“We have to be able to forget there are walls
and have found no better way to do that than pictures.” 1
- Georges Perec
One could argue that the intimate dialogue between art and walls goes as far back as the origins of painting, when hunter-gatherers took time to depict horses, bears, panthers, bison and rhinoceros on the sides of caves. In the south of France for example, at the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave around 30,000 B.C., they sought to capture a fraction of the energy within these creatures, and the resulting drawings still captivate us through their sensibility and dynamism. Devoid of a frame and free from the laws of perspective, the figures seem to exist beyond space, as though they emerged directly from the rough and uneven surface of the rock. One intuits that painting was more ritual than representation, a way of affirming that which exists, or an impulse to possess the physical dimension we inhabit.
The notion of paintings as metaphorical windows, as gateways for our perceptual and intellectual wanderings, is credited to Leon Battista Alberti and his 1435 treatise, De pictura. 3 His writings had an influence on later Renaissance painters, including Leonardo da Vinci who declared that “the prime marvel to appear in painting is that it appears detached from the wall, or some other plane,” praising the painter’s knowledge of lights and shadows to create what nature does to objects (and sculptures) in real life. 4 During this period, the paragone between sculpture and painting intensified, each striving to prove its superiority. 4 Painting showcased its ability to capture spatial relations and sculptural forms, challenging the limitations of two-dimensionality with trompe-l'œil devices such as casting shadows into the viewer’s space and depicting objects of daily life with a level of detail and accuracy that would only be surpassed by photography centuries later.
By the beginning of the 20th century, paintings’ move away from realism was in full swing, and movements such as Cubism aimed to present multiple planes and viewpoints at once, suggesting their three-dimensional shape within the same two-dimensional space. Instead of trying to attain the illusion of depth or adhering to the rules of linear perspective, which had become the norm, artists such as Picasso, Braque and others presented the possibility of contemplating a figure that was pieced together in the mind. The flatness of the canvas was both evidenced and undermined in these explorations, in assemblages and other experiments that defied traditional views of painting and sculpture.
Imagining what those other canvases look like becomes part of the experience of the piece. Shaw offers us a view from a very particular kind of window, one that both honors the quest of capturing physical reality through painting and at the same time recognizes the futility of the attempt. If, as Georges Perec suspected, we put up pictures to forget walls, do we strive to escape our surroundings, or do we find something closer to a mirror? A reflection of our subjectivity and our inner life, or perhaps just an honest look at art thought of as a companion, as the mutual communion of the individual and the world that is constantly unfolding into new dimensions.
Texto de María Emilia Fernández, asistente curatorial, Museo Jumex.
1 Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. (London: Penguin, 1997), 39.
2 According to Roman author Pliny the Elder, it was Studius “who first instituted that most delightful technique of painting walls with representations of villas, porticos and landscape gardens, woods, groves, hills, pools, channels, rivers, and coastlines.” https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ropt/hd_ropt.htm
3 “First of all, on the surface which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen,” Leon Battista Alberti, De pictura, 1435.
4 Leonardo da Vinci, Translation in Claire J. Farago, Leonardo da Vinci’s Paragone: A Critical Interpretation with a New Edition of the Text in Codex Urbinas, Brill Studies in Intellectual History (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992), 281-283.
5 In the context of art history and the Italian Renaissance, the word paragone most often refers to the debate arguing the merits of painting versus sculpture.
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