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Some New Angles on Perspective

A preview of Thinking 3D (Treasury Room, Weston Library), on from March 21st 2019 until February 9th 2020.

Combining foetuses, the Colosseum, polyhedrons, and NASA’s first geological map of Mars, the Bodleian’s new exhibition is determinedly not just a showcase for Leonardo da Vinci. Coinciding with the anniversary of his death in 1519, Thinking 3D displays some of the Renaissance polymath’s anatomical and architectural sketches; until September these are loans from the Royal Collection, which thereafter will be joined by others from the British Library. On one busy folio we can trace the determined prodigy’s efforts at representing a winding flight of stairs, attempting to pencil its turns and angles into scrupulous proportion; at the top right of the page hang studies of human veins and muscle. 

What unites these two different thoughts, and provides the exhibition with its springboard, is Leonardo’s effort at rendering perspective with mathematical accuracy. The surrounding collections take this focus and hugely enlarge it, ranging across much of Europe, and some five hundred years of history, to provide a whistle-stop tour of three-dimensional representation and its evolution. Leonardo intended to publish a great number of his drawings, but for hundreds of years most of it would go unseen – and in honour of these first intentions, the show’s directors have narrowed their overview to an underpromoted area: the illustrations to printed books. The results are fascinating and unusual.The directors are Daryl Green and Dr Laura Moretti, whose respective day jobs are as Librarian of Magdalen College and Senior Lecturer in Art History at St Andrews. The idea behind Thinking 3D came, they say, on a long train journey to Scotland in early 2016, when Moretti was curating an exhibition on another Renaissance polymath with writings on perspective, Daniele Barbaro. Green and Moretti particularly stress the importance of three-dimensional representations in transmitting new information – helping not only to reflect attitudes to the visual world, but alter and inform them. The printed book, which could be mass-produced and widely distributed or copied, is thus the ideal medium. More even than Leonardo’s drawings, the prints they have gathered together for the first time in one place have directly influenced the way we understand and visualise spaces and solids, right up to the present day. They make no lame claim to contemporary relevance; their material’s title to importance and interest is enduring.

The usefulness of three-dimensionality to human understanding is embedded in the exhibition from the word go. Visitors are encouraged to collect an object (polyhedron, miniature winding stairs, human brain – all relevant to an exhibit) from a shelf by the door and carry it around with them to aid comprehension of what they are seeing on the pages. The Leonardo sketches face the room from the right wall; the books are ranged in cabinets on the left and far walls; and four colour-coded display islands (one each for anatomy, geometry, architecture and astronomy) line the middle. The display is broadly chronological, as well as thematic. The Treasury Room is a small space, but if this exhibition’s great breadth necessitates a lack of depth, it will be amply enhanced by the six satellite exhibitions around Oxford which complete Green and Moretti’s project (details on the website). 

Every major method of image reproduction, from woodcut to photograph, is represented. Firsts crowd the space, and there is something here for a huge array interests. In Regiomontanus’ Nova theorica planetarum, published in 1473, we have the first book ever printed in colour, its woodcuts of planetary orbits enlivened slightly incongruously by green. Those with an interest in the history of mathematics or finance will encounter, in Luca Pacioli’s Summa de arithmetica (1494), a double whammy: the first discussion of algebra in a European vernacular, and the earliest publication on the double-entry book-keeping system. Its primary role here, however, is to illustrate the huge advance in representing three dimensions which took place when Leonardo got involved. The crude, shonky geometric woodcuts of the 1494 work are displayed alongside the extreme sophistication of da Vinci’s in Divina proportione (published 1509), also by Pacioli. These were Leonardo’s only book illustrations in his lifetime – and include the first printed rendering of an icosidodecahedron, no less.

Nearby, there is another first: Albrecht Dürer’s work on three-dimensional shapes (1525; here in its 1532 edition), which illustrates for the first time the methods for folding a flat surface into polygons. Later we come upon d’Agoty’s Anatomical Exposition of the Sense Organs (1775), one of the first books to use the mezzotint technique for colour printing – laid open at a large, almost Play-Doh pile of rounded organs, disconcerting in their skewed realism. Some photographs by Max Brückner take the exhibition to 1900 and another esoteric first; Brückner’s ghostly black-and-white shelves of paper polyhedrons are the earliest photos of complex three-dimensional shapes. 

Students interested in the multifarious history of the male gaze in the arts should also seize this opportunity. Particularly striking are works like George Spratt’s Obstetric table of 1838, with its side-on view of a comely young woman exposing her naked torso. The reader interested (perhaps) in the process of childbearing could fold down a succession of coloured prints, like in a children’s picture book, and see each stage of pregnancy play out on the exhibitionist’s body, from svelte to distended. The development of depth in art could border on the invasive, even unethical. Probably the show’s highest point is the extremely graphic engraving of a woman’s torso opened at the belly, to view the fully-formed foetus inside. The baby is beautifully rendered in sensitive depth; the woman’s legs have been cut off at the thigh, exposing the bone. Such a combination of remarkable violence and striking beauty signposts an exhibition which strays deeper than mere visual perspective. There is much more in this excellent show to think about than just 3D.

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