Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Ratjen Collection II: Swiveling Perspective

So last time, we were strolling through the Ratjen collection of German drawings, 1580-1900, courtesy of the National Gallery. We have a few more to look at, but we can't cover them all. Give it a visit if you can. They've also got some Munch prints up - that's exciting too, right?

Consider this:

Johann Christian Reinhart, German, 1761 - 1847
Tivoli and the Temple of the Sibyl above the Aniene Gorge, 1794/1798
pen and brown ink with blackink with brown wash over graphite on laid paper
Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, Purchased as the Gift of Helen Porter and James T. Dyke

What did I find so interesting about this? First of all, it's very beautiful, and by my lights, Reinhart gave up at just the right point in the composition. That's important, knowing when to give up. Each of my paintings is about three brushstrokes worse than it could have been; it still takes me about three brushstrokes to realize I should stop. It used to take me screwing up an entire arm, but I've gotten better at saying, "This is hurting it - and I am not going to fix the present mistake." Reinhart appears to have planned to do everything, but he didn't, and I like the way he didn't.

But he has also done just a wonderful thing here. The Aniene Gorge curves around him, so that its left side is in shadow and its right side is in sunlight. As the eye travels across the picture, the angle of the objects relative to the sun shifts, and their lighting shifts. As a result, we have a deep sense of panorama. It reminds me of this:

This is a matte painting by scientific artist Chesley Bonestell for the 1950 movie Destination Moon, included in an excellent illustrated history of matte painting called The Invisible Art (I once matte painted the background of every shot in a short film, and I read this book in preparation for it).

Now, this moon matte painting has an interesting property - the entire image was never shown in the film. Rather, the camera tracked over it, but the changing angle of the light convinced the viewer that the camera was actually panning around 360 degrees of view. You see that light smudge in the sky in the middle? It's located at the point the sun would be right above the lens if this were a real shot - Bonestell has painted in a lens flare. But what's best about this painting is, of course, that it predates the moon landing by years and years...

I don't look at landscapes very much, and if any of you do, let me know if the point I'm about to make is wrong. The point is this - you don't see a shifting relationship of a single light source to depicted objects in compositions all that often. It produces a sense of turning of the head, of swiveling to take in an entire scene, rather than a sense that the head and eye are locked on one view. So that's why I thought Reinhart's little landscape was so cool.


  1. Interesting point! You do see that effect in panoramic photos that cover a wide arc of view. The effect is striking in this beautiful drawing. But I wonder if the angle of view here is really wide enough to account for the effect. It could also arise from the changing angle of the sun over the time it took to do this drawing, if the shading was done proceeding from one side of the picture to the other. In that case it's even more interesting, as we see a drawing recording the passage of time.

  2. Fred - that is a really interesting idea. When I was trying to figure out how this drawing happened, I assumed the gorge had a really small radius, so that the change in lighting angle relative to object across the visual field was much smaller than usual. Of course, I assumed this because he hasn't framed the drawing as panoramic - he's chosen a rectangle that we take for representing the ordinary field of view. If the entire angle change fits in a normal field of view, then either the landform curvature has to have a small radius or the landform has to be really far away. The detail and change in apparent distance of objects throughout the image led me to conclude the landform wasn't far away - leaving only the rapid curvature. But it didn't occur to me that perhaps the damn thing was lit uniformly and it just took him all day to paint it. Thanks for bringing up that possibility, it is very interesting, just as you say!

  3. In any case, an absolutely magnificent landscape drawing, by an artist I'd never heard of before, so thanks!

  4. I'm so glad to be able to share it, Fred. Got a few more dazzlers for you in the next post, which I should have time to put up tomorrow. Gotta catch up on reading your blog, too - the topics look great.

  5. That is a beautiful piece and I should get off my lazy ass and go downtown to see it. How large is it??

    I agree that it gives a deep sense of panorama. And the sense of turning the head to take in the entire scene. And I do like Fred's thought that it literally shows the passage of the time it took to draw it.

    But I don't know if I get the feeling that the moment depicted in such a scene isn't possible.

    The trees in shade on the left side of the drawing are lit on the back, top surfaces. I don't look at light with the scrutiny of an artist such as you guys, however. But there is a place I used to drive through to get back and forth to college. At the continental divide, where the highway cuts through the top of the Blue Ridge mountains, I've marveled at the disparity of light and dark, of warm and cold. One side of the rock face can be covered with thick ice and snow, and the other side can be awash in bright, warm, spring sunshine with grass and new flowers. Someone viewing a painting of that scene might think it took the artist four months to complete the work!

    I couldn't agree more about the composition and when/where he chose to stop. I love it.

    Also that moonscape is cool as shit and I also wonder what the size of that painting is.

    Great post, Dani.

  6. Hi Ed! You should totally get off your duff and go check out this show. Don't miss the Munch prints show either - lots of repetitions showing really interesting variations on the same print. Right up your alley.

    This drawing is actually fairly small, although I don't know exactly how big it is. Anyhow, there's lots of good stuff in the show that I didn't include in this series.

    That's a really cool anecdote. Let me offer one back: my dad, who studies ancient history, was always perplexed by a particular military account. This army rode through a ravine, and the account says, "At noon, it was as dark as night." Finally my dad himself went through a narrow forested canyon, and said, "Oh, I get that now."

    Anyways, I'm glad you liked the drawing and also the moonscape. I think it was pretty big - those paintings are large, because they're designed to be photographed by a 35 mm camera and then blown up to movie-screen size. Although they're large, they're not blow-you-away large. Just large enough to have an imposing presence.

    Thanks as always for reading this stuff, Ed, and I'm really happy you're still enjoying it.