Perspective as Symbolic Form

October 31, 2020
Perspective as Symbolic Form

Erwin Panofsky's Perspective as Symbolic Form is one ofthe great works of modern intellectual history, the legendary textthat has dominated all art-historical and philosophical discussionson the topic of perspective in this century. Finally available inEnglish, this unrivaled example of Panofsky's early method placeshim within broader developments in theories of knowledge andcultural change.Here, drawing on a massive body of learning that ranges overancient philosophy, theology, science, and optics as well as thehistory of art, Panofsky produces a type of "archaeology" ofWestern representation that far surpasses the usual scope of arthistorical studies.Perspective in Panofsky's hands becomes a central component of aWestern "will to form," the expression of a schema linking thesocial, cognitive, psychological, and especially technicalpractices of a given culture into harmonious and integrated wholes.He demonstrates how the perceptual schema of each historicalculture or epoch is unique and how each gives rise to a differentbut equally full vision of the world.Panofsky articulates these distinct spatial systems, explicatingtheir particular coherence and compatibility with the modes ofknowledge, belief, and exchange that characterized the cultures inwhich they arose. Our own modernity, Panofsky shows, is inseparablefrom its peculiarly mathematical expression of the concept of theinfinite, within a space that is both continuous andhomogenous.