Notebook, 1993-


Oblique Lines

The horizontal and vertical scheme, the right-angle construct, while being the clearest and, in so many ways, the most useful, is limited in at least one respect: It does not admit of much distinction between things standing at rest, maintaining themselves in position, and being in motion.

At some point in the child's development, it becomes very important that he or she be able to draw figures walking, running, falling, playing; branches reaching upward; birds flying; and the like. The increasing experience of motion, of control, in himself/herself, in others and in the environment, is something he or she must be able to put down graphically. Something similar may be said of image-making in tribal societies: There comes a time when worrisome restrictions and ambiguities must be overcome. The limitations of certain formulas, used for untold generations and accepted as the ritual form-language, may have to give way under pressure of new circumstances and socio-psychological necessities--witness the changes in the art of the Oglala Sioux that occurred with the coming of the day of the horse. We observe this kind of development in sculpture as well: A hierarchic stiffness is succeeded by movements of every kind and degree of suppleness.

It seems too simple from our vantage point, but the child's discovery of oblique lines is an important moment in his or her "career" as artist. In the art of evolved Western and Oriental societies, the oblique line plays a dual role at times: It not only conveys action, but it is one of the principal means of creating pictorial space, as we have seen. What is Renaissance perspective, central perspective, in essence and especially in its original form, but a graphic mathematical formulation of oblique lines relating to a particular understanding of optics and to a linear perception of time and space? With or without rules or principles, the diagonal line becomes for each of us a gradient of location in pictorial depth. Often it serves two purposes in the same drawing, design, or painting; not infrequently brisk, even violent, motion and depth are rendered simultaneously by the same diagonal thrust. Works as different in style and character as Paolo Uccello's famous The Flood, c. 1445-1447, or his panel Battle of San Romano, c. 1445, or Tintoretto's Crucifixion of 1565, or his Last Supper of 1592-94, or indeed one of Toulouse-Lautrec's circus or cabaret scenes of the 1880s-1890s, employing radical foreshortening, uptilted floor planes, and oblique projection, as seen in Japanese prints, provide examples of the use of diagonals to express conflict of physical or psychological forces or swift movements in and out of deep space.

The diagonal is at variance with the pull of gravity, as well as with the sense of equilibrium in the spectator and the parallel sides of the usual pictorial format. It signifies things in the throes of change, acting or being acted upon; and, as change must occur in time and space, both time and space, depending on how they are conceived (intellectually, spiritually, psychologically, culturally), find expression in works of art and architecture.

Kenneth Clark, in his excellent book The Nude, cites the relief sculptures from the frieze of Mausoleum (Mausolus of Caria in Asia Minor, c. 350 B.C.) as "an admirable example of heroic energy, and in particular, of the means through which it was so long expressed, that pose, or rhythmic accent, which I may call the heroic diagonal." Clark traces the use of the heroic diagonal in the paintings of Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1433-1498) and the works of Michelangelo (1475-1564).

It is interesting to compare this development with that of Frank Lloyd Wright, starting sometime in the 1930s, when he based the design of certain houses on the 120 angle of the hexagon, instead of the more conventional 90 of the rectangle. The result was a much easier flow of space, a destruction of corners, facilitating both physical and psychological movement throughout the building. Then, during the early 1940s, Wright's ideas about "plasticity and continuity of space and structure" led him toward the circle. Finally, as though following the logic of organic and esthetic geometry, Wright favored more and more the principle of the spiral--for example, in his Guggenheim Museum of New York, 1957-1959.

Cubism, because it placed so much importance on the straight line and articulation of movements in space by means of directional planes, led directly to a kind of painting in which diagonal action would be of unique importance. Movement and countermovement would return to art in the new idiom--in the prismatic, spiraling action of Robert Delaunay's paintings of the Eiffel Tower, 1910-1912, in the cinematic movement of Marcel Duchamps's painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912, in Futurist Paintings, or in the sensitively balanced weights, the multiple perspectives and cadences of Paul Klee's drawings and paintings.

Other developments that owed something to Cubism were Suprematism and Constructivism, 1910-1930, in Russia. Their interests centered forcibly upon a utopian purity of line, color, and plane. These were meant to apply immediately to a revolutionary age of mass communication, machine production, unprecedented efficiency, of "godlike plentitude" and self-sufficiency.

The camera, Japanese prints (from the 1850s), popular entertainment, the yearly triumphs of the Industrial Age, the rise of the modern city--Paris itself!--had more than a little to do with the use of diagonals in modern art and design. Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec discovered in each of these a new way of seeing things. Japanese prints, from the moment they were "discovered" by artists in the early 1860s, had suggested a more casual way of locating things, people, and events in shallow space. Photography, invented around 1839, was advancing to the point of being able to capture bodies and movements in even more unconventional perspectives. The spectacles of the music halls, cabarets, fairs, and circuses of the 1880s and 1890s, where much of the high spirits of the age were concentrated, would provide wholly new subjects and situations. Views from high, low, "candid" angles of vision, resulted in paintings full of unfamiliar, stolen "takes" on people and events.

Diagonals and curves are deceptive. They often convey the very essence of randomness and disorder, as in the case of the scattered matches, or of the prodigal disarray of nature following a storm or a flood, or of the great junk heaps of the industrial age. They are associated as often with constructive energies as with destructive energies; but, because they are associated in some way or another with energy, they provoke us to look beyond the accidental to underlying patterns.

The familiar checking patterns of concrete, ceramic glazes, paint, or of a field of mud that has dried under a hot sun would qualify in the minds of many persons as the most accidental or capricious patterns in nature. Yet, these patterns are all remarkably alike and conform closely to what is known as the orthogonal net (involving right angles or perpendiculars). Most lines (Cracks), despite their curvature and directional orientation, form the simplest of all nets. The cracking is sequential. When a fissure occurs, it joins an existing fissure by creating the three-rayed intersection.

We encountered the notion of kinetic energy earlier in this chapter in connection with the line, the broken line that is the result of a trail of points, lines that "go for a walk", and rhythmical patterns We understand what Paul Klee meant when he said: "All figuration is movement, because it begins and ends somewhere."

The problem is to gain some knowledge of the energies--potential and kinetic--that "create and articulate forms in nature," in order that they may "serve as a basis for the creation of free and composite forms." Knowledge, not only of these energies as separate types, but of their synthesis in various forms, patterns, and organisms in nature, must accompany individual developments. Figuration must represent something definable in the life history of the object and its function.

We could hardly do better than study Chinese landscape paintings, starting with the great Li Ch'eng or Fan K'uan of the tenth or early eleventh century, masters of the early Sung Dynasty, for examples of forms that were conceived largely in terms of energy or vital force. Cézanne's landscapes would yield similar evidence, and Leonardo's nature studies would convince us of the need to adjust our looking and thinking beyond even the cultural framework of his time--he was certainly ahead of his time in most things. Kenneth Clark makes these comments on Leonardo and his preoccupations: "I remember that the Virgin with St. Anne was painted at a period in his life when his mind was absorbed by three scientific studies, anatomy, geology and the movement of water. The movement of water symbolized for him the relentless continuum of natural force; anatomy the complexity of life and its power of renewal; and from his geological studies he had formed the concept that the whole world was breathing and renewing itself like a living organism. In one of his manuscripts he says: "The earth has a spirit of growth. Its flesh is the soil, its bones the stratifications of the rock which forms the mountains, its blood the springs of water; and the increase and decrease of blood in the pulses is represented in the earth by the ebb an flow of the sea." Everything in nature, even the solid-seeming earth, was in a state of flux." [Kenneth Clark, Looking at Pictures (NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc. 1960), p. 164]

We no longer find it difficult to accept the idea that motion is the norm. But, from our limited human perspective, some things move, change more rapidly than others. Some things seem hardly to change at all. Therefore we characterize some forms as static--fixed or stationary--and others as dynamic. The former often consists of verticals (upright figures withstanding the pull of gravity) and horizontals (fallen figures overcome by gravity) based on our visual and physical experience of gravitation from early childhood. The latter consist mainly of diagonals and curves.

[Harlan, Calvin. Vision & Invention, An Introduction to Art Fundamentals. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986.]



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