Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Choosing Symmetry

Colossians 2:9

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,

You are free to choose symmetry in organizing your compositions, although it is unusual to do so today.  We discussed in the last post, Symmetry Versus Asymmetry - Make Your Choice, how contemporary audiences are visually trained to enjoy some irony in their art, and that bilateral sameness is not readily accepted.  But, this was not always the case in art, and the first examples that come to mind are the early icons of Jesus Christ.

Symmetry is found in the 6th. century Christ Pantocrator icon of Saint Catherine's Monastery of Mount Sinai, shown above.  The figure of Christ is generally centered in the image. When centered in the halo, the inside edge of Christ's left eye is on the center line.  In iconography, centering the image of Christ is a hieratic statement, and signifies the primacy of God and holiness.  Adherence to standard formats also signified orthodoxy, and the center line of the image is key.  Balance continued to be an important tool in western art through the Renaissance.

However, it is interesting to see the exceptions to visual balance in this Pantocrator image.  The eyes are asymmetric, as well as the margin of the halo, which is the same thickness to our right and top, but narrower on the left.  This is the big secret to creating interest within symmetry:  make the two halves unmatched, or asymmetric in nature.  The main subject may split the division line, but comparing the halves will result in balanced, but not mirrored, compositions.  One may include visually balanced masses, yet they could adopt different shapes, such as the triangular tree vs. the higher, irregular tree mass in Wolf Kahn's tree painting in my previous post.

In sacred art, the dual nature of Christ, who is fully God and fully man, is almost invariably illustrated by this compositional trick of overemphasizing the bilateral disparity of the face, and especially of the eyes, which are the mirror of the soul.  See also da Vinci's Salvator Mundi.

Although Christ's face splits the centerline, there are multiple ways da Vinci has satisfied our need to thwart balance, including by varying the spacing and height of the objects and hands.  They provide a visual pathway through the painting.

Fast-forward to Edgar Degas' portrait: The Painter Enrique Melida Y Alinari (1838-1892).  By the time of the Impressionists, realist portraiture involved not historical and sacred subjects, but daily life and contemporaneous subjects.  

Degas' portrait, which looks much like himself, nevertheless is of another painter.   Simplicity here demands more balance than in the far older images of Christ!    The halves of this image, left and right, are uniquely similar as regards shapes, and the two color composition reflects a bilateral unity on a formal level.  The main relief we get from symmetry is the shaded left side of Alinari's face.  More relief is offered by the division of objects top and bottom (head vs. shoulders and suit) and by the slight right turn of the head.


Next:  Asymmetry.


Art Matters said...

Excellent post Casey. This is quite a tough subject to teach because the variables that make symmetry work are usually subtle.

Casey Klahn said...

Well said, and thanks Carol.