Thursday, May 5, 2011

Egyptian Space

Can we talk for a minute about the representation of space in painting?

Actually, before I begin, let me admit that, as usual, I come to this topic armored with my obsidian ignorance, so please take any claims I make, or conclusions I reach, with a large tablespoonful of salt.

Anyway - the mainstream Chinese, Japanese, and Western traditions of space representation are all approximations of space as a coherent three-dimensional physical phenomenon:

Ni Zan (Chinese, 1301-1374), Landscape

Miyamato Musashi (Japanese, 1584-1645), Landscape

medieval European painting - sorry I don't have better information, I just really like this picture

The Chinese and Japanese system of aerial perspective was developed as an expressive end in itself. The Western aerial tradition struggled toward mathematical perspective, which, as we all know, they finally cracked during the Renaissance:

Raphael, School of Athens, 1510-11

The assumption has always been that the goal is a faithful depiction of the actual euclidian geometry of space in the Earth environment, and modern Western pictorial methods have both achieved this goal, and explored its available variations in creative and fascinating ways -

Euan Uglow, Girl Tree, 1989-91

Euan Uglow attempted a non-geometric rendering of shallow spaces based on an intuitive concept of pure optics which he nonetheless expressed in a mathematically precise manner.

Francis Bacon, Pope II, 1951

Francis Bacon became fascinated by the idea of space-as-concept, rendering spaces in wireframe in order to lay bare the intellectual content of our acculturated concept of three-dimensional space. He imposes the grid on an amorphous void, expressing his concept that order is a weak imposition of the mind on a chaotic and hostile universe. We see the same wireframe premise taken up, from a much more optimistic point of view, in Hockney:

David Hockney, Model With Unfinished Self-Portrait, 1977

Hockney later rebels against coherent three-dimensional space, but his shifting-perspective photographic collages are a reaction to Western space, and therefore represent a part of the paradigm, not an independent creation:

David Hockney, Kasmin, Los Angeles, 28th March, 1982, you guess the date

Hockney's photographs descend from the body of thought called Analytic Cubism, a corpus so complex and so peripheral to my theme that we will conspicuously fail to consider it here.

Escher generates imagery as a means of expressing mathematical concepts of space, and takes advantage of very sophisticated representations of space, such as the use of sinusoidal curves rather than straight lines to mimic the mapping of perspective over the field of a shifting glance:

M. C. Escher, Treppenhaus I, 1951

Be all that as it may, a single assumption underlies all of this work - that space in the image should reflect physical space in the scene depicted.

This is not the only way to represent space in an image.

Consider the fascinating case of ancient Egyptian wall painting:

This is from the Metropolitan Museum's set of reproductions of New Kingdom paintings. Several familiar features are visible in this image:

1. The mingling of text and figure.
2. The representation of rows of figures in a manner similar to a writing system.
3. The depiction of figures at a variety of scales.

The third statement interests me particularly. It could be argued that the bottom row of figures, separated by a line from the main scene, occupies a separate space and that the reduced scale is thus motivated by a difference in the space depicted.

But the small figure on the left offering an object to the large male central figure clearly occupies a single space with the main figure. So what does the inconsistency in size tell us? That the little figure is less important than the big figure.

In a physically realistic depiction of space, smallness of figure is proportional with distance from vantage point. In the Egyptian depiction of space, smallness of figure is proportional with lack of importance.

Combine this with the arrangement of figures in rows, like letters, and what kind of space are we looking at? Not a physical space, but a narrative space:

Egyptian pictorial space is a space determined not by physical reality, but by narration of events. Figures are grouped to depict processes, and the relative importance of objects and participants is indicated by scale. It is a powerful and strange space, using physicality not as an end in itself, but rather as a bare-bones means of expressing intellection.

Hybrid paradigms of narrative and physical space occur in Chinese, Japanese, and particularly Persian painting:

Persian illustration from manuscript of the Shahnameh

But the pure narrative space, totally divorced from physical context or consistency, is the realm of Egypt.

I have occasionally considered the applicability of this mode of spatial representation to my own work. In doing so, I have reflected on other modern-age artists who, intuitively or not, have worked in the realm of Egyptian space. The key example, when you think about it, is Keith Haring:

One of four bazillion Keith Haring pictures

Haring's work has the character not of a fully-formed image space, but of a semiotic map.

Another one

This mode is expressed, in looser form, in Basquiat's quasi-linguistic work as well:

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self-Portrait, 1982

The linguistic thread is taken up again in the peyote-trip sequence in Beavis and Butthead Do America, which to me includes one of the most astounding bits of cinematic grammar of the past twenty years - the abrupt conversion of the picture frame from a perspectival "window" into a flat linguistic sheet:

Mike Judge, Beavis and Butthead Do America, 1996

For moving closer to a physically representational paradigm, while maintaining radical distortions based on intellectual emphasis, we have Matisse:

Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911

And Van Gogh, particularly in his room at Arles:

Vincent Van Gogh, Room at Arles, 1888

But there is a limit to the possibility of the hybridization, as demonstrated by yet another accidentally bizarre Ingres painting:

Ingres, Jupiter and Thetis, 1811

In this painting, Ingres uses the concept (there's a cool word for it, which I forget) of representing the Big God as physically bigger than whoever else is in the room. At the same time, he uses his typically idealized high-gloss rendering of physical reality. To me, this combination doesn't really cohere into an organically unified work. The conceptual fracture makes it fascinating, but it doesn't yield a synthesis.

Why not? Let's go back to Egypt:

Consider the figures - perhaps the most famous aspect of Egyptian art. They are stylized, simplified, always seen from certain characteristic perspectives (profile head, frontal torso, profile legs), and repetitive. I would contend that for a picture to work, its degree of participation in narrative space must be accompanied by a parallel degree of divorce of represented objects from physical realism. Physical realism has its home in physically realistic space. In fact, one evokes the other - a law which Ingres tries, and fails, to break. To demonstrate the evocation, even when the element of space goes undepicted, consider the figures in the Elgin marbles. They are relatively naturalistic, and if you ask, "Where are they?" you will picture a physical space:

Elgin marbles - north frieze

Contrarily, true narrative space requires narrative physical elements. More simply, the figures in Egyptian paintings are not figures. They are letters.

So if I want to use Egyptian space, I have to come up with a mode of representing the figure which is consistent with the demands of the space. I actually did this accidentally in a few early life drawings:

Thirteen Pictures of Kem, 1/11/2002,
pencil and gouache on brown paper that proved sadly oil-stained
when I dredged it up from the deep archives, i.e. a plastic tub under the bed

These figures occupy a single scroll-like space, not only because of their arrangement on the paper, but because of their simplification into stylized forms.

Thanks for taking the time to consider these ideas with me.


  1. Interesting. I suspect medieval tapestries often depict the narrative space you discuss.

  2. Jim - You know, I thought of bringing those up, but I didn't, because I don't know much about tapestries, I don't like looking at them, it was already a longish post, and I think probably it would be best to say that they exist in a Persian-like hybrid space. The new director of the Met is a tapestry guy, and I cannot help noticing a very suspicious number of tapestries cropping up there in places previously free of tapestries.

    Anyhow, I like how you're thinking - I did give it some thought, but, as in the case of analytic cubism, I concluded, "Eh, that would be a lot of work."

  3. Sinusoidal curves? I thought you'd be over that rhinovirus by now.

    This is an excellent introduction to approaches to pictorial space - well-chosen illustrations!

    I love that Ingres painting. Both figures are weirdly distorted. Jupiter's body is enormous but his head is tiny. The bizarreness combined with a highly refined illusionistic classical painting style is proto-surrealistic.

    Medieval tapestries could range from the Bayeux tapestry, which portrays the Norman invasion of Britain in a sort of linear comic strip, to the ornate Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters. Both are interesting in their approach to narrative time as well as pictorial space.

    I'm not sure analytic cubism is all that complicated - but maybe I don't understand it. I think it just means any part of an object can be shown from whatever angle reveals it best. In a way that can be related to the Egyptian way of portraying the figure, where different parts of the body are always turned in their most iconic direction.

  4. I am still honking up a sinus now and then, Fred. And by the way, given your immense knowledge of art and art history, I'm always happy when I write a post which you think is on point...

    The Ingres painting is very peculiar - although the tiny Zeus head relative to the body takes up a theme more subtly expressed in a lot of his paintings such as, for instance, that one odalisque lady. My friend Steve describes his people as beautiful monsters; saying that you just have to look for a while, and you realize how deeply strange they are.

    I hadn't thought about Bayeux at all! I just read this hilarious article analyzing it from an information theory perspective:

    I was thinking more about the unicorn tapestries and those tedious gaggles of knights in forests, when Jim raised the point above.

    The question of time is a whole subject worth pursuing.

    I don't know that the explicit theorizing by the analytic cubists themselves is all that complicated, not having read any of it, if it exists, but I stayed away from it because when I look at Picasso's analytic cubist stuff, I get a very strong sense of, "I haven't gotten it yet, but there is something very specifically here to be gotten." I've learned to trust those hunches, so until I can be bothered to make a rigorous study of the work, I want to keep my mouth (mostly) shut about it. There is something very interesting there.

  5. The ancient Egyptian painters and sculptors were more concerned with teaching virtue. Plato, (see: Laws, book 2, 656-7,) explains. (The Athenian Stranger is speaking:) "Long ago they appear to have recognised the very principle of which we are now speaking---that their young citizens must be habituated to forms and strains of virtue. These they fixed, and exhibited the patterns of them in their temples; and no painter or artist is allowed to innovate upon them, or to leave the traditional forms and invent new ones. To this day, no alteration is allowed either in these arts, or in music at all. And you will find that their works of art are painted or moulded in the same forms which they had ten thousand year ago;---this is literally true and no exaggeration,---their ancient paintings and sculptures are not a whit better or worse than the work of today, but are made with just the same skill."