Arts - Spring 2017

Some Perspective, Please

Subscription required


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

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)

By Lincoln Perry

March 6, 2017



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.

Login to view the full article

If you are a current digital subscriber, login here.

Forgot password?

Need to register?

Already a subscriber through The American Scholar?


Are you a Phi Beta Kappa sustaining member?

Want to subscribe?

Print subscribers get access to our entire website

You can also just subscribe to our website for $9.99.

Lincoln Perry is an artist who works in many media, from oils to terra-cotta sculpture. He has shown throughout the United States.

Comments powered by Disqus