Op Art History Part I: A History of Perspective in Art
‘All Art is an Illusion’
Illusion in Art
An artist starts with a two-dimensional surface; it may be a wall, a canvas, a board, paper or a pavement. By the use of paint or other media he must make the viewer enter his world and share his vision. But the actual world isn’t two-dimensional and the artist can’t create a three dimensional world on the surface. How do we get around this problem?
The answer is illusion – to represent the three dimensional world on the two dimensional surface the artist has to use systems of illusion that create the impression of space, of depth and of movement.
The pavement artists 3D Joe and Max (shown right) are masters of this kind of perspective trickery, creating pavement (and floor) art that when looked at from a certain viewpoint gives a startling and visually confusing three dimensional illusion.
Art Before Perspective
The system of perspective we take for granted today is a relatively recent discovery in artistic history. Before the 14th Century little to no attempts were made to realistically depict the three dimensional world in art in the way in which we are now accustomed to seeing it.
The art of the Byzantine, Medieval and Gothic periods was rich and beautiful, but the images made no attempt to create the illusion of depth and space.
The Italian masters Giotto (c. 1267 – 1337) and Duccio (c. 1255-1260 – c. 1318-1319) began to explore the idea of depth and volume in their art and can be credited with introducing an early form of perspective, using shadowing to great effect to create an illusion of depth, but it was still far from the kind of perspective we are used to seeing in art today.
First Perspective – Fillipo Brunelleschi & Masaccio
The first known picture to make use of linear perspective was created by the Florentine architect Fillipo Brunelleshi (1377-1446). Painted in 1415, it depicted the Baptistery in Florence from the front gate of the unfinished cathedral. The linear perspective system projected the illusion of depth onto a two dimensional plane by use of ‘vanishing points’ to which all lines converged, at eye level, on the horizon. Soon after Brunelleshi’s painting, the concept caught on and many Italian artists started to use linear perspective in their paintings.
Masaccio (1401 – 1428) the first great painter of the early Renaissance period, was the first artist who demonstrated full command of the new rules of perspective; the figures in his paintings have volume and the buildings and landscapes realistically recede into the distance. Masaccio is seen now as being the initiator of the new style of Florentine Realism.
The Renaissance in Perspective
By the late 15th Century, artists were in total command of perpective and were able to create in their art a beautiful and realistic world. The great painters of the time were using the system first created by Brunelleschi to wonderful effect.
Underlying these changes in artistic method and the use of perspective was a renewed desire to depict the beauty of nature, and to unravel the axioms of aesthetics, with the works of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Donatello and Titian representing artistic pinnacles that were to be much imitated by other artists.
The developments were not limited to Italy; in the Netherlands, a particularly vibrant artistic culture developed, with the work of Hugo van der Goes and Jan van Eyck having particular influence on the development of painting in Italy, particularly stylistically in terms of naturalism in representation.
For the next five centuries, Brunelleschi’s system of perspective was used to create the illusion of depth on the picture plane and was used as the basis of the great art of Western culture.
The Baroque painters (approx. 1600-1750), notably Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, Gianlorenzo Bernini, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Vermeer used this now long established system in thousands of varied approaches, as did the Neoclassicist painters (1750-1850). The use of perspective in art to depict reality continued through the works of the Impressionists (such as Renoir, Monet and Pissarro) and was even used in the works of the Post Impressionists (such as Vincent Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat).
It was around the time of the Post Impressionists however that a significant change in direction took place.
Paul Cézanne – A Different Perspective
Towards the end of the 19th Century French painter Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906) began to question the underlying structure of his subjects. At points his works became almost abstracted, the canvas being covered with thick layers of pigment often applied with a palette knife, the naturally occuring forms simplified to their geometric essentials.
Importantly, Cézanne had begun to ignore the laws of classical perspective, allowing each object to be independent within the space of a picture while letting the relationship of one object to another to take precedence over traditional single-point perspective.
This was perhaps the beginning of the end of academic composition following the long established rules of perspective. Heavily influenced by Cezanne, several young artists were soon to radically break the mould and themselves become major influences on 20th Century art.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) – Form
Pablo Picasso was a towering genius of 20th century art. A brilliant draughtsman, creatively imaginative, he was one of the great innovators and changed the course of art history.
Born in Spain, he moved to Paris in 1904 where he associated with other ground-breaking artists such as Matisse, Derain and Braque. His early work (the Blue and Rose periods) was beautiful, but essentially traditional. The painting which marked his breakaway from the traditions of perspective, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was painted in 1907, but its significance was not recognised for many years; influenced by African art and Cezanne, it is a milestone in art history. In the following years Picasso and Braque continued to develop the angular, structural style, dubbed ‘Cubism‘ by critics. Renaissance perspective had been superseded. Picasso’s most famous work, Guernica, depicts the inhumanity, brutality and hopelessness of war and is considered to be one of the major paintings of the 20th Century.
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) – Colour
Matisse, regarded with Picasso as one of the 20th Century’s greatest artists, also abandoned the traditional rules of perspective as the foundation of his work, but in a very different way.
Matisse’s work was primarily an exploration of colour. After an exhibition in Paris in 1905 Matisse and a group of friends “freed colour” from naturalism and were resultantly labelled the ‘Fauvists‘ (‘wild beasts’) by the critics. Based on the world around him but abandoning traditional perspective, Matisse created his own shallow space where each object was distorted and adapted to fit its place in the overall design and brilliant colour was used as an independent structural object. In 1908 Matisse wrote: “I dream of an art of balance, purity and calm, without troubling or depressing themes, that will offer… a soothing influence,” and illustrated this dream in the increasingly simple form and large figures of his paintings, such as ‘Joie de vivre’ (shown right). This painting is a classic example of Matisse’s signature style – flat planes of brilliant primary colours and “rhythmic, two-dimensional” subjects.
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) – Abstraction
Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian by birth, lived and worked in Germany. Kandinsky was an accomplished artist, art theorist and musician and spent many years teaching at the Bauhaus school until it’s closure in 1933 by the Nazis, at which point he moved to Paris. Kandinsky was the first painter to completely abandon contact with reality and to give form and colour alone a “spiritual meaning”. Kandinsky’s work often appeared confused, but it had a great freshness, fluidity and vitality.
Kandinsky is widely credited with creating the first ‘abstract’ art, produced following a long period in which he considered and developed his own artistic theories, based often on music – music being “the ultimate teacher” – his spiritual beliefs and his own artistic experiences. Kadinsky’s non-objective approach was echoed later by Piet Mondrian, Hans Arp, Frank Stella and by the Op Artists such as Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely.
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)
Born in the Netherlands, Piet Mondrian was introduced to art at an early age by his father, a qualified drawing teacher. Aged 20, Mondrian entered the Academy for Fine Art in Amsterdam, already qualified as a teacher himself. He moved to Paris in 1912 where he immediately fell under the spell of cubist art. Although his works from this period still showed elements of representation, as time went on, he began to simplify his shapes and lines until, by the 1920s his work was entirely removed from any ‘reality’. The forms he used were coloured squares – often just the three primary colours – rectangles and black lines.
Mondrian was very influential among the artists that followed him. His philosophy that painting should stand on its own, totally free of reality and representation was a major influence on the Op Artists of the 1960s Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely.
Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935)
Another artist who felt that art needed a radical and complete revision was Kazimir Malevich. Born in the Kiev Governorate of the Russian Empire and a deeply religious practicing Roman Catholic, Malevich said that he wanted to eliminate from art what he called ‘nonsense realism’.
Malevich used simple geometric shapes – mainly focused on the square and the circle – and limited colour schemes through which he felt that he ‘expressed eternity’. The movement he started was called Suprematism and began around 1915. It was in this year that Malevich produced some of his most famous works such as ‘Black Square’ (shown right) and ‘Black Circle’. His next breakthrough came with ‘White on White’ in 1918 which took Suprematism from polychrome to monochrome.
Experimentation and innovation had overtaken traditional perspective as the driving force in art.