March 12, 2013

A Fixed Point of View

Old Kingdom, Egypt, Tomb Chapel of Raemkai: West Wall, ca, 2446-2389 B.C.; limestone, paint.

I've been thinking lately––because of my foray into a different kind of still life painting––about the history of perspective's fixed point of view and how it likely strongly influences the way we see the world today. In ancient Egypt, artists used the most easily characterized aspect of the human form in depicting it: heads in profile, shoulders mainly facing front, legs again in profile. This shifting of viewpoint seems sensible and true, but also so much of its time and place. The way we see bodies has changed. 

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government, 1338-40; fresco

In this early Renaissance fresco buildings are piled up in vigorous masses. Each building obeys its own rules as to the way it exists in space; windows recede into a distance, but without a relationship from one building to the next. This makes for a charming hodgepodge, a sense of a crowded, rambunctious space. 

Piero della Francesca, Flagellation of Christ, 1455-60; oil and tempera on panel, 23 x 32 in. 

Then came the discovery of perspective in Renaissance Italy. The world became supremely ordered, with objects receding into the distance in a measured way. Because of the camera, which has a single fixed lens, this way of seeing has become embedded in our culture, but it still does have to be taught since it's not an innate way of seeing.

Pablo Picasso, Still Life with a Bottle of Rum, 1911; oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 19 7/8 in.

This disconnect between perspectival order and the actual way we may see the world––multiple points of view at a time, objects assuming visual importance for psychological reasons, a true visual jumble––means that perception is more complicated than the clarity of one point perspective leads us to believe. Cubism pointed towards a true aspect of seeing and understanding.

Knowing all this, I am still tied, in my painting, to a fixed, single point of view. It's become the way I see the world, the way I understand it. So, when I began painting small still life paintings using folded cloth, I continued to use a photographic reference. The reason why is what got me thinking about shifting points of view: because I wanted a frontal image, I had to look at the still life setup from directly above. As an aside, there's also the light: I photographed this in sunlight pouring through a window, which I don't have in my workspace. 

If I placed the still life on the table where I work, the point of view changes.

If I put it lower on a chair, it also changes. It changes as I move forward and back, closer to the setup and farther away from it. Years ago, when I worked directly from still life, I set up tabletop arrangements and sat a certain distance from them, creating a fixed point of view. It's almost amusing to think that this shifting is closer to the way the world really works than the supposed "realism" of a work with precise and fixed edges. The way I see, the way I paint, is a construct, not any closer to reality than a Malevich black square on a white ground.


  1. Really interesting. I think Giacometti also explored the fixed point of view very profoundly. I love the way he explored peripheral vision. For him, he seems to have focused his view extremely narrowly - to the point were, when painting a model, everything radiates out form the tip of the nose.

    1. It's very interesting to think about Giacometti in this context, A. I think for him the space around the figure pressed in on it so strongly that the figure almost disappeared; I'm thinking of those matchbox figures he made for a while. But he certainly did paint with a kind of radiating vision, out from that center.

  2. Another fabulous post, Altoon... and the accompanying FB discussion as well.

    For what it is worth... Regarding your question: "is the camera's fixed point of view more "true" than Picasso's multiple viewpoints?"

    It seems to me that no one method or approach to filtering and "re-presenting" our visual experiences of the world has a line on "the truth." The view of the camera presents a severe abstraction, as do the various systems of perspective, as well as Picasso's cubism.

    I must confess to personal preferences, however...

    It seems to me that, for the most part, works in the tradition of the western European renaissance stand as "frozen paintings," offering a re-presentation of the visual world from one fixed point of view at one frozen moment in time. And it seems to me that we very rarely experience the world in this way.

    For me, paintings are about conveying the experience, the sensation, of being alive. The language of visual arrangement can speak poetically and metaphorically about this aliveness in us and all around us. All living things (and even so-called inanimate entities) are in flux. Everything is continually moving and changing; we navigate our way in and through this stream. The experience of a Cubist painting gives us this sensation; we get the same sorts of experiences in Futurist paintings; and we experience aliveness in nonobjective arrangements of all sorts (when we cease to "read them" as having references to the visual and, instead, experience them as animate entities in and of themselves)...

    1. I of course agree with you, steven, as I hope I made clear above. I understand and admire your visual language as one of movement and flux; mine is one of stability and quiet.

  3. Altoon, since this is how I came to your site in the first place-looking for an essay by Z. Herbert- may I just add:

    "The principle of tranquility does not lie merely in architectural balance. It is a principle of inner order. Piero understood that excess movement and expression both destroy the visual painted space and compress the painting’s time to a momentary scene, a flash of existence. His stoic heroes are constrained and impassive. The stilled leaves, the hue of the first earthly dawn, the unstruck hour, give the things Piero created an ontological indestructibility."

    Steven, you make a fascinating point. But isn't there also a clarity,a breathing space in these the 'light of experience'?

    1. billoo, thanks so much for that beautiful quote on Piero from Herbert. What a writer he is! There is currently a small show of a few Peiro works at the Frick Collection in NYC, which I'm hoping to see when I'm there in a couple of weeks.

  4. Yes, Altoon, read about it in the NYRB. One of the things I miss most about London is the National Gallery. Khair...

    Do write about it if you end up going!

    Keep well,