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Surface and Depth

What makes paintings feel as deep as the view from a window or as flat as a wall?  Using three artworks from the Art Institute's collection, this video unpacks a central theme and uses innovative visual storytelling to highlight the choices artists made to shape form and meaning in their works. Ultimately, it shows that each of us already possesses a powerful tool for making sense of art: looking closely. Art Explainer videos empower you to look at and understand art from any historical period or culture. Designed for students as well as adults, this video series is produced for the web and usable in a wide range of learning environments, from mobile devices to formal school classrooms.

The following works from the Art Institute of Chicago appear in this video:

Poussin, Landscape with St. John on Patmos; Harnett, For Sunday’s Dinner; Mondrian, Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red, and Gray


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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Narrator] What makes paintings feel as deep as the view from a window or as flat as a wall? Paintings have a literal surface, one we're not allowed to touch with our hands. But they also have a conceptual surface, called the picture plane, that divides reality from the painted world. To better understand this idea, let's look at a few examples. Here is Saint John the Evangelist writing the New Testament Book of Revelation, painted by French artist Nicholas Poussin in the 17th century. Working in Rome and drawing inspiration from the city, Poussin organized his paintings with the clarity and balance you find in Renaissance painting and classical architecture. Look at the way he imagined the Greek island of Patmos. Notice how it feels like you're simply looking through a window. Poussin composed the scene to lead your eye from Saint John in the foreground, through the landscape to the mountains in the distance. Now, let's deconstruct the painting. See the layers of depth? Each part recedes further back from the picture plane. When we put it all back together, the elements create an ordered peaceful setting for writing about the end of the world. If Poussin and other artists make us feel like we can enter the space of their paintings, then others, like William Michael Harnett, create the illusion that we're seeing a real object, like grapes or a rusty lantern, rather than just a painting of one. This technique is sometimes called trompe l'oeil, meaning to fool the eye in French. In the work For Sunday's Dinner, effects of painted light and shadow, invisible brush strokes and details like the rusted hinges and floating feathers trick our eyes into seeing three-dimensional objects. It's not a window into another world, but it also appears to be more than just a flat painting. Imagine the painted illusion in 3D space. See how the rooster seems to break the picture plane pushing into our world? Harnett's technique was so convincing that officials seized his painting of a $5 bill for being counterfeit. Not every artist aims to create an illusion. Piet Mondrian wanted you to know you were looking at a painting. So he employed different techniques, like recessed frames and hanging his works high on the wall. Most of the works that Mondrian painted between the 1920s and '40s were composed of different arrangements of color, light and shape. In this painting, he worked with verticals, horizontals and primary colors until achieving a visual balance on the surface of the picture plane. If it looks simple, it's not. Consider the fact that Mondrian never used a ruler or straight edge to achieve this effect. From Poussin's window-like views to Harnett's trompe l'oeil illusions, and Mondrian's flat forms, you perceive these artworks differently because of the way each artist use the picture plane. Next time you're in a museum, consider how the picture plane influences your perception of other works of art.