The Subversive Image: On Design Principles of 15th Century Painting

In an essay from 1933 titled ‘Design principles of fifteenth-century Northern painting’, Austrian art historian Otto Pächt attempted to classify form in Northern Renaissance painting according to geography, focusing primarily on art works from the Southern Netherlands, France and upper Netherlands. Pächt tried to show that the relationship between figure and ground in these paintings was the result of a negotiation between spatial illusionism and the patterns generated by the projection of three-dimensional form on the picture plane. He noticed that 20th century viewers have particular perceptual habits, and that Northern post-Medieval painting cannot be reconciled with these habits. The project he embarked on was an attempt to decondition us of perceptive habitudes, to recover the reception of Netherlandish Renaissance painting within its epochal aesthetic assumptions.

What Pächt sought to undermine was the assumption that the Renaissance was primarily concerned with the conquest of three-dimensionality in representation. In other words, the idea that painting from the Renaissance onwards was only as valuable inasmuch as it was an accurate mirror of objective reality. This story line is the classic interpretation of art history that most novices are taught.

Otto Pächt believed that the problem of reducing space onto a plane is both a technical problem and an aesthetic one. At the time, scholarship was concerned with hermeneutics, the assessment of the symbolic content of an image. Respectful of this approach, he argued that formal symbols cannot be arbitrarily scattered onto a pictorial surface. An order has to exist on a picture plane so that the weaving of symbols would ‘make sense’ to a viewer. The progression of painting was thus the project of harmonising three-dimensional space with the picture plane so that it yielded ‘an aesthetically relevant order’.1

The ‘space problem’ (the problem concerning the accurate construction of the virtual space ‘behind’ the picture plane) was not the only concern of Northern Renaissance painters. According to Pächt, any pictorial analysis of these paintings must respect a ‘double rule system’: it must investigate both surface and pictorial space as a whole. Seen in light of Pächt’s framework, any Northern Renaissance picture presents a segment of reality as a cohesive whole at the level of projection on the pictorial plane. The segment originates in the objective world. By a process of translation, the pre-artistic qualities of the segment are made into a painting. This process, Pächt called formation in his essay.2 And although the segment is a part, at the level of the pictorial surface it is not a fragment in need of completion. The optical equivalent of the visible world on the picture surface is whole and complete, it is not in need of suppression or extension. The three-dimensional segment is reworked into an integrated and cohesive bi-dimensional surface – the surface of the painting the viewer is looking at.

Workshop of Robert Campin, Annunciation Triptych (Mérode Altarpiece), (Netherlandish, ca. 1375–1444 Tournai), The Met Museum, New York

The double rule system presupposes two heteronomous ordering principles: one concerned with what is behind the surface plane, allowing the virtual space to extend in any direction, and one which governs surface design, what makes it a unit, what gives it coherence. According to Pächt, Early Netherlandish painting has little empty patches, it is a ground on which forms are ordered into patterns. A certain compactness is evident. Intervals between form are called negative form. He gives the example of the Mérode Altarpiece by Robert Campin: the dense shadows of the fireplace occupy its entire space. In this painting, negative space is not allowed to become form in its own right. There is a binding of forms which are normally spatially disconnected in order to maintain the pattern on the ground. Take the oval table top in the Mérode Altarpiece, for instance: contours are pure surface drawings, their relationship orders the pictorial space. Projections of objects around it merge into a very compact whole at the upper level of the pictorial space. He insists that priority in analysis should be given to surface order, to the organisation of the plane, and that any reconstruction must be made from the surface to the depth of the virtual space, what he calls ‘inverted projection’.3 In other words, when any conflict arises with spatial construction, when things feel warped and unrealistic in the picture, the design of the surface plane usually explains why those instances are not poor choices as a result of inadequate technique. It is from the surface to the depth of the pictorial space that the artist has worked that picture, and the primacy of surface patterning allows for warping of perspective.

Perhaps the notion of a medieval horror vacui is important here: a certain fear of empty spaces on the pictorial plane dictates that it must be fully covered with forms, despite the fact that this might yield odd spatial constructions. A pressure to align the contours of objects arrises, to weave them tectonically, and this disrupts perspective. Most of the times, this is avoided by seeking objects to fill the negative space between existing forms: what this means is that choice of objects is dependent on contour alignment. In other words, Pächt makes a bold statement: Netherlandish painters were capable of representing the world ‘picture-perfect’ on a panel, but chose not to, because the aesthetic assumptions of their age allowed them to favour pattern to true-to-life spatial construction, surface to correctly constructed depth. Patterning allowed for skewed perspectives – incorrect views of the world to the eyes of a 21st century observer – what some viewers might perceive to be a ‘primitiveness’ of representation.

All sorts of paradoxical spatial representations thus appear, such as figures represented as if they are seen from above, juxtaposed with figures seen from across space, such as the Virgin and angel in the Annunciation of the Mérode Altarpiece – whatever the painter thought might work to bind the picture plane into his preferred pattern. Generally speaking, the continuity of contours obtained through such constant compromises and refinements, allows the viewer to perceive the entire painting as cohesive spatially, it helps the eye glide over the surface and creates the illusion of spatial unity, so that ‘the strange viewpoints of the Mérode Altarpiece appear as the compression of pictorial space.’4 If Pächt is right, Northern Renaissance images conflict reality at the level of representation – they were never made to mirror nature, to replicate its integrity in the mind of the viewer, but to challenge it so that they might accommodate a aesthetic predisposition proper to that era. An expert and deliberate ‘slight of hand’ made a picture hold regardless of its inaccuracy.

The cohesiveness of the picturial plane necessary to generate the stability of the image is called pictorial pattern by Pächt. It is defined as a ‘collection of formal qualities, generated by non objective factors, that then lends the pictorial representation the character of uniformly self-contained whole.’5 This pictorial pattern is arranged in such a fashion that it ends as a formal whole at the edge of the picture, even though the segments of objects depicted could very well extend outside of it. The relationship between pictorial pattern and whole of painting is more or less constant throughout the development of southern Netherlandish painting. What has changed is the relationship between pictorial pattern and each depicted object. In the 15th century, an incomplete objective representation of reality is bound in a more complete formal whole. Pächt also observed that every element of the pictorial pattern – as a depicted object, a projection – is capable of being a screen for another element: in the Mérode Altarpiece, the table top is an element which is subjected to the rules we have teased out, but it is also a screen for the still life on it.

To prove that patterns do not stagnate in space and time and have an evolution corresponding to cultural changes, Pächt analyses them geographically and chronologically. He uses Flemish painting as a sort of base from which to distinguish variation. He distinguishes between Dutch, French and Flemish patterns and notices that Flemish pictorial pattern, in general, is relatively more relaxed as a system compared to German and French ones, which are more ornamental. This makes it very adaptable, depending on representational demands.6 As guiding principles in analysing the various pictorial patterns, forms are observed as conditioned by the double system rule. Dutch painters usually accept empty space. It acquires a positive value. When Dutch painters appropriate Flemish compositions, they loosen the pattern structure, because they let empty space manifest itself more freely. Because forms do not fit too tightly together, a clearer spatial arrangement appears. It also predicates a certain isolation of figures, which could be used as a design principle in its own right (like representations of the Crucifixion). But at the same time, it also determines pictorial unity to dissolve. Pächt believes that unity was restored by the introduction of another factor. If in Flemish paintings the cohesiveness of the pattern determines the gaze to wander and thus receives an instruction from it to reconstruct represented reality, in Northern Dutch painting the cohesiveness lost through compactness is recovered by gestures between figures and groups which direct the gaze from one to another.7. Dutch painting has ostentatious gestures that are meant to be eye-catching. They form the links between seemingly disjoined figures: the gestural relationship between Abraham and Melchizedek in the Leuven Last Supper Altarpiece by Dirk Bouts is a good example. These gestures reweave a seemingly broken spatial illusion into a convincing whole.

Dirk Bouts, Last Supper Altarpiece, (Early Netherlandish, 1464-1468 Leuven) – Meeting o Abraham and Melchizadek in upper left corner

In principle, France’s painters construct a similar relationship between figure and ground as the Flemish – they maintain the double value of the object’s contour.8 Pächt notices that they have a predilection towards diagonals in composition. It has the double ability to lead viewer deeper into the pictorial space and outward along the surface of the painting. The double rule system continues to apply here as well: a system of diagonals binds the pictorial space and the surface. While in Flemish painting, seams are hidden between contours, in French painting they are openly shown. But because it must always use diagonals, it is probably the most rigid one, according to Pächt – it sometimes gives birth to a heavily contrived solution. A series of consequences result from this: since the pattern is not as variable, representational content is forced to adapt to form, regardless of inconsistencies; since the schemata of pictorial pattern is minimally adaptable to special requirements of representation, it remains rather constant in time (Pächt observes a rhomboid form of patterning of pictorial field in Limbourg brothers’ images, and then the same patterning in Fouquet’s work, two hundred years later). In Pächt’s words, ‘tradition possesses a visible form.’ 9 As French painting was heavily influenced by the Italian Renaissance, it soon began to favour principles in designing crowds rather than individual figures. Most content was then adapted to these requirements.

Tradition possesses a visible form.

Otto Pächt

I can’t help but think that intuitively it makes more sense to believe the classic story that painting has for centuries been in pursuit of three-dimensional fidelity. Pächt’s idea that Northern Renaissance painters had in-built ‘aesthetic assumptions’ which gave birth to surface patterns that override the natural architecture of objective reality seems outlandish. Surely nature has shaped our mental representation of reality to be harmonising with our aesthetic order? Our aesthetics are built on the biological premise that the mind can accurately create an inner model of space which naturally ‘makes more sense’ than any other mind-software hack to represent reality. If painting on a bi-dimensional plane is a scaling down of three-dimensional representation in the mind, then to overthrow the cohesiveness of the architecture of our mental model of space in favour of a conflicting ‘warped’ one would be a deliberate attempt at destabilising our natural perceptual habitudes. The attempt to break reality on a picture plane questions the universality of perception across space and time.

I would like to abstain from applying Occam’s Razor to Pächt’s theory for a moment. Whilst I am not asking the reader to suspend judgement in favour of fantasy, Pächt’s descriptions of patterning that justify infidelity to three-dimensional reality remain intriguing. A certain untrustworthiness of the image can be emphasised if it has the propensity to conflict with reality through what I would like to call its surface effect.

Pächt is not the only one to suggest that imagery in Western culture is somehow untrustworthy. The Western image has never shed its potential to compete with and replace the very reality it sought to emulate, even in those cases where the artist went to great lengths to avoid emulation. T.J. Clark noticed this when he wrote that ‘something decisive happened in the history of art around Manet which set painting and the other arts upon a new course’.10 This shift is identified with a ‘kind of scepticism, or at least unsureness, as to the nature of representation in art’. 11 He sets this landmark event within the apparition of Modern painting, but he noticed that there have always been ‘markers in the picture where the illusion [of likeness] almost ended.’12 Diego Velázquez and Frans Hals, to name a couple, were masters of covering these gaps in representation

Clark seems to imply that in the age of Manet and his followers, doubts around vision as a process became doubts about the act of painting itself. ‘In time, the uncertainty became a value in its own right, (…) an aesthetic.’13 Modern art was thus born with syntactic instability as a trait which was no longer hidden, but emphasised. The pictures of Cezanne are exemplary as such. Take his still Life with Apples of around 1893-94, for instance, now in the Getty Museum: the work has a grid like composition, and integrates all objects into a surface effect which seems very solid. Three-dimensional forms are rendered from different viewpoints like in most of his paintings: the angle of the green pot’s opening is visibly at odds with the profile of the bottle. The landscape of the table seems like a stitched up mesh of viewpoints at odds with each other. Cezanne pitched the surface effect of the paintings against the process of vision of objective reality itself, to highlight the potential of the picture to be unstable, unsettling the gaze conditioned by an accurate mental model of the world.

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples (French, 1839 – 1906), The Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The culture of late 19th century Europe steered images farther from reflexivity of nature than those before it. Indeed Modernity made this rupture, as Clark so aptly put it, its defining aesthetic characteristic. Would it then be far fetched to consider that post-Medieval European culture had its own ideas of painting which did not attempt to render space realistically, but used surface patterns to harmonise its ‘faulty’ representation with the predominant ‘epochal aesthetic assumptions’? If so, could we define those assumptions beyond a generic horror vacui? Is it possible to somehow cluster these assumptions from paintings themselves? Would these clusters then form styles granular enough to differentiate geographically and chronologically? These are all research questions which open up amplitudes in how we envision the relationship between perception and representation across time, with style as a guiding art historical principle. Far from being a dusty method, I believe formal art history remains ripe with possibilities for discovery and analysis.

  1. Otto Pächt, ‘Design principles of fifteenth-century Northern painting’ (1933), in ed. Christopher S. Wood, The Vienna School Reader: Politics and Art Historical Method in the 1930s (New York: Zone, 2000), 244
  2. Pächt, Design Principles, 249
  3. Pächt, Design Principles, 254
  4. Pächt, Design Principles, 260
  5. Pächt, Design Principles, 264
  6. Pächt, Design Principles, 278
  7. Pächt, Design Principles, 295
  8. Pächt, Design Principles, 299
  9. Pächt, Design Principles, 313
  10. T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life. Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 10
  11. Clark, Painting of Modern Life, 11
  12. Clark, Painting of Modern Life, 12
  13. Clark, Painting of Modern Life, 11