Behind the picture

On Marina Schulze’s room paintings

Around 1413 in Florence, a famous experiment took place, which is considered to be origin of central-perspective. Using an ingenious apparatus the sculptor, painter and architect, Filippo Brunelleschi wanted to make reality emulation more vivid and thus created a geometrically exact perspective portrayal of the baptistry. A hole was drilled into the back of the picture through which the viewer could observe. The experiment set-up was as follows: in situ, one had to hold the picture directly in front of the baptistry so that the actual and painted view covered one another and place a mirror in front of the picture with the other hand. The mirror image of the painted, perspectively-correct portrayed view could now be seen through the hole. If the mirror was removed one had a direct view of the real building. In comparing picture and three-dimensional reality the spatial effect of the perspective picture proved itself. The complicated experimental set-up however, makes it involuntarily clear how much effort is required in learning how to see central-perspectively – the body of the beholder must, to a certain extent, be reduced to a discarnate point, the vanishing point, into which all visual lines converge. Brunelleschi’s system therefore, isolates a solitary, unmoving observer’s eye and fixes it in a hole in the otherwise opaque surface of the back of the picture.

Linear perspective picture, as invented in the Florentine Renaissance, is defined as a vertical cut through the visual pyramid. It is a plane that pushes itself into our view. Leon Battista Alberti defined the picture as fenestra aperta: the picture opens a window to the world, it gives us something to see. Per-spective of course means: seeing through. In the perspective illusion the picture carrier seems to disappear, becomes transparent, allowing uninhibited views of imaginary space behind the picture. Actually though and this is the second involuntary lesson from Brunelleschi’s experiment, the body of the picture remains as impenetrable as before. On its surface, if no holes have been drilled into it that is, our view is deflected, the picture obscures, it covers something up. That which is found behind the picture remains concealed.

Marina Schulze’s room paintings give complete expression to a suggestive game with these two constituent elements of perspective representation: the picture locates us in space and it stands in our way. Objects in a room, a cube, a pillar, a bench or partitioning are painted on their visible foresides in such a way that when viewed from a special point, as things they obscure the segment of the space beyond them and as paintings they reproduce it deceptively, and authentically. Whoever encounters this work begins almost automatically to search for the point in the room from which the object of the picture and the surrounding space merge, which so completely conceals the portrayal of the portrayed, that the portrayal itself is made to disappear. It is the pleasure in these optical illusions, in trompe-l’oeil, which Marina Schulze achieves using virtuoso artistic means, that causes us to participate voluntarily in this experiment of the senses. “Perspective is essentially reflexive and regulative”, writes the French art historian Hubert Damisch. Reflexive means it mirrors what we see back to us, refers us to ourselves. And regulative: it determines a standpoint for us as beholder, a distance and a height from which we are to see what it gives us to see. Central perspective, as is generally known, corresponds with a distortion-free photographic image. Marina Schulze achieves an almost perfect mergence of her picture’s objects and their surroundings in the photographs which document the ideal viewing positions for her room paintings. Yet whoever tries to reproduce the same effect in actual space is doomed to failure. The eye is not a camera. Our living, breathing, two-eyed body can only compete partially with the rigid eye of a camera. This disappointment before the deceptive picture, however, is the real attraction. To walk around the room paintings, in one case to actually enter it, to observe them from ever differing perspectives, we discover them as spatial objects. We discover, again and again, the room around us and ourselves in the room. We see the naked reverse side, understand how the illusion is produced, can observe how picture and room are offset against each other and go into all the other possible constellations.

At the same time, all the complex intermedial references condensed in the room paintings can be understood. Photography plays quite an important role. It is there at the end of a long process, remaining as a document of the room situations when the exhibition has finished and the room pictures as objects are no longer in place or have even been destroyed. It is though, also at the beginning as a tool of selection, the choice of room segment and an aid in the painting process.

The act of photographing is a moment of decision. In framing the image section then pressing the release, a specific view at a very particular moment in time is frozen for eternity. Photography occurs without delay, without effort, without changing the captured but also without previously consciously beholding the entirety of that which is to later be seen. Painting, on the other hand requires time. It has its own duration in which everything which is later to be seen has to be looked at by the eyes of the artist and transformed by her hand. In the process of painting, especially if it penetrates as deeply into the structure of reality and the appearance of the surfaces as in the case of Marina Schulze, every detail is given its due regard and its own period of time for observation. Yet still, the result in the case of the object of the picture is not destined for eternity.

Photography releases the framed image from the room making it available, duplicateable and transportable. Marina Schulze’s room paintings relocate what has been seen at its origins. But, in the meanwhile, time has passed, perhaps only imperceptibly. The light has changed, marks have been left behind, the picture does not show the room as it is but how it was. Not only the painted room and the actual room are offset against one another but also different time levels enter into relationships with each other.

The room pictures do not only emerge as an interplay of painting and photography but also oscillate between picture and sculpture. The picture permits insights into imaginary rooms, the sculptures define a real place. Marina Schulze’s room paintings do both simultaneously, but also something very different again. Because the view of the room is doubled and concealed at the same moment in time, it arouses our curiosity to explore exactly these rooms hidden from our view, to go behind the picture, in order to experience the difference between picture and reality. And in so doing, to realise that we would never have seen these rooms in such detail if our view of them had not been trained by the painting. Likewise their view is directed towards themselves, to their surfaces, their material qualities. Our view wanders between the room behind the picture and the surface of the picture in the room. Finally though, at the same time we are always directed by the conditions of our perception. Wherever we look we always discover our own view – a little like in Brunelleschi’s experiment: on looking through the picture it is as if we were looking into a mirror.

Roland Meyer, Berlin, August 2010

in: Marina Schulze, Blow up, Stiftung Burg Kniphausen, Wilhelmshaven