Against perspective

Perhaps it could be argued, by some lunatick like me, that the world began going to hell (directly) with the discovery of perspective. It was the first fatal stroke of the “dictatorship of relativism.”

This is a notion that has been teasing me for some time (more than thirty years), and for which I have never come near to acquiring the credentials. But I’ll make my stand, secure in the knowledge that, should gentle reader dismiss everything I say, his bus won’t come any faster.

Actually, my notion began inchoately, longer ago, during arguments with my grandfather — a draughtsman, cartographer, and illuminator, who was a decided fan of High Renaissance painters (though of rather older scripts). A reactionary who truly despised “modern art,” which he compared to soup bones, he nevertheless believed in progress. But he also believed that the progress had stopped about the year 1527. Downhill from there.

He, then his son my father, were apt to teach one the rules of perspective. Whereas I, … was a difficult student from the start. I could see the relevance of perspective to geometry, as it were, but could not see its relevance to art. This was just a fly buzzing in my brain, however.

Time would pass before I was arguing with my father who, as an industrial designer, was even more cutting-edge than my grandpa. Without perspective, his whole trade would be finished. There could be no precision in design for industry, where precision is often required. The machines wouldn’t work.

That did not necessarily strike me as a bad thing. But our argument was more about plastics, on which he was expert, whereas I was “Antipla.” (That’s a kind of Antifa against plastics.) Fortunately, he was quite tolerant of opposing views — “the more absurd the better” — so I was able to live to adulthood.

My real “conversion experience” came while examining mediaeval architectural drawings. Drawn with minimal draughting equipment, without any clew about vanishing points, or even a mild instinct to foreshortening, they could be triumphantly detailed. Too, they would result in cathedrals. Rather than consider the object in any strict directional, angular view, they seemed to unroll it like a scroll.

And so did the representation of pictorial space, in the older (usually anonymous) painters — European and Other, as well as in folk art to the present day. Their innocence made their works friendlier.

Moreover, the geometrically-informed artists by whom I was mesmerized — from Giotto to Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca (this last also a brilliant mathematician) — were exceptions to prove my anti-rule. Each seemed to me (the lunatick) to balance some awareness of perspective by an heroic effort to overcome this “system” in which one object blocks our view of another in an entirely arbitrary way. They would contrive to defeat perspective, even while humouring it, by subtly “scrolling” side-to-side or upward. In this way, their figures could still be presented as if in the round, so we could begin to see behind them without being “perspected.” Distance, to them, was something to be felt, not calculated.

Today, perspective is mechanically employed, even while drawing mush.

Rapes, for instance, of Sabine Women, ought to be presented with all the faces clear, as they would be on a sarcophagus of the 5th century. The police ought to be able to round up all the “perps,” just by examining the painting. This is my principle.

Now, as what we call the “Renaissance” degenerated into projecting everything onto a grid pattern (I have an irrational dislike for Vermeer), we were on our way to snapshot photography. And photography is the opposite of an art. We live now in an age of “pics,” and worse, movies. Not accidentally it is also an age of pornography.

This is of course a very large topic, or would be if we took life seriously. Confident that no one will understand what I have just written, I should return to it frequently.