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Margaret Iversen

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The Discourse of Perspective in the

Twentieth Century: Panofsky,
Damisch, Lacan

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1. Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form,

trans. Christopher S. Wood (MIT Press, Zone
Books: New York, 1997), p. 477.

Margaret Iversen

When work on certain artistic problems has advanced so far that further work in the same
direction, proceeding from the same premises, appears unlikely to bear fruit, the result is
often a great recoil, or perhaps better, a reversal of direction. Such reversals. . . create the
possibility of erecting a new edifice out of the rubble of the old; they do this precisely by
abandoning what has already been achieved, that is, by turning back to apparently more
primitive modes of representation.1

These are the opening sentences of the third section of Panofskys Perspective
as Symbolic Form, where he discusses the great recoil of the Middle Ages.
I would like to adopt it to serve as a thumbnail sketch of Hubert
Damischs strategy in The Origin of Perspective. 2 Reading it one has the sense
of jumping over the whole history of alternative approaches to Art History
and the rise of post-structuralism to re-engage with the philosophical
concerns of the early Panofsky and the linguistic and psychoanalytic theory
of High Structuralism. Out of the rubble of these two intellectually robust
moments, Damisch hopes to fashion, not just a history or theory of
perspective, but a model for the future practice of Art History. This,
needless to say, is an extremely audacious enterprise, not least because,
one would have thought that the last of the great European Humanists
would consort rather uneasily with the great anti-humanist psychoanalyst,
Jacques Lacan.
Damischs book is about the invention of perspective as a paradigm or
model of thought that has far-reaching implications. Or, better, it is a
defence of that idea of perspective by appeal to an analysis of its founding
moment in Quattrocento Florence and its repercussions. Although a lot of
historical evidence is marshalled, it is not exactly a history of that moment,
for, as Damisch argues, one cannot trace the evolution of a paradigm as if it
were an object of historical enquiry like any other. Because it instantiates a
model of thought, it has to be approached theoretically, in much the same
way that Saussure approached the institution, the logical construct, that is
language. Perspective, for Damisch, not only organises the eld of visual
representation, it also organises the way we think about art and its history.
Damischs book, then, must be considered from the point of view of
its merit as a paradigm as a model for the practice of art history.
Because of its essentially philosophical claims, the details of his account
of Brunelleschis experiments or the Ideal City panels could be
factually wrong without undermining the philosophical validity of his
The same is true of the essay that Damisch takes as his model, Panofskys
Perspective as Symbolic Form, that other audacious art historical study of the
topic. Damisch declares that it remains more than a half a century after
its appearance, the inescapable horizon line and reference point for all

# The Author 2005. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.

OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28.2 2005 191202

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2. Hubert Damisch, The Origin of Perspective,

trans. John Goodman (MIT Press: Cambridge
MA and London, 1994). English translation of
LOrigine de la perspective (Paris, 1987). All
further page references to this book are enclosed
in brackets in the text. Substantive reviews at
the time of its publication in English include:
Whitney Davis, Virtually Straight, Art History,
vol.10, no. 3 September 1996, pp. 43463;
Christopher Wood, Review of Damischs The
Origin of Perspective and Le Jugement de Paris, Art
Bulletin, vol. LXXVII, no. 4, December 1995,
pp. 677782; Keith Moxey, review in Artforum,
vol. 32, no. 10, 1994; Dana Pollen, review in
Camera Obscura, no. 24, 1990, pp. 88 97;
Margaret Iversen, review article on Panofsky,
Perspective as Symbolic Form and Damisch, The
Origin of Perspective, Oxford Art Journal, vol. 18,
no. 2, Autumn 1995, pp. 814. See also, Keith
Broadbent, Perspective Yet Again: Damisch
with Lacan, Oxford Art Journal, vol. 25, no. 1,
2003, pp. 71 94. For a brief introduction to
Damischs thought see Ernst van Alphens essay
in Chris Murray (ed.), Key Writers on Art: The
Twentieth Century (Routledge, 2003), pp. 84 89.

The Discourse of Perspective in the Twentieth

Century: Panofsky, Damisch, Lacan

Margaret Iversen

194 OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28.2 2005

3. Michael Podro, The Critical Historians of Art

(Yale University Press: New Haven and London,
1982), p. 189.
4. Joseph Leo Koerner, The Shock of the
View, review of English translation of
Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, The New
Republic, April 26, 1993, p. 34.
5. Damisch points out that this denigration of
perspective has a long history, beginning with
Vasaris Lives of the Artists (p. 44).
6. James Elkins, The Poetics of Perspective
(Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London,
1994), p. 263.

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enquiry concern this object of study (p. 2). For Panofsky, Renaissance
single-point perspective also has far-reaching implications: it anticipates
Descartess rationalised conception of space as innite extension and
Kants Copernican revolution in epistemology. The latter implies, as
Michael Podro has argued, that Panofsky regards perspective as the advent
of a reexive self-awareness about the relation of mind to things and about
the nature of art as being essentially about that relation, rather than, say,
the imitation of some supposedly preexisting reality: Perspective, like the
critical philosophy of Kant, holds both the viewer and the viewed within
its conception.3 Artistic reexivity about the nature of art, signals the
achievement of the sort of critical distance that enables a properly
historical study of art. So the moment of systematic perspective
construction is also the moment that art history as a discipline becomes
possible. There is a curious overlapping, then, of a particular moment in
the history of art and the very possibility of the serious study of arts
history. Object and viewpoint are locked together. As Joseph Koerner
nicely puts it, Panofskys essay nally works to place itself at perspectives
historical focal point.4
If Panofskys essay proposes a paradigm for the study of art, so also does
Damischs book. We can get some indication of what sort of paradigm it
proposes by noting what comes in for criticism. Damischs critique is
aimed at art historical receptions of perspective, which, ignoring the
lesson of Panofskys essay, treat it as if it were nothing more than a nifty
technical device for systematically creating an illusion of space, so that
foreshortenings and the diminution of size of objects in depth all obey a
common rule and conform to a single viewpoint.5 This non-meeting of
minds can be partly explained by the fact that these scholars and Damisch
are studying different objects. As James Elkins observed, there are those
who are interested in reconstructing perspective practice and those who
are interested in its philosophical implications. This split is nothing new:
Elkins cites a late fteenth-century source, Cristoforo Landino, who
considered perspective to be part philosophy and part geometry.6
Damischs pointed critique of recent treatments of perspective is part of a
broadside aimed at empiricist art historians generally, who, in a worrying
reversion to a pre-critical approach to cultural history, see their job as
detective work (p. 185). By pre-critical, Damisch means an approach
that has not fully absorbed Kants critique of the empiricist view that we
can have knowledge of a stable world that exists independent of the minds
constitution of it.
The other target of Damischs critique is that band of theoretically minded
lm and art theorists of the 1970s, mainly Marxists and feminists, who
attacked perspective construction as embodying a particular male,
bourgeois, individualistic ideology (pp. xiv xv). I personally would have
liked to see Damisch undertake a more serious critique of that body of
lm theory, because, like his book, it draws on Lacanian psychoanalysis
and uses the linguistic terminology of dispositif and enunciation.
Apparatus theory, as it is called, proposed an analogy between the set up
of the cinema (spectator, projector, screen) and that of perspective,
crediting both with powerful ideological and psychic effects. The key text
is Jean-Louis Baudrys Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematic
Apparatus published in 1970. Baudry founded his critique of the
cinematic apparatus on its inheritance of Quattrocento perspective
construction, which, he claimed, constitutes a viewing subject as

The Discourse of Perspective in the Twentieth Century

7. Jean-Louis Baudry, Ideological Effects of the

Basic Cinematographic Apparatus, in Narrative,
Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Reader, ed. Philip
Rose (Columbia University Press: New York,
1986), p. 286. First published in France in 1970
in Cahiers du cinema and in Great Britain in 1974.
See the volumes of translated essays from this
journal published by Routledge and the British
Film Institute.
8. Baudry, Ideological Effects of the Basic
Cinematographic Apparatus, in Narrative,
Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Reader (1986), p. 292.

10. Baudry, Ideological Effects of the Basic

Cinematographic Apparatus, in Narrative,
Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Reader (1986), p. 295.
11. Panofskys account of that development is
indebted to Alois Riegls Spatromische
Kunstindustrie (1901). See my Alois Riegl: Art
History and Theory (MIT Press: Cambridge, MA,
and London, 1993). See also Michael Podro, The
Critical Historians of Art (Yale University Press:
New Haven and London, 1982) and Michael Ann
Holly, Panofsky and the Foundations of Art History
(Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London,


Although Panofskys Perspective as Symbolic Form purports to be a history

of the development of single point perspective construction and the various
conceptions of space implied by that history, it is in fact structured around
a basic binary opposition between two strikingly different sorts of
perspective. Antique and Renaissance (or Modern) perspectives stand at
the opposite poles of an evolution and all the intervening moments
are presented as hardly more than strategic moves and reversals that enable
the history to get from A to B.11 What we understand as systematic
perspective construction is the culmination of a long history and implicit in
this history is the development of the idea of space as we now understand
it. Perspective announces or anticipates the modern conception of space,
which is homogeneous, innite extended substance. This is not something
given to perception or immediately intuited. The conception of space
implied by Renaissance perspective involved taking the raw material of
sense perception and systematically modifying it, organising it and unifying
it around a single vanishing point. The rst section of Panofskys paper is
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9. Baudry, Ideological Effects of the Basic

Cinematographic Apparatus, in Narrative,
Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Reader (1986), p. 294.

centre and origin of meaning.7 Cinematic camera movement only serves to

augment the viewers feeling of power and control.8 For Baudry, the
spectator identies less with what is represented on the screen, than with
the apparatus that stages the spectacle.9 The crucial illusion that cinema
fosters, then, is not so much the illusory world represented, as the fantasy
it engenders of a transcendental subject. Just as the infant in Lacans
mirror stage assembled the fragmented and uncoordinated body in an
imaginary unity, so also the imaginary transcendental self of cinema unites
the discontinuous fragments of lm into a unied sense.10
Damischs implicit critique of this position is that it denigrates perspective
as a tool for interpellating subjects for the ends of Capitalism or Patriarchy,
rather than seeing it positively as an extraordinary idea a cognitive
achievement like the invention or discovery of geometry. This is a
spectacular instance of art thinking, which, for Damisch, implies the
impossibility of maintaining any sharp distinction between art historical
method and its objects. The impatience registered by Damisch in his
Preface was prompted, then, by both old-fashioned empiricist art history
and what we now call visual culture. Together these created for him an
impasse that required the recoil to the rubble of apparently more
primitive approaches. What I propose to do is to examine the main
fragments of that rubble, Panofskys essay and structuralist psychoanalytic
theory, in order to discover what assumptions and implications are latent
in the new paradigm.
While I am sympathetic with Damischs general sense of impasse and
encouraged by his attention to the fundamental philosophical questions of
art history, his book poses for me a serious difculty, for I nd myself
drawn to its Lacanian moments but wary of its enthusiastic reception of
Panofskys essay. By combining the two, he seems simultaneously to afrm
the ideas of perspective as symbolic form and perspective as symbolic
order. I want to probe the stresses and strains this conjunction puts on
Damischs book and, at the same time, try to drive a wedge between its
Panofskian and Lacanian moments. It is not very difcult to discern what
kind of art historical practice is embedded in Panofskys essay, but what
kind is implied by importing Lacanian psychoanalysis into that paradigm?

Margaret Iversen

196 OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28.2 2005

12. Christopher S. Wood, Introduction to

Erwin Panofksy, Perspective as Symbolic Form,
trans. Christopher S. Wood (MIT Press, Zone
Books: New York, 1997), p. 22.
13. Panofksy, Perspective as Symbolic Form
(1997), p. 41.
14. Friedrich Schiller, Nave and Sentimental
Poetry and On the Sublime: Two Essays, trans. J.A.
Elias (Unger Press: New York, 1996), p. 116.

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devoted to arguing just how far perspective departs from actual perception,
for, paradoxically, our modern perceived reality has become so thoroughly
conditioned by perspectival forms of representation, including
photography, that we are likely to miss the point, which is that
modern perspective abstracts fundamentally from basic human psychophysiological perception, which is obviously not monocular or static or
strictly geometrical.
Panofskys account of Antiquitys conception of space and its axial system of
perspective aims to show that both are essentially unmodern. In Antiquity,
space exists only in so far as it is conceived as dimensions adhering to corporeal
objects inhabiting a void. This idea he borrowed from Riegls Late Roman Art
Industry. Yet, for Riegl, Antiquitys Kunstwollen, its aesthetic ideal, was to
suppress space as for as possible. For him, artistic representation is not
thought of as conforming to general perception or ideas of space, but of
modelling an ideal sort of object. According to Panofsky, insofar as Antique
painting does attempt to represent perspectival space, that is,
foreshortenings and diminution of size in depth, it sticks closely to actual
psycho-physiological effects or the subjective optical impression, such as
the central bulging and curvature of verticals, particularly at the edges of
the eld. When Christopher Wood notes that, for Panofsky, Antique
perspective is more faithful to the truth of perception than Renaissance
perspective because it attempts to reproduce the curvature of the retinal
image, he is right, but his emphasis is wrong because this so-called
truth, based on an immediate sensory impression, is unreexive, preKantian, in short, primitive.12 Compared with the rationalisation of
represented space accomplished by Renaissance perspective construction,
pre-modern perspective assumes a naively mimetic, pre-critical
perceptual relation to the world.
For Panofsky, then, central perspective construction is the embodiment of
the crucial recognition that visual representation is not properly mimetic but
constructive. It rationalises space, which now no longer clings to substantial
things. Instead, bodies and gaps between them were only differentiations or
modications of a continuum or a higher order.13 Instead of immediacy,
abstraction from sense experience. Instead of bodily sense impressions,
geometric systmaticity. Art is no longer regarded as a mimetic depiction
of objects seen; rather, it reexively includes the acknowledgment that it
is a highly formalised kind of performance aimed at a spectator. Although
Panofsky claims to favour modern perspective because it occupies a middle
ground between the claims of the subject and the object, this is not the
crucial point. The point is that art since the Renaissance embodies
the essential reexive, critical insight that representations (mental and
artistic) do not just copy objects, they produce objects structured in a
particular way. The difference between Antique and Modern perspective
is, then, somewhat like the distinction Schiller drew between Na ve and
Sentimental poetry: whereas the poet of Antiquity, being closer to nature,
creates instinctively, the modern poet always reects upon the impression
that objects make upon him.14
Because, for Panofsky, perspective is a model that relates vision to its
objects, constitutes them, in this highly reexive way, post-Renaissance art
has the freedom to choose between types of representation that either
stick closely to the objective character of things or to the subjective,
visual conception of them. The key term here is choose. Although this is
not spelled out, in the context of Panofskys other writing, it is clear that

The Discourse of Perspective in the Twentieth Century

15. Cassirer and Panofsky were colleagues at

the University of Hamburg and at the Warburg
Institute where the paper on perspective was
rst delivered. It was published in the Vortrage
der Bibliothek Warburg (19241925).

17. Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form

(1997), p. 67.
18. See Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form
(1997), footnote 73, pp. 1534.
19. The notion that Panofsky was a relativist
because he challenged the representational
accuracy of perspective is quite widespread. See
Wood, Introduction to Erwin Panofksy
(1997), p. 22.
20. Wood, Introduction to Erwin Panofksy
(1997), p. 23.

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16. Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic

Forms, trans. Ralph Mannheim (Yale University
Press: New Haven and London, 1955), vol. I,
Language, pp. 202, 208. Also important for
Panofskys distinction is Cassirers book,
Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (Verlag
Cassirer: Berlin, 1923) between a substantialist
conception of objects and a functionalist one,
that is, an object conceived as a function of the
rules that generate it. See also the importance of
the perceptual psychology of Guido Hauck in
Podro, The Critical Historians (1982), p. 186 ff.

perspective implies the possibility of human agency and free-will. It therefore

has an ethical dimension, which is amplied by the idea of a balancing
objectivity against subjectivity, and so promoting an art practice that
embodies an Aristotelian mean between extremes.
Panofskys conception of the crucial distinction between Antique and
Modern perspective is over determined, but one proximate inuence on his
thinking was the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer.15 Cassirer wrote a history of
symbolic forms, such as myth and language, as a history of their progressive
spiritualisation. Like Panofsky, he attempted to combine the incompatible
positions of a progressive, teleological history with a relativist typology.
Yet it is not difcult to nd unambiguous passages where he declares, for
example, that the languages of primitive peoples are still entirely rooted in
immediate sensory impressions, while more advanced languages display
great freedom and abstract clarity in the expression of logical relations.16
In my view, Panofsky naturalises Antique perspective as mimesis of the
optical impression so that it can serve as a dark cloth against which the
constructive and rational character of Renaissance linear perspective
sparkles like a gem.
Since Panofsky adopts Renaissance art as an authoritative viewpoint,
perspective, for him, encompasses both itself and its other. After the
Renaissance, there can be no non- or even anti-perspectival art only
swings between the polarities of its two-sided signicance: it creates
room for bodies to expand plastically and move gesturally, and yet at the
same time it enables light to spread out in space and in a painterly way
dissolve the bodies.17 He is probably thinking here of the difference
between Italian and Northern Baroque painting and sculpture. However,
because of the epistemological status of perspective, the question of the
right balance between these tendencies must be determined: measure and
proportion must be balanced against the distorting effects of point of view.
It would seem that in Panofskys view, post-Renaissance art that differs
substantially from its norm is doomed to err on one side or the other,
guilty either of being too coldly mathematical or objectivising, on the one
hand, or too warmly expressionist or too eccentrically impressionistic, on
the other. In other words, an a priori aesthetic norm is implicit in the
system and it is backed up by epistemological and ethical norms.18
Although there is some residual Rieglian relativism in the essay with
suggestions, for example, that modern perspective has only relative validity
and could be coming to an end in our post-Euclidian world, these are
mainly conned to the footnotes and overwhelmed by a sense of its
constituting a permanent and legitimate paradigm of representation that
enables fairly wide variation, the limits of which are the limits of a
humanistic art.19
The privileging of the Renaissance has certain consequences for the model
of art history implicit in Panofskys essay. In it and his other early writing, he
deforms Riegls conception of art as a history of the Kunstwollen. As
Christopher Wood says, In granting Renaissance linear perspective special
status Panofsky moved away from Riegl.20 While Riegl and Panofsky share
the same Hegelian inheritance, including the idea that a particular world
view is formulated in works of art, Panofsky was interested primarily in
discovering an absolute viewpoint. Riegl, however, appreciated Hegels
sense of the way the historian of art is situated in a particular moment that
determines what objects can come into view and be salient for us and
what questions can be asked of them. He could acknowledge, for example,

Margaret Iversen

that his interest in late Roman art has something to do with the emergence of
Impressionism. In other words, the art historian inevitably participates in his
contemporary Kunstwollen. 21 In contrast, Panofskys sense of the historicity of
art historical thinking ends with the attainment of a quasi-transcendental
perspective. In his 1920 essay, The Concept of the Kunstwollen, he argued
that concepts proposed by Riegl, objective/subjective, haptic/optic, and so
on, provide the art historian with a point of view outside the phenomena,
a xed Archimedian point.22 Panofsky later questioned the value of these
concepts, but retained his quest for a method that allowed one a detached,
distanced point of view.

198 OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28.2 2005

22. Panofsky, Der Begriff des Kunstwollens

(The Concept of the Kunstwollen), in Aufsatze
zu Grundfragen der Kunstwissenschaft (B. Hessling:
Berlin, 1964), p. 33.
23. Alberti, On Painting, trans. Cecil Grayson,
with an introduction by Martin Kemp (Penguin:
London, 1991).
24. Damisch, Theory of/Cloud/: Toward a History
of Painting, trans. Janet Lloyd (University of
Stanford Press: Stanford, 2002), p. 124.
25. Claude Levi-Strauss, The Way of the Masks,
trans. Sylvia Modelski (J. Cape: London, 1983).

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Damisch is clearly attracted to some of the implications of thinking

perspective as a symbolic form, although certainly not all the ones I have
just detailed. He does, however, particularly stress the epistemological
status of perspective. That he conceives of perspective as embodying a
different epistemology will soon become clear. For Damisch, perspective
is a materially embodied theory or epistemological model a way of
reecting on our relation to representation. Perspective, on his view, has
many of the same properties as a sentence. It systematically organises
material and positions an I over against a correlative you. Like any
system it imposes constraints, selecting what is relevant; in this case,
things that have denite contours are selected. In fact, Albertis veil,
described in his On Painting, was designed precisely to deal with irregular
bodies, such as the human gure, which do not lend themselves to
perspective construction (unless you are an obsessive character like
Piero).23 Damischs earlier book A Theory of /Cloud/ is about the way those
wispy phenomena nevertheless nd their way into painting despite being
marginalized by perspectives structure of exclusions.24
Panofskys characterisation of perspective also appeals to Damisch as a
modernist because perspective thus understood carries with it the
recognition that no representation can be adequate to its object. The system
of relations that perspective imposes is a coherent system. It has an internal
logic that allows us to consider it in its own terms and not only as a model
of the visible world. At the heart of Damischs book is a critique of art
historians burdened with what he calls the representational hypothesis or,
less politely, the referential prejudice (p. 283). His long and staggeringly
detailed analysis of the three panels of architectural views or Ideal Cities in
Urbino, Berlin and Baltimore proceeds by rst prising them free from
explanations of their style or iconography in terms of some referent,
whether it be the architecture of Florence, scenography, or marquetry. For
Damisch, representation is not the only function of painting (p. 263).
Rather than relating the panels to some extra-pictorial reality, Damisch
aims to show that they constitute a transformational group. The term is
borrowed from mathematics, but the practice is informed by Levi-Strausss
analysis of masks or myths.25 The panels form a set of three works that
respond to one another in a play of formal oppositions and relations. More
than anything else they represent a play of thought (p. 197). While for
Panofsky the perspectival work of art represents a reexive, critical relation
of mind to the world, for Damisch the thought these panels demonstrate is
much more self-contained: they represent a purely visual kind of thinking in
which the relation of artwork to artwork is paramount. When dealing with

21. This view is most clearly stated in Riegl,

Naturwerk und Kunstwerk, I (1901), in
Gesammelte Aufsatze, ed. K.M. Swoboda (Dr. B.
Filser: Augsburg and Vienna, 1929), p. 63.

The Discourse of Perspective in the Twentieth Century

26. Damisch, Theory of /Cloud/ (2002), p. 181.


The symbolic order is one of Lacans three terms, which, along with the
imaginary and the real, organise the psychoanalytic eld. It came to
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abstract art we are accustomed to the idea of painting about painting, but we
are apparently less able to think about self-reexive gurative art. The tour de
force of Damischs analysis of the Urbino panels is enough to convince me of
the critical productivity of this idea.
Damisch also makes claims about the way these panels affect the subject
and for this he has recourse to Lacans conception of the symbolic order.
Since Lacan was, in fact, inuenced by Levi-Strauss in his formulation of
the symbolic order, this extension makes perfect sense. But can Damisch
shift between understanding perspective as a model of thought and
understanding it as equivalent to Lacans symbolic order without a terrible
grinding of gears? It is clear what motivated Damisch to introduce both
Levi-Strauss and Lacan effectively substituting them for Panofskys
Cassirer. Early on in the book, he claims that perspective is antiHumanist (p. 44). He cites Lacans observation that perspective reduces
man to an eye and the eye to a point, and links this with the later
institution of the Cartesian subject itself a sort of geometral point
(p. 45). Although perspective conceived as a symbolic form abstracts
radically from perceived reality and effectively denies the possibility of any
unmediated knowledge of the world, it offers ample compensations. Far
from the subject being decentred in relation to the structure, it offers
for the rst time, like Kants a priori categories of thought, a
legitimate position legitimate both epistemologically and ethically. Our
understanding of the world, whether scientic or pictorial, can be both
subjectively constituted and objectively valid. This explains why Panofsky
revived the formerly obscure term for single point perspective
construction, costruzione legittima. For Damisch, the subject of perspective
has no such condence: it constitutes a subject that is to become that of
modern science in the form of a point (p. 425). It marks a crisis of
subjectivity and knowledge that becomes apparent in Descartess Discourse
on Method where the subject is reduced to a point, the Cogito, and
separated by an abyss from extended substance.
Damisch sometimes understands the effects of the picture in purely
Lacanian terms: we are subjected, seduced, caught up in the picture
(p. 46), we are programmed, informed by the model (p. 51). And yet, he
also wants to preserve Panofskys reexive moment: he continues,
Perspective provides a means of staging this capture and of playing it out in
a reexive mode (p. 46). On the one hand, Damisch underwrites
Panofskys sense of perspective as a non-coercive model of thought: he
describes it as a regulative conguration intended not so much to inform
the representation as to orient and control its regime (p. 233). On the
other, it is a trap laid for the scopic drive (pp. 184 5). But are these
models compatible? Weve seen that the Panofskian epistemological model
of perspective carries with it implications or connotations of rationality,
critical distance, reexivity, and freedom. The psychoanalytic, Lacanian
model carries with it a quite different set of connotations: seduction,
alienation, lack, death, and desire. Damisch beautifully summed up these
latter implications in his/Cloud/book: Painting has power to make man
sensible of his own nothingness, his dependence, his void.26

Margaret Iversen

200 OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28.2 2005

27. Jacques Lacan, The Function of Language

in Psychoanalysis, in The Language of the Self,
trans., notes and commentary by Anthony
Wilden (John Hopkins Press: Baltimore, 1968).
28. According to Manetti, Brunelleschis rst
biographer, there were two panels: the one of
the Baptistry and one of the Palazzo deSignori.
For an attempt at reconstruction of these and the
technicalities associated with them, see Martin
Kemp, The Science of Art: Optical Theories in
Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (Yale
University Press: New Haven and London,
29. Emile Benveniste, Problems in General
Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek
(University of Miami Press: Coral Gables,
Fla., 1971), p. 227.

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prominence in his work with the 1953 Rome Discourse where it was
understood as the most important determining order of the subject.27 In
its formulation, Lacan borrowed from Levi-Strauss and the linguist Roman
Jakobson their stress on the structural relations amongst signiers
constituting a system rather than on what is symbolised. For Lacan, our
subjection to this pre-established, inexorably determining, resolutely
impersonal system of signiers is none the less salutary because it
functions, like the intervention of the father in the Freudian Oedipal
scenario, as a third term breaking up the dyadic stasis and narcissistic
identication that characterises the imaginary register. The symbolic
order, one could say, abstracts fundamentally from the here and now. For
example, the physical, substantial father becomes a function a function
essentially of symbolic castration and prohibition. Since the imposition of
the symbolic order breaks up the dyad of mother and child, desire for the
lost unattainable object is set in motion and the ideal, narcissistic self of
the imaginary is shattered. Perspective is imagined by Damisch as the
visual equivalent of the discourse of the Other, yet there is very
little sense of the anguish and desire that runs through Lacans sense of the
subjects relation to the symbolic Other.
Damisch interprets the perspective paradigm as having precisely the
determining, decentering, extra-personal quality of Lacans symbolic
order. He makes this case by arguing that the vanishing point is equivalent
to the point of view they coincide on the plane of projection and,
consequently the vanishing point has the value of a look of the Other.
This, he thinks, is demonstrated by Brunelleschis rst experiment, as
described by Antonio Manetti, in which he drilled a peep hole through a
small wooden panel depicting the Florence Baptistery so that one could
peer through it from behind and see an astoundingly illusionistic depiction
reected in a mirror.28 Damisch proposes that the vanishing point, which
is frequently marked in painting of the period by a depicted aperture, will
from thenceforth have the signicance of a look back, or better, of a look
that constitutes me as viewer. The subject of perspective is consequently
decentred in relation to this prior point of sight or gaze implied by the
depiction (p. 115 ff). As Damisch notes, The perspective paradigm
effectively posits the other, in the face of the subject as always already
there (p. 446). Emile Benvenistes theorisation of the imbrication of the
subject in speech is Damischs model for this account. For Benveniste,
language puts forth empty forms which a speaker in the exercise of
discourse, appropriates to himself and which he relates to his person, at
the same time dening himself as I and a partner as you.29 Similarly,
perspectival representation, with its visual sentence structure (dispositif
denunciation ) addresses me with an implicit look (p. 227). For Damisch,
perspective as a paradigm operates like the imposition of language on the
individual and has, in the visual register, the same effect of
subjectication. This should put paid to the common view that the subject
of perspective is placed in a dominant position of mastery. On the
contrary, this subject holds only by a thread (p. 388). This thread,
which leads from the eye of the observer to the vanishing point, is capable
of snatching the spectator, like a sh on a line, into the picture. This
spectator nds him or herself looked at by the painting, lured, transxed,
summoned to take up his position. The windows and half open doors of
the Urbino panels are, according to Damisch, looking at you with all
their eyes (p. 266).

The Discourse of Perspective in the Twentieth Century

30. Joan Copjec, The Strut of Vision: Seeings

Corporeal Support, in Imagine Theres no Woman:
Ethics and Sublimation, (MIT Press: Cambridge
and London, 2002), pp. 17898.
31. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of
Psycho-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans.
Alan Sheridan (Penguin Books:
Harmondsworth, 1979).

33. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reections on

Photography, trans. Richard Howard (Hill and
Wang: New York, 1981). I mention this because
Barthess book relies on Lacans Four
Fundamental Concepts. See my What is a
Photograph?, Art History, vol. 17, no. 3, 1993,
pp. 10118.
34. Copjec, The Strut of Vision (2002),
p. 184.
35. Jacques Lacan, Seminar XIII: Lobjet de la
psychanalyse (unpublished seminar), May 4,
36. Hal Foster, The Return of the Real, in
The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End
of the Century, (MIT Press: Cambridge, MA and
London, 1996), pp. 12770.

OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28.2 2005 201

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32. I owe this very Merleau-Pontian

formulation to Alenka Zupanicic, Philosophers
Blind Mans Bluff, in Renata Salecl and Slavoj
Zizek (eds), Gaze and Voice as Love Objects (Duke
University Press: Durham and London, 1996),
pp. 32 58.

Although Damisch presses in this book the purely symbolic character of

perspective, he does hint at what might be its other modalities. I would
like to foreground these hints in order to develop a less univocal view of
the subjects relation to perspective. Damischs attention to the linguistic
or structural or symbolic modality of perspective means that he tends to
suppress the two other modalities of Lacanian psychoanalysis. The three
registers of the symbolic, imaginary, and real intersect and overlap. I
suggest that perspective can, so to speak, appear in all three registers.
Joan Copjec has argued strenuously that Lacan used the model of
perspective as a formula of the relation of the corporeal subject to the
visual eld. For her, if one follows Lacan, any analogy between the subject
of perspective and the Cartesian Cogito must be misplaced, since
psychoanalysis posits an embodied subjectivity.30 But perhaps this
contradiction between Damischs and Copjecs views can be resolved by
saying that a subject alienated in the symbolic aspect of perspective would
be a disembodied one, but that perspective has other modalities. In The
Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan is concerned not so much
with the symbolic as with its limits.31 The sections on perspective set out
to theorise the subjects relation, not to the look of the big Other (the
symbolic), but to the gaze as objet petit a (the real). In that Seminar, Lacan
argues that the real of the subjects body and drives looks back from the
picture and not necessarily from the vanishing point. Since death is one of
the realities alienated by the ego, Lacan gured its underside as an
anamorphic skull the blind spot of conscious perception. The real in the
scopic eld is formed when the eye splits itself off from its original
immersion in visibility and the gaze as objet petit a is expelled.32 The eye
would then be master of all it surveyed were it not for the spot or void
left behind by what had to be excluded. This spot is said to look back at
me, because it is an intimate part of myself, a part object, projected
outside. In terms of the Brunelleschian demonstration, this implies that
while the body is elided behind the panel, there is nonetheless a real
residue, a icker that is the reection of my own eye at the vanishing
point. That icker becomes the object of the scopic drive and the
encounter with it is wounding, like Barthess description of the effect of
the photographic punctum.33
Lacan singles out anamorphosis as an illustration of the way perspective
captures the spectator by presenting something that eludes my grasp. Yet I
think Joan Copjec is right to say that we are mistaken if we take that effect
as an occasional rather than as a structurally necessary phenomenon.34
And since the vanishing point is both structural and, in some ways elusive,
it can perhaps better serve the purpose than anamorphosis. And, in fact it
does so in Lacans unpublished Seminar 13 of 1966, on which Copjec
draws.35 The closest Damisch comes to conceiving of the vanishing point in
the register of the real is when he notes the physical hole in the surface of
the Urbino Ideal City panel right at the vanishing point. He writes that the
effect of this is to introduce into a conguration intended to create an
illusion, the point of the real (p. 341). This spot is, if you like, the
equivalent of pops and tears in the printing process, described by Hal
Foster, that disrupt the surface of Warhols Death in America silk screens.36
In his reading of Velasquezs Las Meninas, Damisch nally relents and
suggests that perspective may also have an imaginary function. Although
the technical perspectival vanishing point of this painting is on the arm of
the man at the door, the imaginary centre of the painting is the mirror at

Margaret Iversen

202 OXFORD ART JOURNAL 28.2 2005

37. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts

(1979), p. 81.
38. Stephen Melville, The Temptation of New
Perspectives, October, 52, Spring 1990, p. 11.

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the back of the room. At the rst centre, says Damsich, the subject is, so to
speak, produced by the system in which it has a designated place. In the
second centre, the narcissistic ego tries to nd its own reection
(p. 443). The light shining in from the right of the picture suggests
another, lateral viewpoint, called the distance point in perspective
construction, from which position the depth of the room would open up.
The mirror as marker of the imaginary register in Las Meninas opens up the
possibility that, for Damisch, the lm theorists were not mistaken, after
all. Imaginary perspective would be one in which the apparatus
disappeared and we were given an image having that belongs to me
aspect, as Lacan put it.37 Damisch makes an intriguing point about
the complex composition of Las Meninas that deserves further elaboration:
the painting, in splitting these viewpoints and functions, and making them
palpable, reects on its own operations (pp. 443 4). Here Damisch
gestures towards a way of going beyond Panofskys Kantian reexivity,
which applies universally to the subject of perspective, to a more limited
but credible way of thinking the subjects agency or room for manoeuver
in relation to art and the image more generally.
We saw that one of the implications for art history implicit in Panofskys
essay was the deduction of quasi-transcendental terms that create a legitimate
point of view for the eld of study. The subject of knowledge, the art
historian, is thus sprung out of any embeddedness in his or her own
cultural/intellectual milieu. As Stephen Melville put it in his essay, The
Temptation of New Perspectives, Panofskys valorization of perspective
forges an apparently non-problematic access to the rationalized space of the
past.38 This is one implication from which Damisch, I am sure, would
wish to distance himself. The Origin of Perspective is itself an eloquent
testimony to the way history is constantly recast. Damisch acknowledges,
for example, the productive effects of Freud and Lacan on subsequent
theorisations of perspective, including his own, and brushes aside charges
of anachronism brought by scholars of Renaissance art. He writes, If
there is any such thing as history, it must be conceded that it too takes the
same route: one that leads through this echo chamber, this eld of
interference in which Freuds text resonates with those of Alberti,
Manetti, and Leonardo (p. 123). Here critical distance is not conceived
of as empty or abstract space as it is in Panofsky. Rather, it is replete with
the intervening artistic and theoretical developments that inect the way
we understand the past. The history practised in The Origin of Perspective is
in this sense back to front. Brunelleschis perspective panel of the
Baptistery has a very weak provenance, only described by his biographer
some thirty years after his death, and curiously not even mentioned by
Alberti. Damischs treatment of it reminds me of the hypothesis of the big
bang in astrophysics. It must exist to explain subsequent historical
phenomena. Perhaps only at the end of the book, after reading what
Damisch proposes as the historical transformational group relating to the
panel Van Eycks Arnolni Marriage Portrait, the Urbino perspectives,
Velasquezs Las Meninas and Picassos variations on it can one take
seriously the claim that this missing panel represented the founding
operation of modern painting which consisted of Brunelleschi piercing a
hole in his panel and turning it around to view it in a mirror (p. 441).