The imagined Devil’s Dictionary of Ambrose Bierce
[See also my post Perspectives: Inside Looking Out, Outside Looking In]
There is a small series of posts on this blog that deal with the perspective of looking at things straight-on: straight up, straight down, straight across. As it turns out, in my many years of looking at prints and images, view that look directly up and down are pretty uncommon. Some of the earliest straight-on images actually offered a new vision to people who were so long accustomed to not looking at things in this way.
And for a long time it was just not possible, not really, to look straight down at something from a height, or at least until the invention of flight at the hands of the Montgolfier brothers in 1783. This first image offers a view looking straight down from a balloon through a bank of clouds and onto a town, and was drawn and published in 1786. It must have been shocking to see this for the first time in that year, the image so unexpected and mostly not imaginable. One of the other aspects here is that the viewer is looking obliquely down from the tops of clouds, the first time that this was ever done—so far as I can determine—with a scientific vantage point.
The seeming complement to this image is from Entretiens sur la Pluralitie de Mondes (Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds), written by the great French philosophe Bernard le Bouvier de Fontenelle in 1686 (just a year before publication of perhaps the greatest work in the history of science, Newton’s Principia Mathematica). The Plurality was a best-seller by the best-selling Fontenelle. An excellent attempt by a rather restricted writer to engage the population-at-large, writing a high-pop book on what was basically the history of astronomy and cosmology of the preceding century. Copernicus was a major feature of his imaginary conversations with a muse as he wandered through a metaphorical garden of questions, with the observations of Galileo and Cassini also very prominently featured. But what interests me here is the great similarity between the two, the view from the balloon looking down, and the Fontenelle, looking up. (Or what would pass for “up” in space.) Except that the cloud-y looking things in Fonetenelle aren’t clouds at all, but solar systems. This was a radical, church-pounding idea at the tiem, displacing the unique centrality of the human condition, offering the possibilities of other lives on other solar systems and other planets
Albrecht Durer's (1471-1528) drawing of a geometrical man was an amazing--startling, even--object to the early 16th century consciousness. His Underwysung der Messung ("Treatise on Measuring") written about 500 years ago (in 1525) set the stage for this next work--it is here that we find some of the most recognizable of Durer's illustrations of the instruments that he employed to do his perspective work: his …Symmetria partium…humanorum corporum (1537) was a masterpiece, and a key piece of revolutionary visionary thinking. Durer--so far as I can tell--created an orthographically rotating human figures in three-dimensional trapezoids, creating incredibly human-like non-human forms. Supra-human, perhaps; mechanized, calculated, structural. His use of stereometry, the science of measuring volume, was adapted to this study of human form and the relationship between that and movement.
By doing this one could rotate the figures, pinch them, stretch them, and the proportions would remain exactly the same.
They were in a sense a CAT scan. And in this way the person in 1525, seeing this for the first time, would be experiencing something like the sensation of seeing an X-Ray for the first time in 1895 or a magnified flea in 1626. It was a spectacular effort an a major key to understanding movement, and anatomy, and of course map making.
This was a new way of thinking about the body, challenging the god-grace and ubiquitous church-inspired revelation of the body and how it worked. This was not a necessarily easy time in which to picture humans in such a scientific way. (In 1553 the physician and theological scholar Michael Severtus would be burned at the stake by John Calvin for his views on the Trinity, Nicean Creed and other related things, though his undeniably revolutionary idea of cardiopulmonary circulation was in itself a direct challenge to church teachings).
Durer’s innovation accommodated empirical observation and allowed for proportional change. Its importance in relational drawing, anatomical and technical, cannot be understated, which I think trumped it as a subversive agent to orthodoxy.
Fast forwarding a bit there are the images of arrested time by Etienne Marey (who was a technoid and physician) and who was able to capture motion of all sorts--he was able to develop a picture so to speak of the movement of blood in the body via his instrument to calculate blood pressure, and he also created a shotgun-style camera that made the world's first high-speed photographs of movement. And so it cane to pass that in the late 1870's and early 1880's people were instantly able to see what a horse looked like when it galloped or what the body did *exactly* when jumping over a chair. When you couple this with fourth-dimension material one wonders why it took several more decades to bump into these images in the art world of the earliest part of the twentieth century.
In 1895 50-year-old Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s ephochal discovery was announced (“Ueber eine neue Art von Strahlen". "On a New Type of Ray"), built upon the work of J. Plucker (1801-1868), J. W. Hittorf (1824-1914), C. F. Varley (1828-1883), E. Goldstein (1850-1931), Sir William Crookes (1832-1919), H. Hertz (1857-1894) and the horribly odious Phil Lenard (1862-1947 and who didn’t die soon enough). The experiment revealed as much to humans as did the experiments and inventions of Hooke and Leeuwenhoek on the invisible worlds revealed by their microscopes. Bertha, Roentgen’s wife, sat for 15 minutes while her husband passed his rays through her hand; she ran from the room once she saw the results, revealing her very bones and no doubt a strong sense of the fragility of life, and the strong presence of death. Many had the a similar reaction to the Kandinsky's shapes and Malevich’s white circles and red rectangles and Ibsen’s drama and Einstein’s dancing dust and the rogue syncopation of jazz—these newnesses were threatening to all of the established ways of looking at physics, and art, and theatre, and listening to jazz. It was a new perspective which challenged the firmly established vision of these things, upsetting the nature of comfort and acceptance. It is probably a very natural reaction to try and protect established memory—but memory is made all of the time, and so should be relatively flexible…at least it is mechanically healthier to allow a little bending than to be rigid and brittle.