07 February 2012

Perspective, Lego-men and skulls

In the early fifteenth century, the painter Masaccio did something amazing: He painted frescos that made use of linear and aerial perspective. (Regrettably he died at age 27, like the singer Jim Morrison--now that I am 28, I find myself keeping lists of "people who died younger than my current age who did important things" and that's probably not healthy.) Scientific perspective, which was perfected by painters in the later decades of the fifteenth century, changed the way art could represent the world. As if by magic--though really through a better understanding of optics--things on a two-dimensional surface could appear to be in three dimensions. I am not an art historian so I am not sure how this was received historically, but it was probably akin to when someone in our time sees a 3-D film for the first time. I vividly remember myself as a ten year old at my first IMAX film almost shrieking as a salmon seemed to swim through the head of someone seated a few rows in front of me.

The most amazing perspectival drawing I have come across recently is not a canvas at all but a painting on a road in Florida. It is (or "was" since it must be erased by now) the entry by Leon Keer, a Dutch artist, and his team in the Sarasota Chalk Festival. Inspired by the Qin-dynasty Terracotta Army, the drawing represents Lego-men marching in the pavement. It has to be seen to be believed. But there is a problem that I had never really considered but which must always be a problem with perspectival drawing to a greater or lesser degree: From another angle the Lego-men look strange and elongated. The deeper and richer the perspective, the more restricted the viewing angle for the 3-d effect to work. Even stranger than the lanky Lego soldiers is a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger called The Ambassadors. All looks well with the two elegantly dressed young men and their assortment of allegorical objects, but then one notices the highly distorted skull in the foreground. It looks like a crudely done Photoshop project and yet is actually an experiment in perspective. The skull only looks natural if you view the picture from far to the right. I was never able to get it to work on the computer screen but the next time I am in London I'll pay a visit to the National Gallery to approach the painting from awkward angles.