All figurative image represents a relation to two or more points of view. These may be present simultaneously in the same image and even in the representation of the same object. The profile outline is likely to be one of the oldest modes of bidimensional figuration, and can be seen in most animal figures in cave art, as well as in many of its human figures (Figure 1). In Egyptian art, human figures were typically represented with their torso and upper limbs viewed from a frontal plane, and their head and lower limbs from a profile view. The size of the represented objects does not so much convey the special relation with the spectator as its symbolic importance as to the other objects in the same image. The mixture of «maplike» top shots and objects drawn from a profile is a common feature in ancient cartography, as in many other types of images dating from before the Renaissance (Figure 2).
The development of the linear geometrical perspective representation system during the European Renaissance in the 15th century (Quattrocento), meant point of view, and subsequently the place of the subject, became the main agglutinating criterion of the concept of image. From then on, all images were formed from a single point of view (a perspective), which determined all other aspects of image; it also meant the specific way of seeing of the author, whose importance was just beginning. Painters learned how to use point of view as a fundamental expressive means (Figure 3).
We may say all figures can be seen according to one or several points of view: the aim in geometrical perspective is to make image become a vehicle for a scene equivalent to that which a spectator might see from a given point in space. This homogeneous, experienceable space becomes a sensoriomotor unit that is a visual equivalent to real space. Although the place of the spectator that is shown by the point of view is outside image (i.e., extradiegetic), it is seen as in a continuity with the represented space.
Image then represents things not as they are, but as they appear to the observer. S/he does not represent what s/he knows about the objects, its internal parts or elements that cannot be seen from one of the object’s sides, for instance, rather than subject their figuration to the point of view from which the object is seen by the observer, thus expressing a spatial relation that is dominating as to other possible forms of expression. Point of view is therefore the core notion of perspective representation.
The etymology of the word perspective is the Latin word perspicere, which means «to see through», from which the word prospicere, «to see what is before us», in front of us, also comes from, as well as the word «prospect», in the sense of «view» or «landscape». The Italian painter, architect and image theoretician Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) proposed in his treaty Della Pittura (1435) that the painter should think of his image as if he were looking out of a window. The metaphor has marked this way of looking to an image to this day, as it was incorporated by the technical devices that use the projective principles of camera obscura, as in the case of photographic and film/video cameras. The notion of frame comes from this projective conception of image, and has contributed to the notion of image as «capture» and the transformation of the visible world into «views».
The perspective representation system aims to create the illusion of tridimensionality in a bidimensional representation system, taking the functioning of the eye as reference, and based upon the light refraction theory. Hence the projective, geometric concept of image that sees it as the result of the interception of a bidimensional plane on the «visual pyramid or cone», in which the pyramid’s vortex corresponds to the observer’s eye (one eye only), to his point of view, and its base corresponds to the object. Its main points are therefore imaginarily projected/ transported to a bidimensional plane between the observer and the object, and reproduced in a different dimension, yet one that is proportional to the represented object, following a reason or mathematical ratio.
Erwin Panofsky deemed it the inauguration of modern space, systematic and mathematifiable, which can be correctly interpreted both as an objectivity phenomenon in image, due to its relation with the visible, experienceable world and to its geometrical rationalisation, and as a subjectivity phenomenon, since it introduces the point of view of the subject as the founding criterion of image itself (in Perspective as Symbolic Form, 1993). This aspect was also highlighted by Hubert Damisch in his essay The Origin of Perspective (1987). The origin is precisely the observer’s «eye» at the vortex of the «visual pyramid» from which the look of the painter crosses that of the spectator – the perspective representation system thus becomes an «enunciation device». To Damisch, the spectator is s/he who takes the place the painter prepared for him/her, in the same way we use adverbs of place and personal pronouns, transforming «that view» into our «look».
Painting as the result of a permanent triangulation of looks, as a cross between the points of view of the painter, the spectator and the model, is the real theme of the painting Las Meniñas (1656) by Diego Velásquez (Figure 4), which has been analysed exhaustively, one of the most famous analyses being that of Michel Foucault, who highlighted the unbalance of powers between those points of view. Besides, the theme of power and of the ideological construction of the subjectivity of the spectator as to the point of view prepared by the image is a typical feature of contemporary debate on image, particularly on those that are produced by cameras (Commolli; Metz; Burgin; Sekula; Mulvey).
In painting, the critique of the predominance of point of view emerged especially with Cubism and its «return» to other forms of representation and sensorial and plastic involvement representing at the same time several points of view, which is related to perception of movement, experimented in multiplication of perspectives of moving images. This multiperspectivism draws us to the cave figures from the Côa Valley that represent the same body with several heads (Figure 5).
ALBERTI, Leon Battista, On Painting, 1435, London Penguin Books, introdução de Martin Kemp, 1972.
BURGIN, Victor,«Looking at photographs» in Thinking Photography, Macmillian, 1982.
COMOLLI, Jean-Louis, «Technique et idéologie» in Cahiers du Cinema, nºs 229-240, 1971.
DAMISCH, Hubert, L’Origine de la perspective, Paris, Flammarion, 1987.
FOUCAULT, Michel, As palavras e as coisas, 1966, Lisboa, Edições 70, tradução de António Ramos Rosa, 1998.
METZ, Christian, O Significante Imaginário: psicanálise e cinema, 1977, Lisboa, Livros Horizonte, 1980;
MULVEY, Laura, Visual and Other pleasures, Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1989.
PANOFSKY, Erwin, A Perspectiva como forma simbólica, 1925, Lisboa,Ed. 70, 1993.
SEKULA, Alan, Photography against the grain. Essays and Photo Works 1973-1983, Halifax, NS Colledge of Art Press, 1984;