Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Our species seems innately compelled to translate the 3-dimensional world into two dimensions; we've been doing it for tens of thousands of years. During that time, two related technologies, perspective and optics, revolutionized the discipline of draftsmanship. Perspective is practically second nature to those of us who use it today, but it wasn't until the Renaissance that true perspective projection was used, although some surprisingly accurate work was done earlier, purely through intuition. The great Arabic scientist Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn Al-Haitham (Alhazen) did much to pave the way for perspective by describing in detail the behavior of light, including color theory, early in the eleventh century. Credited with being the first researcher to use the modern scientific method, he invented the camera obscura, a darkened box or room with a small hole or lens in one side which projects a view upon the opposite, inner wall. Although Ibn al-Haitham only used the devise to demonstrate optical effects, artists in later centuries would use it to trace images onto paper. Nearly two centuries after Ibn al-Haitham, the Italian artist Giotto used mathematics to place perspective lines with varying degrees of success. His Jesus Before Caiaphas (above) is often called the first perspective painting, although its vanishing points are not particularly accurate. After two more centuries, the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi discovered that parallel lines appear to meet on the horizon at a vanishing point, the basic foundation of perspective. In 1435, Brunelleschi's friend, the Renaissance polymath Leon Battista Alberti codified the laws of perspective in his De Pictura. The simple rules of perspective made drawing so much more convincing that the technology was quickly adopted by the entire art community, although for twenty years or more, its use was restricted to the vicinity of Florence. By 1452, when Leonardo was born in the nearby town of Vinci, the excitement over perspective was palpable. The brilliant young artist took to it quickly, and elevated its use to previously unknown heights. By the end of the 15th century, perspective had spread to other parts of Europe.
The young German artist Albrecht Dürer traveled to Venice to study, and quickly mastered the discipline. He experimented with various devices, like the contraption depicted in the accompanying woodcut, where an object is viewed through a grid of threads and copied onto a similar grid on paper. He also tried tracing images onto mirrors and glass. Viewing an image through glass and tracing it directly onto the pane is not only the simplest form of tracing a projection, it's a useful model for understanding the concept of perspective and exactly what the draftsman strives for. A drawing should simulate a window onto another world. Draw a straight line from any part of that world to the viewer's eye, and it will intersect with the “window” at the point where it appears in the drawing. By the 20th century, artists began playing crazy games with the rules of perspective, none of them more ably than the famous Dutch artist M. C. Escher, whose lithograph Print Gallery is shown below.

Photography took even longer to develop than did perspective. Its birth, too, began with Ibn al-Haitham and the camera obscura. A more sophisticated projection instrument, the camera lucida, was patented in 1806 by William Hyde Wollaston, though Johannes Kepler described the same device nearly two centuries earlier. The camera lucida uses lenses and/or prisms to project a “false image” onto a piece of paper, where it can be traced. Instruments like these have been used by artists for a long time. The British-born American artist David Hockney's recent and controversial book Secret Knowledge suggests that such artists as van Eyck, Caravaggio, and Vermeer used optical devices as drawing aids. Hockney's theories are interesting and appealing, though based on less than rock-solid ground. For instance, Vermeer's estate was executed by the famous microscopist Anton van Leeuwenhoek, who also dwelt in Delft, but no further evidence exists that the artist had access to the latest optics while he was alive. In 1826, the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce used the camera obscura to chemically imprint an image onto a pewter plate. After his 1833 death, his partner Louis Daguerre refined the process, and six years later, the daguerreotype went public. In 1888, George Eastman put his first film camera on the market. By the beginning of the 20th century, relatively inexpensive cameras were available to the masses, including artists, who now had a means to quickly record visual data in two dimensions, as well as a means to easily project that data onto their substrate. Artists like Man Ray and Adam Fuss even used chemical photography as a medium for painting. Twentieth Century artists differed from their predecessors not only in having access to photography, but in simply having a familiarity with it. It's obvious that the Photorealist movement could have never happened without photography, but the effects of the technology can be seen as well in every painting, both abstract and representational, that was executed in its shadow.
upper: JESUS BEFORE CAIAPHUS (c. 1305) Giotto di Bondone
center: DRAWING MACHINE (c. 1510) Albrecht Dürer
lower: PRINT GALLERY (1956) Maurits C. Escher


Post a Comment

<< Home