28 July 2011

The common-sense nihilist guide to art parahistory: An introduction

This is the presentation I gave at Massey's Postgraduate Symposium, about which we're meeting tomorrow:

This paper will demonstrate both the art parahistorical method and why figurative painting is the pre-eminent vehicle for ideas – the true conceptual art – by arguing that perspective painting proves nothing exists.

Georges Braque said that ‘The hard and fast rules of perspective which [the Renaissance] imposed on art were a ghastly mistake which it has taken four centuries to redress.’ Apollinaire called it ‘that miserable, tricky perspective ... that infallible device for making things shrink’. The early cubists realised that perspective constructions, like photographs, do not accurately represent objects as they are. Rather, they are naturalistic illusions.

However, for the purposes of this paper, let us consider figurative painting – and, in particular, perspective painting – not as a means of representing objects nor as a naturalistic illusion but as a way of dividing a painted surface to convey meaning.

This is so important that it bears repeating in bold: The aim of figurative painting and drawing, including perspective painting, is not to accurately replicate the visual appearance of things in the world. The aim is to construct meaning on a two-dimensional surface using line and colour.

Take, for example, my painting Academic art. Both title and image occupy the same pictorial plane. To further emphasise that the painting is a pictorial construction rather than a naturalistic illusion, I use a continuous line to enclose the forms, which I’ve simplified, and bright non-naturalistic colours.

People sometimes ask me why I make my hair ‘ginger’ in self-portraits. I usually answer that people’s skin isn’t yellow either:

A useful comparison is with heraldry. In a heraldic coat of arms, conventions dictate that certain divisions of the surface, such as quartering, convey a specific meaning – in the case of quartering, a merging of two or more different coats of arms through marriage or other alliance:

Similarly to heraldic quartering, a perspective painter such as Masaccio used the conventions of perspective to divide the surface of a painting such as The trinity to convey specific meaning:

Through perspective, God, Jesus, Mary, and John appear behind the picture plane and the donors and the skeleton appear to be in front of the picture plane. Although the donors and skeleton are securely located in space,* the figures making up the trinity are not. Their depth is indicated only by their size – a sly ‘fuck you’ to the older tradition of using size to indicate the importance of figures.

[*Because of botched restorations, it is no longer possible to establish the skeleton’s position in space. However, it is reasonable to assume that it was possible when Masaccio painted it. It is also reasonably likely that that position was directly underneath or in front of the donors. The inscription on the skeleton translates as ‘What you are I once was, and what I am is what you will become.’]

In The trinity, Masaccio used perspective to create a separate pictorial space. The way that space interacts with the space occupied by donors, skeleton, and viewer symbolises the supposed interaction of the spiritual with the material in Christian mythology. ‘Masaccio’s differentiation in depth between the all-too-mortal world this side of the plane and the indisputably spiritual realm inhabited by God, Christ, Mary and John is an act of high genius. A new spatial technique has simultaneously been mastered technically and locked into the meaning of the picture in a way which only a few artists have since equalled.’ (Kemp, 21.) As we shall see, one of those artists was the stone cold avant-garde genius Piero della Francesca, the best painter of the 15th century.

It was because of paintings such as The trinity that Leonardo said ‘Painting is a thing of the mind’ – a conceptual art – which I prefer to translate as ‘Painting is a mental thing.’

It is important to note that neither Masaccio nor Piero was a slave to the ‘hard and fast rules’ of the perspective systems they used. Where the system delivered a result that would look wrong, they painted what looked right instead. This is something that Uccello, in his enthusiasm, often neglected to do, ending up looking like a horse’s arse.

We know that some form of perspective was known to the Ancients from fragments of paintings and references in written texts. However, the first documented use of it is Brunelleschi’s famous demonstration.

Brunelleschi kept his method of perspective construction secret. The first documented method for constructing perspective, also based (albeit roughly) on a mathematical rule, was published by Leon Battista Alberti in his book De Pictura in 1435. He published this book originally in Latin and again in 1436 in the vernacular as Della Pittura. Most painters of the time could not read Latin.

Since Masaccio’s Trinity was painted around 1427–28, it is likely that Alberti did not invent his method – the ‘legitimate construction’ – but rather documented and possibly formalised the method used by contemporary painters. By linking perspective to mathematics and the science of optics (perspectiva), Alberti argued that painting was the intellectual equal of the traditional subjects of a humanist education, such as music and astronomy (at the time indistinguishable from astrology).

In the early 15th century, painting was considered a craft performed by artisans. Because they were mostly paid for the materials they used, it was not uncommon for painters to be paid less for a painting than the carpenter was paid for the frame around it. And because the most expensive materials were gold leaf and the lapis lazuli that makes blue, these materials tended to predominate – and be the thing most valued – in the paintings produced under those contracts.

The arguments put forward by Piero and Alberti transformed the way painting was considered. In contrast to the generation before them – and their more slow-witted contemporaries – avant-garde painters such as Piero negotiated contracts where they were paid for ‘the skill of the hand’. Their paintings were valued not simply for being ostentatious displays of wealth but rather for being complex conceptual objects.

As Piero della Francesca wrote, in one of the first historical instances of avant-garde trash-talking of the conservative academic opposition, ‘Certainly many painters who do not use perspective have also been the object of praise; however, they were praised with faulty judgement by men with no knowledge of the value of this art.’

Piero wrote this in De prospectiva pingendi (On perspective for painting), which was written to be used by apprentice painters, as opposed to Alberti’s book, which was written to explain and justify perspective in general terms to patrons. It seems academics have always focused exclusively on the requirements of those funding them!

Despite its spurious appearance as a manual and its translation into the vernacular, Alberti’s book does not provide enough information to actually construct his scheme. Believe me, I’ve tried! In contrast, in De prospectiva pingendi, Piero set out his method for constructing perspective in rigorous detail. In doing so, he also incidentally provided the first ever mathematical proof of perspective:

In his introduction to the third book of De prospectiva pingendi, Piero argued for perspective on two fronts. The first was a technical argument. The second boiled down to the argument that the Ancients used perspective, and they knew what they were about, so you might as well too: ‘By following this practice, many ancient painters acquired immortal fame. Such as Aristomenes, Thasius, Polides, Apello, Andramides, Nitheo, Zeusis, and many others.’

They cared about such stuff in the Renaissance.

Piero’s technical argument for perspective was a bit more involved – and relevant:

‘[B]ecause [figurative] painting is nothing if not demonstrations of surfaces and bodies degraded or magnified on the limit [i.e., the picture plane], placed like the real things seen by the eye as subtending different angles on the said limit, and because for any quantity some part of it is nearer the eye than another, and the nearer part always presents itself as subtending a greater angle than the further one at the assigned limits, and since it is not possible for the intellect to judge for itself of their size, so I say it is necessary [to use] perspective, which distinguishes all quantities proportionately, as a true science, demonstrating the degradation and magnification of all quantities by means of lines (Field, 163).’ (Emphasis added.)

That last phrase can also be translated as ‘by the force of lines’.

Now, to the casual glance, it may seem as if Piero is justifying perspective on the grounds that it provides a convincing illusion of the real appearance of things. However, that is not the case. As is made clear in the propositions and theorems comprising the first two books, Piero is arguing that perspective is a true science – that is, that it contains a truth about the world – because it ‘distinguishes all quantities proportionately’ and constructs bodies placed on the picture surface ‘like the real things seen by the eye’ using lines.

In other words, perspective construction uses the same mathematical laws that we use to see objects in the world. Those mathematical laws are the truth about the world that perspective contains, not the illusions it can produce.

In his paintings, Piero consciously played down the illusionism that perspective can cause. In fact, many of his paintings do not use perspective at all. Perspective is merely one tool in his arsenal. When he did use it, he was well aware of the robustness of the perspective construction when viewed from non-ideal positions. It is often physically impossible for the viewer to stand in the ideal viewing position used to construct the scheme, and Piero realised that, within certain limits (which he mathematically defined), it doesn’t matter.

In both Piero’s and Alberti’s systems, the ideal viewing point is directly opposite a point inside the picture. However, paintings in the 15th century, such as frescos and altarpieces, were often so high on walls that the actual viewer was well below the bottom of the picture (or, more rarely, above the top of it).

In such circumstances, Alberti, being an academic rather than a practising artist, prescribed somewhat arbitrarily that the ideal viewing height be the eye height of a standing figure in the picture. Piero, being a painter, gives no prescription on how to deal with the problem in his writings.

The solution he adopted in his paintings, however, is more sophisticated than Alberti’s prescription. When the pictures will be seen from below, Piero places the ideal viewing point (and thus horizon line) below the eye height of standing figures in the picture, so that the perspective is seen from below. In the rare situation that the picture will be seen from above, Piero does the converse – he places the ideal viewing point above the eye height of a standing figure in the picture, so that the perspective is seen from above.

In his paintings, Piero used perspective in specific circumstances and for specific ends. The most important of those ends, like that of all the tools he used, was to construct meaning through line and colour on a flat surface – to say something about the world as he saw it.

In The resurrection, painted for the city hall in Piero’s home town and now that town’s coat of arms, the soldiers guarding Christ’s tomb and the columns of the architectural frame are seen from below, as is Piero’s practice when the picture is high on a wall. However, Jesus** clambering out of his tomb is shown front on, not in perspective. Like Masaccio’s Trinity, Piero has used his perspective scheme to create two separate spaces – the spiritual and the mundane:

In Piero’s Resurrection, the risen Christ confronts the viewer directly, no matter how lowly they may be or what their position is. All through the use of lines.

[**I didn't mention it in my talk, but I should note that soldier covering his eyes also appears to not be in perspective. That he is covering his eyes and not in perspective seems to be related.]

Similarly to Masaccio and Piero, but on a much more modest scale and to quite different ends, I have tried to incorporate two separate spaces in Painting. The pictorial space of Painting contains, as well as the perspective space occupied by the torch, the abstract space created by the black area at the top. These spaces operate with the light in the torch – a reflected external light rather than one emanating from the torch bulb.

Piero was a Neoplatonist. His use of perspective was all about translating the ‘perfect’ world of ideal forms into the ‘degraded’ world of appearances for particular religio-magical purposes that I will explore in my discussion of Piero’s Baptism (which is probably the best painting in the world).

Piero was completely right that perspective is a true science. However, he was completely wrong in what that truth is.

This is the thing with the avant-garde. The black square is the conduit for the intertemporal avant-garde thought virus through the ur-dimension, and the transdimensional telepathic contact can be patchy. Each historical manifestation interprets that contact using the categories and concepts available in the society it inhabits. However, we’re not here to talk about that.

According to both Piero and Alberti, the first step in constructing a perspective scheme is locating the viewer in relation to the space to be portrayed. Both methods recognise that the spatial relationship between objects is determined by the position of the viewer.

That is, an object's position in space is not absolute but relative to other objects from a given point of view. Space is relative.

As Kant points out, this means that perception of space (and time and causality) is not a property of the world but an a priori property of the viewer's mind. All objects that we can perceive exist in space and time, and have causes and effects. We can only perceive objects in those terms – any object not in space, in time, and subject to causality would be unknowable. This means that space, time, and causality are conditions that must be met for us to perceive an object.

As Kant says, ‘By means of outer sense, a property of our mind, we represent to ourselves objects as outside us, and all without exception in space. In space their shape, magnitude, and relation to one another are determined or determinable (Leech, 34).’

But things-in-themselves are not dependent on the conditions we have for perceiving them. Those conditions are properties of our minds, not of the things. Space, time, and causality are subjective framing devices with which we structure our sensations and combine them into the coherent world we observe. The world we experience, the world of appearances, is dependent on the properties of our minds.

Kant asks ‘Geometry is a science which determines the properties of space synthetically, and yet a priori. What, then, must be our representation of space, in order that such knowledge of it may be possible?’ Kant’s answer is that it ‘must be found in us prior to any perception of an object, and must therefore be pure, not empirical, intuition’, which is ‘the only explanation that makes intelligible the possibility of geometry, as a body of a priori synthetic knowledge.’ (Leech, 36.)

It is a symmetrical, reciprocal relationship. The viewing subject gives the world coherence through perceiving causal relationships in space and time. In turn, perceiving the world as coherent gives the subject coherence.

However, Kant continues, neither the subject nor the world is a coherent unity. Both subject and world are made up of contradictory elements. Because the world of appearances is unreal and illusory, and it has a reciprocal relationship with the self, then the self too is unreal and illusory. Any apparent unity is an illusion produced by the mind. Neither self nor world exist.

This is the true science that perspective contains. Perspective painting encodes the process by which both self and world are fictively constructed. This is the esoteric meaning behind the exoteric meaning of the perspective painting’s ostensible subject matter.

Perspective painting proves nothing exists.

So, in conclusion, I hope that I have demonstrated how the art parahistorical method sits beside, or perhaps beyond, art history by examining the hidden connections between things, the intertemporal rather than the historical connections – in this case, between Piero’s and Kant’s conception of space as finite Aristotelian extension. How these conclusions are affected by non-Euclidian relativistic space will be explored in my discussion of the alchemico-magical operations of Friedrich Nietzsche and Francis Picabia (the best artist of the 20th century).

As an intertemporal avant-garde artist, I use these art parahistorical connections in my own work. For example, the viewer’s relationship with my paintings is very important. I use standard mass-produced canvases that are about the size of the human head and with which the viewer can have an intimate conversation. As a social species, we have, after all, evolved to respond to the faces of people standing in front of us. Therefore, when hanging a show, I try to replicate that experience, with specific exceptions for specific pictures (see here and here).

For my exhibition at the Ivan Anthony Gallery, This has to do with me, we hung The fall and Modernism high and Conceptual art low, so that viewing height could affect the content of each picture. I also plan to make certain consequences of one of Piero’s perspective construction methods an integral part of my next show at the Robert Heald Gallery. You’ll have to wait to see how.

List of books

Banker, James R., The culture of San Sepolcro during the youth of Piero della Francesca, United States of America: University of Michigan Press, 2003.

Baxandall, Michael, Painting and experience in fifteenth century Italy, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Baxandall, Michael, Patterns of intention: On the historical explanation of pictures, United States of America: Yale University Press, 1985.

Calvesi, Maurizio, Piero della Francesca, United States of America: Rizzoli International Publications, 1998.

Field, J.V., Piero della Francesca: A mathematician’s art, United States of America: Yale University Press, 2005.

Ginzburg, Carlo (trans. Martin Ryle and Kate Soper), The enigma of Piero, United Kingdom: Verso, 1985.

Kemp, Martin, The science of art: Optical themes in western art from Brunelleschi to Seurat, United States of America: Yale University Press, 1990.

Lavin, Marilyn Aronberg, Piero della Francesca, United Kingdom: Phaidon, 2002.

Leech, Peter, ‘The painting of philosophy: Space, perspectivalism, representability and consciousness’ in Mehigan, Timothy J. (ed.), Frameworks, artworks, place: the space of perception in the modern world, Netherlands: Rodopi B.V., 2008.

Levey, Michael, Early Renaissance, United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 1991.

Wood, Jeryldene M. (ed.), The Cambridge companion to Piero della Francesca, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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