Saturday, March 2, 2013

On Perspective

In my last blog, I touched upon Picasso’s choice of not pursuing further and total abstraction back in 1911.  Instead, he took a different path and retained some figural representation in his works that shaped cubism and influenced development of modern arts.  Still, many of these paintings are not easy to comprehend.

One reason and an important technique found in cubism and modern arts is the use of multiple perspectives. That is, a painting can be composed of multiple views of one or more objects on the same canvas.  As a result, an object could be broken up with each fragment being represented in different perspectives and placed once or multiple times on the canvas.

Equipped with the ability to recognize figurative representation of familiar objects, be it ultra realistic, or partially abstract, we can still identify some of these scattered fragments without too much difficulty.  However, at first sight, the resulting paintings look odd since they defy our visual experience of the straightforward single perspective or snapshot view.  There are many such examples including Picasso’s 1918 Harlequin, his later Surrealism works including the 1937 Weeping Woman and the 1952 Girl in Chair (see photos below, from left o right). 

Note each part of the human figure subject appeared only once in these paintings, regardless how out-of-place it may be.  It is then not a huge leap to having multiple views of the same part of a figure that appear on the same canvas simultaneously as shown in his work 1938 Head (see photo to the right)

Similarly, Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 work Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (see photo to the right) is also not difficult to decode.  It brought even more directly the fourth-dimension, namely, time into painting using multiple perspectives (over time, in this case).  The canvas can obviously be thought of as an overlay of successive frames of a motion picture from a fixed vintage point in which the subject walks down a staircase.  

A little digression is in order.  One obvious motivation for drawing and painting in human history has been to record and to represent what one has seen through their eyes.  To that end, the first value judgment of such a record would naturally be the accuracy of it, or how “realistic” is the painting compared to our experience.  No wonder Leonardo Da Vinci had famously said “The most praiseworthy form of painting is the one that most resembles what it imitates.”  That is exactly what the artists in Renaissance were striving for 600 years ago – they wanted to make the painted scenes look as natural and real to the viewers as possible. 

Renaissance artists’ solution to this challenge was Linear Perspective.  It was developed in Florence, Italy in early 1400’s whereby artists paint the objects as they appear on an “imaginary window” in between the viewer and the field of objects.  More precisely, if one draws a straight line between a point of the actual object and his/her eyes, the intersection of this line and the imaginary window should be the location of the corresponding representative point of the object on the canvas.  Below is a popular example - the painting Ideal City by Piero della Francesca.

A consequence of this viewer-centric projection method is that objects further away from the viewer would appear smaller and parallel tracks appear to converge into a point at infinity, the so called vanishing point.  However as the viewing angle becomes wider and exceeds more than say 60 degrees such as in some landscape paintings, it becomes difficult to represent accurately what our eyes see in a two dimensional flat surface.  Camera fisheye lenses are photographer’s solution to this problem with a nonlinear projection that carries a significant distortion.

Technically and strictly speaking, there is no single or completely accurate representation that works universally.  For one, we are talking about placing faithfully the details and relationships of all objects in a three- or four-dimensional space (or space-time) onto a finite 2-dimensional canvas.  Further, viewer’s eyes are known to wonder around the picture, consciously or unconsciously, and their brains do produce varying responses depending on the order of and how the stimuli are presented.  Artists can express and communicate more effectively if they can influence how viewers view and respond to their works.  That is why perspective matters.

The implication of the viewer-centric perspectives such as the linear perspective is that the viewer naturally responds to and interacts with the painting from outside the painting.  An alternate choice of the representation is the parallel system by which projection rays are parallel to each other.  Such a system in fact has been used earlier in Western and in many cultures/civilizations.  In fact it was used extensively in Chinese paintings for thousands of years.  Below are two examples from a recent paper by Christopher W. Tyler and Chien-Chung Chen. The photo on the left is Gu Hong-zhong’s 顧閎中classic painting Han Xi-zai Gives a Banquet (韓熙載夜宴圖) during Five Dynasties 五代 (907~ 950 AD).  On the right is a wall painting of a Roman bakery from the 1st century found in Pompei.  For more detailed discussions, one can refer to the paper Chinese perspective as a rational system: Relationship to Panofsky’s symbolic form which was published on Chinese Journal of Psychology, Volume 53, Issue 4, Pages 371-470, December 2011. 

The significance of what parallel system offers, in contrast to that of linear (or non-linear, for the matter) perspective, is the object-centricity and viewer-independence.  One no longer relates to the painting through an invisible viewing window external to it.  Instead, one can be inside the painting and does not have a fixed physical view.  The beauty is that once removed from the viewer-centricity constraint, artists can express freely their own feelings, experiences, and imaginations, be it real or unreal.  They don’t have to maintain consistent views of all objects simultaneously from a fixed external viewer’s point of view!  One result of it is the scene may appear odd and obscure, and may not conform to our daily experiences.  But who is to say one must be realistic and adhere to the linear perspective of the Renaissance’s?  On the right, you can see the photo of one of the most revered classical Chinese landscape paintings.  It is entitled Travellers among Mountains and Streams (谿山行旅) and was painted with ink and slight color on a 6¾ ft x 2½ ft silk scroll by Fan Kuan 范寬  It is not realistic by the measure of  linear perspective but nevertheless a beautiful painting! 

I would submit to you that for this reason, parallel and mixed representational system with multiple perspectives are often found in Cubism and other 20th century modern arts.  The brilliant contemporary British artist David Hockney has made in-depth expositions on the topics of perspective.   In his 2012 interview with Martin Gayford first published on The Daily Telegraph, Hockney was quoted to have said:  “Cubism was an attack on the perspective that had been known and used for 500 years. It was the first big, big change. It confused people: they said, ‘Things don’t look like that!’ Actually cubism was concerned to claim: yes they do in a way.”  He then went on and added that “In Picasso’s pictures you can see the front and back of a person simultaneously. That means you’ve walked round them. It’s a sort of memory picture; we make pictures like that in our heads.”  

David Hockey’s photo collages and composite Polaroid pictures as he first re-examined Cubism back in 1980s are excellent examples of the importance and endless possibilities of distinct perspective.  Below are two of these collages on are included here for your convenience.  The one on the left is his 1983 work Walking in the Zen Garden, Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto.  The one on the right is his 1982 composite Polaroid photos Don & Christopher

With it, you would not be surprised then to hear that Hockey has been quite intrigued by the classical Chinese scroll paintings as they addressed some of the very issue of perspective in its own unique approach.   In scroll painting, in addition to using stationary single or multiple perspectives, the representation of four-dimension time-space relations on a two dimension space is accomplished by continuously shifting the perspective with changing vintage point from right to left.  As one views only a small and a few feet wide portion of a seemingly endless scroll at a time, the viewer is no longer bounded by a fixed and bounded window – one of the very constraints that Dave Hockney was trying to remove in conventional western painting and photography.

Below is a brief segment of the 47 minutes long 1988 documentary film entitled " A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China" by David Hockney and Philip Haas that discusses aspects of Perspective in Chinese Scroll Painting.  The subject is the late 17th century scroll painting The Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour 康熙南巡图by Wang Hui王翚 and his team.   It is a series of twelve massive hand scrolls, each one measuring from forty to eighty feet in length!  The techniques of multiple simultaneous perspectives and parallel system combined with shifting perspective can clearly be seen throughout.  The first 10 minutes of the documentary is available on Youtube.  (  Enjoy them by just wondering around in the scenes and don't worry about the realism and don't try to view it from your imaginary external window!

Hope you find the subject of perspective fascinating which is found in many fields beyond arts including computer graphics.  It definitely helped me understand better the history and techniques in both Western and Chinese Arts.  Talk to you soon!

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