Ex Libris of Benjamin March

Ex Libris of Benjamin March

NOTE: Writer, curator, and professor Benjamin Franklin March Jr. (1899-1934) studied, lectured and wrote in the United States and in China. Through his works he became one of the foremost authorities on Chinese art during the 1920s and 1930s. In this essay he analyses the different functions of Western perspective (optical) and Chinese perspective (axonometric) and on what grounds they differ. It is one of the first attempts to understand Chinese pictoral space on a structural and a conceptual level and it became an important reference on Chinese space in Joseph Needham’s book Science and Civilisation in China Vol. 4 part 2 in 1965. This essay was first published in 1927 in The China Journal Vol. VII, No. 2, pp 69-72.

The most general criticism aimed at Chinese paintings by Westerners seems to be concerned with the representation of distance, and very often takes the form: Chinese paintings have no perspective. This is, of course, not only untrue, but it is not what the critic meant to say. Perspective, after all, is nothing but a convention for representing distance, and though the term is sometimes limited to mean the type of projection generally used in the West, it properly includes any and all devices for representing three dimensions in two, for symbolizing three-dimensional space on a plane. In painting, the third dimension is usually in recession from the painter, and the plane, either physically or so far as the image is concerned, is perpendicular to the direction of recession.

Obviously no perspective can be absolutely true, since two dimensions cannot be three, and the truth of the convention depends not so much upon science as upon custom. It is common, however, for foreigners to regard Western perspective as somehow truer than the Chinese perspective, and it may be worth while to examine the two from the standpoint of Western mathematics, to determine by Western standards whether or not the criticism is valid.

The problem of representing three dimensions is most acute in the painting of landscapes (山水) and the painting of figures (人物), the first two of the traditional four classes of Chinese paintings. Petrucci and others have discussed landscape perspective, and this is the least difficult for foreigners to grow accustomed to and enjoy. The convention of representing buildings and furniture, on the other hand, often seems primitive and inaccurate even to stout protagonists of Chinese landscapes; so we shall limit our discussion for the present to a comparison of Western and Chinese methods of representing three-dimensional solids such as buildings and furniture. 

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Front and back cover of the Europa Almanach of 1925

Front and back cover of the Europa Almanach of 1925

Seeing, of course, is also an A.

NOTE: In the essay A. and Pangeometry  El Lissitzky analyses the changing role of perspective in art and introduces axonometric projection (or parallel perspective) as a new means to represent and perceive space. It was first published in German in Europa-Almanach, (Carl Einstein and Paul Westheim, Kiepenheuer Verlag, Potsdam, 1925, p.103-113) and was reprinted in 1984. This English translation was published in the book El Lissitzky. Life – Letters – Texts, Lissitzky-Küppers, Thames & Hudson, London, 1992 (out of print). 

In the period between 1918 and 1921, a lot of old rubbish was destroyed. In Russia we also dragged A. [1] off its sacred throne ‘and spat on its altar’ (Malevich 1915). At the first Dada-event in Zurich, A. was defined as a ‘magic excrement’ and man as the ‘measure of all tailors’ (Arp).

Now after five years (five centuries in the old chronology) in Germany for example, Grosz brings only one reproach upon himself: ‘our only fault was that we ever took the so-called A. at all seriously’. But a few lines further on he writes: ‘Whether my work is therefore called A. depends on the question of whether one believes that the future belongs to the working classes’. I am convinced that it does, but neither this conviction nor the excrement and the tailors are universal criteria for A.

A. is a graduated glass. Every era pours in a certain quantity: for example, one puts 5 cm. of Coty perfume, to titillate the nostrils of fashionable society: another throws 10 cm. of sulphuric acid into the face of the ruling class; yet another pours in 15 cm. of some kind of metallic solution which afterwards flares up as a new source of light. So A. is an invention of our spirit, a complex whole, combining the rational with the imaginary, the physical with the mathematical, √1 with √-1. The series of analogies which I am going to bring to your attention is put forward not to prove – for the works themselves are there for that – but to clarify my views. The parallels between A. and mathematics must be drawn very carefully, for every time they overlap it is fatal for A.

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Shoji Ueda, 1940

Shoji Ueda, untitled, 1940

This blog presents a collection of images and texts we have collected during our artistic research over the past 5 years. It focusses on alternative ways of representing space within the realm of photography and painting. With this blog we aim to analyse how these representations can affect our gaze on a fundamental level and change the way we relate to the world. This first post gives a brief summary of topics of interest we will disclose in more detail in the following posts.

Bon’yari shite

Since the ‘discovery’ of perspective in the early 15th century our understanding of space is guided by optical laws. The invention of photography and the extensive use of photographic images nowadays, constantly re-affirm these laws. This visual knowledge we’ve inherited and we’re imbued with determines how we – in the West – perceive and represent space: as homogeneous, unified and absolute. Our world is conveniently ordered by this optical system but it is as if we only look with our “visual memory” and think of what we see as being true. In the last sentences of his famous book Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes hints to these limitations of our gaze when he says:

[1] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, Hill and Wang, New York, 1981, p. 118.

“One of the marks of our world is perhaps this reversal: we live according to a generalized image-repertoire. Such a reversal (…) de-realizes the human world of conflicts and desires, under the cover of illustrating it.” [1]

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