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Seeing Picasso, "Fixing" Cézanne
The Visual Ego and the Visual World
The works of Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne are based on particular ways of seeing. To understand these we begin with ordinary vision.
I open my eyes and light streams through the lenses and forms pictures on my retinas. From these tiny pictures my brain places before me a life sized, lens projected, stable, upright, continuous picture of objects in space, the visual world. I recognize this world as the real world even though I know it is an event in my brain, a virtual reality. But how do those tiny pictures come to be the world around me? Part of my answer would be an imagined scaled to the visual world presence I have in relation to which I see the visual world. I call this regularized imagined image of my face my visual ego. I see the visual world in relation to my visual ego in two basic ways. With the first the world is like a picture that sits before and apart from me. However, if I physically move even just my eyes the relationship between my ego and the things in the visual world changes. I become aware of my visual ego and I find myself in the visual world. I call the second way the aligned way. For an aligned view I stop before an object and imagine a point behind my ego aligned with an edge of my ego. When I do so this edge becomes either an ideal vertical or horizontal line in relationship to which I see this object and then other objects. If I maintain the relationship between the edge of my ego and the edge of an object other edges in the visual world are sequentially seen in relationship to the initial object edge. These edges and so objects seen in relation to the straight ego outline are seen evened out, regularized and the visual world as an idealized, coherent, lens projected, geometric structure that is both comprehensible and memorable. Using my imagination I can move in and out of the idealized visual world by changing the size of my aligned visual ego. When my aligned ego is made larger than an object I look inward across space to an edge of the object. When the aligned ego is made smaller than an object the contours of the object spread out from my ego and I seem in the same space and closer to the object. This can make a distant object appear life sized a phenomena called constancy scaling. When I move from object to object my relationship remains continuous if I first peripherally relate the next object to the fixed edge of the first. If on the other hand I first move my eyes to a next object this object is seen related to the not aligned ego and so disconnected. Thus I can see the visual world as unaligned and remote unless I move or in relation to my static aligned visual ego as a coherent geometric lens projected structure. All this provides me with the visual grammar I use to guide my progress in the world.
This description of how I see the world may seem quite complex. It does to me, but I think it is what we all do all the time and something we all can be aware of. The static aligned ego way of seeing the world may seem similar to how we make a work of art and my experience is that it is just so. A work of art is by my definition a thing made by a human being using the visual ego in a particular way which I call the perspective. My experience that a work of art being based on a static aligned ego is a world in itself, an alternative reality. Becoming aware of the visual ego and the different ways it makes the world look becomes all important when it comes to art. To properly see a work of art one needs to see it as it was seen when it was made by using the proper perspective. Finding the right perspective is by trial and error. When I find the right perspective a work of art looks its aesthetic best, aesthetic best being a universal resulting from a coherent relationship between parts and not a matter of taste, taste being a social or individual preference.
(the names are mine)
Frontal or Semitic Perspective.
With frontal perspective the static aligned ego is made smaller than an object so that edges spread out from us and we occupy the same space as the object. If we first relate the next object to the fixed edge of the first object edge when we moves from object to object forms are seen continuously related. I find frontal perspective to have a long history beginning with the art of Semitic speaking peoples and might well be called Semitic perspective. It becomes the dominant perspective in Europe beginning in the late middle ages and remains so in the west do this day.
With what I call Oriental perspective the static aligned ego is made larger than an object which is seen across space and we look in at an edge of the object. It is relative to this edge other objects are seen. Oriental perspective is a characteristic of works of art from the Far East including China, Southeast Asia, Central and North East Asia, Korea and Japan. Oriental perspective is also found in the art of indigenous North Americans and that of Central and South America.
With frontal and Oriental perspective we place ourself before an object. It is also possible to see objects from the side. This is done by placing the ego to the side of an object so that it is seen at an oblique angle and the composition as a sequence of separate obliquely seen parts. Peripheral perspective is a characteristic of the early art of the Indo-European speaking peoples and post modern architecture.
Toward the middle of the fifth century BC artists in Athens refined frontal perspective by relating a point beyond an object to a small reduced to a point. The contours of the object spread out from this focal point like ego.
In the mid fourth century BC a perspective appears in Greece based on an ego larger than the frontal perspective ego which produces an almost perpendicular relationship to objects' This produces a wider view but a less exact definition three-dimensional form. Hellenic perspective is used in late fourth century Greek art and variously during the Hellenistic period.
With frontal, Oriental and peripheral perspective objects are seen in relation to the static aligned ego. What I call African perspective depends on a small static aligned ego placed next to forms that are then seen related to the not aligned ego. This produces a composition of disconnected forms related to the not aligned ego that confront us in turn. African perspective is a characteristic of early works of art coming from a "path" stretching from sub-Saharan Africa into India.
Oceanic perspective forms like those of African perspective are seen in relation to the not aligned ego. With Oceanic perspective a large static aligned ego is placed next to a form that is then seen in relation to the not aligned ego. Again the disconnected forms confront us in turn. Oceanic perspective is a characteristic of early art coming from South East Asia, Australia and Oceania.
Some of the oldest surviving representational works of art are those of stone age Europe, Old Europe. These are based on divisions between parts seen related to the not aligned ego with parts then seen in relation to the small static aligned ego. Such divisions appear relatively two-dimensional and so divide the composition. Unaligned divisions are also found in Etruscan art, Roman art and in the twentieth century in the work of Georges Braque and some other Cubists.
Cézanne's perspective, Cézanne's way of seeing and composing his work begins with a static aligned large ego wide view. In this context a individual shape is seen related to a static aligned large ego. An adjacent shape is seen across from the first shape and related to the not aligned ego. This shape is finally seen in relation to the static aligned large ego and so forth. In this way Cézanne isolates and individualizes shapes in a composition held together by the context of a wide view. In addition Cézanne forms are seen in a surrounding space and diminished in scale. A Cézanne composition is a sequence of disconnected highly inventive shapes bound together by an overall view. Around 1885 Cézanne begins fixing the position of his ego.
In the spring of 1907 Picasso relates his static aligned large ego to a point in the center of a shape That greatly reduces size of his ego to almost a point. He places this ego very close to the surface of the shape so that the edges of the shape are very obliquely seen. An adjacent shape is seen related to the not aligned ego and disconnected and then the point like ego is related to a point on the next shape and so on. With Variation Two, also summer 1907, a now initially small ego is used in the manner of Variation One. Variation Three, spring 1908, relates a point now beyond a shape to the static aligned small point like ego with an adjacent shape seen related to the not aligned ego and then to the aligned ego and so on. Variation Four, fall 1909, a point beyond a shape is related to a static aligned now initially large point like ego with succeeding shapes again first seen related to the not aligned ego and then the aligned ego. Variation Five relates points behind shapes and a now fixed small point like aligned static ego. With Six, fall 1910, the large point like fixed aligned static ego is used as with Five. Variation Seven, spring 1912, an initially small point like fixed aligned static ego is related to a point now on the surface of a shape. A next shape is seen in relation to the not aligned ego and then the aligned ego and so on. Eight, fall 1912, an initially now large point like ego aligned fixed ego us used in the same manner as Seven. From here on Picasso will use Seven or Eight for a period of time and then switch to the other. I see Picasso perspective as an anamorphic perspective unique to Picasso.
Variations in Perspective.
The following are variations found in the above perspectives. These include a wide view using Oriental or Hellenic perspective. A wide view can create large scale coherence. When the ego does not move in relation to a composition I call it the fixed ego. This can enhance coherence. The conceiving of space around objects is a characteristic of French, Spanish and Italian art. Objects seen in relation to the aligned static ego can be seen reduced in scale. Reduced scale is a characteristic of Spanish and Italian art. Disconnection which breaks up a composition occurs if the eyes moves to a next object without the shape first being peripherally related to the static edge of the first object.
Pablo Picasso, 1887-1971, is famous for the variety and inventiveness of his art which has been explained by his biography, art influences, philosophy, politics, history and culture, but not by Picasso's ways of seeing, by his perspectives. I find Picasso using eleven different perspectives from his youth to the fall of 1912. He never explained these so to understand them we must turn to his works themselves.
Picasso's First Perspective.
Palo Ruiz Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain on October 25th, 1881. His father, Jose Ruiz Blasco was a drawing teacher and painter whose use of wide-view Hellenic perspective gives his works a coherence not found in that of his son. In 1891 Picasso's family moved to La Coruna, Spain and in 1895 to Barcelona were Picasso enters art school. In October 1900 Picasso makes his first trip to Paris to see the Universal Exposition at which he has a painting, Science and Charity, 1900, Picasso Museum, Barcelona and to learn about the Paris art world. The painting which is based on the not aligned ego is pleasing in detail, the head of the doctor, a portrait of his father, the child, but is not coherent. While in Paris Picasso makes a painting of a Parisian dance hall, Le Moulin de la Galette, 1900, Guggenheim Museum, New York City, using his initial perspective. Compare it to Toulouse Lautrec's At the Moulin Rouge, 1892, The Art Institute of Chicago, a similar subject which is a unified, wide view, frontal perspective composition filled with the curvilinear shapes and harmonious colors of Art Nouveau. The Picasso has some closed shapes and curvilinear outlines while other shapes are angular and discordant. This dissonance was perhaps even more disturbing at the time than the lesbians in the foreground. However it is this dissonance that energizes the nocturnal scene and sets it apart. Picassos impediment is here a strength. Picasso came to Paris to catch up. When he Leaves that same year he is in a way already moving ahead.
Picasso's Second Perspective.
In the fall of 1901 on a second trip to Paris Picasso discovers peripheral perspective which is his firsts use of the static aligned ego. It would seem that this change was inspired by the woodcuts of the French painter Paul Gauguin then in Tahiti that belonged to a mutual friend the Basque sculptor and ceramist Paco Durio. Seen in a Picasso drawing, Parisian and Exotic Figures, 1901, Picasso Museum, Paris, are images based on peripheral perspective, forms in space that suggest such Gauguin woodcuts as Te Atua, 1892, Art Institute Chicago, which is based on a wide-view peripheral perspective. Paul Gauguin discovered peripheral perspective at the 1889 Paris Worlds Fair. Because he discovered peripheral perspective in art from India and Indonesia he may have thought it not western. Ironically it is a characteristic of the early art of the Indo-European speaking peoples. Gauguin's Portrait of a Woman with a Still Life By Cézanne, 1890, Art Institute of Chicago, indicates that his was a conscious change. The woman in the chair is based on peripheral perspective while the Cézanne still life on the wall is based on Gauguin's original frontal perspective. The real Cézanne which Gauguin owned is based on Cézanne perspective, a wide view in the context of which the large ego is aligned to individual forms that are first seen in relation to the not aligned ego and so disconnected. At times Gauguin switches his perspectives back and forth. This is similar to Picasso's later practice of alternating perspectives. Gauguin deserves credit for inspiring the first important turning point in Picasso's perspective career. Picasso like Gauguin documents his change in perspective with a painting, the Blue Room, 1901, Philips Collection, Washington D.C. The area above the bed including a Lautrec poster is based a not aligned ego while the bathing girl and her surroundings are based on peripheral perspective. With his blue period Barcelona painting The Blind Man's Meal, 1903, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, Picasso gives us a reason for the use of peripheral perspective. Seen here is a blind street singer seated at a table holding a piece of bread and touching an earthenware jug. As the obliquely presented forms sequentially materialize they seem touchable giving blindness and poverty a seeming physical presence. The illusion of a tactile presence will continue as a major concern of Picasso's. Picasso uses peripheral perspective for five years, his so called Blue and Rose periods.
Picasso's Third Perspective.
In the fall of 1906 after a summer in Spain Picasso adopts a perspective based on Oriental perspective. This Third Perspective the static aligned large ego is related to shapes not reduced in scale first seen in relation to the not aligned ego and disconnected. Disconnection allows for startling inconsistencies between parts. A work that marks this change is Peasants and Oxen, fall 1906, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. Picasso's Two Nudes, 1906, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, presents two full length, hulking female nudes that face each other before a brown curtain. There is the suggestion of a mirror images, but they are strangely different. Even stranger is the relationship between their parts. Disconnection permits the radical differences in scale, color and view. For example the head of the figure on our left is larger in scale than her torso while her hand and arm are larger still. Picasso gives these images a presence, a new "reality", by their changing in character relative to each other as we move around them. The radically disconnected shapes are a major step toward what will be called Picasso's cubism. This change in perspective may have been motivated by two portraits in the collection of Leo and Gertrude Stein. These are Cézanne's Portrait of the Artists Wife, before 1885, Foundation Brülrle, Zurich and Matisse's Woman with a Hat, 1905, San Francisco Museum of Art. The Cézanne is based on Cézanne perspective and the Matisse on a perspective Matisse adopts in 1905, the composition as a whole is seen in relation to the fixed large static algned ego, a wide view and then in this context shapes individually and finally seen related to the not aligned ego. It would seem that the radical nature of these portraits was apparent to Picasso, but maybe not the methods. In the spring of 1906 using peripheral perspective Picasso began painting his Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. After many sittings he leaves this unfinished only to take it up again in the fall of 1906 when he repaints only the face using his third Perspective. This disconnects face and figure in a way that anticipates systematic incongruities to come. Salient here for me is what I see as Picasso's growing awareness that discontinuity could be the basis of a radically new kind of picture.
Excerpted from "Seeing Picasso, Fixing Cézanne"
Copyright © 2018 Peter V. Moak.
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