Perspective and mind

Gilt silver plate from Afghanistan

Gilt silver plate from Afghanistan

Photo from Wikimedia Commons
“…this spectacular disk depicts Cybele, the goddess of nature… It is a remarkable example of hybrid Greek and Oriental imagery that typified the arts of Hellenized Asia… The overall composition of the scene… lacking any indication of perspective, is… typical of Near Eastern art.” (Source) (See also the exhibit catalog, Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from that National Museum, Kabul, edited by Fredrik Hiebert and Pierre Cambon, National Geographic (2008?), pp 4, 101, 118, & 119.)

When in Autumn 2009 I saw this 3rd century BCE plate by an Indo-Greek artist, and read the description, it came together in my mind with a book I’d read decades earlier, together with some more recent ideas about Japanese popular culture, and reminded me of an unorthodox notion about perspective.

The conventional Western view is that a non-abstract picture is a depiction of something that exists, or can be imagined to exist, in the world. The depiction can be more or less realistic, and more realistic is generally better. Using perspective, depth, shading, chiaroscuro, and/or a vanishing point simply increases the degree of realism.

I have come to regard perspective or lack of it is a significant, qualitative difference in kind, both in the artist’s vision and in the effect on the viewer. It is not necessarily meaningful to say a picture with perspective is better or worse than one without.

Through the Vanishing Point by McLuhan & Parker

Through the Vanishing Point by McLuhan & Parker

The book I mentioned is Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting by Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker (1968). (My page references are to my 1969 paperback copy.) So I will discuss some of the ideas and examples in McLuhan & Parker’s book, followed by more recent examples concerning Japanese and other popular culture, especially animation.

I don’t pretend to summarize or review Through the Vanishing Point, at least not here or now; I just try to discuss some of its points to the extent I think I understand them. Also, I do not regard McLuhan as an authority. Some have accused him of being a charlatan, not entirely without reason; I don’t share that view, but I find him sloppy with facts, and maddeningly difficult to follow. “The more McLuhan achieved a kind of playful freedom with his own thinking, the less consistent and substantial his books became.” So says Derrick de Kerckove in Forward Through the Rearview Mirror: Reflections on and by Marshall McLuhan (1997), p 138. That said, I suspect McLuhan and Parker are onto something here.

Through the Vanishing Point consists mostly of 49 sections, each section with a page showing a work (or excerpt) of visual art or literature, followed by a page or two of commentary on how the work perceives or portrays space or depth. The authors say “We have resisted essay-like presentations…” (p 2)  That’s not completely true. In addition to the art and commentary, there are fairly long general discussions, albeit in McLuhan’s annoying, non-essay-like style.

Some of the points McLuhan and Parker make, as interpreted by me:

  • Perspective, and the idea of continuous Euclidean visual space, are illusions resulting from destructive over-emphasis on vision at the expense of the other senses.
  • A picture with perspective, with the vanishing point in or “behind” the picture, tend to make the viewer a mere passive spectator or consumer.
  • When a picture lacks perspective, or has reverse perspective (where the vanishing point is in the viewer), the viewer is in some sense a participant in the picture.
  • A picture with perspective tends to represent literally; a picture without tends to symbolize, requiring the viewer to supply the referent (thus participating).
  • A picture with perspective, showing continuous space, paradoxically tends to fragment both space and time, since it necessarily depicts an isolated moment in time.
  • Pictures with depth tend to use shading; pictures without depth tend to use strongly outlined shapes without shading. The authors quote poet-artist William Blake (1757-1827) on the importance of the “bounding outline.”
  • “…the center of the eye is sensitive to texture and color… the periphery… is extraordinarily sensitive to light, dark [and therefore shading and depth] and movement.” (p 18) (It is ironic that the book’s illustrations are all black and white, perhaps for budget reasons.)

What the authors mean by “reverse perspective” can be illustrated by an example. There are medieval pictures (and Oriental pictures, say the authors) showing a bench, and the edges of the bench are not parallel, but converge toward the viewer. The authors provided a small black and white version of the following picture; here’s a larger, colored one (Source: ducciodibuoninsegna.org)

Announcement of Death to the Virgin 1308-11 by Duccio Di Buoninsegna (ca1255-ca1319)

Announcement of Death to the Virgin 1308-11 by Duccio Di Buoninsegna (ca1255-ca1319)
William Blake's "The Tyger"

William Blake’s “The Tyger”

William Blake actually wrote a micro-essay, “Outline in Art and Life,” (not quoted at any length by McLuhan and Parker) in which he says “..the more distinct, sharp and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art…” You can see Blake’s bounding lines here in his page of his most famous poem, “The Tyger” (Source: Wikimedia Commons). (This page is shown in Through the Vanishing Point, but only in black and white.)

Something the authors do not mention (or I missed it) is that medieval and early Renaissance pictures, with no or minimal perspective, sometimes show actions that happen at different times in the same picture; also, they sometime show some people and things much bigger than others, not to show proximity to the viewer, but some other quality, like importance.

For an example of a single picture spanning different times, see this 15th century Florentine painting of scenes from the story of Jason and the Argonauts (source: Metropolitan Museum of Art). Jason is shown at least three times: At the left, getting orders from the king; toward the center, mounting his horse; and toward the right, consulting the centaur Chiron on top of the mountain:

Scenes from the Story of the Argonauts

Scenes from the Story of the Argonauts

For an example of non-perspective size difference, see this Russian icon (Source: Wikimedia Commons). The people (angels) in the background are much bigger than those in the foreground:

Russian icon

Russian icon

Japanamerica

Japanamerica

Advancing to the present, Japanese art, both traditional and current, tends to use outlines rather than shading or perspective.  There is a postmodern Japanese art movement called “superflat,” championed (and I think started) by pop artist Takashi Murakami. As my friend Roland Kelts says in his book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S, ‘..the Japanese are both proud and fond of their singular way of seeing things, what artist Murakami branded the “superflat” style: the absence of western notions of perspective and three-dimensional forms.’ (pp 61-62)

Below is Roland talking about “superflat;” the relevant part starts at 4:00 (4 minutes) from the beginning of the video:

Animation and comics tend to have outlines rather than shading, depth, or perspective, although this tendency is more pronounced in the East than the West.

Let’s take a brief look at the excellent 2009 animated feature (and Oscar nominee), The Secret of Kells, set in medieval Ireland. As the creators’ commentary shows, they were consciously trying to emulate medieval art and manuscript illuminations, like those of the Book of Kells which is the film’s subject. Their art is mostly two-dimensional. They developed special software to give the characters thicker, stronger outlines, intending to resemble medieval pictures and stained glass. Perspective is not completely absent, but true perspective (their term) is very rare, used only (as far as I can tell) when showing the lair of the dark demon Crom Cruach, a scene which is also desaturated, almost devoid of color.

The lair of Crom Cruach in The Secret of Kells

The lair of Crom Cruach in The Secret of Kells

Mechademia 7: Lines of Sight

Mechademia 7: Lines of Sight

There is a lot more to say about this subject, but I am almost finished for now.  I conclude by quoting the back-cover blurb for a book I just received and haven’t had a chance to read yet: Mechademia Volume 7: Lines of Sight, edited by Frenchy Lunning, University of Minnesota Press (2012), a collection of essays by 17 scholars:

Lines of Sight, the seventh volume in the Mechademia series, an annual forum devoted to Japanese anime and manga, explores the various ways in which anime, manga, digital media, fan culture, and Japanese art – from scroll paintings to superflat – challenge the concept of Cartesian (or one-point) perspective, the dominant mode of visual culture in the West since the seventeenth century. More than just a visual mode or geometric system, Cartesianism has shaped nearly every aspect of modern rational thought, from mathematics and science to philosophy and history.

Framed by Thomas Lamarre’s Introduction, “Radical Perspectivalism,” the essays here approach Japanese popular culture as a visual mode that employs non-Cartesian formations that make possible new configurations of perception and knowledge. Whether by shattering the illusion of visual or narrative seamlessness through the use of multiple layers or irregular layouts, blurring the divide between viewer and creator, providing diverse perspectives within a single work of art, or rejecting dualism, causality, and other hallmarks of Cartesianism, anime and manga offer in their radicalization of perspective the potential for aesthetic and even political transformation.