Re: Harunobu & Escher


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Posted by John Fiorillo on February 04, 2003 at 08:48:06:

In Reply to: Re: Harunobu & Escher posted by Gerald Schmieder on February 04, 2003 at 00:32:53:

Gerald,

In my previous response I attempted to explain why the "contradiction of 90 degrees" that you identified in the Harunobu design for the "upper and lower restriction" of the curtain was, in fact, not a contradiction because the upper part belongs solely to the overhanging balcony, the lower part solely to the door frame. In my opinion, there is no ambiguity and there is only one way to read this part of the design. Thus it cannot be compared to illusions in the Escher print "Belvedere."

In contrast, purposeful contradictions, as found in the designs of Escher, require a single element that is intentionally ambiguous in its function or in its location within the geometric logic of the design. Thus in Escher's view of the Belvedere, we see columns whose lower parts are switched between the front and rear balustrade (see the magenta and green arrows in the detail below). Escher has intentionally anchored the columns supporting the front of the upper balcony in the rear (green arrows), and vice versa (magenta arrows).

Faulty perspective in ukiyo-e is the result of incomplete understanding of strict rules of western perspective. I cannot recall any examples in ukiyo-e where ambiguity of the kind found in Escher has been used intentionally for the effect of shifting the perspective, depth of field, geometric logic, etc.

As for your follow-up comments, surely Harunobu would have recognized the unusual character of an "impossible cube." What I'm saying is that he did not design his prints according to strict rules of western perspective and thus would not have investigated Escher-like illusions. He, and nearly every other ukiyo-e artist, generally used an approximation or "paraphrase" or, as you put it, an "intuitive" approach to strict, single-vanishing-point perspective. Your second point is, I think, answered by my response above.

As for your suggestion that I clarify how "perspective is missing in ukiyo-e before Hokusai," I should first point out that 'uki-e' ("floating pictures" or perspective views) appeared at least as early as 1739 in the prints of Torii Kiyotada, and various examples are known by Okumura Masanobu in the 1740s, so these obviously predate Hokusai by decades. The most obvious source of inspiration for one-point vanishing perspective were illustrated Chinese books that translated European drawing manuals, known in Japan at least by the 1730s. Also, I did not say that perspective was missing, but that it was "imperfect." For example, if you examine interior 'uki-e' views of kabuki theaters, or 'uki-e' views of the streets in cityscapes, you will typically find more than one point for receding perspective, or inconsistently rendered perspective even when a single point was used.

You are correct to say that there were other ways to indicate depth. We all recognize the "verticality" of depth of field in traditional painted hanging scrolls of China and Japan, whereby the foreground is shown at the bottom, the middle distance in the middle, and the far distance at the top, often complemented by variable densities of ink (e.g., dilute inks frequently suggesting greater distance than more opaque inks) or differing sizes of objects and figures.

I hope this helps to clarify my opinion on this very interesting topic.

John



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