Spatial Representation in Art Essay
During the Medieval period, artists did not tend to represent in their paintings the naturalistic world as it appeared to a human eye but rather emphasized the importance and spiritual power of their figures and scenes by stressing their large size. The first signs of interest in naturalistic representation can be found in Giotto di Bondone’s paintings, for example, in Joachim comes to the shepherds. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), a known architect and engineer, was the first to propose a theory of perspective which is the art of representing a three-dimensional figures, objects, and space on two-dimensional canvases.
The paintings that the artist produced in accordance with the rules of perspective have not survived to our days and it is unknown whether he wrote any treatise on perspective. He used the method of perspective mostly to produce architectural drawings to show how a building would look like when built (Dauben “The Art of Renaissance Science: Galileo and Perspective”). Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) was the author of the first written treatise describing in detail the use of the method of perspective which galvanized its use in painting throughout the XV century.
Masaccio, for example, employed linear perspective in his fresco of the Holy Trinity spectacularly depicting the complex vaulted ceiling to produce a tremendous visual effect. In Masolino’s The Healing of the Cripple and the Raising of Tabitha (1425), the structures of two separate scenes in the foreground and a distant scene in the background masterfully converge in one central vanishing point (Tyler “Perspective as a Geometric Tool that Launched the Renaissance”).
Another example is Raphael’s The School of Athens (1518) with a correct and astonishing architectural perspective and a central vanishing point at Socrates’ arm. In Carpaccio’s Disputation of St. Stephen (1514) the vanishing point is near the right side of the painting which reduces to some extent the depth effect that is more impressive in paintings with a central vanishing point in front of which a typical viewer stands.
The analysis of other Renaissance artworks shows that almost all of the painters of that period applied the method of one-point linear perspective and sometimes experimented with the visual effects that the location of a vanishing point in different places could produce (Tyler “Perspective as a Geometric Tool that Launched the Renaissance”). In the XVI century, many artists began to avoid linear structures and depicted in their artworks classical figures and flowing movements.
Architectural perspective was employed rather in local fragments of the canvas producing the visual effect of two-point perspective. Artists experimented extensively with the representation of a three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface but preferred the use of shading and foreshortening to linear perspective in order to produce the necessary visual effects. They were aware that the method of linear perspective constrained them significantly in using space in their paintings (Tyler “Perspective as a Geometric Tool that Launched the Renaissance”).
This artistic approach can be seen, for example, in Michelangelo’s Noah and the Flood (1510) or Tintoretto’s The Origin of the Milky Way (1570). The artists emphasized the emotions of the figures depicted in their paintings as well as the movements of their bodies throughout the space of the canvases. In this way, they achieved the necessary figural perspective effects avoiding linear perspective and the difficulties in placing their figures as it suited them because of the strict geometric rules (Tyler “Perspective as a Geometric Tool that Launched the Renaissance”).
Artists employed this figural perspective until the XVIII century when some of them discovered and began to employ the two-point perspective in their works. Poussin, Piranesi, Canaletto, and other artists boldly explored the new method of constructing perspective leading to the revival of classical figures and scenes and giving birth to the gothic style that was characteristic of XIX century art.
As it was during the Renaissance period, the geometric laws played an important role in producing depth effects as well as in the evolution of artistic styles and tastes in XVII-XIX century painting (Tyler “Perspective as a Geometric Tool that Launched the Renaissance”). Piranesi’s Another View of the Remains of the Pronaos of the Temple of Concordia (1774) can serve as a good example of the use of two-point perspective.
Instead of one central vanishing point characteristic of Renaissance artworks, in this painting the artist applies two vanishing points: one to the left end of the canvas and the other to its right end. During the XVIII century, artists finally mastered the technique of constructing the two-point perspective which gave them more freedom and flexibility in using the space and producing the necessary visual effects at the same time. It was a technique that the Renaissance and Classical artists were unable to grasp (Tyler “Perspective as a Geometric Tool that Launched the Renaissance”).
Two-point perspective dominated most of the XVIII and XIX centuries, but it was largely disregarded or significantly modified during the XX century. Interested in new scientific studies of physical space and human vision, twentieth century artists investigated with a new inspiration the concept of space in art and often experimented with color, texture, and other artistic instruments in order to convey their ideas about the optically perceived world instead of simply representing it as it is in reality. They presented the real world and nature but did not literally imitate it.
A great variety of nonlinear spatial construction methods was developed with an emphasis on abstraction and conceptual ideas (Tyler “The Concept of Space in Twentieth Century Art”). One of those famous artists that were the first to depart from the traditional techniques of representing reality was Paul Cezanne. He introduced the modulation technique for the depiction of three-dimensional objects which consisted in the superimposition of several strokes of color producing a striking visual effect and a kind of reverberation throughout the painting.
This modulation technique as it can be seen, for example, in Cezanne’s Lake Annecy (1896), was the predecessor of twentieth century non-representational art (Tyler “The Concept of Space in Twentieth Century Art”). Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque who started the era of Cubism in art experimented with flat and two-dimensional surfaces and the deconstruction of space. They challenged many of the artistic techniques that had been traditionally employed for several centuries before them, including perspective. Braque’s Harbor in Normandy (1909) represents the different facets constituting the surface of an object.
Cubists also introduced the collage technique and, by representing simultaneously all aspects of the objects they depicted, tried to produce visual effects of a four-dimensional reality (Tyler “The Concept of Space in Twentieth Century Art”). All in all, if the previous generations of artists tried to represent reality as correctly and realistic as they could, twentieth century artists, such as cubists, futurists, supremacists, surrealists, superrealists, etc employ the spatial construction approaches which distort and reconfigure the real world in their works.
Kandinsky, for example, used modern artistic methods but could produce striking effects of a dynamic depth in his paintings which challenged those that can be seen in classical paintings, for instance, in his Composition IV (1911) (Tyler “The Concept of Space in Twentieth Century Art”). Another prominent artist that directly challenged the illusionistic nature of Renaissance paintings was Salvador Dali. He reconsidered and proposed a radically new approach to the artistic concept of space experimenting with the disintegration of objects and spatial structures in art.
This is the theme that we can see in his The Persistence of Memory (1931), Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1954), and several other artworks. The space in the former is depicted in a classical way with only the watch being distorted, while in the latter both the space and objects are disintegrated. The extensive exploration of the theme of spatial disintegration can be seen in Dali’s most prominent paintings that he produced during the 1950s (Tyler “The Concept of Space in Twentieth Century Art”).