It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


The Index is found here

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

John White: Illusionism and Perspective

(this is chapter 13 of John White's "Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space".
Quoted text is in YELLOW.
Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)

Illusionism is an ugly word in modern critical usage. Yet, to the early writers the illusionist effects that artificial perspective put within the artist’s reach were amongst the most praiseworthy, as well as the most revolutionary of its attributes. It is, indeed, the revolutionary aspect of the new realism that accounts for much of the emphasis laid upon it. It has already been seen that this imitative realism is only a single element in early renaissance painting and relief sculpture, and one that varies in importance not only from artist to artist, but from object to object. Instead, therefore, of attempting a generalization that would cover, however uneasily, the whole practice of perspective in fifteenth century Italy, it seems wiser to try to summarize those principles of illusion on the one hand and of organization on the other, together with certain general principles of perspective practice, that bear directly on renaissance problems. This may at least provide a useful starting point when trying to assess the relationship between contemporary theory and a particular, practical example of the application of perspective, or when attempting to draw closer to the artistic purposes behind the individual work of art.

The main compositional means by which solid objects and three-dimensional space may be counterfeited are well illustrated by one of the still-life intarsias in the choir of Pisa Cathedral,

and by an architectural perspective associated with the school of Piero della Francesca, and now in Berlin

It is important to remember, however, that many of the points which will be made in reference to artificial perspective may be wholly, or partly, applicable to the various empirical systems that preceded it, and that later survived side by side with it.

Clarity is the most noticeable feature of the two works mentioned—clear forms and clear space. In the intarsia there is no ambiguity between one clearly distinguished plane and another. The object is composed of simple forms, and is symmetrical, so that the eye is not confused, and can apprehend the whole in an instant.

But the object in the example which White has chosen is clearly not symmetrical, and that vertical which intersects the rear beam is higher than the beam's upper edge, so I have no idea what's going on back there.

Might this lack of symmetry and clarity have been intentional -- in order to make the area more visually attractive ?

In the architectural view the main space is large and simple, and its inherent symmetry is emphasized because the spectator is seen as standing in the centre of the colonnade, whilst all the buildings are set upon the axes established by the squared pavement. The numerous, and regular indications of the change of scale give clear expression to the distance travelled into space. The vanishing point is not, however, coincident with any solid object. So, at the last moment, the imaginative eye is freed of measurement, and travels into the infinity beyond the far horizon. At the same time, there is no confusion between the many orthogonals, or lines running directly into depth, and the lines lying parallel to the surface. All the surface planes are rectangular in general and in detail. All diagonals lead into depth.

Norris Kelly Smith discussed a similar example HERE

In his example, Smith noted that some of the buildings, like the Colosseum, would not have been found in any modern city, and he concluded that ""No work makes it plainer that Renaissance perspective was not, and was not then understood to be, simply a technical device -- nor was it, in any sense whatever, a rebirth of Roman perspective.... rather it involved the act of taking one's stand with regard to an established order of things in the world"

But White's example seems to lack any such anomaly. It's just a view down the piazza of a seaport, and it might well exemplify nothing more than an technical and aesthetic exercise.

Strong lighting, or strong colour, consistently applied, are another means of emphasizing depth and solidity. In both examples the sharply contrasted lighting distinguishes the various planes and their spatial relationships even more clearly than the linear pattern with its insistence on sharp angles. In the same way, strong light on a rounded form stresses its solidity by the smooth transition from an intense highlight to a deep shadow. Only if the forms become complicated, and the lighting arbitrary, is the effect destroyed, and replaced by a dazzling surface vibration. Both strong light and sharp foreshortening may also be used, however, for their attendant dramatic qualities. The intarsia, besides creating an illusion of solidity, demonstrates that violent contrasts of light and shade have an inherently dramatic property as well.

The results obtainable by these means are rendered still more striking if the orthogonals are not only clearly differentiated from any lines running parallel to the surface, but are as far as possible uninterrupted, so that the eye may shoot unhindered into the imaginary space. If, in addition, the composition is such that a spatial box is formed, the impression of depth may become almost irresistible, and the eye may, in some cases, be unable to dispel the illusion, whatever the promptings of the brain. No matter in what direction it travels over the surface, it is forced back towards the centre lying deep in pictorial space. Such a box is largely created by the architectural view, and is a major contribution to its spatial forcefulness.

Although there is a pattern of black windows, as well as different, and complementary profiles from buildings to the left and right, making this an enjoyable scene.

These are the main internal compositional features which, during the many earlier analyses, were found to bear most closely on the creation of seemingly three-dimensional space upon a flat surface.

The simplest method of avoiding such an illusion is, of course, by steering clear of the whole business of perspective, whether linear or atmospheric, and particularly the former. Artificial perspective finds its clearest means of expression in architectural and cubic forms, the straight lines, sharp corners, and hard, cutting edges of which can most easily tear the delicate fabric of a picture. The corresponding difficulty of the task of controlling such powerful forces of visual realism is attested by the whole history of the evolution of linear perspective.

Though he does not explicitly state it, White seems to share the dominant modern art theory of his time (mid 20th C. America) that a painted flat surface should remain a painted flat surface (and not try to be something else)

So, for the umpteenth time, he asserts that receding lines disrupt the integrity of the surface, and then compiles all the various ways that integrity can be restored as mentioned in his earlier discussions.

*"exploit the undistorted frontal surfaces
*"breaking up orthogonal (receding) lines into short, discontinuous lengths
*"placing vanishing points within the confines of an object in the foreground"
*"the space inclosing straight line or repetition of diagonals"
*"creation of a vibrating pattern that spreads over the whole surface"
*"the impartial application of strong decorative patterns to every feature"
*"color... the tendency of cold colors to recede and warmer colors to advance may be exploited by moving the one forward and the other back"
*"reversal of atmospheric graduation"
*"compositional elements which are widely separate may be linked by color similarities or graduations.. or repetitions of a single hue"
*"systems of proportion - which, since measured on the surface, ignores all distinction between space and plane"

It's all quite thorough - and possibly useful for taxonomy or exercises for art students -- but rather tedious, since it doesn't address what actually makes these paintings exciting.

The same features can be found in paintings that don't belong in art museums.

So I'm going to skip most of this chapter, except for when he discusses a painting at some length.

So far only the absolute necessity for the coincidence of the observer and the painted viewpoint has been challenged. But the very singleness of the vanishing point, the most fundamental conception of all in the theory of artificial perspective, was by no means inviolable to renaissance artists, though more frequently observed than the preceding theoretical demands. In Masaccio’s fresco of ‘The Trinity’ the foreshortening in accordance with the lowness of the principal viewpoint was extended to the architecture and the supporting figures. The two main figures, on the other hand, were swung forward into the plane, and seen not from below, but absolutely frontally. This puts special emphasis on them, and removes the danger of an unwanted stress on unimportant details, or the distraction of attention by theatrical effects. It also raises the spectator to the level of the pictured apparition.

A nice quote to bring to the attention of neo-academics who believe that perspective is a set of rules that should be followed.

This particular effect is used in Piero della Francesca’s masterpiece, the fresco of ‘The Resurrection’ . Here, the framing, which is hardly ever shown in reproductions, is an integral part of the design. Fortunately, although its outer parts are later restorations, all its inner sections are original. They still show the pricking, visible throughout the rest of the composition, with the aid of which the cartoon was transferred on to the wall, a fact which further emphasizes the indivisible unity of the design. This majestic marble framing is painted as if it were seen from below, but in itself has a double function. The bases of the columns converge to a point about a foot below the lower border. The devout are once more looking up towards an extension of reality. The capitals, meanwhile, converge into the body of the Rising Christ, and help, if help is needed, to increase the concentration of attention. The sarcophagus is in pure elevation, the pricked outline showing that the foot of Christ rests absolutely level on its rim. Similarly there is no foreshortening in the body or the head of the figure of Christ. Within the picture the whole question of the viewpoint is laid aside as unimportant by the very artist who, for the first time, produced a thorough-going exposition of the constructional problems involved in the rigid application of the laws of artificial perspective. In ‘The Trinity’ Masaccio carefully avoided pinning the figures to exact positions in space. Here, Piero likewise leaves eye and imagination free. The soldiers form a circle set in space, and a pyramid covering the head of Christ. They create a triangle upon the surface , or part of a diagonal cross in space that runs into the distance with the trees that echo in their silvery greys the flesh tones of Christ's trunk. The dual spatial values of Masaccio's composition take on new variety and richness, a new timeless moment, an absolute calm that is reflected in the still completeness of the circling colour harmonies.

There's also the feeling that distance has collapsed, as the background comes forward, pushing the dead/living Christ out from the picture plane and into the world of the viewer.

The mention of the element of measurability that was introduced into pictorial art by artificial perspective again draws attention to the careful distinction which must be made between the implications of the theory of perspective and its significance as it appears in individual works of art. At first sight Andrea Castagno’s ‘Last Supper’ in the Cenacolo di Sant’Apollonia might appear to be a perfect illustration of the mathematically defined relationship between onlooker and picture, and between one object and another within the painted scene itself. The appearance is deceptive. It is quite impossible in fact to tell how deep the picture is supposed to be, or how far away from it the onlooker should stand. In the sharply foreshortened, and almost indistinguishable pattern of the floor in front of the table there are ten lozenges in depth and ten in breadth. Does this signify a square If so, the distance separating this square from the back wall of the room must be twice that which separates it from either side wall, if the room as a whole is to be considered as being based upon a foreshortened square. Such a supposition seems to be supported by the apparent repetition of the six square marble panels of the back-wall upon either side-wall; two panels on the right wall being taken up by windows. But this is contradicted by the interlacing of the decorative frieze immediately above, in which just over seventeen loops in depth match thirty-three and two-thirds loops upon the back-wall. This implies that the room is not a square, but only half as deep as it is wide, if indeed there is any exact relationship at all. Meanwhile the seemingly simple black-and-white chessboard of the ceiling numbers sixteen rectangles in depth and only fourteen in width. The resulting doubt as to the squareness of any and all of the apparent squares shown in foreshortening carries with it the impossibility of saying with certainty just how far away the onlooker must stand in order to fulfill the theoretical demands of the construction. The meticulous incising of the whole design, and its geometric clarity, make it impossible merely to assume an inability to count upon Castagno’s part. Similarly, pure disinterest in the matter seems, on general grounds, to be less probable than a positive determination to avoid the stiffness and sterility of a too-obvious mathematical logic. A similar intention is revealed in Piero della Francesca’s painting even where a modulus similar to that which underlies Alberti’s architecture governs the proportions of the whole design.

In Castagno’s fresco, the impression of measurability nevertheless remains. Moreover, the lack of certainty about the theoretically correct viewing distance gives an accompanying freedom to the onlooker to stand just where he feels like standing; a freedom which is usually assumed in any case. It would indeed be a lengthy business to count the pictures by the great renaissance painters in which it is not actually possible to measure out the distances that it is within the power of perspective to define. The impression of orderliness and unity, and of connection with the onlooker, was of far greater importance than the counting out in inches of a mathematical diagram. This, like every other element of perspective, was a feature which the fifteenth century artists felt themselves quite free to accept or to ignore as far as the individual composition was concerned.

Norris Kelly Smith discussed the same painting here and here , and when discussing the room as a square with a single POV, chose to ignore the discrepancies in measurement which White found 40 years earlier.

And here are some fine quotes from the end of this chapter:

Meticulous accuracy was simply unnecessary. The time spent in carrying perspective logic into every detail would achieve no comparable increase in the impression of reality...............

It is precisely because such a high degree of realism in architectural bordering can be obtained by relatively primitive means that these schemes by master perspectivists of the mid-fifteenth century reveal in detail no advance upon the achievements of a hundred years before. It is in the conception of the schemes as a whole, and in the handling of the scenes, that the impact of the new ideas is felt.

The analyses also show that, even in the pseudoscientific realm of perspective, it is only through the works of art themselves, as opposed to the writings of theorists, historians, and commentators of whatever generation, that the full meaning of any artistic method can be grasped. The importance of the new geometric construction is as incalculable as the pictures which refuse to serve as illustrative diagrams are numerous.................

That last one is a fine statement, isn't it?

But given that incalculable importance, it's too bad that White does not speculate, as Smith did, regarding any purpose beyond that of illusionism.

Why was this kind of illusionism more important in the 15th C. than it was in the 12th ?

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