Incongruity of the Aperspectival View

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By Jan Krikke:

The notion of "perspective” plays a key role in Jean Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin. Linear perspective may be a useful metaphor for what Gebser tried to convey, but two factors must be taken into account: 1) linear perspective is based on an optical illusion, it is a human construct that has no equivalence in reality, and 2) China developed axonometry, its own pictorial device to project the illusion of space on the 2D picture plane.

Isometric perspective [a geometric version of axonometry], less faithful to appearance, is more faithful to fact; it shows things nearly as they are known to the mind. Parallel lines are really parallel; there is no far and no near, the size of everything remains constant because all things are represented as being the same distance away and the eye of the spectator everywhere at once. When we imagine a thing, or strive to visualize it in the mind or memory, we do it in this way, without the distortion of ordinary [sic] perspective. Isometric perspective is therefore more intellectual, more archetypal, it more truly renders the mental image -- the thing seen by the mind's eye. Claude Bragdon, 1932

Gebser defines perspective on the bases of the historical evidence of its development. In the early days of the Renaissance, European artist used Euclidean geometry to develop linear or “scientific” perspective, a graphical tool to organize optically perceived space on the two dimensional picture plane. Lines perpendicular to the picture plane recede to and converge at the so-called vanishing point at the horizon.

Note that the horizon and the vanishing point of linear perspective are illusionary. They do not exist in reality. Linear perspective merely creates the illusion of space, (space as an aesthetic phenomenon becomes “3D” only when we delineate it). Note also that linear perspective relies on the horizon. It is “bound” to the terrestrial plane and can not be detached from the horizon.

Art and Modern Physics

Gebser uses perspective both metaphorically and concretely as a measure of growing consciousness (my emphasis):

Scarcely five hundred years ago, during the Renaissance, an unmistakable reorganization of our consciousness occurred: the discovery of perspective which opened up the three-dimensionality of space. This discovery is so closely linked with the entire intellectual attitude of the modern epoch that we have felt obliged to call this age the age of perspectivity and characterize the age immediately preceding it as the „unperspectival“ age. These definitions, by recognizing a fundamental characteristic of these eras, lead to the further appropriate definition of the age of the dawning new consciousness as the „aperspectival“ age, a definition supported not only by the results of modern physics, but also by developments in the visual arts and literature, where the incorporation of time as a fourth dimension into previously spatial conceptions has formed the initial basis for manifesting the „new.”

Gebser's definition is supported by neither modern physics nor the visual arts. When art theorists invoked Einstein to provide a rational for the Cubists he said pointedly: "This new 'art' has nothing to do with the Theory of Relativity." Gino Severini, who ostensibly "synthesized" Cubism and Futurism, admitted in his autobiography Life of a Painter (1946) that the modernists merely repeated what they heard in cafes and that no one really understood the scientific theories. As we will see below, Geber's claim that his view is supported by the visual arts is tendentious.

Linear perspective was not discovered the way we discover new planets. It developed gradually and had its precursors in medieval and earlier attempts to depict space using converging lines of projection. It was the geometric invention of the vanishing point converging at the horizon that enable artists to depict a coherent pictorial space on the 2D picture plane.

If we interpret the word perspective in the pictorial manner in which Gebser applies it, (creating the illusion of a coherent space on the picture plane), and if we look at Chinese art history, we see that the Chinese achieved this feat 1000 years before the artists of the Renaissance. The Chinese developed a projection system called dengjiao toushi, roughly translatable as “equal-angle see-through”. The projection system came to be known in the West as axonometry. Linear perspective was developed by artists; axonometry has its roots in Chinese architecture.

Gebser’s “five dimensions” rely on the notion of perspective in the sense we have discussed, and he applies it to the ages he has delineated:

1) The Archaic: zero-dimensional: non-perspectival pre-spatial pre-temporal

2) The Magical: one-dimensional: pre-perspectival spaceless-timeless

3) The Mythical: two dimensional: unperspectival spaceless-natural temporality

4) The Mental: three dimensional: perspectival spatial-abstract temporarity

5) The Integral: four dimensional: aperspectival space free-time free

Gebser evoked Cubism as illustrative of the 5th Integral stage without providing an explanation. It is a highly contentious assumption, which should be clear to anyone familiar with Cezanne's work (see Loran and Bois below). Gebser apparently accepted the early explanation of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which is an aesthetic and conceptual incongruity. In the lower right part of the painting, Picasso ostensibly depicted a woman as if seen from different vantage points in one single form.

Aesthetic incongruity

Incorporating multiple views in one single form is mixing painting and sculpture. When viewing a sculpture-in-the-round, the factor of time is involved. A painting is by definition a static object. We can suggest movement (as the Italian Futurists did), but an attempt to depict time in plastic form collapses the aesthetics of the medium. Anyone familiar with the work of Erle Loran (1943) on Cezanne can see Picasso simply misinterpreted Cezanne’s work.

The Modernists’ struggle with linear perspective was resolved with the embrace of axonometry by modernist architects in the 1920s. In A Chinese perspective for Cyberspace, I explain its modern application in the real world. Metamorphosis of Axonometry by Yves-Alain Bois is an extraordinary explanation of the “perspective” offered by axonometry, despite him only mentioning its Chinese roots in passing and hence ignoring its unique quality of integrating space and time. Had Gebser been familiar with axonometry and its (Chinese) qualities, he may have found it a better metaphor for his aperspectival theory.