Chapter 5: Oblique Images from the Side and Below

By Verstegen, Ian | Consciousness, Literature & the Arts, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Chapter 5: Oblique Images from the Side and Below


Verstegen, Ian, Consciousness, Literature & the Arts


The last chapter introduced for the first time fixed aspects of the environment - the depicted loved one - to which the artist or printmaker had to attend because of the nature of the task before him. This requirement of transcription can determine a whole class of objects, and this first case study chapter investigates a series of paintings that are seen from an angle. When the draftsman or artist alters the form because of the nature of the wall, he or she immediately begins to take site-specific elements into account, thereby forcing him or her into the transcriptive mode.

This is a major specification of the ecology of such images, for it delimits what kinds of perceptual abilities we can expect to be engaged in a particular situation. As we shall see, even though one attends to the invariants of the wall as real givens, the illusory nature of the illusion achieved at an angle still engages normal pictorial abilities, but now as putative objects of the real world.

The Problem

It has been noted that as we walk away from a picture, objects within it narrow yet continue to "point" toward us. There is a great deal of perceptual research on the viewing of images from oblique angles and how we continue to see object constancy within the picture. Do we directly perceive the objects as they are or do we compensate for the slant of the picture? Growing evidence shows that it is not necessary to compensate (Cutting, 1987; Busey, Brady & Cutting, 1990). A philosopher has recently noted that we have the "bare bones" of the image at all but the most extreme angles (Kulvicki, 2006).

There is, however, a class of images for which an oblique viewpoint is better than head-on, or at least better for that aspect of the image that is visible from that viewpoint. This is not the class of illusions known as anamorphoses (Baltrusaitis, 1999). Rigorously defined, an anamorphosis reveals a different object from that different view. As just noted, we are referring to an aspect of the same image seen better from that angle. An example from the history of art would be Titian's Pesaro Madonna in the Frari in Venice (Fig. 1). Seen head-on, there are two irregular columns visible. Seen from the side a new percept emerges wherein the columns appear to be of the same "real" size but decreasing in represented size according to a spatial gradient. It would be possible to interpret this as "simpler" or in Bayesian fashion of higher probability as one might for the Ames room and chair illusions (Amheim, 1974, 274-275).

The novelty of such an illusion can be suggested by comparing it to better investigated cases of ceiling illusions (e.g., Pirenne, 1970). While there exist in both ceiling and wall painting extreme illusions of an obliquely situated viewer - compare Fra Pozzo's ceiling fresco of Sant'Ignazio in Rome with Baldassare Peruzzi's Sala delle colonne in the Famesina in Rome - we are less sensitive to such illusions on walls in the absence of strong geometric frameworks. For example, Michelangelo's Jonah figure in the Sistine Chapel is conceived along the vault so that it appears to stand upward (Isermeyer, 1986). Where are these effects on walls? We are not concerned with the dramatic illusions but the subtle effects where the image is intended to break through the wall (just like a figure goes through the vault) by manipulating its surface form for an eccentrically placed viewer.

Usually frescoes or large altarpieces are not only extremely important in their own right, populating some of the major works of the early modem period like Titian's Pesaro Madonna and (as we shall see) Caravaggio's Crucifixion of St. Peter, but their proper understanding has important consequences for the meaning of perspective in the Renaissance. These works most often allow for two satisfying views from different positions - head on and obliquely - and so tell against long-standing preoccupation of centric points and whether or not they can be occupied by observers. …

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