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The Invention of Perspective And The Evolution of Art (page 1)

The Invention of Perspective And The Evolution Of Art

". . . the jury wrote down all three dates on
their slates and then added them up, and
reduced the answer to shillings and pence. "
Lewis Carroll, from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," 1865 (Carroll, 1976, p. 117)

n this last chapter, I will discuss three views of the place of perspective in the history of art: those of Panofsky, Goodman, and Gablik . The first two are relativists and claim that perspective is a convention of representation adopted during the Renaissance. Gablik has proposed an interesting parallel between the development of cognitive abilities in children and the evolution of art.

Perspective is based on a geometric technique for the depiction objects in a scene. Yet Panofsky set the world of art historians abuzz when he proposed (Panofsky, 1930) that it was not just a correct geometry but a rich source of iconography in the sense of carrying particular aspects of the story behind the picture. Many authors have taken up this theme since Panofskys time, notably Damisch, Edgerton, Goodman, Elkins, etc. However, none of these exponents has explored the senses in which perspective can convey symbolic form, or the degree to which its use was intended in particular eras of painting. Here we consider these aspects of PanofskyÕs conceptualization in detail.

Scenographic Device

Use of perspective as a component in dramatic productions: Agathatharcus, Serlio, Bibiena family; strong perspective roused strong responses, as Plato. Thus, perspective effects in scenery were a component of the production, as lighting later became.

Stage for Action to Unfold

In early paintings, the action all took place in a narrow two-dimensional strip of foreground. The perspective pavimento, in particular, opened up the opportunity for third dimension through which the action could weave. Thus, perspective was not just the correct way to depict buildings, but an enhancement of the pictorial space within which the composition could operate. Things that would be overlapping each other in a 2D composition could be perceived as widely separated in the 3D layout.

Point of Emphasis

The vanishing point could be used to form a focus of interest toward which all the vanishing lines pointed: Fra Angelico `Martyrdom of Saint Mark,' Leonardo `Last Supper,' Raphael `School of Athens. In this sense, perspective provided a pictorial device to emphasize the components of the action.

Displacer of Viewpoint

When the center of projection is very different from the typical viewing location, viewers can experience a displacement of viewpoint in which they perceive the scene from outside themselves in some respect: Leonardo `Last Supper,' Mantegna `St James. Use of this symbolic role of perspective is the theme of the book.

Mood Evocation

The form of perspective can be employed to set the mood for the action in a painting. In Degas (1869) `The Rape,' he depicts a dark bedroom scene in which a man and a half-dressed woman are in some kind of emotionally-laden encounter which may have gone as far as enforced intimacy. The strong atmosphere of disturbed emotions is enhanced by the slight angle of oblique perspective of the room, as is the architecture itself is out of kilter, giving the viewer the sense that time (or space) is out of joint.
Again Degas, in `Circus Fernando,' explores the drama of the upward gaze with the acrobat suspended by her teeth against the backdrop of the baroque ceiling of the octagonal. Circus Fernando. The vivid vertical perspective heightens our sense of the dare-devil stunt being performed.
The perspective of de Chiricos (1914) `The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street' is deliberately disrupted to enhance the sense of apprehension and dread as the childs shadow rounds the corner of the building.

Evoker of Extrapersonal Identity

Certain perspective viewpoints, though, geometricall y valid, evoke a sense of the viewer as other than themselves, as a rich theater-goer, or as God: Degas `?,' Dali `Christ of St John of the Cross.

Representation of Viewpoints over Time

One of the explanations for Cubism was that it was an attempt to capture multiple viewpoints of objects as we experience them over time. Thus, particular views of each object in the room or feature of the face might strike the artist as interesting and be included in the picture, even though all would never occur at the same time in a photographic snapshot.

Representation of Canonical Viewpoints

Another of the explanations for Cubism was that it was an attempt to capture multiple viewpoints of objects as we encode them in our memory. Thus, rather than being restricted to a particular Albertian viewpoint of a scene, the artist could depict each object from its canonical viewpoint, as it is cognitively represented. In this respect, Cubism represents a return to medieval conventions, where objects were depicted from a readily identifiable viewpoint (although it is not clear whether this was a conscious decision or an inability to perceive the accurate retinal projection of the scene.)

Metaphor for the Infinite

Perspective, and similar geometric constructions, served as religious metaphors for the infinite essence of God by theologians such as Nicholas of Cusa. He was very clear on the abstraction of infinity as constituting God, but mainly in terms of lines and spheres. Look again to find a relationship to the vanishing point.

In his book on The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective, Samuel Edgerton wrote a masterly exposition of Panofsky's seminal article "Die Perspektive als `symbolische Form' " (Panofsky, 1924/25) and of its reception among scholars interested in perspective. I will quote extensively from his discussion because it serves so well to introduce the points I wish to make in conclusion.

This article created extraordinary interest in subsequent decades [after its publication in 1927] because the author argued that linear perspective by no means conclusively defined visual reality, rather that it was only a particular constructional approach for representing pictorial space, one which happened to be peculiar to the culture of the Italian Renaissance.

Art historians, trying at that time to justify the rise and spread of modern abstract art, were pleased because Panofsky seemed to be saying that linear perspective was not the last word in pictorial truth, that it, too, could pass away as had all earlier artistic conventions... Such a notion has since been expressly defended by various writers on art and psychology, among them Rudolph Arnheim [1974], Gyorgy Kepes [1944], and Nelson Goodman [1976 as well as Francastel, 1951, and Suzi Gablik (1976)].

However, Panofsky's essay did contain one egregious error. With ingenious reasoning, the author tried to show that the ancient Greeks and Romans - Euclid and Vitruvius in particular - conceived of the visual world as curved, and that since the retina is in fact a concave surface, we do indeed tend to see straight lines as curved... .

Panofsky's essay, particularly in recent years, has come under criticism from scientists, as well as from E. H. Gombrich [1969, 1976, 1980] and other scientific-minded art historians. Writers on optics and perceptual psychology such as James J. Gibson [1971], G. ten Doesschate [1964], and M. H. Pirenne [1952-3] have challenged Panofsky for his subjective curvature hypothesis and denial that linear perspective has a catholic or "ultimate" veracity. They are especially put off by Panofsky's reference to perspective as a "symbolic form," which is to say, a mere convention... Unfortunately, Panofsky never explained definitively just what he meant by the phrase "symbolic form." However, he certainly has in mind a more subtle meaning than a "system of conventions [like]1 versification in poetry." [This is how Pirenne summarized Panofsky's theory.] Indeed, Professor Pirenne and other scientist critics misunderstand the ingenuity of Panofsky's approach as much as they find Panofsky himself misunderstood classical optics and modern perceptual psychology. (1975, pp. 153-5)

1 Edgerton's interpolation.

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