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

Monday, April 23, 2012

Kemp: Linear Perspective from Rubens to Turner

(this is Chapter 3 of Martin Kemp's "The Science of Art".
Quoted text is in YELLOW.
Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)

Jumping back to Kemp's introduction, we recall that he wrote:

“My concerns have been to show how a significant number of those involved in art consciously aspired towards goals that we would now regard as scientific in a broad sense”

In the previous chapter, he surveyed those artists who wrote about geometry, and now he notes that Rubens wrote about optics -- or, well, he didn't really write about it, but rather he illustrated a Jesuit text book about it and thereby demonstrated:

such a complex and knowing relationship to the text as to leave no doubt that Rubens' intellectual involvement was considerable."

And yet ---- the above illustration does not especially "leave no doubt" with me. It looks like he just threw some cupids into a rather prosaic demonstration.
Gonzaga Adoring the Trinity

In the next chapter, Kemp promises to show how this optical science relates to Rubens' use of color. But for now he notes that, as in the above example, Rubens uses a "painter's architecture" rather than a geometric projection to paint the architecture.

And here's a detail to show that, yes, Rubens did draw the architecture by eye rather than compass -- and that this is actually a very good painting.

Kemp pulls the above painting into his discussion as follows:

The Samson and Delilah contains a deliberately contrived set of complex light effects emanating from four independent sources --and makes great play with the varied effects of different intensities of light on various colours and textures---One observation is particularly in keeping with the tenor of Aguilonius’s treatise The old maid who holds the candle above the central incident of the cutting of Samson’s hair cups her other hand behind the candle in such a way as to enable her to see past the candle to the covert operation itself..... I do not wish to imply that Rubens was in these respects a visual scientist m the manner of some of his Renaissance predecessors, but that his literacy in such matters informed his practice in a deeply integrated and yet non-dogmatic manner.

Curiously enough, a website has been devoted to asserting that Rubens' hand did not hold the brush that touched this painting. I find it's arguments about the missing foot or the clumsy ear to be unconvincing - but I do suspect that I might feel the same way if I saw the painting in person, since it feels a bit broken up.

Some of the detail areas look pretty good

But the sketches look even better.
especially this one

All of which is beside the point that Kemp was trying to make.

But since Kemp did not offer an interpretation of the piece, his remarks about the multiple sources of light might well be irrelevant to whatever interpretation he might have. (if he even has one)

Moving on the Velazquez, Kemp notes that his death, an inventory of his library listed many of the books about perspective and optics that have already been mentioned.

But did he apply these methods in his paintings ?

Could Velazquez produce a truly natural illusion by capturing more of the vagaries of sight itself? This, I should like to suggest, became the goal central to the visual quality of his art. To exemplify this, Kemp goes to "Las Meninas".

After noting that the figures reflected in the mirror against the back wall are much too large to be standing on the viewers side of the picture plane, he concludes that the rules of linear perspective have been ignored at will.

Then he concludes that: Velazquez’s man on the staircase is conjured up through complex interplays of tone, colour, definition and scale. The bright patch of wall silhouetting the distant man – which optically draws the wall towards the spectator – and the more ghostly sfumato of the reflection in the mirror are to my mind quite deliberately juxtaposed. – to give a wider sense of the subtle processes of vision and how they can be magically evoked or paralleled in the medium of paint than was possible with the drier mechanisms of linear perspective”

But what Baroque painting does not use "complex interplays of tone, colour, definition and scale." -- and consequently capture "the vagaries of sight itself"?

Kemp might have mentioned that the King and Queen, presumably the characters reflected in the mirror, are twice as large as they should be because they are, indeed, the King and Queen.

But Kemp studiously avoids making any narrative interpretations. He's only spin doctoring regarding optics -- and his argument is rather thin.

We then move north to the low countries where Kemp surveys the literature on perspective and brings our attention to the preparatory drawings of Pieter Saenredam

As shown in the underdrawing which Kemp has reconstructed on the right, Saenredam indicated a vanishing point and apparently also a distance point "marked by a crossed circle on the base of the leftmost pier" (although I can't find it)

He concludes that this drawing has :

“a level of precise planning and degree of perspectival acumen – and one inviolate technical feature, namely his steadfast allegiance to the parallel alignment of the picture plane with one of the predominant planes of his subject – in this instance the plane running parallel to the end wall”

While, in addition to noting that the buildings Saenredam drew were mostly churches, Norris Kelly Smith also noted that:

The most engaging and provocative of the works of both Saenredam and de Witte are those in which the artist has chosen a perspectival vantage point from which he can win for himself a harmonious but asymmetrical composition created out of the regularly disposed elements of a great basilica, a composition that had little or nothing in common with the tectonic schema that the architect himself had invented as an appropriate symbol of the Church.

Which does seem to be a more important observation.

Gerard Houckgeest, New Church at Delft

He has brilliantly suggested the almost bewildering variety of spatial configurations with a Gothic church, particularly in a formally complex area like the ambulatory. Narrow slivers of upright space, sharply angled vistas, fractured occlusions of remoter objects and dynamic rhythms of clustered lines create a new species of optical variety without losing the sense of an organic whole.

Kemp's comment touches on applied geometry and 20th C. aesthetics("sense of organic whole"), but not on the importance of being in a church and looking at it in a particular way.

Pieter de Hooch, the Bedroom, 1660

After apologizing for not bringing Vermeer into this discussion (he will appear in the next chapter), Kemp concludes the following about the above painting:

Perspective is thus exploited with a control which would win the respect of an Alberti, but is subtly subverted by other ocular effects in a way which would have unsettled an Italian’s sense of geometrical integrity.

I'm not Italian, but what unsettles me is that the tiles on the floor do not run parallel to the wall at the left. Nor does their size appear to diminish with distance. And window on the left does not recede to the same horizon line as the partial wall to the right. So I'm wondering why Alberti would have respected this scene at all. It's a mishmash in more ways than one.

I'm sure that N.K. Smith would have had something to say about the staging of this little domestic scene, but I don't find it attractive enough to compel speculation.

Samuel Van Hoogstraten, 1662

What a fine scene this would make in a fantasy novel, where the characters walks out of the library and into the 17th Century.

The artist also wrote a book about perspective, from which the following quote has been taken:

The art of painting is a science for representing all the ideas or notions which the whole of visible nature is able to produce and for deceiving the eye with drawing and colour. I say that a painter whose work it is to fool the sense of sight also must have so much understanding of the nature of things that he thoroughly understands the means by which the eyes are deceived.

As an unambiguous statement of its thesis, this quotation might well serve at the beginning of this book's introduction.

Except that one might also judge Hoogstraten to have been a pleasant decorator, but not a great painter.

Pousinn, Holy Family on the Steps

Now we move on to the 17th C. French who had something of a Flame-war over the techniques of geometric projection."You are an imbecile..." countered by "Mon Dieu - you are the imbecile!".... and so forth.

Which seems to have had to do more with competing academies than with anything like a serious issue, either geometric or aesthetic.

Another scholar is quoted as follows: The picture is as perfect and as cool as a proposition from Euclid. Our eyes perceive the perspective and other geometrical relationships in the constructed space… still he seems to have purposely telescoped recessional features such as the steps in order to accentuate the foreground composition and keep our awareness of the picture plane.. the result is a densely rich interplay between the surface of the painted canvas and the fictive space.

....reasserting that 20th C. concern for real, flat surface versus the illusion of pictorial space, so important to John White.

Kemp provides a schematic drawing to show the abundance of vanishing points and horizon lines, suggesting that geometry was not used in its construction. This painting may feel as perfect as a proposition from Euclid, but in fact geometry was ignored at least as often as it was applied.

So --- if geometry does not account for the way Poussin drew architecture -- what does? Kemp has consistently shown how one great artist after another has strayed from geometric purity -- but he never addresses this question.

Eustache Le Sueur: D├ędicace d'une ├ęglise de Chartreux, 1648

Le Sueur seems to have been the one exception -- he actually did build his paintings up from geometric projections - hence their rather dry, empty look as a backdrop for his figures in strong color.

It's too bad he didn't have anything like Photoshop available - I'm sure he would have preferred it to brush and canvas.

Kemp concludes his section about France as follows:

The most advanced thought of the Scientific Revolution was moving to philosophical and technical positions in the mathematical and physical sciences which took them increasingly beyond the range of ready applicability to the needs of art. Once the raw material, techniques and mechanisms of the new sciences and arts perspective moved on to different footings, the dialogue between science and art would need to change its premises – if it was to survive at all at a high level of intellectual significance in both fields.

Kemp has shown that geometry and optics were hot topics among the educated elites of the 17th C. (and before)- but hasn't shown how those interests advanced either science or art.

Pietro Testa, "Il Liceo Della Pittura", 1635-40

Moving back to Italy, we're introduced to more writers, including the artist, Pietro Testa (1611-1650, who asserted that:

Painting is a habit that has it foundations in scientific and contingent reasoning; the one has to do with mores, decorum and emotions, while the other is concerned with shadows and lights and reflections, with the the way forms diminish virtually to a point, how colours diminish in intensity, through the weakness of light or from distancing, how colour harmonies are made according to the rules of music and other similar things. Painting remains, so to speak a cadaver, like a body that has no soul, without these sciences, and in sum, practice need to be united with theory.

"Like a body that has no soul"?!!??

Yikes !

Here's another quote that would have fit well into Kemp's introduction.

But if you look at Testa's work, its soul appears to be tormented:

Pietro Testa, "Allegory of Winter"

His figures may have been carefully studied, but they feel painfully jumbled into their surrounding space, unlike the work of his friend and fellow Roman, Poussin.

There have been several speculations concerning the brevity of this artist's life.

Murder? Accident? Suicide?

I would guess the latter.

Michele Colonna (1604-1687)

Kemp mentions the illusionist architecture this artist, often in collaboration with Agostino Mitelli, a specialist.

But the results just make me want to see more of an artist who wouldn't be born for another fifty years, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

Kemp addresses a disappointment with Colonna and Mitelli as follows:

An art such as theirs, which places a primacy on the spectator’s unashamed delight in decoration, abundance, and illusion , has met with relatively little favor in this (20th) Century. It would be absurd to claim that their work embodies the profound range of human values to be discovered in the work of a Velasquez or the high intellectual merit of Piero della Francesca, but it would be equally wrong to underrate the artistic skill and inventiveness involved.

Tiepolo, Bellerophon on Pegasus, 1747

But can a "profound range of human values" or "intellectual merit" be claimed for the above, which has, I'm guessing, had a much greater reputation over the past hundred years.

We then move on to "the greatest of ecclesiastical perspectivists", the Jesuit brother, Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709), who also wrote a book about his technique.

(Yikes! what a great self portrait)

His illusions needed to be seen from one spot on the floor -- and, as can be seen from these contrasting photos -- needed special lighting.

I don't think any of this is better - or worse - than the color chalk illusions that sometimes appear on contemporary sidewalks.

Finally, we get to Tiepolo, via Count Francesco Algarotti, a notable patron of the arts, writer, and man of taste who collaborated on the above "Banquet of Cleopatra" (1745)

Algarotti was an advocate of "the classic canon of order and beauty", including geometric perspective - though Kemp notes that the above painting is not especially an example of either one. As Kemp puts it, Tiepolo paints for "effect rather than strict logic", although "effect" is the result of a kind of logic too, isn't it?

If the tiles on the floor were square, Mark Anthony's robe would extend at least 6 feet beyond this chair.

(by the way, this painting is in Google Art Project)

Algarotti's "version of the science of art" was "less a question of specific prescriptions from science which the painter must rigidly follow, but rather a shared community of philosophical and aesthetic principles which the scientists and artists must mutually respect in their response to the visible world and its underlying order”

This seems to be a restatement of this book's thesis, and it would be nice if Kemp could actually show us a list those principles. I wonder whether any of them could be assigned to the church that commissioned so much of the work we've been shown.

Mauro Tesi (1730-1766)

Kemp makes brief mention of the above Bolognese artist, whom Algarotti promoted on behalf of Classical standards unblemished by Rococo trappings. But very little of his work is yet available on the internet.

But Tesi did provide the drawings from which the above tomb of Algarotti was built.

Caneletto, "The Rialto" with Palladian bridge and palaces

Algarotti also commissioned the above pastiche that enhances an actual city view with additional, Classical architecture, thus inventing, as he proclaimed, a new genre.

One might ask why an 18th C. prince (for whom Alagarotti was an agent) would be interested in forcing this imperial, stately, classical style upon the past glories of Venice -- but such a question is beyond the scope of Kemp's project.

canaletto, "Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo",1741

But Kemp is willing to step outside his art-science concerns to make the following aesthetic judgement:

His greatest paintings achieve an extraordinary control over the viewer’s eye. Look, for example, at the way he draws our gaze towards the narrow, main exit from the Campo SS. Giovanni et Paolo. He does this by means of the perspective and the diagonal light, while at the same time our orientation to the diagonal path which leads to the front of the church creates a secondary or ‘accidental’ punctum concursus of no little importance. These effects are clearly based on a rigorous scrutiny of the actual scenes.. but they are also based on a knowing measure of optical contrivance.”

I don't know who first began to write about "control over the viewer's eye" while viewing a painting - but it certainly does not describe my experience with this or any other painting, and I don't think there's any science behind it.

Others have written about the "atmospheric" quality of Caneletto's vistas - and I think that is more to the point of what feels so special about them. (though it's not especially apparent in reproductions)

And I'd like to ask Kemp how he knows that "a knowing measure of optical contrivance" was necessary for the construction of this painting.

Concerning Canaletto's views of the Thames from Somerset House, Kemp wrote:

He has manipulated the geometry of the terrace with respect to viewing height and angle, sometimes in a pronounced manner. Some of the foreground forms do respond to some extent to the changed viewpoint, but there is no consistent revision of the relationship between foreground and background features either with respect to parallax or their orientation to the picture plane

Is this "manipulation of rule for pictorial effect" ... or ...ignoring any rules altogether, and just painting what looks right?

As Kemp elsewhere remarks, Canaletto was also involved in the tradition of scenic design, and his human figures can be thought of as actors on the stage he has painted for them.

So some thought should also be given concerning the drama they are enacting.

Bernardo Bellotto, self portrait, 1765

Bellotto, Canaletto's nephew and student, pictured himself as an actor on that stage, which represents an enhanced view of the art academy in Dresden in which he was the tutor in perspective.

It's a splendid piece of self aggrandizement - but not much of a painting.

(by the way - the poster on the column reads "Pictoribus atque poetis quidlibet audiendi semper fuit potestas.)

William Hogarth, "Satire on False Perspective", 1753

Continuing his survey of the literature on perspective, Kemp finally comes home to the British whose main contribution, other than ponderous text books, seems to have been humor.

Until we get JMW Turner, who was elected "Professor of Perspective" at the Royal Academy in 1807.

Which, apparently, was also something of a joke, since Turner "was not a systematic thinker, nor, by most accounts, a lucid lecturer"

He has been recognized, however, as a great painter.

Here are two of his works, looking upstream and downstream from Mortlake Terrace, much as Canaletto did the two London views shown earlier.

It doesn't really seem as if perspective geometry had much to do with these, or really any of Turner's paintings.

So why did he want to give lectures on the topic?

I'm guessing that it was the most prestigious aspect of painting in that age.

Turner put this dog into the painting after it had already been hung in the gallery.

It definitely affects the organization of the surrounding space - but, of course, it has nothing to do with geometric perspective.

"Juliet and her Nurse" is the painting that Ruskin defended as "Shakespearian in its mightiness" against the Reverend John Eagles who called it 'a strange jumble, confusion worse confounded'.

Ruskin also noted:

"many-coloured mists are floating above the distant city, but such mists as you might imagine to be aetherial spirits, souls of the mighty dead breathed out of the tombs of Italy into the blue of her bright heaven, and wandering in vague and infinite glory around the earth that they have loved"

If one is mostly concerned with a possible staging of a scene from Shakespeare's play, I might have to agree with Reverend Eagles, since the actors are reduced to being bystanders in some kind of magnificent pageant.

But, like Ruskin, I do love that pageant!

While Kemp himself declares "We may feel that the perspective does not so much enclose a defined space as suggest that it is an expansive fragment of infinitude"

John Martin "Belshazzar's Feast", 1821

That "expansive fragment of infinitude" is even more expansive in the above scene. How I wish that Google Art might show a billion pixel image of it some day.

One might also note that this piece really does feel like a stage play - or actually, more like a cinematic blockbuster, with gesticulating actors in the foreground and an illusionary backdrop behind them. Martin was the predecessor of George Lucas.

While Turner was the predecessor of Impressionism and the non-narrative painting that followed.

Kemp discovered the following commentary on Martin in the introduction to a book about perspective: Throughout his extraordinary performances, the magic of linear and aerial perspective is substituted for that great level of our sympathies, the portrayal of passion and sentiment. The mysterious and electrifying suggestions of boundless space and countless multitudes which their wonder-working elements shadow forth, captivate the fancy, by entangling it in a maze of unearthly conceptions – the result chiefly of a copious and intelligent display of the resources of perspective and without the aid of any of the higher attributes of art ..... A.W. Hakewill (architect)

"without the higher attributes of art" ?.... I suspect that Mr. Hakewill grew up in a manor adorned with old-master paintings, while in those dark ages before art museums, Martin would not have seen them until he was an adult as a guest in the homes of aristocrats.

Kemp concludes that Turner and Martin have abandoned "the stage like boxes of tangible space which "had been the perspectivist's goal for centuries"

Here's a Turner more fully fits that bill. ("Rape of Europa" from the Taft Museum, Cincinnati)

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