Arts - Spring 2017

Some Perspective, Please

Why is the age-old technique of representing three dimensions so maligned today?

By Lincoln Perry | March 6, 2017
Raphael’s <em>School of Athens</em>; its optics were “used to design more lethal fortresses. Human ingenuity facilitates clever cruelties as well as cathedrals.” (Wikimedia Commons)
Raphael’s School of Athens; its optics were “used to design more lethal fortresses. Human ingenuity facilitates clever cruelties as well as cathedrals.” (Wikimedia Commons)


In an otherwise knowledgeable and astute review of the Museum of Modern Art’s wonderful Sculpture of Picasso show, which concluded early last year, New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz bashed what he derisively referred to as “vaunted Renaissance perspective.” “With collage and assemblage,” Saltz wrote, “Picasso finally jarred space from a kind of 500-year sleeping sickness, a system that had silted up, impeded and confined vision.” Perspective, by lazy and widespread convention, has become the whipping boy of the art world, especially in academia and in curatorial circles. It makes for a simple narrative: perspective as ubiquitous and destructive, cubism as liberating and endlessly generative. Old bad, new good. But oversimplifications, like lies, have a tendency to become entrenched through repetition.

The goal of perspective is to suggest depth on a flat surface. Draw a square, and it will seem to lie parallel to the picture plane—the page on which it’s inscribed. Draw a parallelogram, and suddenly you’ve suggested a square that has turned in space at an angle to the picture plane, so we’re pushed or guided into depth. A trapezoid starts to suggest that things get smaller when seen at a distance. Anyone who has ever drawn recognizes this, though it fell to several Florentines to systematize what had only been intuited before—in, for example, the optics of the 11th-century mathematician and philosopher Ibn al-Haytham (known in the West as Alhazen). By placing the viewer in a measurable location in relation to what was being seen, Filippo Brunelleschi laid out a simple but revolutionary way to measure recession—the degree to which objects are perceived to recede into space. Those who learned his method noticed drawbacks, as well as the advantages. Yes, the fictional world appearing behind the picture plane would have a new credibility and solidity, but what of the other half of the equation, the flatness of the wall or support? The point is to have your cake and eat it too. In an effort to avoid cutting gaping tunnels into space, artists devised ways to halt or slow down recession. The art historian John White, in Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space, lists 14 ways this was done. One of the subtlest involved the use of a module, or consistent color-shape: for example, depicting a square box in the foreground with the same color and dimensions as a distant building, thus making these objects brothers on the surface. In the hands of a master like Giotto, even the exuberance of discovery is so tempered that we might miss the balancing act involved, the taming of perspective’s deficiencies. Artists also noticed that a large building’s cornice appears to curve in a sort of fisheye view, as if vision can spray out like a garden hose as well as funnel to a vanishing point. Leonardo da Vinci worried that classical perspective was artificial insofar as it didn’t match our subjective experience, and he substituted an approach he called natural perspective, based on the curvature of the eye and combining optics and psychology. In the early 16th century, the splendid sequence of frescoes that Raphael painted in the Palace of the Vatican represented the pinnacle of perspective. Just one generation later, however, artists such as Parmigianino and Jacopo Tintoretto started subverting such perfect, dynamic balance by using perspective against itself, as if anticipating the protosurrealism of Giorgio de Chirico. Look more carefully at the tradition, and the dreaded receding tile floor (the classic example of one-point perspective) is the exception, not the rule. Yes, there’s a window shutter set at a sharp angle in Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew, but that hardly constitutes what Saltz calls the West’s “maniacal obsession” with perspective. Saltz also under-estimates the humor of Paolo Veronese’s frescoes in the Veneto’s Villa Barbaro, where we’re fooled into thinking the room we’ve entered extends into a fictional world. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo continues this game, as if winking at us—ain’t this cool? These artists were people humanely aware of the metaphoric possibilities and limitations of the tools they used, not sleepwalkers in lockstep. The strongest artists never encased their works in rigid orthodoxy. Painters naturally combine perception and conception in a dance of seeing and thinking, matching and making. Artists in the Western tradition have not been primitive protophotographers just itching for a digital camera.

We’re also starting to recognize the commonalities of world art, such that Greek art’s influence on India continues into African art’s influence on Picasso, a man who acknowledged no boundaries. A work was either good, or it wasn’t. You could either learn from it, or you couldn’t. But the popular myth of Picasso as zombie slayer, a David to perspective’s Goliath, might well have embarrassed the artist. Granting Saltz’s point that formal innovations have a tendency to become stale and limiting, the same might be said about the triumphs of early-20th-century art. Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system opened the door to new musical structures, but it didn’t usher in a millennium of dodecaphony. Cubism did not kill perspective, just as Einstein’s relativity didn’t negate Newton’s physics; both enlarged our understanding of the world. The implications of perspective remain powerful, and its optics are rooted in fact. Go to the latest Star Wars movie or listen to your GPS, then thank Brunelleschi and Ibn al-Haytham. Although the liaison between art and science may have ended in divorce, certain costs are inherent in any new discovery. The chemistry of artificial fertilizer enabled both an eightfold growth in population and an endless supply of high explosives, making both world wars possible. The optics behind Raphael’s School of Athens were also used to design more lethal fortresses. Human ingenuity facilitates clever cruelties as well as cathedrals. So how can we gain some perspective on perspective?

Linear perspective can be beautifully simple. Let’s draw an imaginary 10-foot-wide tile floor seen at an angle (see drawing below). Divide the bottom edge of your panel in 10 equal units, then locate yourself at, say, four units from the left. Construct a vertical line five units up (the height of your eyes), then draw a horizontal, your horizon. Connect your initial 11 points to this intersection at the horizon, and you start to see wide planks receding into distance. This is the famous vanishing point, which really marks your location left/right and up/down. But we live in three dimensions, so if you’re standing 15 (fictive) feet from the picture plane, mark where the tiles are by swinging your distance to the side and drawing a line to your first mark. The most amazing part is that with this very simple construct, you’ve placed yourself in relation to an internally coherent space, one analogous to the place we inhabit. It will be useless in the forest, but in our manmade world, you’ll have a new understanding of placement, an ability to observe or even invent measurable, coherent spaces.

Consider how often language reflects the ethical implications of location. “What’s your position on this issue?” “Let’s put this whole thing in perspective.” “That all depends on your point of view.” As Martin Luther said, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” Perspective doesn’t lock us into one place, being very forgiving if we move about, but it always keeps us personally involved, even implicated, in a work of art that makes use of it. Religio, the root of the word religion, means “binding together,” much the way perspective places us in relation to God and Christ in Masaccio’s famous 1427 fresco of the Trinity in Florence. We look up into a foreshortened barrel vault occupied by Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, who seem to share our earthly space, rather than floating free in a heavenly never-never land. Masaccio conveys a direct analogy between gravity and moral weight, so the idea that perspective is a purely optical and value-free tool would have mystified him. There is metaphoric power in such extreme applications of perspective as the ceiling of Rome’s baroque church of Sant’Ignazio, painted by Andrea Pozzo. As we stand on a marble disc in the floor and gaze up, the fresco overhead continues the actual architecture, then carries us up into a heaven populated by an army of angels. Should we stray from the disc, the illusion bends and collapses like a house of cards, as if the world will cohere only in the hands of the Catholic Church.

If there’s a danger to such controlling devices, so there might be to Picasso’s alternative, the freedom that lets us float in relation to the picture. Consider almost any synthetic cubist collage: where are we, the viewer? We see one shape glued in front of another, and this carries us back (a spatial effect also found in much Renaissance painting), but the picture becomes less of a window into a world continuous or analogous to ours than an independent object in its own right. Perspective involves illusion, which may contribute to our contemporary preference for sculpture, which occupies “real space.” The art historian Hope Mauzerall sees us trading the fictional for the literal: from deep to increasingly shallow illusionistic space, then to the picture plane itself, and finally out in front of the plane altogether. By implication, whether we’re talking about Marcel Duchamp’s urinal or Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde, the object is now free of its two-dimensional prison and can be considered actual and forthright. The concept of reality is of course fungible, as we see with so-called reality TV or, now, the presidency, where even our sense of the real bends toward easy ironies. But still, in Saltz’s art world, we’re told that illusion is bad, in effect a dirty lie, mere fiction. Try telling that to fans of Rembrandt or Steven Spielberg, Dickens or John Grisham, Verdi or Stephen Sondheim. By this definition, E.T., Oliver Twist, and Rigoletto are not “real.” When we reject our “500-year sleeping sickness,” do they all get tossed out? Are we, in common with ISIS, happy to tear down our own monuments?

If all past Western art is tainted as the product of repressive, patriarchal, homophobic, racist societies, it is easier to justify laying all our disdain on perspective. Yet in rejecting our whipping boy, we are also doing away with the theater it provides for human interaction and narrative. At midcentury, writers were told to make Finnegans Wake their lodestone, but they resisted, and when told there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, they kept on scribbling away. For decades, artists have been told that perspective, by which is really meant illusion, is anathema, but some of them haven’t listened, and I would call this freedom.

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