Scopic regimes of modernity

Centuries of studying visuality has given birth to several methods of visual analysis. These “scopic regimes” as defined by Jay are quite simply systems for organizing vision. This essay will focus on the two main systems discussed by Jay: Renaissance and Baroque. Both systems arose during similar time frames, and consequently contain some similarities. Yet, each approach is clearly different. Renaissance’s central themes of order, reason and Cartesian space are clearly in contrast to the themes of the Baroque system, which is far more spectacular and sensational.

Images from each regime will be used to illustrate the differences between Renaissance and Baroque. The Renaissance period lasting between the 14th and 16th centuries was a stark cultural shift from the preceding Middle Ages. Born out of European culture – notably Italian – “Renaissance” means “rebirth”, which suggests how radical this period was for its time (Web Museum, 2004). The Renaissance denoted the rise of individual and social values, and strong growth in scientific exploration (Web Museum, 2004). The themes associated with this cultural period were transferred into Renaissance art, which is a defining period in visual history.

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Jay (1998, p. 4) asserts that the Renaissance or Cartesian perspectivalism, is often regarded as the dominant scopic regime for the modern era due to its representation of natural, realistic images. Renaissance is summarized by “order, closure, and fixity” according to Wollen (1993). Up until then, visual images of the Middle Ages did not represent the natural appearance of objects in real life. They included no sense of depth or realism. Renaissance art involved for the first time the consistent use of perspective vanishing points (see appendix 1), making the imagery of the period most realistic.

It saw the beginnings of geometrical mathematics used to represent objects, and the portrayal of three dimensional rationalized space, as viewed through a singular eye, rather than jumping from focal point to focal point (Jay, 1988 p. 7). Indeed, the shadows and true representation of a foreground and background made the Renaissance approach to visuality the first real period to express depth. It is the concept of Cartesian space that underpins Renaissance imagery. Cartesian space refers to the linearity of Renaissance art (see appendix 1), which is illustrated by the neutrality of the period’s artwork (Jay, 1998, p9).

Jay (1998, p. 9) claims that the orderly coldness of the Renaissance perspective resulted in the “withdrawal of the painter’s emotional entanglement with the objects depicted”, which explains why Renaissance visuality is not as surreal as either the preceding Middle Ages or the subsequent Baroque period. To illustrate the Renaissance approach to visual culture, the painting View of an Ideal City (appendix 1) will be considered. The first thing one notices about this picture is that it is truly balanced, being symmetrical in is imagery.

The dominating axes of this picture form an articulated system, as described by Barnard, 2001, p. 175). The size of the buildings on either side of the central piece are the same, and the buildings are spaced equally apart, an underpinning theme of Renaissance imagery. It should be noted that all these peripheral buildings are square in structure. The focal point of the piece is the circular building in the middle (see appendix 1). This notion of geometrically balanced shapes is a strong theme of the Renaissance period (Barnard, 2001, p. 174).

However, the image is not completely symmetrical, as closer inspection reveals the light source of the image is located somewhere left of the image’s center. This is evident by the fact that the buildings on the left are in shadow, whereas the buildings on the right are in full light. It is this shadowing effect that truly makes the image feel realistic. An interesting point about View of an Ideal City is that it is an image of what looks to be a clean well kept relatively large city, yet there are no people in the entire painting. In this regard, the image appears somewhat unnatural.

Yet this is what makes the image a perfect example of the Renaissance: it is so mathematically organized that the existence of people would probably make the image less balanced. The Baroque period began in Italy in the late 16th century (Martz, 1991, p7). However, these two periods’ overlapped (Martz, 1991, p. 7). Baroque, in contrast to Renaissance, is far more spectacular and sensational as a scopic regime. Paintings of the Baroque period are regarded as excessive, extravagant, and even mad. Whereas Renaissance is often subdued, Baroque art is usually on a grander stage, and employs theatrical visual drama (Web Museum, 2004).

Martz (1991, p219) considers Baroque “a recreation of older forms, both ancient and renaissance, in a sensory swirl of action, moving towards some spiritual goal. ” This suitable definition comprises common elements of other definitions. One of the strongest themes of the Baroque period was a return to spirituality. A potential reason for the emergence of the spectacular Baroque period according to Calabrese (1992) is that it was a period during which the Catholic Church attempted to steer culture back towards tradition and spirituality.

Indeed, these two themes are regularly evident in many paintings of the Baroque era. The heavy religious presence in Baroque artwork confirms the powerful influence of the church, and also adds a surrealist flavour. The concept of the surreal associated in Baroque is in direct contrast with Renaissance. This element of surrealism can be applied to two concepts: the viewer’s perspective of the painting, and the content of the painting itself. As explained earlier, Renaissance provides the viewer with a realistic representation of natural objects.

Baroque is far more “bizarre and peculiar”, as it crams a “multiplicity of visual” aspects into one overwhelming image (Jay, 1988, p. 16). It does not offer a natural eye’s perspective of the events it aims to portray. Rather, representations of Baroque images have been considered to offer the perspective of “God’s eye” (Jay, 1988, p. 7), a theory that fits in well with Baroque’s religious roots. This surrealist concept is well summarized by Buci-Glucksmann who suggested Baroque succeeded in “represent[ing] the unrepresentable”; it does not merely “describe” a moment of time (Jay, p. 7), rather it offers far more symbolic and creative food for thought. To demonstrate the contrast of Baroque to Renaissance, the classic ceiling painting by Tiepolo Apollo and the Four Continents (appendix 2) provides a fine example. Immediately, the viewer notices how dramatic the painting is in contrast to any Renaissance image. The “painterly” nature of Baroque art, as opposed to Renaissance, as described by Barnard has a strong presence in this image (Barnard, 2001, p. 173). Clearly, Apollo and the Four Continents is not realistic.

This is for two reasons: the perspective and the content the painting displays. Firstly, the perspective is typical of Baroque. It is not a natural view at all, rather it is more like the “God’s eye” perspective that Jay discusses (1998, p. 4). The painting offers an all encompassing view of what is a large scene. The multiple focal points of the image are necessary for the viewer who cannot take the whole image in at once at a glance (Web Gallery of Art, 2004). Indeed, the image is of “open” form common to Baroque, rather than the “closed” form found in Renaissance (Barnard, 2001, p. 74).

The image’s “openness” is apparent due to the lack of verticals and horizontals, which are most prominent in View of an Ideal City. Secondly, the strong religious element of the painting removes any sense of realism. Apollo sits in the centre of the heavens, surrounded by light, with other gods believed to be Venus and Mars resting on a cloud below him (Web Gallery of Art, 2004). An endless flow of things to look at in Apollo and the Four Continents means the viewer must take his or her time deciphering the image.

The fact that these images melt into each other instead of being strictly distinguished (Barnard, 2001, p. 174) – a Baroque trait – makes this process more time consuming, but also more interesting. Furthermore, the content offers only symbolism rather that a representation of any true events. Its strong religious focus is intended to elicit emotional responses instead of recreating a real scene. Clearly the Renaissance and Baroque scopic regimes are different methods for organizing images.

On one hand, Renaissance aims to represent realism, by way of its scientific like Cartesian perspective. Yet, Baroque on the other hand offers the viewer something that may be confusing to digest, but with arguably more meaning and options for interpretation. The central themes of each style are quite different, despite their coexistence for albeit a brief period. Nonetheless, both regimes have paved the way for contemporary scopic regimes, and demonstrated a strong shift from the previous artwork of the Middle Ages.