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

Friday, May 18, 2012

Kemp : Machines and Marvels

(this is Chapter 4 of Martin Kemp's "The Science of Art".
Quoted text is in YELLOW.
Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)

A marriage of geometry, optics and precise instrumentation was a prominent feature of the Scientific Revolution…. The task of the human intellect is to draw geometrical nectar from the flowers of nature and to use the resulting principles to nourish the artifice of mechanical design…. Mechanical instruments were not simply regarded as utilitarian objects, or even as utilitarian objects which could be the subject of rich ornamentation, but as sources of real intellectual pride.

I'm going to skip the details about these machines, though Kemp seems to be doing a thorough survey of them. They appear to be performing the same operation as sight sizing, a practice currently popular in the neo-ateliers, and described here

When we look at the place of perspective machines in pictorial practice, their role is less clear. Evidence of their actual use is virtually non-existent---- if we ask the obvious question as to whether the perspectographs were used by professional artists in the actual making of works, paintings, reliefs or scene designs, the answer must be almost entirely negative – or at best, inconclusive.

I'm doubting that Kemp wrote this book to show us that scientific-like, high-tech practices had very little to do with the making of celebrated art, but that seems to be a recurring message in every chapter -- especially this one.

High-tech stuff was valuable for its status - and not much else, at least as far as the production of visual arts was concerned.

And that's why I would dispute the following assertion that appears at the beginning of this section:

The major participants in the story told in Part I, whatever their apparent diversities in theory and practice, shared for the most part one important underlying assumption, namely that the science of geometrical optics corresponded in a real way to the central facts of the visual process. The corollary of this often unstated assumption was that geometrical procedures provided an appropriate means for the representation of three dimensional objects on a flat surface in such a way that the projection presented essentially the same visual arrangement to the eye as that presented by the original objects.

The only place where Kemp has proven the use of geometric procedures is within text books on how to use them.

BTW - I'm wondering whether Albrecht Durer thought that this scene was as funny as it appears to me.

It's analogous to a schoolboy gazing at a copy of Playboy Magazine that has been concealed from the teacher by placing it within the covers of a trigonometry text book.

The 1999 film Artemisia demonstrates the use of a similar device to paint an indoor tableaux in the 16th C.

But then, Kemp begins the discussion of the camera obscura, which he then relates to Vermeer.

The camera obscura image of reasonable quality does possess a special visual “feel”. It produces condensed enhancement of tone and colour, providing subtle intensification without harshness or glare. Nuances of light and shade which seem too diffuse or slight to register in the original scene are somehow clarified, and tonal effects gain a new degree of coherence. The shapes of forms, miniaturize in such a way that they seem to be condensed to their very essence, acquire a crystalline clarity. Striking juxtapositions of scale at different planes, of which we remain largely unconscious in the actual scene, become compellingly apparent….Mutual enhancement at the boundaries of areas of contrasting tone and colour – known as “simultaneous contrast” – is registered with particular strength in the camera obscura. The different focuses required for different planes, particularly those close to the spectator, become clearly apparent. Gleaming highlights exhibit a propensity to “jump” from their surfaces, particularly as foreground planes when the focus is on more distant objects…Small highlights tend to coalesce and expand as circular globules of light, technically known as circles of confusion.

All of which Kemp finds in Vermeer more than in any other artist.

But, maybe he wasn't looking hard enough.

Here's a piece by William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941), who, if he used a camera obscura, did it quite secretively.

But still, it might be argued that Paxton was trying to achieve some of the qualities that he saw in Vermeer - qualities that Vermeer(1632-1675) may have first found with a camera obscura, rather than in the work of contemporary painters like Gerhard TerBorch (1617-1681)

TerBorch seems to have begun with actors, real or imagined, posed them in costumes, and then built a stage set behind them, while Vermeer seems to have first seen the tableaux all at once - as one would in a camera obscura or in the viewfinder of a large box camera. Though, of course, no such device is required to see things that way.

Specifically, Kemp notes that:

The uncompromising dark silhouette of the soldier’s arm gains a special vibrancy from the perceptible lightening of the already luminous wall at the very margin of the tonal boundary

I can see that effect in the small space between the arm and the torso of the soldier, but I do wonder whether a camera obscura actually produces it.

Three other discussions of this piece can be found here,
and the best images can be seen here

This excerpt from the John Nash book of 1991 seems the most relevant to how the theatrical qualities of the piece relate to the camera obscura effects:

The officer looms large, the girl, though seated within his grasp, just round the corner of the table, is diminutive, almost remote. It is an effect that photographs taken close-up with a wide-angle lens have made familiar. And it is one of the characteristics of Vermeer's compositions that had led art historians to argue that he used a camera obscura. (Another feature that suggests the use of a camera obscura is the brilliant, sparkling character of the light reflected from the girl's features, clothing and, most characteristically, by her hands and glass.) But these characteristics do not appear merely to be a consequence of the use of the camera. They become exemplary of the distinctive character of the cabinet picture. Instead of the picture being a fictional extension of the interior within which we stand, and in which we can imagine ourselves entering bodily, it offers a vision of an alternative interior from which we are necessarily excluded, except in imagination.

It does seem that the figures in this painting do not enter the space of the viewer.

Instead, the viewer is invited to enter the space of the figures, and it does feel like a mind's eye view I might envision while reading a novel, where the reader, like the viewer, is located immediately behind the main protagonist as he involves himself in the scene.

Pieter de Hooch, "Soldiers Playing Cards" (1657)

Here's a variation with a similar set-up, done approximately the same year, demonstrating, by contrast, the special qualities of Vermeer's version.

Kemp notes that this painting, done about ten years later, has many examples of "circles of confusion" -- i.e. globules of light that appear in the projections of a camera obscura, but are not so apparent in direct observation. Though he also notes that "this painted effect does not replicate what can be seen in a camera obscura in a literal sense", they are "optical in origin and artificially contrived in application"

Then we have Vermeer's "Music Lesson" which Philip Steadman re-constructed by photographing a miniature room that was built to resemble it.

Kemp only mentions this project in passing and does not critique the argument that Steadman presented in his book

I suppose to really test whether a lens was required to get Vermeer's view, we would need to be actually present in a life-size recreation of the room.

Steadman seems to have been mostly concerned with the geometric features, and not attempted to exactly reproduce the carpet and costumes.

It is interesting to note how different the images feel.

The cool, quiet, aristocratic atmosphere of the original has been replaced by the busy clutter of a doll house - but I don't think that has anything to do with the use of a lens.

Here's the set-up, giving us some idea of its size.

As Kemp imagines Vermeer's procedure, the artist set up his camera obscura at the P.O.V. which he has selected. Then he arranges the objects and the lighting in the room as he sees fit, and when he's got what he wants, he transfers the image from the screen to the canvas point- by-point as needed. Then he replaces the camera obscura with his easel and begins to work the painting.

Another Dutch painter said to have used a camera obscura was Johannes Torrentius.
(who may have been more famous in his day for his erotic paintings, all which were burned)

... and Kemp mentions Jan Van Der Heyden "Whose paintings share many of the tonal, colouristic and spatial qualities of camera images... and who was concerned with optical devices"

But moving back to the Italians, we get this wonderful quote from Count Francesco Algarotti (whom we have already met as a patron of Tiepolo) :

As this artificial eye, usually called a Camera Optica or Obscura, gives no admittance to any rays of light, but those coming from the thing whose representation is wanted, there results from them a picture of inexpressible force and brightness, and as nothing is more delightful to behold, so nothing can be more useful to study, than such a picture. For, not to speak of the justness of the contours, the exactness of the perspective and of the chiaroscuro, which exceeds conception; the colours are of a vivacity and richness that nothing can excel; the parts which stand out most, and are most exposed to the light, appear surprisingly loose and resplendent; and this looseness and resplendency declines gradually as the parts themselves sink in or retire from the light. The shades are strong without harshness, and the contours precise without being sharp. Whenever any reflected light falls, there appears, in consequence of it, an infinite variety of tints, which, without this contrivance, it would be impossible to discern. Yet there prevails such a harmony amongst all the colors of the piece, that scarce any one of them can be said to clash with another.

The only artist whom Algarotti mentions in this regard is Giuseppe Crespi, and above I have posted the most likely example I could find.

However, another contemporary, Antonio Maria Zanetti, does link Canaletto to the device.

The above drawings appear to be traced, rather than free-hand drawn, so that is another piece of evidence, along with an actual camera obscura in the Correr Museum that has been inscribed with his name.

Kemp will then mention the British painters who followed the practices of Canaletto -- but before going there, we might like to ask why the 18th C. Venetians so loved the qualities which Algarotti has described.

Why did they did they prefer to see world through the view-finder of a camera?

Going back about 50 years to the photography class I took in college, I do remember how cool and beautiful the world appeared on the view finder of the big box camera which the school provided.

Everything seemed more sharp and dazzling - and perhaps less confused than when seen without it.

But also, everything felt more cold and distant - which does seem to be an appropriate attitude for viewing a precious, priveleged world that had been in relentless decline since the rise of the Turk in the 15th Century, and was gradually becoming just a tourist trap.

Fine art Painting seems to have been an avocation for the the Sandby brothers who worked for the Tower of London as something like official topographers.

But if they have to be called "accidental artists", they would be among the best.

A similar function was provided by the Claude glass which was certainly more portable, gave a wider viewing angle, and still served to reduce the high contrast of sun light, giving more opportunity to distinguish mid-tones, as one might find in a painting by Claude Lorraine.

A Claude glass image can be seen here.

Carel Fabritius (1622 - 1654)

After a survey of anamorphic images and other visual tricks, Kemp takes us to the same painting that Norris Kelly Smith discussed here

But though he has speculated on the intellectual content of some of the other illusions, Kemp offers no further explanation for this one.

The chapter ends with a brief history of the invention of the fixed image, photography, and Kemp offers these two quotes from John Ruskin in response:

Daguerreotypes taken by this vivid sunlight are glorious things… It is a noble invention – say what they will of it – and anyone who has blundered and stammered as I have done for four days, and then sees the thing he has been trying to do so long in vain done perfectly and flawlessly in half a minute won’t abuse it afterwards."

Twenty years later, he wrote the following:
"Their legal evidence is of great use if you know how to cross examine them. They are popularly supposed to be ‘true’, and, at worst, they are so, in the sense in which an echo is true to a conversation of which it omits the most important syllables and re-duplicates the rest. But this truth of mere transcript has nothing to do with Art, popularly so called, and will never supersede it.

What surprises and disappoints me is that both of these quotes present mimesis as the highest goal, and that the author refers to "Art" as it is "popularly so called" rather than as he might recognize and proclaim it.

But Ruskin is mentioned only in passing.

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