It’s an unavoidable drawback of ceiling painting that the viewer’s orientation cannot be secured. The picture may have a top and a bottom, but the viewer can rotate at will and is just as likely to see it upside down as right side up. Naturally there are many ways to clue the viewer in – for example, one might expect them to stand at the back of the nave and look toward the altar – but the situation is inherently unstable. I doubt if this was so much of a problem back in the day, but for us – lovers of abstract art – that very instability is attractive, and so the peculiar ungroundedness of ceiling painting looms larger in our eyes and minds.
Nevertheless, the old masters did have a solution. In Corregio’s dome in Parma, the space rises toward the middle from all around the edge. Correggio has always been given the credit for the innovation, which was immediately noticed, but a clear predecessor is Mantegna’s dome in Mantua. In any case, subsequent ceilings, by artists such as Titian, Veronese, Giulio Romano and many others, explored hybrid constructions combining figures standing on ground planes or architectural bases with other figures floating and twisting in the sky. A figure floating freely above the viewer can in principle take any orientation without seeming awkward or impossible, but there is always a tension between this and the necessary orientation and normal logic of figures standing on a ground plane. A look at the record shows that tondos and ovals are much more conducive to free rotation of the figures, and rectangular ceilings tend to call for ground planes. The summary of this entire history may well be Tiepolo’s ceiling in Wurzburg. Each of the four walls is a ground plane, but the surface is so vast, and the design so open, that the centre appears as unbounded space in which any movement or direction is possible. We can get there from any of the four sides without loss.
Tiepolo is important to me at least because for the last century or more he has been the least favored of all the old masters. Modern art finds little or nothing of interest in the eighteenth century, and Tiepolo has never been a name to conjure with, despite his fragmentary anatomies, which seem to anticipate Cézanne. “Seem to” is the operative phrase here, because to suggest that Tiepolo anticipates modernism in any way at all is absurd to conventional modern opinion. However, if we start from there he becomes very interesting – the “other” of modernism is intrinsically important and worth looking at. I would like to suggest that for us Tiepolo is a conduit back to the rich history of ceiling painting, which turns out to be more important for abstraction than we might expect.
In his book Farewell to an Idea, TJ Clark presents photographs of installations by Malevich that suggest that he experimented with different hanging orientations. A picture presented in one show in one orientation appears “upside down” in another. Clark very reasonably believes this is deliberate, and that should not be difficult to accept, but to see that we will have to understand what kind of space Malevich constructs.
The space of Malevich’s abstractions is normal orthogonal or Newtonian space, but without a ground plane. Granted, to make this argument I have to overlook the tactility of his work, its strong surface presence, but I hope that the reader will grant that for now; surface and space can be integrated but that discussion must be saved for another day. The illusionist space of Malevich’s paintings can be measured along three axes, just like the normal perspectival space of historical art, and just like the normal space we move and live in. But Malevich recognized that in the twentieth century we have lost contact with the ground plane that determines which axis is x, which y and which z, and the cause is the invention of flight.
Normally, we are standing on the ground, and we can rotate on the xy plane, but we usually don’t rotate in the vertical or z axis – rotation on the xy plane is what scrambles tops and bottoms of ceiling pictures, but one doesn’t often see art lovers standing on their heads! The experience of space up in the air is a little different; one can rotate freely along all three axes, although we still have a clear sense of which one is vertical – gravity is ready to instruct us on that point. What Malevich learned from flight was an anticipation of what we have now better learned from space flight – that universal space is spherical.
We schematize space as three axes crossing at a point because we know no limit to its extension. The axes don’t end anywhere, so we can imagine space as a box without having to visualize its sides. But this not quite an accurate picture. The x and y axes actually curve around and join at their ends, because the surface of the earth is a sphere. Travel in one direction on the x axis and you will come back to your starting point. We all know this but never think of it – what would be the use after all? The vertical axis is apparently infinite. However, once in outer space, we realize that any of the axes could point in any direction. We can take the central point with three radiating axes in our fingers and rotate it any way we please, giving a space with no top or bottom, no up or down, no right or left, no forward or back – or, more accurately, each observer can arbitrarily choose what these directions will be, and arbitrarily change them as well. The three axes appear infinite in extension, but science offers a corrective not available to our senses, that in fact they all do curve back on themselves and space in total is a sphere. Most wonderful is that almost all the bodies occupying this space are themselves spheres – and so even more fascinating and suggestive is that Tiepolo many times put representations of the earth as a sphere into his ceilings.
This completely free and changeable space is not available to us here and now, on the surface of the earth, and so neither can it be part of our art. However, we can approximate it, or get a hint of what it might be like, by making rotatable pictures. The unavoidable rotation in the xy plane that accompanies ceiling painting can be brought down into the picture gallery as rotation of the work on the xz plane, and this is what Malevich was doing with his willingness to hang pictures “upside down.” Pictorial problems of the eighteenth century become pictorial possibilities of the twentieth.
Rotatable space might be one of the undeveloped potentials of modern abstraction. Pollock attacked the canvas from all sides, but the finished works had a top and bottom that we have no need or desire to change. But as with historic painting, tondos and ovals can help to get us off the ground. In abstraction of the last half century we have the spin paintings of Alfons Schilling, later turned into a kind of conceptual art by Damian Hirst, and the tondos of Emilio Vedova. There are tondos by artists associated with Group Zero – Atsuko Tanaka and Uecker come to mind. I have myself used ovals and more complex variants of the tondo, and I’ve found from experience that with these formats it really is impossible to fix the top and bottom of the work – rotatability is a given. I’ve also noticed that both abstract ovals and circles tend to recede toward the edges and appear to rise in the centre, interestingly the opposite of the effect sought by the old masters. Meanwhile, I’ve dreamt that one day I might make a ceiling painting, perhaps in an oval or other more complexly convex shape. So, when one looks at a great Tiepolo ceiling, and the clouds start to spin as our feet unavoidably shift sideways, modern abstraction, present and future, is not far off.