“Perspective” in Space and Time

Inside/Outside: Self-Portrait as Subject & Object, oil on canvas, by David Carter

About the author: David Carter began teaching for The Art League School in 1991. That same year he began teaching as an adjunct professor of art at Montgomery College (MC) in Germantown, MD. In 2001 he became a full time professor at MC, where he also served as department chair from 2008-2014. At MC, Carter typically teaches courses in drawing, design, color theory, painting, and art history, and also continues to teach a variety of courses for The Art League.

His work, primarily oil painting and drawing, has been exhibited in solo and group shows on the east coast and across the country. He has completed numerous public and private mural commissions in different parts of the U.S., and worked intermittently as an illustrator, photographer, and graphic designer.

Carter is the juror for the June 2017 exhibit at The Art League, “Perspective.” He wrote this statement on the ideas behind the theme. You can also find our juror’s dialogue on the exhibit page.

A statue of Filippo Brunelleschi near the Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence

In 1401, Filippo Brunelleschi stood in the doorway of the Florence cathedral and made a small painting of the church baptistery across the street. The whole endeavor, though, was more of an exercise in geometry than an artistic composition. Brunelleschi didn’t stand next to his easel and copy what he saw as a landscape painter might do; he constructed what must be visible – from that exact spot – according to ideas and calculations he’d been mulling over about how vision works in three-dimensional space. His radical idea was to take a Euclidean approach to painting.

As it turned out, the little painting was surprisingly good. Unbelievably good! As a coherent, convincing illusion of an architectural structure in three dimensions, it was better, really, than any ever before seen. To most who saw it, the little painting seemed a miracle.

The Florence bapistery that Brunelleschi painted. (Photo by Laodicea)

Brunelleschi’s method (since then known as linear perspective) achieved a synthesis that no one else had conceived for at least two thousand years. It beautifully reconciled the appearance of three dimensions with the unyielding facts of a flat surface. In no time, Brunelleschi’s method spread like wildfire. One look at the results of this technique and there was no turning back.

In the decades that followed, other painters elaborated on the basic principles, applied them in diverse situations, and became capable of producing visual poetry never before imagined. Equipped with this new insight, artists were liberated. Perspective techniques had emancipated them from the stifling confines of shallow, frieze-like, comic strip space, and for the next several centuries they masterfully depicted any place, and anything, from any point of view.

“One look at the results of this technique and there was no turning back.”

This capacity to render convincing illusions of depth where there is in fact only a two-dimensional surface is a trick that is appealing and provocative in and of itself. For artists in fifteenth century Florence, though, it was especially desirable. At that time, the illusionistic aspect of drawing and painting was a preeminent virtue. So the development of perspective facilitated a quantum leap in exactly the right direction.

Linear perspective study for The Adoration of the Magi, silverpoint, by Leonardo da Vinci. 1481.

But perspective was much more than a useful trick of the trade. When the various lines, shapes and foreshortened planes throughout an image were all subjected to the orchestrating influence of perspective, an underlying consistency suddenly appeared that pulled the whole scene together. A sense of agreement and congruity pervaded all the different parts. One could feel it.

“Every part participated in the whole.”

This coherence reinforced the illusion of depth, but it also imparted a distinct unity and harmony to the composition. Every part participated in the whole. The persuasive appeal of such unity is a purely aesthetic phenomenon. Perspective, then, had the effect of highlighting the part-to-whole relations in a composition that are vital to art of any style or category.

Train in the Snow, oil on canvas, by Claude Monet. 1875.

Impressionism – when it finally caught on in the mid nineteenth century – went along with the principles of perspective for the most part, but it certainly didn’t dwell in them. Its interests were more concerned with purely optical effects than with the geometry of objects in space, so perspective didn’t play a big role in that episode of art history.

Some of Monet’s canvases were still drying when Cezanne, in his abundant doubt, considered perspective with great suspicion and decided to pay it very little attention. But it was the audacious, very modern-minded explorations of Picasso and Braque, in the early twentieth century, that finally pushed the time-honored technique into forced retirement. Their radical new art abandoned the principles of perspective completely, and the celebrations followed shortly thereafter.

Bottle and Fishes by Georges Braque. 1912.

It had been a good run – perspective had enjoyed nearly five full centuries of devoted respect – but eventually its horizon lines, sight lines, and converging orthogonals felt more like prison-cell bars than passports to freedom. Perhaps by then it was all just too familiar, or too status quo, but suddenly perspective – the liberator – was something to be liberated from. It was seen as a constraint; its rules were inhibiting. The exciting experiments of Picasso and Braque dealt the final blow. “Finally!” progressive artists exclaimed, “we are free!” No longer did a painting need to be spatially “correct” to be good.

But perspective never really goes away. Despite its flaws, and limitations, and even in spite of its theoretical inconsistencies, the fundamental points of perspective are built-in features of human visual experience. It is true – the dictates of perspective are bound to cramp the style of an expressionist painter. And its geometric regularities are completely inappropriate for many creative paths. But the same might be said of color.

The Sunset Limited by Teresa Oaxaca, selected as best in show in “Perspective” by juror David Carter. (click for larger image)

One thing this geometrical strategy of drawing accomplishes exceptionally well is the portraying of normal appearances of the external world from a particular point of view. At first it may seem that perspective is only about mastering the appearance of external objects in space. It makes all the things in a picture “look right.” But equally compelling is the way it defines the specific point in space from which that “right look” is experienced. Perspective doesn’t just define the objects seen, it also says a lot about you, the seer. Vicariously, it puts you exactly where you are. And it singles you out. From any other position in space, all those objects and their relative positions would appear different. But no, they appear exactly as they do because right now you (the viewer), and only you, are precisely where you are with respect to the picture.

“Perspective doesn’t just define the objects seen, it also says a lot about you, the seer.”

It is in this implicit sense that perspective understands the world, and displays it, one point-of-view at a time. Subtly, but powerfully, perspective underscores our individuality. And it’s why we speak, so easily and appropriately, of one’s “perspective” as a metaphor for the uniqueness of their wider experience.

It’s curiously ironic, then, that expressionistic painting styles that pay no heed to, or blatantly distort the admonitions traditional perspective affords, nevertheless typically revere this deeper implication of the term. Brunelleschi’s mathematical perspective enabled artists to express unique and vivid experiences that were new to their time. Since the start of the twentieth century, modern, non-representational painters have continued to pursue very similar goals. After all, the absence of perspective is itself a “perspective.” Cubism’s combination of multiple and simultaneous points of view was itself a means for expressing a psychologically new point of view. There is more in all this than a mere play on words. To varying degrees, visual art has always been a language for expressing much more than purely visual experience. From its start, the implications of Brunelleschi’s perspective went way beyond the mere illusion of a baptistery. Today we have an even broader understanding of “perspective,” and its implications are unfolding still.

— David Carter

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