Perspective as Symbolic Form
Trans. and with an introduction by Christopher S. Wood. New York: Zone Books, 1991. 196 pp.; 40 b/w ills. $24.95
Nearly seventy years after its composition, Erwin Panofsky's "Die Perspektive als 'symbolische Form'" remains required reading for anyone studying the historiography of perspective, and it continues to figure in the nature/culture debates about representation that were reinitiated in the mid-fifties by Ernst Gombrich in Art and Illusion. The essay is one of those classic academic works in which the sheer mass of the scholarship is palpable: the footnotes, which appear in rather smaller typeface than the body of the essay itself, take up substantially more space than the exposition of the argument. It took nearly seventy years for Perspective as Symbolic Form to be published in English translation,(1) although unpublished translations have been circulating underground at least since my time in graduate school thirty years ago. The grotesque verbal infelicities of these translations, the absence of Panofsky's nuancing of terms, are ample proof of the difficulty not only of his academic German, but also of the argument itself. Christopher Wood's new translation of this complex, frustrating, and often obscure text is refreshing in its clarity and in its rendition of academic German into readable, generally felicitous English. Wood's introductory remarks are useful as indices of the way in which the translation has been guided by his understanding of the essay, and his questions about the elusiveness of Panofsky's terms, as well as the entire structure of his argument, are as worthwhile as they are appropriate.
Panofsky ranges across an immense literature in the essay, covering the history of visual art from Greco-Roman times to recent Expressionist painting, mathematics, science, ancient and medieval philosophy, and optical theory. He assumes at least a passing familiarity with the work of Kant, Ernst Cassirer, and Ernst Mach. This is not a text to read in the Great Books tradition. It cannot be considered usefully without placing it in the context of Panofsky's other major works of the period, most significantly, "Der Begriff des Kunstwollens" (1920), "Die Entwicklung der Proportionslehre als Abbild der Stilentwicklung" (1921), and Idea: Ein Beitrag zur Begriffsgeschichte der alteren Kunsttheorie (1924).(2) Coming to an understanding of the perspective essay is, in sum, a major project, and one that has its deep frustrations as well as its real satisfactions--the latter including an understanding of Panofsky's aims and aspirations for art history, and for himself.
If the primary goal of the essay is to show that perspective is a "symbolic form," the principal problem for a reader is to figure out what a symbolic form is. Panofsky opens by quoting Durer's definition of "perspective" and then gives his own reformulation, which he says amounts to Durer's: "We shall speak of a fully 'perspectival' view of space...when the entire picture has been transformed--to cite another Renaissance theoretician--into a 'window,' and when we are meant to believe we are looking through this window into space" (p. 27).(3) But in a footnote, he immediately expands on this definition and in so doing raises the stakes considerably, by removing perspective from the context of its invention and subsequent use and assigning it a role in the discussion of ancient art:
For us, perspective is quite precisely the capacity to represent a number of objects together with a part of the space around them in such a way that the conception of the material picture support is completely supplanted by the conception of a transparent plane through which we believe we are looking into an imaginary space).(4) (p.77, n. 5)
This strikes me as a troubling way of going about opening a discussion of perspective, and one that has haunted the discourse since the time of Lessing. It is troubling because it dislocates the term from the historical setting that gives it a determinate sense, and places the burden of its use, not on the specific (and say, measurable) qualities of a given picture, but on the formation of a belief on the part of viewers--a belief that when they are looking at a picture, they are viewing a transparent plane through which they see into an imaginary space. And so the concept of perspective, which makes its debut in the quattrocento as a term of painters' practice (together with a constellation of concepts and practices that give it meaning), is reformulated by Panofsky in such a way that it can be stretched across the history of Western art. Panofsky's credentials as a historian are impeccable, and it can be delightful to follow him through a web of contextualized documentary material as he makes a point about a small and singular detail in a painting. Yet in Perspective as Symbolic Form, he swings pendulously from the historical to the transhistorical to the ahistorical, from atomized and contextualized particulars to transhistorical categories of description and analysis. This capacity for oscillating from the momentary to the broadly historic, from the particular to the general, and finally, from the subjective to the objective follows out of his self-consciously deployed conception of what art is and what constitutes art history. These conceptions are brilliant in their complexity and density, but they are also troublesome since they force a peculiarly tendentious reading onto the very historical texts that he uses to support his argument.
In the first five pages of the essay, Panofsky establishes the linchpin of his argument: linear perspectival construction "is a systematic abstraction from the structure of psychophysiological space" (p.30).(5) He then adds: "For it is not only the effect of perspectival construction, but indeed its intended purpose, to realize in the representation of space precisely that homogeneity and boundlessness reign to the direct experience of that space" (pp. 30-31). Panofsky's notion of "direct experience" is a complicated one, since he understands it to be a product of active self-consciousness and not as a passively received given, but what he means to point out is the difference between "the actual subjective optical impression" we have when we look at the world and the representation of "reality" achieved by means of linear perspective construction.(6) The two are, in his view, radically different. No graphic representation of space, no rules of perspective construction can be understood to sand in some privileged relation to our subjective experience. What we always see in such pictures (no matter what else we may see) is an idealized, figured space--a space that carries its own inherent ideational content--and the condition of just this content is, according to Panofsky, its immanent meaning.
This understanding of perspective may seem on first sight to give comfort to those radical social constructionists who conceive of everything as being conventional in character, but such a reading denies most of the complexity of Panofsky's account. He is committed to the notion of mediation: subjective experience is as constructed as any visual representation of what we see in space. But as a Kantian--and there can be no doubt that he takes himself to be a Kantian--Panofsky does not identify mediation with conventionalization. Our experience of the world is mediated across the board, and it is because of this mediation that science and universally true laws of nature are possible. The world appears to us in the way that it does because we use our cognitive equipment in the way that we do. Panofsky wants us to believe that there are facts about psychophysiological space and that classical and modern science have determined what they are. We know the psychological and physiological facts about the way the world appears to us spatially. And accordingly, we can chart the ways in which representations of the world do or do not accord with those facts. While Panofsky is surely committed to a view of the relativity of perspective schemes, he is also committed to a belief in the certainty of scientific explanation.
The "intended purpose" of pictures made in linear perspective, Panofsky argues, is the graphic realization of a kind of space--a homogeneous and boundless space--that is foreign to experience. This poses two important questions: 1) why have most writers about linear perspective (until rather recently, and then with the weight of Panofsky's argument behind them) seen an identity or strict comparability between painters' perspective and what has been called, since at least Descartes, "natural perspective"; and 2) what is being represented in pictures made in linear perspective, if it is not the spatial structure of our ordinary visual experience?
One of Panofsky's most charming rhetorical tactics (I use "charming" in its original sense) is his repeated tracing of discrepancies between, say, traditions of translation and what the translated texts actually mean--I have "et in arcadia ego" in mind, but there are other examples in his oeuvre--and then to ask how it is possible for scholars to have committed themselves to mistranslations any student would have spotted. Panofsky seems to think that there are only two reasons that might explain this kind of behavior: either generations of careful scholars have been uncharacteristically sloppy, or some cultural pressure forced them (against their collective will) to overlook or forget the obvious. He always adopts the second alternative. This amnesiac trope underwrites one of the most important theoretic moves in Perspective as Symbolic Form.(7) According to Panofsky, the obvious discrepancies between the facts of subjective visual experience and pictures made in linear perspective have been overlooked by most commentators because they wrote in "an epoch whose perception was governed by a conception of space expressed by strict linear perspective" (p. 34). The point here is not just the obvious one--that habituation to pictures made in perspective blinds us to the differences between visual experience and representation. Panofsky proffers a far more voluptuous claim: linear perspective is the "expression" of a modern view of space, while antique perspective is "the expression of a specific and fundamentally unmodern view of space" and is also "the expression of an equally specific and unmodern conception of the world" (p. 35).
It is now possible to begin to determine what Panofsky is after: what we see in linear perspective pictures is not the visual imitation of the spatial structure of our visual experience, but the "expression" of a particular "view of space," and a particular "conception of the world"--differing views correlating with modern and antique uses of perspective. Panofsky does not conceive of artistic production as somehow subsidiary to or parasitic upon theoretic views of space or conceptions of the world.(8) His use of the term "expression" is potentially misleading, because it can be taken to mean that a picture in perspective (antique or modern) is nothing other than a visual figuring of a preexisting view or conception of space. But if I am correct, Panofsky does not use "expression" in this sense. The intrinsic meaning of a perspective picture cannot be given in terms of a theoretical view of space, but it is possible to think of expression here in terms of analogies and homologies. We can conceive of the intrinsic meaning of a picture as having an analogical counterpart in a view of space--which functions something like a parallel exposition.(9) Given Panofsky's assumption of the unity of culture, it seems a foreordained conclusion that pictures and views of space would have to be strongly correlated, if only analogically. A picture of a certain kind could be said to be like a specific view of space and in this sense to express it, without being identical to it, or a symbol for it. The relations then, between works of art and the views and ideas of a period are not those of cause and effect; the views and conceptions do not precede the making of pictures and cause it. Rather, the "formative force" expressed in works of art is conceptually independent from and irreducible to the views and ideas of a period. Each might be thought of as an analogue of the other, but they are not interconvertible and one cannot be used to explain the other.(10) A work of art, Panofsky claims, is intrinsically meaningful; it has an immanent sense that is graspable solely by means of concepts applying specifically to it.
In discussing Platonic and Plotinian views of pictorial art at the close of the second chapter of Idea, Panofsky summarizes the deficiencies of each view: "Understood as copies of the sensory world [Plato], works of art are divested of a more elevated spiritual, or if you will, symbolic meaning; understood as revelations of Ideas [Plotinus], they are divested of the timeless validity and self-sufficiency which properly belongs to them."(11)
Panofsky's complex understanding of visual art, which is expressed somewhat enigmatically in Perspective as Symbolic Form, but which is articulated more clearly in "The Concept of Artistic Volition" and in Idea, attempts to overcome the limitations of each of these views. For him, works of visual art are inherently symbolic and their significance is an essential part of their concrete, sensuous being--not something merely indexed by them. His insistence on the "timeless validity and self-sufficiency" of visual art may strike us now as quaint, but what it amounts to is a claim that we are able to identify works of art as such, irrespective of the time in which they were made or the context of their production. Moreover, works of art have, in addition to intrinsic significance, an extrinsic one as well; they combine a timeless, autonomous element and a time-bound, contingent (historical) component. The full significance of a work of art involves a braiding of the two.
When Panofsky goes into his philosophic mode, he is typically explicit, terse, and difficult to understand. He says: "[perspective] may even be characterized as (to extend Emst Cassirer's felicitous term to the history of art) one of those 'symbolic forms' in which 'spiritual meaning' is attached to a concrete, material sign and intrinsically given to this sign" (pp. 40-41).
It is unimportant in the context of this review to determine how closely Panofsky's use of "symbolic form" tracks Cassirer's. What is important is that he follows Cassirer in subscribing to the materiality of the sign (think of the sign as a particular picture made in perspective)--its availability only through visual perception--but he insists, at the same time, on the intrinsic character of its significance, which must likewise be available from the same perception. It is most common to think of symbols as denotative, as making reference to something for which they substitute or stand, but regarding the symbolic character of perspective in these terms would mean that significance would come not from "within" the sign, but extrinsically--from whatever it is that the symbol is taken to stand for (a view, or an idea) outside the realm of the picture as it appears to us in perception. I am aware that most commentators on the text take Panofsky to be saying that perspective, when understood symbolically, stands for ideas that are extrinsic to works of art.(12) But this would amount to the dissolution of aesthetic judgment and the consequent destruction of art history. Ideas borrowed from, for example, physics, psychology, or for that matter, home economics, could then become determinants of pictorial form. This is precisely what Panofsky denies in his invocation of the intrinsic meaning of symbolic forms. His affirmation of the autonomy of art and his repeated insistence on its intrinsic meaning are characteristic of all his work from this period. Clearly, Panofsky cannot be thinking of symbol in this sense, but what then does he have in mind?
Perspective is not, Panofsky ells us, "a factor of value, it is...a factor of style" (p. 40). The force of this claim is worked out in part 3 of the essay, which is a history of Western art given in terms of the appearance, disappearance, and reappearance of the intention to make works of art that "represent a number of objects together with a part of the space around them in such a way that the conception of the material picture support is completely supplanted by the conception of a transparent plane through which we believe we are looking into an imaginary space" (p. 77, n. 5) The intrinsic significance of perspective (whether antique or modern, and no matter how much the two differ) is organizational: it is a mode of informing material--a way of achieving unity--in a work of visual art. But to say that perspective is a symbolic form involves more than identifying its function as the production of a certain kind of unity. It is more than just that since understanding its significance involves identifying the essential conditions for achieving this kind of unity. This requires a "phenomenal understanding" of the work of art--by perceiving it and not by taking it to be a sign for ideas found in texts. It is the possibility of uniting the work of art in a certain way that is at the core of the meaning of a symbolic form. The possibility of the unifying function of perspective rests upon a "formal assessment of the representational surface," that is, upon a figuring of the material support not as a wall, a panel, or a canvas--as a substrate underlying the things represented upon it--but as an absence, a lack of support, a nothing. So, finally, what perspective symbolizes intrinsically are the conditions of its unifying function, one of which is the necessary addressing of the support, by the artist and his or her audience, as a thing that is not there. I suppose Panofsky has something like this in mind: a perspective picture is, in material terms, nothing more than a batch of marks on a support of some kind. To see it as a picture of things in space requires a specific form of address: the beholder must do something, not merely receive the impression. hat has to be done requires an active aesthetic judgment, the making of an aesthetic experience in which the marks and colors are identified as being significant because they are unified in a certain way. And so, understanding the picture is contingent upon a culturally conditioned imaginative act of looking through the material surface of representation into space (and space figured in visual terms that are themselves motivated by the Kunstwollen of the period in which the picture was made).(13) This kind of perception is irreducibly aesthetic, as is its significance. What this means finally is that perspective must be understood as a historically relative practice, but, at the same time, pictures made in perspective symbolize the general condition for the possibility of the representation of things in space. In sum, these pictures symbolize a transhistorical condition for the representation of objects in space while also symbolizing the historical, time-bound conditions--which are also irreducibly aesthetic.
For Panofsky, perspective is a structure or schematism that is active or used in certain periods and inactive in others. It is, moreover, a structure for the construction of possible unities, but the specifics of how the schematism is put into play and articulated are a function of a particular time and place. Perspective, understood in terms of its most basic condition, necessitates conceiving of the material support of a picture as being "a transparent plane through which we believe we are looking into an imaginary space," but taken historically, a full understanding of a perspective picture turns on the particular way in which space is figured graphically at the time of its production. And here Panofsky gives us two broad choices: the antique or "physiological" figuring of space, or the modern, "metrical" figuring.(14) Each has its counterparts or analogues in the theoretical accounts of space particular to a given period, and each engages issues of subjectivity and objectivity in different ways. It is now possible to get some sense of why belief figures centrally in Panofsky's fully developed definition of perspective: when looking at a perspective picture, irrespective of the time in which it was made, "we are meant to believe we are looking through [a] window into space." But since beliefs are period- and culture-specific, whether or not a picture offers a believable view through a window into the space beyond will depend on the temporal and cultural placement of the viewer--on the character of his or her culturally informed "perspective." A Roman wall painting done in perspective should not be believable to a late 20th-century art historian, since his or her beliefs and expectations about looking through a window and the appropriate way of giving it graphic expression are very different from those of a 1st-century A.D. Roman citizen. Part of the art historian's job, according to Panofsky is to determine the historically relevant conditions that make believability possible.(15)
For all the dazzling breadth of Panofsky's philosophical and historical musings, and for all the glamour of his structural approach to the history of Western art, Perspective as Symbolic Form leaves more questions than it answers, and the most pressing concerns Panofsky's commitment to the simultaneous use of historical and transhistorical categories of analysis. Does it make sense a all to describe a Roman wall painting as being in perspective, even in his broadly defined sense of "perspective?" What evidence is there to support the view that a the time of its production, anyone would have understood it to be a view through a window? What would "transparent plane" have meant to a Roman? Is window gazing a self-defining activity, unconditioned by considerations of time and place?
Panofsky's total commitment to the subjective/objective dualism that is the heart of his conception of art history is likewise deeply problematic and in the same way. At the close of part 3 of the essay, he tries to understand the importance of linear perspective to the thought of Leonardo and Paolo Uccello--an importance that he claims may now seem "somewhat strange." "All we can do," he says, "is try to imagine what this achievement [perspective] meant then." What did it mean then? This is a question for a historian and the answer Panofsky gives is curious for a historian--especially one with a philosophic turn of mind. It meant, he asserts, "the translation of psychophysiological space into mathematical space: in other words, an objectification of the subjective" (p. 66). Did it really? It might strike us this way, but it could not possibly have been conceived in these terms by the painters or by anyone else at the time. Did Leonardo ever write anything remotely resembling this? Putting the answer in terms of subject/object categories of analysis forces a conception of the issue that would not have been possible in Italy of the Renaissance. These categories (not just the terms) make their appearance, in the way Panofsky uses them, two and a half centuries after the time of Leonardo and Uccello. This is not a niggling objection based on a terminological matter. It is a central problem of Panofsky's interpretive procedure. For me, it is the central problem.(16)
1. Panofsky wrote the essay in 1924-25, but it was not published until 1927: Vortrage der Bibliothek Warburg, 1924-25, 258-330. The translation of the essay into book form poses a small problem of consistency in terms of typographics and punctuation. The title of the essay is "Die Perspektive als 'symbolische Form,'" but the book is titled Perspective as Symbolic Form. It is unclear why the quotation marks were removed from "symbolic form."
2. Each of these has been translated into English. Respectively: E. Panofsky, "The Concept of Artistic Volition," trans. Kenneth Northcott and Joel Snyder, Critical Inquiry, VIII, Autumn 1981, 17-33; idem, "The History of the Theory of Human Proportions as a Reflection of the History of Styles," trans. E. Panofsky, in Meaning in the Visual Arts, New York, 1955, 55-107; and idem, Idea: A Concept in Art Theory, trans. Joseph J. S. Peake, New York, 1959.
3. The emphasis is mine. The other Renaissance theoretician is clearly Alberti.
4. I would prefer to substitute "appearance" for Wood's "conception." Panofsky is addressing the phenomenal "assessment" of the surface. The text permits my reading.
5. This immediately follows a quotation from Ernst Cassirer, to the effect that all the "elements" of geometric space are only functional and not substantial. Since these elements are devoid of all content, the are nothing but expressions of ideal relations.
6. Panofsky's claims about retinal imagery and its role in direct visual experience are elusive, and I am discounting his consideration of it for reasons of brevity.
7. See E. Panofsky, "Et in Arcadia Ego: On the Conception of Transience in Poussin and Watteau." in Philosophy and History: Essays Presented to Emst Cassirer, ed. R. Klibansky and H. J. Paton, Oxford, 1936, 223-54; revised as "Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition," in Panofsky, 1955 (as in n. 2), 295-320. Panofsky's discussion of the transformation of Euclid's angle axiom in the Renaissance, in part 1 of Perspective as Symbolic Form, is another example of his reliance on the trope of cultural amnesia.
8. Panofsky does not take the position that works of art are symptoms of cultural change or stasis, in say, the way red marks on the skin are symptoms of rubella. If we must adopt a symptomological approach in reading Panofsky, it would be just as apt and more therapeutic to think of changes in our view of space as being a symptom of changes in representational practices. The relations here are analogical and reciprocal and are not ranked in a hierarchy.
9. In describing the mosaic Abraham Receiving the Angel and the Sacrifice of Isaac (Ravenna, S. Vitale, mid-6th century) and the "new" way it achieves unity (as compared to unifying principles of Greco-Roman art), Panofsky claims: "The particular form of this unity once again finds its theoretical analogue in the view of space of contemporary philosophy" (p.49).
10. Of course Panofsky encourages the use of historical "documents" because they can be indispensable for identifying the immanent meaning of works of visual art, but such texts, he claims, function only as "heuristic aids." He makes this clear in his "Artistic Volition" essay(Panofsky, 1981 [as in n. 2], 31-32): "[Documents] are not, it is true, an immediate indication of the meaning [of the work of art] itself; yet they are the source of those insights without the grasp of which the meaning is, often enough, impossible." He adds, "documents secure only the presupposition for the perception of artistic volition [Kunstwollen], namely the phenomenal understanding of the artistic phenomenon. They do not spare us from the effort of trying to perceive artistic volition by going beneath the surface and seeking an immanent meaning in the phenomenon."
11. See Panofsky, 1959 (as in n. 2), 32.
12. Hubert Damisch (The Origin of Perspective, Cambridge, Mass., 1994, 9-17) seems to grasp this point, but in his hurry to condemn Panofsky for "misunderstanding" Cassirer, he also seems to lose it very quickly.
13. While comparing the Abraham mosaic with work that preceded it (see n. 9 above), Panofsky says, "The 'foreshortenings' of Greco-Roman art finally lose their original representational meaning--that of creating space--and yet retain their fixed linear forms" (p. 48).
14. Within these categories it is necessary to make further distinctions in order to compare works produced in the same period but in different cultures, and as inflected by national or religious differences.
15. Panofsky never seems to wonder if such beliefs are typical. Do viewers of perspective pictures typically believe that the are looking through windows and not at pictures? This may happen on rare occasions, particularly under controlled and enforced viewing conditions, hut in the vast majority of cases, no such belief is necessary or reasonable (think of looking at photographs in magazines, or at perspective pictures hanging on museum walls). The window is clearly a figure, a metaphor, but Panofsky takes it literally.
16. My interest in this review has been to give a rough formulation of what Panofsky means by "symbolic form." I have avoided the content of many of his assertions about the assumptions behind certain perspectival techniques. James Elkins convincingly demolishes Panofsky's crucial claims about curvilinear perspective, which appear in the first six paragraphs of Perspective as Symbolic Form, in The Poetics of Perspective, Ithaca, N.Y., 1994. Elkins's exposition and exposure of Panofsky's confusions and misunderstanding stop the argument in its tracks. The Poetics of Perspective, which should be read with all the care it demands, is an indispensable resource. I can only mention it here, but it clearly deserves independent and extensive review.…