Although every human being (of whatever ethnicity) experiences the natural visual illusion of parallel edges—like roadsides or railroad tracks—appearing to converge toward a point as they approach the horizon, it is not natural to reproduce this illusion in pictures. In other words, while everybody sees the same phenomenon in reality, no one, no matter how artistically talented, is innately predisposed to picture it (except, remarkably, certain autistic prodigies). Perspective is a technique that generally must be learned. Therefore there is no reason to believe that nature rather than nurture had anything to do with why artists in other ages and cultures did not pursue the "realism" preferred in the West.
Young children do instinctively make pictures from a number of viewpoints simultaneously, as in Fig. 7, a drawing by Anna, a five-year-old Ukrainian girl. Notice how she shows the trees and hammock in schematic side view but, because she wants to indicate her mother lying inside the hammock, depicts her posed as teetering on the edge; it is as if her mother is now imagined as being viewed from above. Until the infusion of Euclidean geometry and optics in the arts of western Europe during the early Renaissance, no artists anywhere had cultural need to have their pictures replicate the optics of single-viewpoint vision, and almost all the conventions they employed for signifying solid form and distant space—even in the most sophisticated art of the pre-Renaissance West and all other non-Western cultures—evolved from similar expressions found in the instinctive art of children.
This does not mean that non-perspectival pictures should be labeled "childlike" in the sense of being primitive (or inferior) to the Western style. Quite the contrary. Multiple viewpoints and other innate pictorial signifiers, such as placing nearby figures and objects at the bottom of the picture surface and those more distant at the top, have been refined into some of the most aesthetically beautiful and stylish painting in all art history. Manuscript illumination in medieval Persia is a fine example (Fig. 8). Interestingly, while medieval Islam possessed Greek optics, including Euclidean geometry, long before the West—with Muslim philosophers even adding their own commentary—Muslim painters never applied optics to art, and only used geometry for the creation of elaborate abstract designs in their magnificent architecture.
Artists in China and Japan, on the other hand, refined two perspective conventions that had naught to do with optical geometry. (Euclid was unknown in the Far East until the seventeenth century.) One method was a kind of axonometric projection whereby rectilinear objects were drawn as if their perpendicular sides were set at an angle, just as in Western perspective, but with their parallel edges remaining parallel and never converging (Fig. 9). The other convention, called aerial or atmospheric perspective, provided an effective illusion of distant landscape simply through the tonality of color. Far-off mountains, for instance, were painted in hazy gray or blue in contrast to the brighter colors of nearer foreground objects, thus creating an ideal complement to the Chinese predilection for philosophic contemplation. During the Renaissance, atmospheric perspective was also explored by Western artists, notably Leonardo da Vinci.
Another perspective convention, foreshortening, does not necessarily involve optical geometry and was also independently realized in other cultures. This is the pictorial illusion of an object appearing to extend forward or backward in space even though only one end of it can be observed, such as a body limb depicted as if thrust directly at the viewer. (Think of James Montgomery Flagg's famous "I Want You" World War I recruiting poster.) Ancient Mayan artists in Central America, for ideological reasons peculiar to their culture, applied a similar foreshortening convention when representing their rulers seated with one leg bent sharply sideways (Fig. 10): note the twisted right foot of the seated male. This pose had special meaning because it signified the auto-sacrificial ritual in which Maya
kings spread their legs apart in order to draw blood from the penis and offer it to the gods.
Damisch, Hubert. The Origin of Perspective. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.
Edgerton, Samuel Y. The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective. New York: BasicBooks, 1975.
Kemp, Martin. The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Summers, David. Real Spaces. New York, Phaidon, 2003.
White, John. The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1987.
Samuel Y. Edgerton
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