrams (Durham: Duke University Press, 2022), pp. 296–7.

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