The Long View

The Long View

Inscription from a statue of King Djoser, Third Dynasty of Egypt by Massimo Scolari.
Courtesy MIT Press

Oblique Drawing:
A History of Anti-Perspective

Massimo Scolari
MIT Press, $40.00

While the study of artificial and natural perspective has yielded a huge literature, its inverse has received only sporadic attention. Massimo Scolari’s Oblique Perspective: A History of Anti-Perspective intends to shift the balance by redirecting our attention to non-(or anti)-perspective. As architect, scholar, and artist, Scolari is eminently qualified for the job.

Its wealth of historical material notwithstanding, Scolari’s volume doesn’t qualify as a true history, nor does it offer an alternative to traditional methodologies in the field, despite its avoidance of the standard chronological structure. In fact the fragile framework imposed by chapter divisions proves unable to contain the flow of text that meanders through time and place, turning back upon itself as it wanders through Assyria, Egypt, China, etc. Scolari dawdles in tangential discussions, leaping in what seems random order from one example to the next. While each episode is engaging, one finds no overarching principle or cohesive structure with which to connect the tales. As a result, his “story” overwhelms when it should instruct, perplexes when it should illuminate. The book is an extravaganza of digression.



In fact, this is not an entirely new topic. Yves-Alain Bois opened the conversation with his excellent article, "Metamorphosis of Axonometry," some 30 years ago. Unlike Scolari he restricted his discussion to the rebirth of axonometry in the 20th century in the work and writings of such avant-garde artists as Van Doesberg, Malevich, and Lissitzky. He found the origins of axonometry in perspectival treatises and scientific, cartographic, machine, and military illustrations. He then proceeded to suggest the relevance of these early applications to 20th-century architectural practice. He spotted the difficulty Scolari himself faces in attempting a comprehensive survey, arguing that: “There are several different ‘ideologies’ of axonometry. It has been used in many different, often contradictory ways: Jesuit strategists of the 18th century used it quite differently than Lissitzky, Albers, and painters of the Japanese Renaissance, or Russian constructivist architects.” Scolari may have seen the problem but doesn’t resolve it.

Other troubling issues plague Scolari’s book. Oblique Drawing promises to be a scholarly work with its encyclopedic text and copious notes. But the reader has to wade through two dense chapters before chancing on Scolari’s definition of his subject tucked away in Footnote 88 in Chapter 3. This essential information surely belongs in the main body of text, and his lengthy excursions into different cultures would be better slipped into footnotes or even a separate appendix. His many remarkable insights disappear in the proliferation of information and the book fails to be user-friendly for those accustomed to the ease of internet research.

Understanding images in their own time frame remains a complicated task. Scolari struggles to tease the original meaning out of the drawings by providing a wealth of apposite documents to guide our interpretation of the fascinating little black and white illustrations that pepper the text and notes. As an artist and scholar he is remarkably well suited to a purely visual analysis informed by his wide knowledge. While we do learn much from his careful looking when it is offered, he frequently falls back on the treatise as the sole reliable source for deciphering meaning. As the late art critic and philosopher Leo Steinberg explains in his essay “The Mute Image and the Meddling Text,” such dependence solely on textual interpretation may prove misleading and often produce disturbing inaccuracies. Artists and architects tend to break rules or reinvent them as they work.

Further along in the book Scolari examines some non-Western “proto-axonometic” images. Though he dedicates some notable pages to a discussion of Egyptian visual culture, he doesn’t indicate how his exploration diverges from or expands upon the definitive earlier work by the distinguished scholar Heinrich Schafer whom he does cite. More significantly, he neglects Emma Brunner-Traut’s epilogue that explains Schafer’s notion of “aspective” (her term), or what Schafer believed to be the guiding principle in Egyptian representation. Similarly, Scolari revisits much of the same material that first appeared in Samuel Edgerton’s chapter on Jesuits in the East in The Heritage of Giotto’s Geometry without contributing new insights into the way misreading may alter our interpretation of illusionism.

Scolari initiates a gripping exploration of some syncretic manifestations of oblique perspective. Most studies on the subject occur in monographs on specific monuments such as the relief spandrels that once decorated the facade on the temple of Amavarati in India or the Theodosian Obelisk base in Istanbul. These works reveal the complex way remnants of Greco-Roman perspective systems combine with local forms to generate a new visual language in which traces of older systems meld with newer ones for the expressive needs of an evolving visual culture. Scolari’s brief discussion of syncretism serves to identify the need for a more profound investigation of this complex subject—one that might include such literary sources as Orhan Pamuk’s historical murder mystery My Name is Red. (The novel hinges on the exposure of the betrayal of Turkish painters who secretly learned the perspective technique of the “infidel Frankish masters.” The tale reveals the allure of Western perspective for the miniaturists despite its static, monocular system.) Scolari might have touched on the deeper issues behind the way Western perspective challenges Eastern beliefs that impel their mode of representing space.

Yet, despite its weaknesses this enormous compendium, a result of his wide-ranging teaching and the conclusion of a long personal involvement, does provide an excellent resource for artists, architects, and historians. And, finally, what Oblique Perspective does achieve is to underscore the need for a more comprehensive study, or perhaps even many studies.

But the book’s greatest contribution is the way it enhances our understanding and appreciation of Scolari’s exquisite drawings, recently shown at Yale University School of Architecture (Massimo Scolari: The Representation of Architecture, 1967–2012). Here, Scolari provides a full-page reproduction of Joseph Futenbach the Elder’s Mannhafter Kunstspiegel done in 1642. One quickly detects how this obscure work shares a powerful affinity with the way Scolari’s magical buildings inhabit space. As we follow his choice of illustrations we begin to grasp the relevance or even urgency of this subject for his own work. We are indeed grateful for the chance to enrich our comprehension of the way his unique vision has evolved and the importance of its place in the history of representation.