Klee’s Spatial Illusion and the Everyday Visual Experience

In 1921, Paul Klee delivers a lecture in perspective. There he explains to his students that “the point of the entire procedure is simply to be able to exercise control,” and that “accurate perspective drawing has no merit whatsoever, if for no other reason than anybody can do it.”

Uncomposed Objects in Space by Paul Klee, 1929

After the departure of Gropius, the Bauhaus comes under the direction of Hannes Meyer, its radical functionalism. Is at this time that Klee held a course titled Contributions to a Pictorial Theory of Form, and here, under the heading “Deviation from the Form”, Klee gave his students forewarning of the theme of “stray centres,” or “stray viewpoints.”

A year later he painted Uncomposed Objects in Space (1929), in which the entire composition seems governed by linear perspective. In reality, the vanishing point is dislocated to multiple “stray centres” and the perspective is so off centre that it could not even be classified as axial or ‘fishbone’ perspective, the latter term having been used by Erwin Panofsky two years before to describe ancient perspective.

 

Diomede (mind the ‘fishbone’-perspective)

Panofsky ‘fishbone’ representation method, was a complicated spherical perspective that could be schematized in a ‘fishbone’ pattern, in which the points of convergence were aligned on a vertical axis. Klee probably had no direct knowledge of Panofsky’s idea, but in his watercolour Uncomposed Objects in Space, he uses converging parallelepipeds to create an apparent unitary composition even though there is no single viewpoint, just several ‘stray centres’ that are not plotted along a vertical axis. I do not believe to be appropriate to criticize Klee’s painting for its lack of perspective precision, or to question whether the recession of parallelepipeds in space is correctly executed or not. The illusion is obtained by means of a simple composition procedure. My question, however, would be to enquire about the nature of the relationship between Klee’s painting and everyday visual experience. In cities, environments that are mostly geometric, the apparent convergence of the architectural elements and the straight lines of the streets signal that one is moving through three-dimensional space. The edges of a street may only be seen as parallel in an axonometric representation: if they appear as parallel in real life as well, this means that what is being viewed – and this is only possible from a single viewpoint – is in fact an anamorphic construction.

Klee’s rule four says: “Know your viewpoint. Perspective is about your position in relation to the world, and once you know it, you can mess with it


literature | Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, 1924-1925, MIT Press, 1991 // Oblique Drawing, Massimo Scolari, MIT Press, 2012

 

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