George V. Reilly

Surface is Illusion but so is depth

I’m taking a beginner’s drawing class at North Seattle Community College. Today, we started on per­spec­tive. We began by watching a 45-minute video by David Hockney, where he contrasts three paintings: a Canaletto painting of Venice, and two Chinese scrolls painted 70 years apart.

The Canaletto is a classic two-point linear per­spec­tive painting. Both of the Chinese scrolls show trips by the emperor along the Grand Canal. The first one, by Wang Hui, is 27 inches high and 72 feet wide! It uses multiple per­spec­tive to show scenes, in a manner that is strange to my Western eyes. Hockney demon­strates how effective it is. For example, he shows a corner where two streets meet at right angles. On the "up" street, the viewer is on the left, looking right, at the left side of the houses; on the street coming from the left, we see the right side of the houses. I’ve made it sound like a mess but it works. The scroll is a marvel of teeming humanity in tiny detail. Most of the figures are scarcely larger than Hockney’s fingernail.

He contrasts it un­fa­vor­ably with a scroll painted of a similar trip by the emperor’s grandson, after Western mis­sion­ar­ies had imported their notions of per­spec­tive. The second scroll is flat and lifeless, though the per­spec­tive is more "correct" to our eyes.

Worth seeing if you can find a copy.

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