A favourite memory of my dad is of him teaching me perspective. Put a dot on a horizontal line and draw a railway line to that point – it was like a magic trick, I thought it the cleverest thing.
This first part of this project is to research how artists have used perspective. My first discovery is there is way more than one type of perspective – I had no idea – one-point, two-point, three-point, photo, parallel, reverse, atmospheric, perceptive…
However before artists figured out perspective, they were still able to create a feeling of depth by overlapping objects, using different sizes to show something near and far, or by varying the colour or amount of detail.
The horses of the Chauvet Cave have perspective: the near horse is denser in colour, the far one beginning to fade. It’s a little confusing that they get bigger as they get further away, though I also see this as the larger animal leading the group, the smallest and nearest is protected. The overlapping of marks and the varying textures give the feeling not just of a group of animals, but a group in movement. There is a tenderness to how these horses have been drawn, I find it beautiful and moving – never mind that it was drawn by someone who lived 30,000 years ago.
I don’t know the first thing about Egyptian art, and though I think the size of a figure often relates to social hierarchy, it also seems that they used size and overlapping to create the illusion of distance.
I couldn’t find the artist for this piece (above) but I do like its total disregard for perspective. It reminds me of school history lessons – what does this picture tell us? It probably depicts a wealthy couple – the table is tipped so we can see exactly what they’re eating, they have servants, a cook. They are framed by their property. Shadows are used on the fabric to give the bodies form, but the flesh is flat and white. There is another story being told here, about the man with the unfortunate legs – the plague perhaps.
The Annunciation of Ohrid, from the early 14th century, employs what is sometimes called ‘reverse perspective’ – something I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never noticed before. This doesn’t mean it is always strictly ‘reverse’ – it seems as if the artist wanted us to see various sides of objects and used whatever viewpoint best served that purpose. In the above work, we get to see the full surfaces of things that in reality we would only see a sliver of – giving a slightly queasy feeling that objects are tipping up and towards us.
Here the city looms in the distance behind the arched gateway and the receding trees help with the sense of depth. However the people get smaller the closer they get to us and the immediate foreground has shrunk to peculiar proportions – though maybe there is some religious symbolism attached to this which is way over my head?
A century after this attempt at perspective and Filippo Brunelleschi finally cracked it in 1420 with his study of one-point perspective, using the Baptistry of Florence as his subject. His study had a profound effect on artists at the time and the Renaissance artists put it to good use.
This fresco shows classic one-point linear perspective. I find this picture a bit dull, and I don’t think this perfect perspective is helping. It feels a bit like an architectural drawing with figures added – a bit like a proposal for a new shopping centre.
Veronese uses several different points of perspective. I’m sure I wouldn’t have spotted them were they not marked out, though having spent a little time looking there are floor tiles that don’t fit these given points (bottom centre left). In looking for examples of early use of perspective I came across endless Italian squares where the architecture seemed to take centre stage and the figures were add-ons, even where the subject was an important one. They feel a bit like theatre set-designs, it was hard to feel involved.
The above three works are all by Jan van Eyck and he seems to have had fun with perspective – almost showing off. I really love the eccentric and detailed Arnolfini Marriage – and though he hasn’t used perspective as obviously as in the other two pictures the detail in the mirror and the window sliding away add to its sophistication.
This is such an unusual (and brave!) angle to use and I find it quite startling. The legs and feet seem way too small for the head and torso, and it gives that slightly giddy feeling of looming over the bed. Maybe it’s done on purpose – when depicted on the cross I feel it’s all about the torso – slim legs fading away. It’s fascinating to look at, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a body painted from this angle – weird and wonderful all at the same time.
Not until Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso did the rules of perspective get questioned, or simply thrown out. These artists were among the first who wanted to find new ways of portraying what they saw.
Meléndez paints the kind of pictures that make me go ‘but how did he DO that?’ It makes me want to reach out and tap that melon in to place to stop it falling off the table. It’s a 3D wonder. By contrast Cezanne’s display is looking pretty tipsy and he clearly isn’t bothered by how things ‘should be’. Meléndez makes me think he has placed his fruit and placed his light, then crouched down low and taken a snapshot (though with a great camera!). Cezanne’s painting sees him living with these objects, moving around them. Standing up, sitting down, one eye, two eyes. There is a sense that he is feeling these objects with his eyes, and his eyes are moving.
Melendez is calm, ordered, correct. I don’t think it’s sterile, but it’s quite removed from the artist, I don’t really get a sense of how he has experienced these objects. It could be a photograph. Cezanne has shown me how he saw this arrangement. I’m not sure anyone has ever compared art to teeth before, but the difference makes me think of David Bowie’s teeth, before and after.
This research in to perspective has uncovered so much for me. I’ve got to the point where it seems that all discussion on perspective leads to Cezanne = Braque = Picasso = cubism. No doubt this is extreme over-simplification but as a novice I’m happy with it for now.
I’ve never liked cubism and I can’t say that my new found understanding makes me like it any more. Cezanne and even Braque’s works that push towards it I enjoy. They give me a sense of how they experienced this landscape. I’m surrounded by the places they’ve painted (the quarries, l’Estaque, St Victoire). People often think of Provence as soft and gentle and full of lavender bags, but much of it is harsh, savage and over-exposed. There is real beauty; the pines, red earth, mountains but the weather can make it tough going. The earth is always hot and dry. I get this sense from their paintings – that this is a land ruled by sun and wind.
When I first looked at Picasso’s Reservoir (above) I found it too structured, too clinical, a study in geometry. However the more I look at it the more it says to me. It feels a bit like an origami village that’s been crushed, there are no spaces, there is no light getting through. And sometimes that’s what a village is like – so compact that no sunlight can penetrate beyond the rooves. And the light is surprising, I don’t know if he intended it, but to me it’s the light we sometimes get when a thunderstorm is due just as the sun is setting – a crazy mix of ominous grey and deep orange.
I can’t resist adding these two pieces of pavement art – and very happy to have found another life-drawing from feet up!
Two weeks later…
I’ve been thinking more about how Cèzanne and Braque painted this landscape that I pass through. More and more I see their version of perspective as the reality. The way they pile shapes on to each other with rough brushes of colour, a house by a tree by a mountain. This is how it is. We only ‘see’ the mountain as in the distance because we know it’ll take 40 minutes to drive there. But in this light it is as intense and present in what we’re looking at as the tree right in front of us. Similarly, the chaotic layout of village rooftops doesn’t follow any rules of perspective.