The Discourse of Perspective in the Twentieth Century: Panofsky, Damisch, Lacan
Margaret Iversen

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’ Art History. 32. the details of his account of Brunelleschi’s experiments or the Ideal City panels could be factually wrong without undermining the philosophical validity of his argument. Lacan Margaret Iversen When work on certain artistic problems has advanced so far that further work in the same direction. 3 September 1996. not least because.1093/oxartj/kci020 . pp. 24. review in Camera Obscura. Damisch hopes to fashion. is an extremely audacious enterprise. The Origin of Perspective. it is not exactly a history of that moment. where he discusses the great recoil of the Middle Ages.1 Downloaded from http://oaj. then. English translation of L’Origine de la perspective (Paris. See also. Zone Books: New York. Erwin Panofsky. vol. 1997). . 2003). pp. 434–63. 81–4. a reversal of direction. ‘Virtually Straight. Keith Broadbent. Substantive reviews at the time of its publication in English include: Whitney Davis. as Damisch argues. the logical construct. 1987). Dana Pollen.2 2005 191–202 # The Author 2005. LXXVII. review in Artforum. that other audacious art historical study of the topic. Such reversals. not just a history or theory of perspective. review article on ‘Panofsky. Margaret Iversen. 88 –97.’ Art Bulletin. 1.). create the possibility of erecting a new edifice out of the rubble of the old. trans. 18. Keith Moxey. no. it also organises the way we think about art and its history. or perhaps better. no. 2 Reading it one has the sense of jumping over the whole history of alternative approaches to Art History and the rise of post-structuralism to re-engage with the philosophical concerns of the early Panofsky and the linguistic and psychoanalytic theory of High Structuralism. pp.10. Wood (MIT Press. 1994). This. not only organises the field of visual representation. 2. Perspective. proceeding from the same premises. vol. Damisch’s book is about the invention of perspective as a paradigm or model of thought that has far-reaching implications. John Goodman (MIT Press: Cambridge MA and London. 10. Damisch’s book. one would have thought that the last of the great European Humanists would consort rather uneasily with the great anti-humanist psychoanalyst. better. 4. Panofsky’s Perspective as Symbolic Form. Perspective as Symbolic Form and Damisch. vol.1.’ Oxford Art Journal. appears unlikely to bear fruit. 2010 These are the opening sentences of the third section of Panofsky’s Perspective as Symbolic Form. 25. 84 –89. . Although a lot of historical evidence is marshalled. one cannot trace the evolution of a paradigm as if it were an object of historical enquiry like any other. but a model for the future practice of Art History. Damisch. for Damisch. doi:10. For a brief introduction to Damisch’s thought see Ernst van Alphen’s essay in Chris Murray (ed. Published by Oxford University Press. by turning back to apparently more ‘primitive’ modes of representation. 71 –94. must be considered from the point of view of its merit as a paradigm – as a model for the practice of art history. Because of its essentially philosophical claims. 477. 1990. Perspective as Symbolic Form. no. Out of the rubble of these two intellectually robust moments. for. All further page references to this book are enclosed in brackets in the text. The Origin of Perspective. that by Maria Braga on March 10. Hubert Damisch. Christopher Wood. December 1995. the result is often a great recoil. Because it instantiates a model of thought. that is language. pp. 677–782. Christopher S. vol. in much the same way that Saussure approached the institution. Damisch declares that it remains ‘more than a half a century after its appearance. Jacques Lacan. all rights reserved. The Discourse of Perspective in the Twentieth Century: Panofsky. Key Writers on Art: The Twentieth Century (Routledge. Autumn 1995. no. vol. no. pp. needless to say. trans. ‘Review of Damisch’s The Origin of Perspective and Le Jugement de Paris. no. p. it is a defence of that idea of perspective by appeal to an analysis of its founding moment in Quattrocento Florence and its repercussions. The same is true of the essay that Damisch takes as his model. 1994. the inescapable horizon line and reference point for all OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28. it has to be approached theoretically. pp. I would like to adopt it to serve as a thumbnail sketch of Hubert Damisch’s strategy in The Origin of Perspective. ‘Perspective Yet Again: Damisch with Lacan. they do this precisely by abandoning what has already been achieved. 2003.oxfordjournals. 2. Or.’ Oxford Art Journal.

4. Perspective as Symbolic Form. 2010 . it draws on Lacanian psychoanalysis and uses the linguistic terminology of ‘dispositif ’ and ‘enunciation. he claimed. 2). signals the achievement of the sort of critical distance that enables a properly historical study of art. ignoring the lesson of Panofsky’s by Maria Braga on March 10. Cristoforo Landino. screen) and that of perspective. Downloaded from http://oaj.’6 Damisch’s pointed critique of recent treatments of perspective is part of a broadside aimed at empiricist art historians generally. rather than. Joseph Leo Koerner.2 2005 3. Baudry founded his critique of the cinematic apparatus on its inheritance of Quattrocento perspective construction.’3 Artistic reflexivity about the nature of art. as Michael Podro has argued. Damisch points out that this ‘denigration’ of perspective has a long history. projector. The Poetics of Perspective (Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London. Renaissance single-point perspective also has far-reaching implications: it anticipates Descartes’s rationalised conception of space as infinite extension and Kant’s Copernican revolution in epistemology.oxfordjournals. in a worrying ‘reversion to a pre-critical approach to cultural history. 1994). Michael Podro. review of English translation of Panofsky. 5. The New Republic. who. then. say.’ see their job as ‘detective work’ (p. 1993. who considered perspective to be ‘part philosophy and part geometry. crediting both with powerful ideological and psychic effects. because. so that foreshortenings and the diminution of size of objects in depth all obey a common rule and conform to a single viewpoint. The Critical Historians of Art (Yale University Press: New Haven and London. April 26. like his book. The key text is Jean-Louis Baudry’s ‘Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematic Apparatus’ published in 1970. James Elkins. p. So the moment of systematic perspective construction is also the moment that art history as a discipline becomes possible. who attacked perspective construction as embodying a particular male. 6. 189.5 This non-meeting of minds can be partly explained by the fact that these scholars and Damisch are studying different objects. As Joseph Koerner nicely puts it. which. Panofsky’s essay ‘finally works to place itself at perspective’s historical focal point. 34. p. constitutes a viewing subject as 194 OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28. The other target of Damisch’s critique is that band of theoretically minded film and art theorists of the 1970s. ‘The Shock of the View’. 185). 1982). Damisch’s critique is aimed at art historical receptions of perspective. mainly Marxists and feminists. Object and viewpoint are locked together. This split is nothing new: Elkins cites a late fifteenth-century source. xiv –xv). beginning with Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (p. treat it as if it were nothing more than a nifty technical device for systematically creating an illusion of space. For Panofsky. there are those who are interested in reconstructing perspective practice and those who are interested in its philosophical implications.’ Damisch means an approach that has not fully absorbed Kant’s critique of the empiricist view that we can have knowledge of a stable world that exists independent of the mind’s constitution of it.Margaret Iversen enquiry concern this object of study’ (p. which. The latter implies. We can get some indication of what sort of paradigm it proposes by noting what comes in for criticism. the imitation of some supposedly preexisting reality: ‘Perspective.’ Apparatus theory. As James Elkins observed. as it is called. proposed an analogy between the set up of the cinema (spectator. I personally would have liked to see Damisch undertake a more serious critique of that body of film theory. individualistic ideology (pp. that Panofsky regards perspective as the advent of a reflexive self-awareness about the relation of mind to things and about the nature of art as being essentially about that relation. bourgeois. of a particular moment in the history of art and the very possibility of the serious study of art’s history. p. holds both the viewer and the viewed within its conception.’4 If Panofsky’s essay proposes a paradigm for the study of art. 263. so also does Damisch’s book. There is a curious overlapping. By ‘pre-critical. 44). like the critical philosophy of Kant.

then. It is not very difficult to discern what kind of art historical practice is embedded in Panofsky’s essay. than with the apparatus that stages the spectacle. See my Alois Riegl: Art History and Theory (MIT Press: Cambridge. Baudry. The Critical Historians of Art (Yale University Press: New Haven and London. 286. MA. Baudry. Panofsky’s essay and structuralist psychoanalytic theory.9 The crucial illusion that cinema fosters. Apparatus. then. 8. the spectator identifies less with what is represented on the screen. in order to discover what assumptions and implications are latent in the new paradigm. 2010 Although Panofsky’s ‘Perspective as Symbolic Form’ purports to be a history of the development of single point perspective construction and the various conceptions of space implied by that history. p. organising it and unifying it around a single vanishing point.7 Cinematic camera movement only serves to augment the viewer’s feeling of power and control. 1986). See the volumes of translated essays from this journal published by Routledge and the British Film Institute. in Narrative. Ideology: A Film Reader. is not so much the illusory world represented. Apparatus. The conception of space implied by Renaissance perspective involved taking the raw material of sense perception and systematically modifying it. 10. for Damisch. See also Michael Podro. Ideology: A Film Reader (1986). I want to probe the stresses and strains this conjunction puts on Damisch’s book and. but what kind is implied by importing Lacanian psychoanalysis into that paradigm? Panofsky Downloaded from http://oaj. at the same time. 11. as the fantasy it engenders of a ‘transcendental subject. 294. Perspective announces or anticipates the modern conception of space. 1984). Panofsky’s account of that development is indebted to Alois Riegl’s Spa¨tromische Kunstindustrie (1901). 9.’ Just as the infant in Lacan’s mirror stage assembled the fragmented and uncoordinated body in an imaginary unity. for I find myself drawn to its Lacanian moments but wary of its enthusiastic reception of Panofsky’s essay. rather than seeing it positively as an extraordinary idea – a cognitive achievement like the invention or discovery of geometry. p. ‘Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus’. Together these created for him an impasse that required the recoil to the rubble of apparently more primitive approaches. The first section of Panofsky’s paper is OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28.oxfordjournals. in Narrative. What I propose to do is to examine the main fragments of that rubble. 1982) and Michael Ann Holly. This is a spectacular instance of art thinking. The ‘impatience’ registered by Damisch in his Preface was prompted. While I am sympathetic with Damisch’s general sense of impasse and encouraged by his attention to the fundamental philosophical questions of art history. 292.11 What we understand as systematic perspective construction is the culmination of a long history and implicit in this history is the development of the idea of space as we now understand it. ‘Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus’. he seems simultaneously to affirm the ideas of perspective as symbolic form and perspective as symbolic order. Apparatus. Ideology: A Film Reader (1986). centre and origin of meaning.The Discourse of Perspective in the Twentieth Century 7. 1993). By combining the two.10 Damisch’s implicit critique of this position is that it denigrates perspective as a tool for interpellating subjects for the ends of Capitalism or Patriarchy. infinite extended substance. Apparatus. ed. Philip Rose (Columbia University Press: New York. it is in fact structured around a basic binary opposition between two strikingly different sorts of perspective. try to drive a wedge between its Panofskian and Lacanian moments. ‘Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus’. ‘Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus’. First published in France in 1970 in Cahiers du cine´ma and in Great Britain in 1974. and London. implies the impossibility of maintaining any sharp distinction between art historical method and its objects. which. This is not something given to perception or immediately intuited. 295. Baudry. Ideology: A Film Reader (1986). Jean-Louis Baudry. p. Antique and Renaissance (or Modern) perspectives stand at the opposite poles of an evolution and all the intervening moments are presented as hardly more than strategic moves and reversals that enable the history to get from A to by Maria Braga on March 10. Panofsky and the Foundations of Art History (Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London. which is homogeneous. in Narrative.8 For Baudry. so also the imaginary transcendental self of cinema unites the discontinuous fragments of film into a unified sense. by both old-fashioned empiricist art history and what we now call visual culture. p. in Narrative.2 2005 195 . his book poses for me a serious difficulty.

its aesthetic ideal. it is clear that 196 OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28. Art is no longer regarded as a mimetic depiction of objects seen. somewhat like the distinction Schiller drew between Naı¨ ve and Sentimental poetry: whereas the poet of Antiquity. abstraction from sense experience.’ he is right. p. then. 1996). trans. Instead of bodily sense impressions. paradoxically.’ In Antiquity. p. in short. but his emphasis is wrong because this so-called ‘truth. artistic representation is not thought of as conforming to general perception or ideas of space. post-Renaissance art has the freedom to choose between types of representation that either stick closely to the objective character of things or to the subjective. was to suppress space as for as possible. The point is that art since the Renaissance embodies the essential reflexive. Wood.’ is unreflexive. 1997). central perspective construction is the embodiment of the crucial recognition that visual representation is not properly mimetic but constructive. ‘Antique perspective is more faithful to the truth of perception than Renaissance perspective because it attempts to reproduce the curvature of the retinal image. ‘pre-critical’ perceptual relation to the world. insofar as Antique painting does attempt to represent perspectival space. including photography. 14.2 2005 12. ‘bodies and gaps between them were only differentiations or modifications of a continuum or a higher order. for Panofsky.oxfordjournals. for Panofsky. Yet. which now no longer clings to substantial things. Perspective as Symbolic Form (1997). 22. which is that modern perspective abstracts fundamentally from basic human psychophysiological perception. preKantian.’14 Because. trans. Panofsky’s account of Antiquity’s conception of space and its axial system of perspective aims to show that both are ‘essentially unmodern. Friedrich Schiller. they produce objects structured in a particular way. space exists only in so far as it is conceived as dimensions adhering to corporeal objects inhabiting a void. When Christopher Wood notes that.Margaret Iversen devoted to arguing just how far perspective departs from ‘actual’ perception. rather.A. It rationalises space. ‘Introduction’ to Erwin Panofksy. constitutes them. which is obviously not monocular or static or strictly by Maria Braga on March 10. being closer to nature. but of modelling an ideal sort of object. Zone Books: New York. 13. p. The key term here is ‘choose. pre-modern perspective assumes a naively mimetic. primitive. Antiquity’s Kunstwollen. 2010 . this is not the crucial point. visual conception of them. in the context of Panofsky’s other writing. critical insight that representations (mental and artistic) do not just copy objects. such as the central bulging and curvature of verticals. J. then. Christopher S. for. foreshortenings and diminution of size in depth.’13 Instead of immediacy. According to Panofsky. perspective is a model that relates vision to its objects. Naı¨ve and Sentimental Poetry and On the Sublime: Two Essays. Although Panofsky claims to favour modern perspective because it occupies a middle ground between the claims of the subject and the object. particularly at the edges of the field. geometric systmaticity. creates instinctively. that is.’ Although this is not spelled out.12 Compared with the rationalisation of represented space accomplished by Renaissance perspective construction.’ based on ‘an immediate sensory impression. it sticks closely to actual psycho-physiological effects or the subjective optical impression. Perspective as Symbolic Form. Downloaded from http://oaj. it reflexively includes the acknowledgment that it is a highly formalised kind of performance aimed at a spectator. that we are likely to miss the point. for Riegl. For him. The difference between Antique and Modern perspective is. 116. in this highly reflexive way. Panofksy. our modern perceived reality has become so thoroughly conditioned by perspectival forms of representation. This idea he borrowed from Riegl’s Late Roman Art Industry. Wood (MIT Press. the modern poet always ‘reflects upon the impression that objects make upon him. For Panofsky. Christopher S. Instead. Elias (Unger Press: New York. 41.

23. See Wood. In other words. It therefore has an ethical dimension. or too warmly expressionist or too eccentrically impressionistic. Yet it is not difficult to find unambiguous passages where he declares. 186 ff. 208.’16 In my view.or even anti-perspectival art – only swings between the polarities of its two-sided significance: ‘it creates room for bodies to expand plastically and move gesturally. Panofsky. See also the importance of the perceptual psychology of Guido Hauck in Podro. Riegl. The Critical Historians (1982). ‘In granting Renaissance linear perspective special status Panofsky moved away from Riegl. that modern perspective has only relative validity and could be coming to an end in our post-Euclidian world. as a history of their progressive spiritualisation. Panofsky was interested primarily in discovering an absolute viewpoint. appreciated Hegel’s sense of the way the historian of art is situated in a particular moment that determines what objects can come into view and be salient for us and what questions can be asked of them. that the languages of primitive peoples are ‘still entirely rooted in immediate sensory impressions. on the other. teleological history with a relativist typology. these are mainly confined to the footnotes and overwhelmed by a sense of its constituting a permanent and legitimate paradigm of representation that enables fairly wide variation. trans. p. such as myth and language. It would seem that in Panofsky’s view. there can be no non. pp. 16. p. Since Panofsky adopts Renaissance art as an authoritative viewpoint. however.The Discourse of Perspective in the Twentieth Century 15. but one proximate influence on his thinking was the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer.15 Cassirer wrote a history of symbolic forms.’20 While Riegl and Panofsky share the same Hegelian inheritance. ‘Introduction to Erwin Panofksy’ (1997).2 2005 197 Downloaded from http://oaj. Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (Verlag Cassirer: Berlin. for example. and yet at the same time it enables light to spread out in space and in a painterly way dissolve the bodies. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. The notion that Panofsky was a relativist because he challenged the representational accuracy of perspective is quite widespread. See Panofsky. 17. I. the limits of which are the limits of a humanistic art. he attempted to combine the incompatible positions of a progressive. 1955). Like Panofsky. 18. the question of the right balance between these tendencies must be determined: measure and proportion must be balanced against the distorting effects of point of view. In it and his other early writing. guilty either of being too coldly mathematical or objectivising. 1923) between a substantialist conception of objects and a functionalist one.’17 He is probably thinking here of the difference between Italian and Northern Baroque painting and sculpture. an a priori aesthetic norm is implicit in the system and it is backed up by epistemological and ethical norms. 19. He could acknowledge. and so promoting an art practice that embodies an Aristotelian mean between extremes. for example.19 The privileging of the Renaissance has certain consequences for the model of art history implicit in Panofsky’s essay. As Christopher Wood says. Ernst by Maria Braga on March 10. because of the epistemological status of perspective. that is. he deforms Riegl’s conception of art as a history of the Kunstwollen. Ralph Mannheim (Yale University Press: New Haven and London. on the one hand. OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28. 153–4. 22. Perspective as Symbolic Form (1997). including the idea that a particular world view is formulated in works of art. Panofsky’s conception of the crucial distinction between Antique and Modern perspective is over determined. 202. p. pp. p. footnote 73. encompasses both itself and its other.’ while more advanced languages ‘display great freedom and abstract clarity in the expression of logical relations. which is amplified by the idea of a balancing objectivity against subjectivity. 2010 . It was published in the Vortra¨ge der Bibliothek Warburg (1924–1925). for example. Cassirer and Panofsky were colleagues at the University of Hamburg and at the Warburg Institute where the paper on perspective was first delivered.oxfordjournals. vol. However. an object conceived as a function of the rules that generate it. Wood. 67. for him. Panofsky naturalises Antique perspective as mimesis of the optical impression so that it can serve as a dark cloth against which the constructive and rational character of Renaissance linear perspective sparkles like a gem. 20. post-Renaissance art that differs substantially from its norm is doomed to err on one side or the other.18 Although there is some residual Rieglian relativism in the essay with suggestions. Perspective as Symbolic Form (1997). perspective. perspective implies the possibility of human agency and free-will. After the Renaissance. ‘Introduction to Erwin Panofksy’ (1997). Language. Also important for Panofsky’s distinction is Cassirer’s book.

M. however. or marquetry. It systematically organises material and positions an ‘I’ over against a correlative ‘you’. 23. 21 In contrast. B. described in his On Painting. Damisch 21.2 2005 24. Alberti’s veil. ‘Der Begriff des Kunstwollens’ (‘The Concept of the Kunstwollen’). . 283). 22.’22 Panofsky later questioned the value of these concepts. More than anything else they represent ‘a play of thought’ (p. Panofsky’s sense of the historicity of art historical thinking ends with the attainment of a quasi-transcendental perspective. less politely. perspective is a materially embodied theory or epistemological model – a way of reflecting on our relation to representation. 1964). 2002). When dealing with 198 OXFORD ART JOURNAL by Maria Braga on March 10. In fact. the ‘referential prejudice’ (p. The system of relations that perspective imposes is a coherent system. 124. 263). p. 63. Claude Le trans. ‘The Concept of the Kunstwollen. ‘representation is not the only function of painting’ (p. Perspective. objective/subjective. Like any system it imposes constraints. Rather than relating the panels to some extra-pictorial reality. ‘Naturwerk und Kunstwerk. Damisch. 197). on his view. whether it be the architecture of Florence. K. particularly stress the epistemological status of perspective. things that have definite contours are selected. Sylvia Modelski (J. but retained his quest for a method that allowed one a detached. but the practice is informed by Le analysis of masks or myths. Alberti. has many of the same properties as a sentence. On Painting. It has an internal logic that allows us to consider it in its own terms and not only as a model of the visible world. 33. which do not lend themselves to perspective construction (unless you are an obsessive character like Piero).’ The term is ´ vi-Strauss’s borrowed from mathematics. ed. haptic/optic. 1983). selecting what is relevant. critical relation of mind to the world. trans. for Damisch the thought these panels demonstrate is much more self-contained: they represent a purely visual kind of thinking in which the relation of artwork to artwork is paramount. Cape: London. p. 25. This view is most clearly stated in Riegl. Theory of/Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting. While for Panofsky the perspectival work of art represents a reflexive. In other words.Margaret Iversen that his interest in late Roman art has something to do with the emergence of Impressionism. 1991). Filser: Augsburg and Vienna. 2010 Damisch is clearly attracted to some of the implications of thinking perspective as a symbolic form. At the heart of Damisch’s book is a critique of art historians burdened with what he calls the ‘representational hypothesis’ or. Swoboda (Dr. provide the art historian with a point of view outside the phenomena. although certainly not all the ones I have just detailed. such as the human figure. I’ (1901).23 Damisch’s earlier book A Theory of /Cloud/ is about the way those wispy phenomena nevertheless find their way into painting despite being marginalized by perspective’s ‘structure of exclusions. Downloaded from http://oaj. and so on.oxfordjournals. ´ vi-Strauss. He does. Hessling: Berlin. with an introduction by Martin Kemp (Penguin: London. trans. was designed precisely to deal with irregular bodies. For Damisch.’ he argued that concepts proposed by Riegl. For Damisch. the art historian inevitably participates in his contemporary Kunstwollen. Berlin and Baltimore proceeds by first prising them free from explanations of their style or iconography in terms of some referent.’24 Panofsky’s characterisation of perspective also appeals to Damisch as a modernist because perspective thus understood carries with it the recognition that no representation can be adequate to its object. in Aufsa¨tze zu Grundfragen der Kunstwissenschaft (B. in Gesammelte Aufsa¨tze. in this case. distanced point of view. 1929). scenography. Janet Lloyd (University of Stanford Press: Stanford. That he conceives of perspective as embodying a different epistemology will soon become clear. ‘a fixed Archimedian point. In his 1920 essay. Cecil Grayson. Damisch aims to show that they constitute a ‘transformational group. The Way of the Masks. His long and staggeringly detailed analysis of the three panels of architectural views or Ideal Cities in Urbino. p. Panofsky.25 The panels form a set of three works that respond to one another in a play of formal oppositions and relations.

which. it offers ample compensations. it is a trap laid for the scopic drive (pp. On the other.’26 Lacan Downloaded from http://oaj. Early on in the book. Damisch underwrites Panofsky’s sense of perspective as a non-coercive model of thought: he describes it as a ‘regulative configuration intended not so much to inform the representation as to orient and control its regime’ (p. 46). 425). It marks a crisis of subjectivity and knowledge that becomes apparent in Descartes’s Discourse on Method where the subject is reduced to a point. Theory of /Cloud/ (2002). For Damisch. lack. But can Damisch shift between understanding perspective as a model of thought and understanding it as equivalent to Lacan’s symbolic order without a terrible grinding of gears? It is clear what motivated Damisch to introduce both ´ vi-Strauss and Lacan – effectively substituting them for Panofsky’s Le Cassirer. and freedom. his dependence. Damisch also makes claims about the way these panels affect the subject and for this he has recourse to Lacan’s conception of the symbolic order. ´ vi-Strauss in his formulation of Since Lacan was. caught up in the picture (p. 51). his void. a legitimate position – legitimate both epistemologically and ethically. And yet. costruzione legittima. this extension makes perfect sense. It came to OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28. and links this with the later institution of the Cartesian subject – itself a sort of geometral point (p. p. 46). we are programmed. critical distance. organise the psychoanalytic field. and desire. it offers for the first time. 181. 233). along with the imaginary and the real. like Kant’s a priori categories of thought. The tour de force of Damisch’s analysis of the ‘Urbino’ panels is enough to convince me of the critical productivity of this idea. he claims that perspective is ‘antiHumanist’ (p. the Cogito. and separated by an abyss from extended substance. but we are apparently less able to think about self-reflexive figurative art. 45). in fact. seduced. can be both subjectively constituted and objectively valid. This explains why Panofsky revived the formerly obscure term for single point perspective construction. 44). by Maria Braga on March 10.2 2005 199 . ‘Perspective provides a means of staging this capture and of playing it out in a reflexive mode’ (p. Our understanding of the world. whether scientific or pictorial. On the one hand. alienation. The psychoanalytic. 2010 The symbolic order is one of Lacan’s three terms. Far from the subject being decentred in relation to the structure. influenced by Le the symbolic order.The Discourse of Perspective in the Twentieth Century 26. Although perspective conceived as a symbolic form abstracts radically from perceived reality and effectively denies the possibility of any unmediated knowledge of the world. 184–5). He cites Lacan’s observation that perspective reduces man to an eye and the eye to a point. he also wants to preserve Panofsky’s reflexive moment: he continues. informed by the model (p. Damisch beautifully summed up these latter implications in his/Cloud/book: ‘Painting has power to make man sensible of his own nothingness. Damisch sometimes understands the effects of the picture in purely Lacanian terms: we are subjected. But are these models compatible? We’ve seen that the Panofskian epistemological model of perspective carries with it implications or connotations of rationality. Damisch. Lacanian model carries with it a quite different set of connotations: seduction. abstract art we are accustomed to the idea of painting about painting. the subject of perspective has no such confidence: it constitutes a subject that is ‘to become that of modern science in the form of a point’ (p.oxfordjournals. reflexivity.

abstracts fundamentally from the here and now. the physical.28 Damisch proposes that the vanishing point. This thread. perspective as a paradigm operates like the imposition of language on the individual and has. at the same time defining himself as I and a partner as you.2 2005 27. there were two panels: the one of the Baptistry and one of the Palazzo de’Signori. E subject in speech is Damisch’s model for this account. The Science of Art: Optical Theories in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (Yale University Press: New Haven and London. consequently the vanishing point has the value of a look of the Other. is capable of snatching the spectator. For Damisch. like the intervention of the father in the Freudian Oedipal scenario. which is frequently marked in painting of the period by a depicted aperture. For an attempt at reconstruction of these and the technicalities associated with them.. in the face of the “subject” as always already ´ mile Benveniste’s theorisation of the imbrication of the there’ (p. in which he drilled a peep hole through a small wooden panel depicting the Florence Baptistery so that one could peer through it from behind and see an astoundingly illusionistic depiction reflected in a mirror. is demonstrated by Brunelleschi’s first experiment. This. inexorably determining. 1990). decentering. 2010 . of a look that constitutes me as viewer. 227). ´ mile Benveniste. This spectator finds him or herself looked at by the painting. according to Damisch. Brunelleschi’s first biographer. in The Language of the Self. As Damisch notes. Since the imposition of the symbolic order breaks up the dyad of mother and child.’29 Similarly. ‘The perspective paradigm effectively posits the other. For example. According to Manetti. narcissistic self of the imaginary is shattered. will from thenceforth have the significance of a look back. or better. 1971).27 In ´ vi-Strauss and the linguist Roman its formulation. extra-personal quality of Lacan’s symbolic order. On the contrary. Mary Elizabeth Meek (University of Miami Press: Coral by Maria Braga on March 10. For Lacan. 1968). resolutely impersonal system of signifiers is none the less salutary because it functions. The subject of perspective is consequently decentred in relation to this prior point of sight or gaze implied by the depiction (p. E Linguistics. For Benveniste. trans. as described by Antonio Manetti. 446). 28. Problems in General 29. substantial father becomes a function – a function essentially of symbolic castration and prohibition. 115 ff). our subjection to this pre-established. he thinks. lured. 388). Jacques Lacan. the same effect of subjectification. Fla. like a fish on a line.. transfixed. ‘language puts forth “empty forms” which a speaker in the exercise of discourse. appropriates to himself and which he relates to his “person”. Downloaded from http://oaj. Damisch interprets the perspective paradigm as having precisely the determining. trans. in the visual register. ‘The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis’. 227. Perspective is imagined by Damisch as the visual equivalent of the discourse of the Other. 200 OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28. as a third term breaking up the dyadic stasis and narcissistic identification that characterises the imaginary register. Lacan borrowed from Le Jakobson their stress on the structural relations amongst signifiers constituting a system rather than on what is symbolised. into the picture.Margaret Iversen prominence in his work with the 1953 Rome Discourse where it was understood as the most important determining order of the subject. ‘this subject holds only by a thread’ (p. see Martin Kemp. The symbolic order. The windows and half open doors of the ‘Urbino’ panels are. 266). with its visual ‘sentence structure’ (dispositif d’enunciation ) addresses me with an implicit look (p. He makes this case by arguing that the vanishing point is equivalent to the point of view – they ‘coincide on the plane of projection’ and. yet there is very little sense of the anguish and desire that runs through Lacan’s sense of the subject’s relation to the symbolic Other. which leads from the eye of the observer to the vanishing point. perspectival representation. desire for the lost unattainable object is set in motion and the ideal.oxfordjournals. one could say. This should put paid to the common view that the subject of perspective is placed in a dominant position of mastery. summoned to take up his position. p. notes and commentary by Anthony Wilden (John Hopkins Press: Baltimore. ‘looking at you with all their eyes’ (p.

Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. 127–70. (MIT Press: Cambridge. if one follows Lacan. 178–98. but to the gaze as objet petit a (the real). trans. The real in the scopic field is formed when the eye splits itself off from its original immersion in visibility and the gaze as objet petit a is expelled. ‘The Return of the Real’. Seminar XIII: L’objet de la psychanalyse (unpublished seminar). 3. pp. Lacan is concerned not so much with the symbolic as with its limits. vol.32 The eye would then be master of all it surveyed were it not for the spot or void left behind by what had to be excluded. he does hint at what might be its other modalities. MA and London.33 Lacan singles out anamorphosis as an illustration of the way perspective captures the spectator by presenting something that eludes my grasp. pp. 32– 58. 1979).30 But perhaps this contradiction between Damisch’s and Copjec’s views can be resolved by saying that a subject alienated in the symbolic aspect of perspective would be a disembodied one. In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. p. 32. and real intersect and overlap. Damisch’s attention to the linguistic or structural or symbolic modality of perspective means that he tends to suppress the two other modalities of Lacanian psychoanalysis. the equivalent of ‘pops’ and tears in the printing process. This spot is said to ‘look back at me. That flicker becomes the object of the scopic drive and the encounter with it is wounding. Art History. there is nonetheless a real residue. any analogy between the subject of perspective and the Cartesian Cogito must be misplaced. ‘The Strut of Vision: Seeing’s Corporeal Support’. Jacques-Alain Miller. 1996). 1996). projected outside. a flicker that is the reflection of my own eye at the vanishing point. the imaginary centre of the painting is the mirror at OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28. since psychoanalysis posits an embodied subjectivity. no. This spot is. Joan Copjec. imaginary. Copjec. on which Copjec draws. Joan Copjec has argued strenuously that Lacan used the model of perspective as a formula of the relation of the corporeal subject to the visual field. 184. this implies that while the body is elided behind the panel. so to speak. I would like to foreground these hints in order to develop a less univocal view of the subject’s relation to perspective. 1993. the point of the real’ (p. For her. Hal Foster. I owe this very Merleau-Pontian formulation to Alenka Zupanicic. ed. 2010 .The Discourse of Perspective in the Twentieth Century 30. And.’34 And since the vanishing point is both structural and. trans. Richard Howard (Hill and Wang: New York. in some ways elusive.36 In his reading of Velasquez’s Las Meninas. See my ‘What is a Photograph?’. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. ‘The Strut of Vision’ (2002).31 The sections on perspective set out to theorise the subject’s relation. In terms of the Brunelleschian demonstration. Although the technical perspectival vanishing point of this painting is on the arm of the man at the door. ‘appear’ in all three registers. Gaze and Voice as Love Objects (Duke University Press: Durham and London. if you like. that disrupt the surface of Warhol’s ‘Death in America’ silk screens. He writes that the effect of this is ‘to introduce into a configuration intended to create an illusion.35 The closest Damisch comes to conceiving of the vanishing point in the register of the real is when he notes the physical hole in the surface of the Urbino Ideal City panel right at the vanishing point. ‘Philosophers Blind Man’s Bluff’. 1966. Although Damisch presses in this book the purely symbolic character of perspective. 341). 31. Alan Sheridan (Penguin Books: Harmondsworth. like Barthes’s description of the effect of the photographic punctum. 101–18. in Imagine There’s no Woman: Ethics and Sublimation. Roland Barthes.2 2005 201 Downloaded from http://oaj. pp.oxfordjournals. 33. 17. described by Hal Foster. I suggest that perspective can. Yet I think Joan Copjec is right to say that we are mistaken if we take that effect as ‘an occasional rather than as a structurally necessary phenomenon. I mention this because Barthes’s book relies on Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts. Lacan. in fact it does so in Lacan’s unpublished Seminar 13 of 1966. in The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the by Maria Braga on March 10. (MIT Press: Cambridge and London. 35.’ because it is an intimate part of myself. In that Seminar. Jacques Lacan. 36. 1981). it can perhaps better serve the purpose than anamorphosis. May 4. Lacan figured its underside as an anamorphic skull – the blind spot of conscious perception. Damisch finally relents and suggests that perspective may also have an imaginary function. not to the look of the big Other (the symbolic). but that perspective has other modalities. The three registers of the symbolic. a part object. 34. pp. Lacan argues that the ‘real’ of the subject’s body and drives looks back from the picture and not necessarily from the vanishing point. in Renata Salecl and Slavoj Zizek (eds). 2002). Since death is one of the realities alienated by the ego.

including his own. Brunelleschi’s perspective panel of the Baptistery has a very weak provenance.Margaret Iversen the back of the room. I am sure. after reading what Damisch proposes as the historical transformational group relating to the panel – Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage Portrait. 38. Damisch acknowledges. ‘If there is any such thing as history. the film theorists were not mistaken. The subject of knowledge. produced by the system in which it has a designated place. Here ‘critical distance’ is not conceived of as empty or abstract space as it is in Panofsky. Spring 1990. He writes.oxfordjournals. Manetti. lateral viewpoint. 443–4).2 2005 . it is replete with the intervening artistic and theoretical developments that inflect the way we understand the past. is thus sprung out of any embeddedness in his or her own cultural/intellectual milieu. called the distance point in perspective construction. 11. says Damsich. Imaginary perspective would be one in which the apparatus disappeared and we were given an image having that ‘belongs to me aspect. which applies universally to the subject of perspective. October. the Urbino perspectives. p. 37. Here Damisch gestures towards a way of going beyond Panofsky’s Kantian reflexivity. for Damisch. The mirror as marker of the imaginary register in Las Meninas opens up the possibility that. the art historian.’ ‘Panofsky’s valorization of perspective forges an apparently non-problematic access to the rationalized space of the past. The Four Fundamental Concepts (1979). would wish to distance himself. the narcissistic ego ‘tries to find its own reflection’ (p.37 Damisch makes an intriguing point about the complex composition of Las Meninas that deserves further elaboration: the painting. We saw that one of the implications for art history implicit in Panofsky’s essay was the deduction of quasi-transcendental terms that create a legitimate point of view for the field of study. in splitting these viewpoints and functions. ‘the subject is.’38 This is one implication from which Damisch. Damisch’s treatment of it reminds me of the hypothesis of the big bang in astrophysics. Downloaded from http://oaj. and making them palpable. The Origin of Perspective is itself an eloquent testimony to the way history is constantly recast. for example. ‘The Temptation of New Perspectives’. 123). 81. 443). only described by his biographer some thirty years after his death. 441).’ as Lacan put it. 2010 202 OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28. As Stephen Melville put it in his essay. p. ‘reflects on its own operations’ (pp. At the first centre. after all. The light shining in from the right of the picture suggests another. and brushes aside charges of ‘anachronism’ brought by scholars of Renaissance art. the productive effects of Freud and Lacan on subsequent theorisations of perspective. 52. it must be conceded that it too takes the same route: one that leads through this echo chamber. It must exist to explain subsequent historical phenomena. Perhaps only at the end of the book. Rather. from which position the depth of the room would open up. so to speak.’ In the second centre. Lacan. Velasquez’s Las Meninas and Picasso’s variations on it – can one take seriously the claim that this missing panel represented the founding operation of modern painting which consisted of Brunelleschi piercing a hole in his panel and turning it around to view it in a mirror (p. ‘The Temptation of New Perspectives. The history practised in The Origin of Perspective is in this sense back to front. to a more limited but credible way of thinking the subject’s agency or room for manoeuver in relation to art and the image more generally. and curiously not even mentioned by Alberti. and Leonardo’ (p. Stephen Melville. this field of interference in which Freud’s text resonates with those of by Maria Braga on March 10.

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