Railing Opinion

To the Editor,

As much as I like Barbara Rose’s review of Barry Schwabsky’s Words for Art (2013), in the BR’s June number, I cannot understand how she can say, “The idea that there was no conception of depicted space prior to the Renaissance is, however, so far reaching and radical it demands much further and deeper consideration than an essay can possibly supply.” This is such a wrong-headed idea that I don’t even want to ask whether it is being attributed to any of the three critics associated here with it, whom I respect: Damisch, Elkins, or Barry Schwabsky himself!

Barbara: what about Meyer Schapiro’s student Miriam Bunim’s famous dissertation Space in Medieval Painting and the Forerunners of Perspective (1940)? As soon as it came out Erle Loran wrote, “An excellent historical work in which Byzantine space is analyzed with clarity and understanding [...] The entire field of pictorial space, from the Ancient to the Renaissance period, is described with a knowledge of the actual methods of drawing that have been employed to effect various illusions of space” (Cézanne’s Composition, 1943). In “Alberti’s ‘Window’: Art-Historiographical Notes on an Antimodernist Misprision,” in my Modernities: Art Matters in the Present (1993), I praise Bunim’s book for being much more than usually scrupulous about what Leon Battista Alberti actually said about his almost always misconstrued perspective “window” device or figure.

It’s discouraging that every day more people are born on whom art-historians will inflict the absurd idea that something like natural law was discovered by Brunelleschi and Alberti, which nobody before the early modern scientific world view had ever imagined before, blah, blah, blah. As Wittgenstein might have pointed out, the only thing really interesting about perspective is that people always think it’s absolute even though it’s always and everywhere conventional. I would say that people consider it absolute just as they generally assume that their mother tongue “is” language, and can be proved to be such by being the only one not requiring translation. How else can the reverse perspectives of Cézanne and the Byzantines find any commonality, or the isometric systems of 19th-century engineers and traditional Chinese painters: these are not cases of diffusion, and none has any edge over any other for effecting great art.

Yours sincerely,
Joseph Masheck


Joseph Masheck

JOSEPH MASHECK, art historian and critic, has been awarded the 2018 ‘Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art,’ by the C.A.A.