Monday, 10 December 2012

Suspension of disbelief: Van't Padje, Scheyndel, Rosetsu, Boissieu, Pintz & Sadeler


What are some ways that artists can fully engage a viewer?



Samuel Coleridge’s famous phrase “suspension of disbelief,” from his Biographia Literaria (1817), is a fine description of the way that viewers often engage with artworks. By this I mean that they “suspend” their conscious thoughts about how the image was created and immerse themselves in a visual dialogue with the image (as discussed in the earlier post, Five key responses to art.). For instance, when I look at Reflections, by one my students, Jason Van’t Padje, a feeling of being metaphorically absorbed within the image occurs; the image is simply riveting and I find difficulty in looking away. In short, my engagement with the reality of knowing that I am looking at an image is suspended and replaced with a state of reverie in which I enter into the spatial realm of the image.


Jason Van’t Padje
Reflections, 2012
Digital image
Sadly, sometimes this “suspension” collapses when viewers are unable to overlook technical shortcomings, such as the incorrect position of the reflected moon in Gillis van Scheyndel’s (active, 1622–79) rare night-scene, Landscape in Moonshine (shown below). 

Gillis van Scheyndel (active, 1622–79)
Landscape in Moonshine, c. 1650
Etching on paper without visible chainlines, watermarked “J. Kool”
9.8 x 14.3 cm (plate); 16.7 x 20.4 cm (sheet)
Hollstein 115 lll (of lll)
Condition: strong impression with wide margins, remnants of mounting hinges (verso), in very good condition. I am selling this print for $180 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the Buy Now button below.


This print has been sold
View of whole sheet
Detail of Gillis van Scheyndel’s Landscape in Moonshine, c. 1650

Whether an artist’s goal is, or even should be, about suspending a viewer’s disbelief cannot be answered with a definitive “yes” or “no.” After all, there will always be exceptions to any broad proposal. Moreover, following a discussion with a colleague, I have come to understand that there are some viewers who will never experience total immersion in an artwork. They are simply not disposed to “letting go” (i.e. they are unable to forget that they are looking at an artwork regardless whether this may be an image or a movie) and so any endeavour to induce total immersion in an artwork is a doomed exercise.

To be frank, even I struggle to suspend my disbelief when looking at artworks as my brain’s wiring engages in flicking between rationalising what I am looking at and immersion in a flow of reverie—what some refer to as being “in the zone.”  I am fully aware of this personal propensity as I am presently looking at Nagasawa Rosetsu’s (1754–99) painting, Standing Crane (shown below), hanging in my studio. In this flicker between conscious rationalisation and subconscious absorption in looking and feeling, the moment of rationalisation is when I marvel at the confidence of Rosetsu’s ink strokes and the unapologetic awkwardness of his composition (in the sense that the crane’s body tangentially brushes against the right edge of the painting). When my mind then flicks to a subconscious phase, I view the way that he portrays the crane as a point of departure for projecting my vision of the artist’s rebellious spirit (for which Rosetsu is famous) and imagine myself in the artist’s shoes.



Negasawa Rosetsu (also known as Gyo, Masakatsunoinn, Chougyo and Hyokei) (1754–99) or a follower of Rosetsu
(left) view of the whole scroll
(right) detail of image section
Standing Crane
Ink on paper scroll with bone roller ends
60 x 208 cm (scroll); 116 x 46 cm (image)
Condition: light surface wear to image and small perforations to mount, otherwise in good condition.
I am selling this painting for $490 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button below.




Rosetsu (Signature)
Gyo (Seal)
Detail of Rosetsu’s, Standing Crane

Regarding how artists work towards triggering a viewer’s shift from conscious scrutiny to subconscious engagement, one important device is the way an image is framed. To explain the subtle ways that a frame can play a major role, the following discussion will address a range frame types and underpinning issues that help to immerse the viewer into a visual dialogue with the image.

An interesting visual device to begin with is the keyhole effect that is essentially an optical illusion where the viewer examines the portrayed subject through a keyhole framed aperture. Like the Holly and Clover illusion discussed in the earlier posts, Representing light and Holly & Clover, the effect is to do with the silhouette edge and how the framing of a subject affects the way we perceive it. In the case of the Holly and Clover illusion, the effect is driven by either a scalloped format similar in shape to a holly leaf that pictorially “pushes” the framed subject backward into a void whereas a format shaped like a clover leaf pictorially “pulls” the framed subject forward. With the keyhole effect the illusion is not so much about a pictorial “push” and “pull,” but rather about creating a type of stereoscopic vision.

The illusion of three-dimensions that forms when looking at an image through a keyhole-like aperture—an “x”-shaped aperture has a similar effect to the traditional keyhole shape—is driven by a sensation of spatial disjunction. This experience probably arises from the viewer’s psychological abandonment of the surrounding space in favour of the realm visible through the opening. To demonstrate this odd phenomenon I will use Jean-Jacques de Boissieu’s (1736–1810) vignette portrait, Le Père Cotrot, Garçon Teinturier à Lyon (shown below).


Jean-Jacques de Boissieu (1736–1810)
Le Père Cotrot, Garçon Teinturier à Lyon, 1770
Etching, engraving, drypoint and roulette on Chine appliqué
20 x 16 cm (plate); 26.4 x 23.5 cm (sheet)
Signed in plate lower right: “DB 1770”

Perez 46
Condition: strong impression, damp patch lower right (2 cm from plate mark), traces of handling, otherwise in good condition.
I am selling this print for $148 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button below.





When this print is viewed as de Boissieu intended (i.e. with the head of Cotrot dissolving into his surroundings) the graphic representation of pictorial space surrounding Cotrot is designed to extend, with indulgence of a viewer’s suspension of disbelief, to the space that the viewer occupies. Essentially the two spatial realms—the graphic of the print and the real of the viewer—are metaphorically smudged. This is not the case when a keyhole or similar aperture frames the portrait of Cotrot, as shown below.

With an overlay of this kind, the space that the viewer occupies is divorced from the space surrounding Cotrot by virtue of the keyhole acting as a privileged viewpoint in what is essentially a wall-like barrier presented by the frame. Each viewer’s reading of what they see when looking through such an aperture will be different, but, from my reading, I see a fragment of a world that seems as real as the space I occupy. This illusion of a super reality underpins the keyhole effect and how it generates a suspension of disbelief in a spatial realm of which we can only have a glimpse.


The Keyhole Effect

From my explorations using different shaped formats I discovered that horizontals and verticals featured in the format shape interferes with this perception of spatial disjuncture. For example, in the experimental watercolours, Decorative Panel A and B shown below, I am not convinced that the square-edged format employed in them triggers the same perception of a super reality exhibited with the formal keyhole shape. Instead, the effect is like the Holly and Clover illusion of “push” and “pull” underpinning Rudolf Arnheim’s insight in Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye  (1974) that “convexity makes for the figure, convexity for the ground” (p. 232).

James Brown
(left) Decorative Panel A, 1991
(right) Decorative Panel B, 1991
Watercolour on Arches paper
(each panel) 61.8 x 35.8 cm
These paintings have been sold

Compare, for example, the effect when Boissieu’s print is viewed through a “+”- shaped aperture (shown below) to the effect when it is viewed through an “x”-shaped (shown further below). To my eyes the angled aperture of the “x”-shape creates a much stronger illusion of spatial disjuncture than I see with the “+”- shaped aperture.


View through a “+”-shaped aperture
View through an “x”-shaped aperture

Of course, any framing edge to an image acts as a line of demarcation separating the physical realm occupied by the viewer from the pictorial realm of the image. Going further, usually this line of demarcation acts as a picture plane window for the spatial illusion it frames, as can be seen in I.G. Pintz’s TAB. DVII—IOB. Cap. 1. v. 16. 18. 19. Decora et Pecora Iobi proftrata (shown below). Interestingly, Printz has made his window effect a critical component of this print by facilitating a visual dialogue between the framing edge and the pictorial depth of the image. This notion of dialogue arises because the motifs represented in the engraved frame contain skulls, storm clouds with wind-blowing cherubs and what I assume are funerary urns, all of which are symbols correlating with the cataclysmic scene portrayed within the pictorial window.



I.G. Pintz [Johann Georg Pintz] (1697–1767)
TAB. DVII—IOB. Cap. 1. v. 16. 18. 19. Decora et Pecora Iobi proftrata , 1731
From Scheuchze’s (1672–1733) Physica Sacra
Engraving on laid paper
32 x 20.6 cm (plate); 42.2 x 25 cm (sheet)
Condition: superb impression with no foxing. The sheet exhibits toning at edges and traces of handling. The print has generous borders on three sides but the right side has a 1 cm border from the plate mark.
I am selling this print for $97 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. This is a large print and will be shipped in a tube. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button below.




View of the whole sheet
Detail of TAB. DVII—IOB. Cap. 1. v. 16. 18. 19. Decora et Pecora Iobi proftrata 
In terms of physical frames made of timber and glass, there is a long and well entrenched tradition of using physical frames to present images as windows to another realm. Even the poor, who were unable to afford frames for their artworks, had a solution when they came to display artworks. In the two very early engravings by Raphael Sadeler I (1560/61–1628/32) and Jan Sadeler I (1550–1600) shown below, for instance, canvas laminated to the front and the back of the prints provide a cost effective solution to making the prints more robust for handling and, importantly, for creating a window-like effect. Note that these prints still show evidence of pin holes where they were affixed to the wall and hand-colouring to make the illusion of pictorial depth more real.

Raphael Sadeler I (1560/61–1628/32)
after the design by Marten de Vos (1532–1603)
Saint Bavo, 1593-94
State 1 (of 2)
Engraving, hand-coloured with linen backing (verso) and linen frame border (recto)
18.9 x 22.5 cm (sheet)
Bartsch 7101.105 S1; Hollstein (1980) 21.124; Hollstein (1995-96) 41.1007
Condition: slightly silvery impression with no foxing but general surface dustiness.  As noted above, the print is laminated with linen verso and recto and has been coloured by an old hand.
I am selling this print for $80 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. 
Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button below.

This print has been sold

Detail of Sadeler’s Saint Bavo showing the linen frame
Jan (Johannes/Johan/Joan) Sadeler I (1550–1600)
After a lost drawing by Marten de Vos (1532–1603)
Saint Joannicius, c. 1587
(“After a career as a soldier, the saint retired to Mount Olympus in Bithynia. His death in 846 is celebrated on 4 November.” [Bartsch 70001.396])
State 1 (of 2)
Engraving, hand-coloured with linen backing (verso) and linen frame border (recto)
18.9 x 22.7 cm (sheet)
Bartsch 7001.396; Hollstein (1980) 21.426; Hollstein (1995-96) 44.1029; Senechal (1987) 18; Edquist (1990) p. 82, no. 95b
Condition: slightly silvery impression with no foxing but general surface dustiness, stains and wear. A small patch is missing lower centre where the letter “i” should be in “Dei.” As noted above, the print is laminated with linen verso and recto and has been coloured by an old hand.
I am selling this print for $80 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button below.

This print has been sold

Although framing devices, especially the keyhole effect, can trigger Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief” the image itself must support the flow of total engagement. In the next post I will discuss some of the conventions underpinning the depiction of foreground, middle distance and distance that support a viewer’s total engagement. Before ending this discussion, however, I need to point out that a viewer’s absorption in looking does not necessarily mean that an image must be a well-composed cohesive image. Indeed, sometimes a viewer’s experience of being immersed in the imagery is all about fragmentation. For instance, when I look at Saint Joannicius (shown above), my attention is fragmented into a series of spatial cells, each with its own spatial realm to explore (see the digital mapping of the key spatial realms below). What I mean to point out by this insight is that there are more elements to capturing and sustaining a viewer’s interest than artful composition. In fact, some of the most memorable images are those that challenge our expectations.

Spatial cells in Sadeler’s Saint Joannicius

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