The element of space
|Art Appreciation and Techniques (#ART100)|
|The visual language:|
|Overview | Introduction | Point | Line | Shape | Mass | Space | Value or tone | Color | Texture | Summary|
Space is the empty area surrounding real or implied objects. Humans categorize space: there is outer space, that limitless void we enter beyond our sky; inner space, which resides in people’s minds and imaginations, and personal space, the important but intangible area that surrounds each individual and which is violated if someone else gets too close. Pictorial space is flat, and the digital realm resides in cyberspace. Art responds to all of these kinds of space.
One-point perspective occurs when the receding lines appear to converge at a single point on the horizon and used when the flat front of an object is facing the viewer. Note: Perspective can be used to show the relative size and recession into space of any object, but is most effective with hard-edged three-dimensional objects such as buildings.
The perspective system is a cultural convention well suited to a traditional western European idea of the ‘truth’, that is, an accurate, clear rendition of observed reality. Even after the invention of linear perspective, many cultures traditionally use a flatter pictorial space, relying on overlapped shapes or size differences in forms to indicate this same truth of observation. Examine the miniature painting of the Third Court of the Topkapi Palace from 14th century Turkey to contrast its pictorial space with that of linear perspective. It’s composed from a number of different vantage points (as opposed to vanishing points), all very flat to the picture plane. While the overall image is seen from above, the figures and trees appear as cutouts, seeming to float in mid air. Notice the towers on the far left and right are sideways to the picture plane. As ‘incorrect’ as it looks, the painting gives a detailed description of the landscape and structures on the palace grounds.
After nearly five hundred years using linear perspective, western ideas about how space is depicted accurately in two dimensions went through a revolution at the beginning of the 20th century. A young Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, moved to Paris, then western culture’s capital of art, and largely reinvented pictorial space with the invention of Cubism, ushered in dramatically by his painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907. He was influenced in part by the chiseled forms, angular surfaces and disproportion of African sculpture (refer back to the Male figure from Cameroon) and mask-like faces of early Iberian artworks.
Picasso, his friend Georges Braque George Braque Castle at La Roche Guyon 1909 Oil on canvas and a handful of other artists struggled to develop a new space that relied on, ironically,  Public and critical reaction to Cubism was understandably negative, but the artists’ experiments with spatial relationships reverberated with others and became – along with new ways of using color – a driving force in the development of a modern art movement that based itself on the flatness of the picture plane. Instead of a window to look into, the flat surface becomes a ground on which to construct formal arrangements of shapes, colors and compositions. For another perspective on this issue review the section on abstraction in Art definitions, artistic roles and visual thinking.
You can see the radical changes Cubism made in George Braque’s landscape Castle at La Roche Guyon from 1909. The trees, houses, castle and surrounding rocks comprise almost a single complex form, stair-stepping up the canvas to mimic the distant hill at the top, all of it struggling upwards and leaning to the right within a shallow pictorial space. As the cubist style developed, its forms became even flatter. Juan Gris’s The Sunblind from 1914 splays the still life it represents across the canvas. Collage elements like newspaper reinforce pictorial flatness.
It’s not so difficult to understand the importance of this new idea of space when placed in the context of comparable advances in science surrounding the turn of the 19th century. The Wright Brothers took to the air with powered flight in 1903, the same year Marie Curie won the first of two Nobel prizes for her pioneering work in radiation. Sigmund Freud’s new ideas on the inner spaces of the mind and its effect on behavior were published in 1902, and Albert Einstien’s calculations on relativity, the idea that space and time are intertwined, first appeared in 1905. Each of these discoveries added to human understanding and realigned the way we look at ourselves and our world. Indeed, Picasso, speaking of his struggle to define Cubism, said “Even Einstein did not know it either! The condition of discovery is outside ourselves; but the terrifying thing is that despite all this, we can only find what we know”.
Now that we’ve established line, shape, spatial relationships and mass, we can turn our attention to surface qualities and their importance in works of art. Value (or tone), color and texture are the elements used to do this.
- Liberman, Alexander (1960). An Artist in His Studio. Viking Press. page 113.
- Ashton, Dore and Pablo Picasso (1972). Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views. Da Capo Press. page 62-63.