True or False?
Two-dimensional art, by definition, is an optical illusion. A painting, for example, is just a piece of canvas stretched across a wooden frame, displaying an image of some thing which is not actually there; it is only an interpretation or replication of some other entity. What most consider as “good” art is that which best represents the subject as we know it to be. To achieve high quality results, artists use particular tricks, such as luminosity, to enhance the feeling of realness. If you are standing in front of Monet’s water lilies, you may feel enchanted by the light and movement in the scene, but you are not in fact looking at real light, or real movement, or even real water lilies. And it is not as if this is a secret that you are just now discovering, I am aware of this.
But, what is interesting is that if these “replicates” are simply that, deceptions of true reality, then why are they so extremely fascinating? Why are Monet’s water lilies more beautiful than real water lilies? Why, in some cases, is an abstracted form more appealing than the original form?
To get the best answer to this question, we must look at he who is best qualified: the father of modern art, Paul Cézanne.
A New Perspective, A New Focus
In order to discuss modern innovations, it is necessary to look at prior revelations. And if you are ever in need of a revelation, look to the Renaissance, a time where science and art formed the perfect civil union. In the 15th century, Filipo Brunelleschi set out to fuse the two disciplines in search of realness. As an architect, Brunelleschi had a keen eye for three-dimensional space. For example, his creation of the Duomo for the Florence Cathedral spans 113 meters in height and 44 meters in diameter, the largest masonry dome built to date. He, through scientific observation, transferred three-dimensional space to two-dimensional space by implementing what is called linear perspective.
Linear perspective gives the viewer a physical placement in the scene by creating depth. Looking at the figure to your left, it is visible that while figure A utilizes some method of three-dimensionality, it is rather flat compared to figure B, because Figure B implements foreshortening. While figure A is true to the form because the edges of the cube are equidistant and parallel, figure B is true to sight because the edges of the cube converge towards a point.
The centre nave in St. Lorenzo, Brunelleschi (c. 1420)
Study for the Adoration of the Magi, da Vinci (c. 1481)
Seen above, artists of the Renaissance were enveloped in this extremely persuasive optical illusion that seemed to bring two-dimensional to life. It looks as though you could walk directly in to that building. It looks so – real.
Admirable as these mathematical conclusions are, they only contribute to one aspect of vision. As previously discussed in the section on Claude Monet, visual perception is made up of the Where and What systems (Livingstone, M., 2004). The Where system is responsible for depth perception and spatial organization, but it is colorblind. The What system, a much faster detector of detail, is responsible for color.
Cézanne, known as the father of modern art, took from Impressionism the theory of objectively recording reality. While the Impressionists did this by focusing on transient light, Cézanne took the theory to an alternative focus by emphasizing form. Particularly noticeable in his landscapes, Cézanneitemized objects such as trees or mountains by color,which created one large field of varying tones. By doing this, he unraveled a spatial effect known as ‘flat-depth’. This effect causes the view to appear two-dimensional, yet, easily recognizable as landscape, still life, etc.
Mont Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne (1904-06)
This effect translates flawlessly into the realm of vision. Our mind seeks out patterns in the environment for the purpose of efficiency. Space, although a seemingly natural concept, contains a vast amount of layered information. To compensate, the brain has developed a method to decipher depth and positioning. For example, when objects are smaller, or obscured by another object, they are typically farther away. In addition, objects further away typically appear lighter in tone than objects that are closer. Thus, we assume distance. Our What system physically sees is bits and pieces of color swatches in a particular arrangement, from which we draw conclusions.
Each swatch of color notes variations in space, texture, or light. In turn, faces are visually comprised of pink and yellow pigments, and hints of blue and green. Much like Pointillism, the end-result appears “correct” to the eye, although any viewer could easily observe that unless the subject is bruised, they do not have large blue splotches on their face. Therefore, the eye and the mind work in tandem to create something very real.
Self Portrait, Cézanne (1873-76)
Mechanically, the neurological process is quite similar. When light bounces off an object, its information is broken down into photons, which are received at different points in the pupil. Each photon takes a different route through the optics, but they then converge at a point in the fovea where the image comes together (Shevell, S., 2003). At this point, a signal is sent to the brain where the image of the object appears. For Cézanne, the color swatches essentially act as photons: each part together creates the whole, a process that the brain constructs seamlessly.
Another quality of perception that Cézanne so readily expounded was the notion of the foveal and the peripheral. Cézanne typically built up the paint on the center of the canvas, while letting it fade to the edges. The most detail, intent, and literal activity is placed on the form in the center, or the focus, of the picture. Therefore, when the paint dissipates off the edges, so does the image.
Still Life with Apples, Cézanne 1895-98
In the eye, the fovea (the center of gaze) has the highest density of cones in the retina. Evolution granted us with the best visual acuity in the center of our eye, for use of focus. Although the eye contains many more rods than cones, only the cones are sensitive to color. Rods are sensitive to light (Douma, M., 2006). What Cézanne presents us with, again, is truth in vision. We build more color in the center of our gaze, while our peripheral fades to lightness or darkness.
The Fish-eye Lens Effect also portrays this phenomenon. Photographers may use the fish-eye lens on their camera to create a more dramatic feel, or draw the viewers’ attention to the focus of the image. The lens is very clear towards the center of the image and fades to a grayscale tone around the edges; this is similar to what we know as tunnel vision.
Cézanne was not so much interested in what Brunelleschi had to say. He did not long to create illusions; he longed for balanced form through harmonious color. To place each handcrafted hue in the exact location it needed to be within the frame and miraculously created space. They say to “daub” is to “paint crudely”. I say, Cézanne could daub more elegantly than any other could.
Much like his forefathers, Cézanne was a visionary. The Impressionists, some of whom were his close friends, were fixated on transient light and the emotions they produced; but Cézanne wanted “something solid and durable, like the art of the museums” and did not care so much for narrative (bbc.co.uk, 2002).
Too bad for Cézanne. His works may not have aimed to capture emotion, but they most certainly strum it up. As stated by author Jonah Lehrer (2007), “It is the art and not the science that is the means by which we express what we see on the inside. The painting in this respect is closest to reality. It is what gets us nearest the experience.”
So important was Cézanne’s contribution to the art world. Realism and portraiture was the Truth of his era, but his exploration broke long-standing traditions of representation methods. Uncovered was a new Truth, one that spoke to deeper levels of human existence. Cézanne opened the doors to abstraction, which would forever change how the world considers art.
Bbc.co.uk. (2002). Artists – Cézanne. Retrieved March 29, 2010 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A774911
Douma, M., curator. (2006). Simultaneous Contrast, Color Vision & Art from WebExhibits, Institute for Dynamic Educational Advancement, Washington, DC. Retrieved March 30, 2010, from http://www.webexhibits.org/colorart/contrast.html
Lehrer, J. (2007). Proust was a Neuroscientist. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Livingstone, M.S. (2002). Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing. New York: HNA, Inc. pp. 68-75.
Shevell, S. (2003). The Science of Color: Second Edition. Optical Society of America, pp. 51-52.