I’ve been working on a course on British art for Year 10 at school and this painting has caught my eye for it’s fleshy, pushy viewpoint. British artist Jenny Saville (b. 1970) is best known for her large-scale nudes and “Branded” (1992) is among the most memorable. It’s a self-portrait showing the artist with scratched, scrawled words like ‘decorative’ and ‘support’ across her front.
This picture punches above its weight: she’s looking at us, daring us to judge, grabbing a fistful of flesh, not bowing down to body consciousness. In real life Saville is close to average size: she’s exaggerating to confront. Viewpoint here is key to creating a feeling of face-off with the viewer. Saville slants the perspective of the painting and adopts a low, close-up viewpoint. This makes us feel small and makes her look massive, rising above us, exposing everything, cropped at the hips and demanding our attention.
We’re looking at viewpoint this week, which is about how we relate to what we’re seeing. It’s natural to step up close to a detailed picture. You automatically stand further away from a large picture, to take it all in. You need some distance to let loose brushwork work its magic.
In the Renaissance most artists took a single viewpoint. They stood in one place and simply painted what they saw from that spot. Or what they imagined they saw. This is Raphael’s School of Athens in the Vatican Stanze in Rome.
When it comes to portraits, viewpoint (whether the painter is looking up or down at their sitter) really affects the psychological impact of the picture. Here’s Raphael again, this time painting his mega patron Pope Julius II.
The format that Raphael adopted here, with the subject sitting at close quarters, cropped at the knee, impacted subsequent papal portraiture. What’s interesting is that we are brought in level with the Pope: Julius was an impressive and forceful ruler, reasserting his power over the Papal States by military action, patronising the arts and ordering the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome. Despite all of this he’s not lording it over us now, he’s seated in a moment of introspection and our equal-footing viewpoint creates a surprising sense of intimacy.
By contrast, if the artist and therefore the viewer looks up, the subject appears powerful and dominant. Despite his youth, the young Italian nobleman in this painting by Jacopo Pontormo from c. 1528 looks haughty and imperious because the artist was looking up at him and therefore gave him the psychological advantage.
On the other hand, by looking down at himself and bringing his face right to the foreground, the Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner emphasises his frailty in his Self-portrait as an Invalid (1917-20).
Now it’s our turn to feel in a position of strength and the subject starts to look more vulnerable. Here the exaggerated perspective which makes the bedstead too large in relation to the window heightens the effect of our overseeing (controlling?) eye.
In landscape painting the horizon line equates to the painter’s eye level. If the artist wants lots of land, he/ she takes a mountain top viewpoint and looks down over lower ground. By contrast in Dutch Landscape with Skaters (17th century), Salomon van Ruysdael takes a low viewpoint that emphasises the expanse of the sky.
The Dutch made an absolute virtue of their flat country, creating a national tradition of landscape painting with lots of lovely low horizon lines. Ruysdael has added a building on the left which shunts in a sense of containment, but on the right it feels like our eye could follow the landscape endlessly.
In Rocks at l’Estaque (1879-82) Postimpressionist painter Paul Cézanne is up a little higher than his Dutch mate as he’s looking down at a lot of landscape.
Here though Cézanne has opened a can of worms because he’s started playing with multiple viewpoints: there is a sense of shifting viewpoint over these rocks, the feeling that we are seeing things from more than one angle simultaneously. By the 20th century, artists were deliberately breaking many rules around how to convey depth and reality and they’d started toying with the single consistent viewpoint too. Which leads us to the fractured forms of Cubism. We’ve started and finished with fleshy ladies.