Re: Kuniyoshi & Escher

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Posted by Dan McKee on February 08, 2003 at 17:46:51:

In Reply to: Re: Kuniyoshi & Escher posted by John Fiorillo on February 04, 2003 at 08:47:23:

Dear John,

I appreciate your comments on frontal perspective, its visual reception, and the possibilities this opens. But it seems to me that you "dumbed down" my comment by focusing on this alone and attributing to me a denial of frontal perspective in European art(!!) rather than dealing with the pieces in question.

Lacking external evidence to prove a direct influence (good artists borrow, great artists steal) one would have to say (and I did say) that it is entirely possible that Escher came up with the image of the pointed gun that follows the viewer all on his own. Your elaboration on the visual effects of two-dimensional frontal perspective demonstrates the possibility that this illusion could easily have been discovered in both cultural contexts, without cross-cultural influence. On the other hand, your dismissal does nothing to explain the next, identical move made by Kuniyoshi/Yoshitoshi and then Escher, to the visceral, threatening exploitation of this illusion, by using a weapon pointed at the viewer as the subject of the composition.

It's simply not reasonable to deny that Escher's print has a striking similarity to what the Japanese graphic artists (first Kuniyoshi, and then Yoshitoshi) had done some half-century before. The question of direct influence, however, as any art historian knows, is always much thornier. But do you really find it so impossible that a graphic artist like Escher might have seen one of these prints in ukiyo-e laden Europe and found the exploitation of the frontal image in such a visceral manner worthy of exploration? No one doubts the influence of ukiyo-e on the impressionists, but it seems to me when it comes to an artist in such a radically different style, there is more resistance to finding links and connections.

I know of no such previous exploitation of the frontal perspective illusion with weaponry in European art. If you should know of one, John, it would prove the possibility of another source--though that would not necessarily be evidence of direct borrowing either. As it is, we're left with 2 images so strikingly similar in content and technique that direct influence seems a more than reasonable (though of course by no means certain) assumption. Nonetheless, even should this not be the case, it seems to me that there is some value in finding these links, in and of themselves, even if direct connection cannot be established.

: Dan,

: I do not mean to always take a contrary stand on this topic with respect to both you or Gerald, but again I disagree. It is highly unlikely that Escher used the Kuniyoshi design of Mase Chday as a model. Do you really mean to say that Escher could not have seen examples in European art or that the technique of full frontal portraiture did not exist in European art??? It did, in abundance, and examples can be found going back for centuries (see Rembrandt etching below).

: : As for the illusion of the archer always seeming to aim at the viewer (or of Rembrandt's figure always looking at us), this is part of the phenomenon of "perceptual (shape and size) constancy" that occurs when we observe the world. In particular, retinal images (patterns of nerve impulses that are two-dimensional) are interpreted by the brain as three-dimensional, and somehow (vision scientists find it difficult to fully explain why), we also maintain a constancy of interpretation, regardless of the angle of orientation. Information cues about size, shape, hue, shading, tilt, angle, context, etc. are all used by the bakabrain to interpret what we see. Thus as we move from side to side and view Kuniyoshi's archer, the arrow points our way no matter what the angle.

: : This is really not surprising, when you think about it. If we look at a rectangle (such as a window frame) straight on, it is patterned by the retina as rectangular, and also interpreted by the brain as such. If we then step to one side and view the rectangle, the retinal pattern changes to a trapazoid, but the brain still sees it as a rectangle. It seems we understand that the change in viewing angle or "tilt" does not really change the original image orientation. Similarly, our brains somehow "know" that the archer is pointing straight at us, even when we move and view the print from the side. Of course, were the archer a 3-dimensional sculpture, we would not experience the same image constancy, and stepping to the side would result in the brain "seeing" that the archer was no longer aiming directly at us. So part of this complex phenomenon is how the brain converts 2-dimensional imagery into 3-dimensional images.

: I had another thought while considering this topic. We seem to find it remarkable, as a kind of "trompe l'oeil" or illusion, that the archer would appear to follow us around and maintain a constancy of orientation. Yet we typically see all 2-dimensional images this way. So, for example, viewing the standard 3-quarter profile portrait in Japanese art from straight on, we see the subject looking off to the side. Yet if we move over toward that same side and look again, the subject is still looking off to the side, not more directly at us (as a 3-dimensional object would). It's another example of image constancy - yet we're less impressed by this example than with the archer. Why? I think it is due to the psychological power of the frontal portrait - we are confronted by a subject looking right at us, or aiming at us in Kuniyoshi's design. It has more significance (Is it more threatening? Are we hard-wired with a survival mechanism to react more strongly to frontal images?), and thus the constancy of orientation is experienced as more remarkable in a frontal portrait than in a 3-quarter profile portrait.

: John

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