Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Development of Planism and Line in Art History

This is cross-posted at my outdoors and running blog.

Looking toward the south side from the Genesee Highlands area of San Diego. Acrylic on canvas. Do note I make no representation of skill; my rule for myself is from stepping out my front door, to picking up the canvas to go home, can be no more than 30 minutes, including travel time. You can tell, but it's still fun.

When you're out running, you perceive massive amounts of information just for a moment (that rock on the trail, that lizard skittering in front of you, a patch of mustard flowers hanging out from the chaparral to the side) and literally after a second all that experience is gone, and you're left with an impression of a ridge and a valley with yellow grass and mint-green sage. That's okay; you can't take the sense-experience with you.

I'm not the first runner or outdoor enthusiast who's wanted to pay tribute to the lands I know and love by reproducing them in my own hand, by writing or painting, so I thought I'd try filtering Rose Canyon through a planist perspective. "Planism" is an umbrella term I use to catch many styles of art, including some named 20th century schools (including cubism) but also van Gogh and in particular Cezanne. I think given my lack of training it's clear that the idea is more interesting than the execution, but it at least prompted me to think about where my interest in this style comes from:

1) Planism is how humans actually see. We break the world into surfaces. This has been investigated scientifically and I've also had a number of personal experiences reinforcing and highlighting this aspect of visual perception. By this I mean the kinds of experiences that nature forces on you, if you're paying attention. Climbing a steep trail in mountainous country, endless parallel ridges backing up to the horizon reveal themselves this way and in so doing lift one corner of the veil off the inner workings of how our consciousness quietly knits itself together moment-to-moment. Even staring through a tree long enough can make the branches seem to suddenly stratify into planes of non-continuous depth. "Line" in representative art seems often (usually?) to really just be a way to emphasize the break between planes, a discontinuity in depth, and that's what inspired my amateurish effort here. Apparently in Europe a century or two ago the fashionable debate was between followers of Ruben or Poussin, who debated whether line or color should demarcate surfaces. Evidently none of these people were ever in the outdoors in California, because here, line clearly does exist in nature.

2) The recent history of line in Western art is a history of planism. Cubism and some of the other 20th-century -isms were descended from or influenced by Cezanne and van Gogh, who broke scenes into planes favoring certain angles (right or slightly acute in the case of cubism). Cezanne's paintings in particular (especially later in his career) flattened scenes into non-contiguous planes, often using dark lines.

Mont-Sainte Victoire, 1885,
image courtesy

Also moving toward a more planar style was van Gogh, influenced by Asian and in particular Japanese art which hadn't yet assimilated three-dimensional perspective or realism. (This is no indictment of perspective or realism as aberrations of European art - it's under-appreciated that realism was independently developed in sculpture at least one other time by the Maya.) In the end, if I'm trying imitate anybody, it's Cezanne, but true imitation would require talent and technique which as you may have noticed are absent in the work above.

3) The Pacific Northwest. A form of planism that absolutely fascinates me is the style traditionally referred to as Haida, but it really spans the Pacific Northwest culture region. (By planism I specifically mean art which appears to intentionally overemphasize the surfaces in a scene by a dramatically decomposing them into planes. I'm not referring to all art which lacks perspective, which would be a useless term since it would mean, for starters, every drawing ever beginning Lascaux through 15th century Europe.) I might be trying to imitate Pacific NW style even more than Cezanne (except in full color, on canvas):

From wikistange.

This technique breaks up the animal in stylized ways, emphasizing through relative-size-exaggeration functionally important parts of the animal; teeth, claws, head and eyes; on birds, the wings and their anticipated movements are prominent. Most interesting is that Pacific NW representations are essentially the same in both two and three dimensions - that is, the style in drawings is essentially the same as the style in wood-carving. Think about that: they have more wood than they knew what to do with, and yet when the style was developing they ended up imposing planes on three dimensions rather than imposing depth on two.

Boy, that's a whole lot of talkin' for one painting. If you made it this far I hope it was interesting to you.

I haven't decided whether the next one will be another planist attempt (on San Clemente Canyon, i.e. Marian Bear) or I'll do a Pacific Northwest mountain lion.

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