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Lesson Three – Oblique lines

Zeuxis and Arte are sitting in the courtyard of Arte’s house. The house is empty. Arte has brought a table out and she has prepared her white sheets of paper. She is eagerly waiting for Zeuxis to start, but Zeuxis plays with his fingers in his beard and glorifies in the warm sun.

Arte: Zeuxis, you lazy man. When are we going to learn something today? Will you just be sitting there or will you tell me about the art of painting?

Zeuxis: Oh, I’m sorry Arte, I was thinking …

Arte: Out with it, Zeuxis. What were you thinking about?

Zeuxis: Well, about a painful experience. It is not really the moment to talk about that now, but I was recalling our talk over vertical lines again, and an old story came up to me again.
You see, I was a very good painter once, though I say it myself. Me and my fellow-men, we thought that painting was all about imitating nature. We called that ‘mimesis’. Now, I could imitate nature so well that once I painted grapes and birds came in, flying, to peck at them.

Arte: Why, that is a marvellous story, Zeuxis.

Zeuxis: Yes. In this lesson we will talk of another painter who could do that.

Arte: What did that have to do with vertical lines?

Zeuxis: I had a rival. He was called Parrhasios. He was jealous of me. He said he could do better mimesis than me. I laughed at him, of course; nobody could paint better than me. Parrhasios invited me into his studio to show me his own work. I saw a cloth on his panel, so I eagerly lifted the curtain from the panel, only to find that it was not a real curtain but a painted one! I had to concede victory to Parrhasios then, since he had not just deceived simple birds, but the best of painters! And Pliny, the old fool, of course wrote the story down, and ridiculed me for eternity!

Arte: That suited you fine. You got what was coming to you for so much conceit! But you are still the finest painter for me, and a great teacher.

Zeuxis: You sweeten the pain, dear child. Here: I offer you a treat.

Zeuxis conjures up the magic screen and shows a picture.

Zeuxis: This is a painting made by Gerhard Richter, a German painter of your twentieth century. It is a painting of a curtain, made all in grey tones and showing nothing more than vertical stripes of colours. Richter remembered me. At least … What puzzles me most is that I do not know whom he remembered most: Parrhasios or me.

-> Gerhard Richter (1932 –). Curtain. Pinakothek der Moderne. Munich. 1966.

Arte, soothing: I am sure this Richter was reminded of you, Zeuxis. But are we again and again going to look at vertical lines? Frankly, I have had seen enough of them!

Zeuxis: No, no Arte. We are going to look at a far more thrilling and exciting subject: oblique lines.

Arte: Oh sweet Jesus! She points with a finger to Zeuxis and talks to her dog. This man is a real joker, Parr.

Zeuxis: Parr?

Arte: Yes. Parr, Parr from Parrhasios. I am not entirely illiterate you know. I knew that story.

Zeuxis, proud like a peacock now: Oh! Nice to have called your dog after my … eh … good friend. You know, you should have seen him! He always wore a purple cloak and I never knew a more arrogant bastard! He called himself the "Prince of Painters" once, and he gave himself other flattering surnames.

Arte: Well, was he also not the first to introduce a certain scheme of good proportions in painting and did he not painted faces with elegance, vivacity and grace? Was he not a prolific artist, even if he was a jolly character?

Zeuxis: Eh, eh, hmmm … Continues.
So here is about oblique lines! This will be a bit of dry theory, but we have to get through it.
Oblique lines and oblique directions deviate from the natural laws of gravity. They indicate departure from equilibrium. They are unstable, ready to fall to one side or the other. They can only exist for a short while, so they cannot but be as if in perpetual movement. Oblique lines thus create a strong sense of movement. Movement is the basic impression induced in a viewer by slanting directions. This is of course an illusion, since the frame and the whole painting are fixed for eternity, but the feeling is none the less real and one of the wonderful effects of oblique directions in painting discovered only truly in the beginning of the Baroque period. I will tell you of that period later.
The borders of the frame of a painting can support oblique lines, that is have the oblique lines attached to them, or not, and both kinds of lines generate different impressions. We will use two distinct terms, and call these lines supported oblique lines and unsupported slanting lines.
First, we talk of the supported oblique lines.

Arte: Fine for me. When you pronounced the word "movement" you got me interested.

Zeuxis: Supported oblique lines are lines that have their two corners firmly fixed to the corners or to the sides of the frame of a painting. The diagonals of rectangular paintings are such lines. Arte, dear child, start working. Draw me all the diagonals you can find in a rectangle!

Arte makes the following plates 16 and 17:

Zeuxis: Great! The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1943) noted that the diagonal that runs from the bottom left to the top right is perceived as an ascending line, the other diagonal as descending. We will call the diagonal of your first plate, of plate 16, the left diagonal. And we will call the diagonal of your plate 17 the right diagonal. Recall these terms well, Arte, because from now on we will be using these words often. So the left diagonal indicates an aspiring movement, the right diagonal a direction downwards. Now, draw the two diagonals together on one new page.

Arte draws plate 18:

Zeuxis: A picture in which crossed diagonals as directions are used, is the "Three Maries at the Open Sepulchre" of Jan and Hubert van Eyck made around 1430. One can see that oblique lines were used very early in oil paintings for the van Eycks were among the very first oil painters of Flanders. The two diagonals start from their left and right corners. The ridges of the mountains that descend towards the open tomb show the diagonals. The stone slab that served as the lid of the tomb suggests the left diagonal in this picture. An angel sits on the slab, exactly where the diagonals cross. Remark also how the van Eycks have introduced several unsupported slanting lines in the lances of the soldiers. They may have done this to indicate chaotic sleep. Furthermore they used strong horizontal lines in this picture, in the lines of the long, open tomb. They re-created the impression of solidity and earth, maybe even of death, suggested in general by the horizontal directions. So, the use of oblique lines in paintings is very old, even though such directions still then only supported the rigid structure of the picture.

-> Hubert (1365 – 1426) and Jan van Eyck (1390 – 1441). The Three Maries at the Open Sepulchre. Museum Boymans-van Beuningen. Rotterdam. Around, but after 1430.

Zeuxis: This time I need you to make a whole set of plates, Arte. You take one paper. Then you draw a line in the middle, either vertical or horizontal. And then draw diagonals again in the halves. You should see what we call the subdiagonals then. What do you get?

While Arte makes the plates and reflects on just how many she can make such ones, Zeuxis relaxes. He spreads his legs, puts his hands behind his neck, and turns his face to the sun. Arte draws the plates 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 and 26 before she stops, sighing:

Zeuxis: Wasn’t that a great exercise in combinations, Arte? You have a nice mind for geometrics. All great painters liked geometrics. Now! A treat is your reward. Very many painters have exploited one or the other of the divisions of areas that you have obtained. So we are still in lines, but for the first time we will also discuss areas. You have composed quite many such areas.

Zeuxis projects a picture again.

Zeuxis: Paul Signac was a French Impressionist painter of the nineteenth century, who used the subdiagonals in various pictures of landscapes, a genre in which one would not expect them. But look for instance at his "Cassis, Cap Lombard". Cassis is a small village on the Côte d’Azur, one of the most idyllic sites of the south of France on the Mediterranean. In Signac’s picture the direction of the hills go to the sea from the upper left to the middle right and the line of the seashore starts in the lower right corner to the middle right. This is a perfect example of the use of the lines and areas indicated in your last plate!

-> Paul Signac (1863 – 1935). Cassis, Cap Lombard. Gemeentemuseum. The Hague. 1889.

Arte: I know the subdiagonals by now well enough, Zeuxis. How about movement?

Zeuxis: We are still talking about supported oblique lines, Arte. Supported oblique directions are used to indicate movement and to yet give an impression of strong structure in a painting. One of the first masters to exploit the effect was the seventeenth century artist Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio. Caravaggio’s "Christ at the Column" is a picture of movement that uses some oblique lines for the vertical diagonals and lines parallel to them. Slanting lines were known in painting before Caravaggio, but this artist applied them to full drama. Here is the schema in lines of the painting.

Zeuxis projects the dramatic painting of Caravaggio and he draws himself the plate 27 that is the structure schema of Caravaggio’s "Christ at the Column".

-> Michelangelo Merisi called Caravaggio (1571 - 1610). Christ at the Column. Musée des Beaux-Arts. Rouen. Around 1606.

Zeuxis: Imitating nature was considered the greatest way of art when I lived. Only one artist could really do that better than I, I have to confess, and that was Michelangelo Merisi, a Milanese painter called Caravaggio after the village he was born in. But of course, art had evolved too since my times, and Caravaggio painted entirely different from me, even though occasionally he made pictures that I would have been proud of.
Caravaggio used the left side of the column against which soldiers torture Jesus to indicate one quarter of the frame (line 1 in plate 27). Jesus leans towards this left, in the direction of diagonal 2. A soldier binds Jesus’s hands and another holds up a whip to lash Jesus. These two torturing arms follow the direction of diagonal 3. Finally, the two men’s bodies also are oblique and into the direction of diagonal 4.
Caravaggio’s painting is clearly a masterpiece, Arte. The overall and instantaneous view of his painting is entirely dynamic, violent action caught at a flash of bright light, in a blink of time. Here is a picture that appears instantly out of the depths of time in all its coarseness and brutality. But beneath the immediacy of the picture, the drama and the expression of violence, there lies strong structure. Caravaggio was not the first Baroque painter to have re-discovered the power of oblique lines. That honour should probably be attributed to Tintoretto, to Jacopo Robusti, who lived from 1519 to 1594 in Venice. Yet, no one but Caravaggio applied the technique so overtly and so soon to its full extent.

A question difficult to answer always is whether Caravaggio and other painters first drew these strong lines and then followed them, or whether the structure was created spontaneously, and if the directions were imposed naturally on the artist by his intuition or genius. Both arguments are probably true, painters first following their intuition and then re-ordering that along strong, basic directions of the frame. Caravaggio cannot but have noticed how the structure imposed itself for the scene, whether he calculated it or felt these to be the directions he needed. The result is action in eternal rigidity, now a classic view of a religious theme, and probably the ultimate view of this theme.

Arte: The diagonals of a frame seem to me indeed difficult to avoid. They are basic lines in a picture. I had no difficulty in drawing them all; they come to you naturally.

Zeuxis: Indeed, Arte. Willingly or not, painters are the prisoners of their frame. It is almost impossible for a picture to escape the basic lines of the canvas, which are as we have seen the verticals, the horizontals and the diagonals. But in the beginning of the seventeenth century Caravaggio fully exploited oblique lines for their intrinsic value in the depiction of movement. I believe this to have been part intellectual, part intuition and part imposed by the frame. Caravaggio possessed such a force and violence of expression that he naturally discovered the potential of diagonals for suggesting movement of figures. Caravaggio used diagonals and subdiagonals. He showed movement in flashes of action. His examples were then eagerly copied in the Baroque period to express strong inner emotions. And then, of course, he applied our mimesis. He made very realistic portraits of people.

Arte: But not just Caravaggio could have invented or discovered these effects. Several artists must have used these lines and their effects at the same time, pressed as they were to show strong emotions in their images.

Zeuxis: You are so right, Arte. For instance the Greek painter El Greco, who worked mostly in Spain however, also amply used diagonals in structures and slanting lines to indicate movement, at about the same time as Caravaggio did, and in another country.

Zeuxis suddenly shows a new picture to Arte on his transparent light screen.

Zeuxis: A painter who later applied fully these principles was Pieter Paul Rubens of Antwerp. He did that also in the seventeenth century, but he came later than Caravaggio, and he remained several years in Italy where he must have seen Caravaggio’s pictures or copies thereof. Rubens’ "Descent from the Cross", maybe his most famous painting, is a good example of the use of diagonals to induce an illusion of movement of the Baroque period, but still founded in very strong structure. In this painting, Jesus is lowered in a white cloth from the cross. Remark how the movement of lowering the inanimate body of Jesus takes place along the diagonal of the frame. The diagonal departs from the equilibrium of the vertical directions of the crosses.

-> Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). The Deposition from the Cross. Cathedral of Our Lady. Antwerp.

Arte: Yes, but look: Rubens applied another technique to give the illusion of movement. I see various people at different stages of action as they are lowering Jesus’ body. This effect, of action frozen in time must also be a very suggestive technique for the depiction of movement. And I see a few lines now that are not supported by the corners or sides of the frame. You called those unsupported slanting lines …

Zeuxis: You are learning now by yourself, Arte. Soon you will not need me anymore. You also remembered the term well. Unsupported slanting lines indeed are the lines that do not pass in direction through one of the corners of the frame, or are not otherwise supported or attached as diagonals of constructed rectangles or squares of the frame.
Such lines always induce feelings of unease, of total imbalance, of nervousness, of neurotic inclinations. These lines have been much avoided by painters, unless exactly such feelings of unsettling the viewer were deliberately sought. We saw some such directions in Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s painting "The Three Maries at the Open Sepulchre", where the lances of the soldiers went in every direction to indicate chaotic, and deep sleep.
Unsupported slanting lines have not been too popular with painters. Indeed, a painter always prefers to keep a viewer watching his work, whereas truly unsupported slanting lines are difficult to look at for a long time because the viewer dislikes the unrest they suggest and feels out of balance. Often we find them in paintings in which other areas are deliberately introduced to balance these lines, to create for the viewer again the natural landmark directions of nature.
Unsupported slanting lines cause this effect of nervousness, whether they are alone on the canvas or together in several lines, converging or diverging.
Certain abstract painters have used unsupported slanting lines. These painters knew the value of slanting lines, and they counter-balanced their effect by horizontal or vertical surfaces or lines. Here is an example.

Zeuxis projects an abstract painting.

-> Kasimir Malevich (1878 – 1935). Supremus Nr 50. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. 1915.

Zeuxis: One of such painters was Kasimir Malevich, who worked at the beginning of the twentieth century in Russia. Malevich was looking for an art of the mind, for the art that would represent views that were different from anything seen in nature, and that would prove man’s supremacy over nature. His art was therefore called Suprematism. Perfect squares, rectangles, unsupported slanting lines, did not exist in nature. Malevich argued that combining these forms might show something of the way men thought and came to spirituality.
Malevich’s picture "Supremus Nr 50" contains rectangles and lines that go in all directions, and yet there is a red horizontal rectangle and a perfect, grey square in his picture too. Malevich’s great interest as a painter lies in the fact that he made so obvious the basic lines and surfaces that are the analytic basis of works of art.

Zeuxis: I must show you one other wonderful work like this. Look, this one is a fine example of the use of unsupported slanting lines.

Zeuxis shows Arte another picture.

-> Eliezer Lissitzky (1890 – 1941). Crack! All is shattered! From "A Story of two squares". Van Abbe Museum. Eindhoven. 1920.

Zeuxis: This abstract composition recognises the dynamic quality of oblique lines immediately. Eliezer Lissitzky, a Russian Constructivist painter of the beginning of the twentieth century made this picture that bears the suggestive name "Crack! All is shattered!" The picture was part of "A Story of Two Squares" made around 1920. Like in Malevich’s painting, unsupported slanting lines give here too a sense of movement of the shattered square, and a sense of the explosion of squares in its very act. What are you scribbling there?

Arte shows Zeuxis a few lines she had been drawing absent-mindedly while Zeuxis was talking. She shows plate 28.

Zeuxis: Ah yes. Those are jagged lines. Supported and unsupported slanting lines can give an impression of loss of equilibrium already. But there is worse and you just drew some: jagged lines! These lines can be made to be menacing.
One can form from oblique pieces of lines jagged or zigzag lines. These then express nervousness, suddenness and dynamism more than unsupported slanting lines. Can you give me an example of such a line in nature?

Arte: They remind me of the strokes of lightning that appear in the sky. A jagged line of light can represent lightning, can it not? Lightning is to me the unavoidable danger, a menace from the heavens that catches me always by surprise.

Zeuxis: Zigzag lines are the lines of new, hard mountain ridges and of abysses. They are the lines of broken ice that surges out of the frozen sea. These also are lines of danger, the lines of the cutting edges. Furthermore, the thickness of the lines can be used to emphasise the sense of direction. Look at the picture of "Stetind in Fog" by Peder Balke.

Zeuxis shows a dark picture of a Northern icy sea and landscape.

-> Peder Balke (1804 – 1887). Stetind in Fog. Nasjonalgalleriet. Oslo. 1864.

Zeuxis: Balke was a Norwegian romantic painter, very much aware of the untamed, wild nature of the Norwegian fjords and mountains. The harshness of the lines must have vibrated in his gloomy and terrified moods. He gave in this picture an eerie, menacing view of the Stetind Mountain. Nature dominates entirely so that man is insignificant when compared to the angular forces of nature.
Other Romantic painters have used this effect of ice. One such painter was Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840) in his painting of "The Wreck of the Hope".

Arte: These pictures are so gloomy, Zeuxis. I feel like crying when I look at these. And yet, I want to continue forever looking at them, so nice are they. Have you not something more cheerful?

Zeuxis: Sure. I’ll show you a painting made by a lady. This painting is filled with light.

Zeuxis shows a picture of a wood, but of a wood strangely depicted.

-> Natalia Gontcharova (1881 – 1962). The Forest. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid. 1973.

Zeuxis: Look at this! The spiky structures of these intersecting slanting lines really hurt. Natalia Gontcharova applied these feelings to show the danger of a forest in which the thorns refuse access to a wanderer. Her painting "The Forest" is a good example of the use of oblique lines to call powerful emotions of danger and alien environments in a viewer. Gontcharova was also Russian. She and her companion Michael Larionov called this technique Rayonism. Natalia Gontcharova wanted in her picture to show the effects of refractions and reflections of rays of light through the branches of the trees of a forest. A frail human form in the intermingled rays and thorns suggests a warm organism in a menacing, almost crystallised, inanimate environment. Gontcharova produced many paintings in this style.

Arte: I would not like to get lost in such a forest! This is a deranging picture.

Zeuxis: There is worse, Arte. Look at this painting for instance.

Zeuxis shows "Corner House".

-> Ludwig Meidner (1884 – 1966). The Corner House. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid. 1913.

Zeuxis: Intersecting unsupported slanting lines in structures where a viewer normally expects horizontal and vertical lines, is a deranging experience for viewers. These lines suggest a departure from normality. Hence they suggest madness. A good example of this use in pictures is the Expressionist painting of Ludwig Meidner "The Corner House". The horizontal and even the vertical lines of the façade of the corner house are slanting, and that in directions that are not even parallel. The directions of the lines are unexpected and abnormal. The painter thus enhanced the effect of madness, of a nightmare, in an oppressive picture. Still, if there is a menacing character in jagged lines, straight lines are not the lines of life. Here is what Pat Conroy wrote in his wonderful novel "Beach Music", "No story is a straight line. The geometry of a human life is too imperfect and complex, too distorted by the laughter of time and the bewildering intricacies of fate to admit the straight line into its system of laws."

Zeuxis projects another picture of jagged lines.

-> Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957). Workshop. The Tate Gallery. London. Around 1914-1915.

Zeuxis: The jagged lines you came to find so intuitively, were at a certain time looked at with much attention. So much so that painters found something mystic in its powers. A small group of English painters worked from about 1915 to 1920 in a style that is now called Vorticism. The American poet Ezra Pound gave the name of the movement. Vorticism wanted to represent successive images superimposed and centring into a vortex. The Vorticism artists used jagged lines to express a brutal, aggressive focusing of perspective of pieces of broken lines towards a centre. There was no sentimentality in this art, a quality the Vorticists shared with most of the abstract artists who worked much with straight and simple, angular forms without curved lines. I show you here a work of the most representative of these artists, Wyndham Lewis, called "Workshop". This painting shows some of the movement towards a vortex, and the dominance of the very angular zigzag lines.

Arte: I see, Zeuxis. But I am not so very interested in oblique, slanting and jagged lines anymore. You explained me enough of that subject. However, in this lesson you used several words that I don’t really understand. I heard of some of them before, but I do not really know what they mean.

Zeuxis: Which words were they, girl?

Arte: Well: Baroque, Impressionist painters, Suprematism, Constructivism, Expressionism, Romantic painters. You did explain Rayonism and Vorticism a little, and I suppose these words mean ways of painting but I would like to know more of them.

Zeuxis: These terms are periods of style, periods in which painters showed work together in a certain way of using the elements of form we have been discussing. You know what? I am going to write you letters, pieces of text that you can read on your own and in which I will explain these terms. I will send you those letters in chronological order of the appearance of these styles. I will not start too far in the past. I will not bother you with ancient Egyptian, Greek or Roman painting. Moreover, very few examples are really left of those periods. I will only write to you on the history of your own millennium so my first letter could start around the year 1000. Would you like that?

Arte: Yes, Zeuxis, I love to read letters. By the way, it is starting to rain. I have to get in. I’d love to continue our lessons, but not tomorrow. Tomorrow I have to travel to Spain with my mother. So it may be a couple of weeks before we see each other again.

Zeuxis: Maybe we can see each other in Spain anyhow. We can maybe talk over a short lesson on decorative patterns of lines. I’ll see to it that you get a few letters by tomorrow. Goodbye, Arte.

Zeuxis disappears in a flash of light.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: May 2010
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