Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Birds Eye View

The first Western balloon flight was in 1783, 25 minutes from Versailles to Paris. The first international flight was in 1785, Dover to Calais in two hours. By this time the fashion for chinoiserie was fading, and yet the Willow Pattern was born and became hugely popular. David Richard Quintner in "Willow! Solving the Mystery of our 200 Year Love Affair with the Willow Pattern" writes:

"Technically, the Willow Pattern design is formed from a series of receding horizontal planes in which, as a rule, the nearest objects to the viewer are shown the largest, and the farthest smallest. challenge European art norms..."

And no exception to ancient Chinese codes for landscape painting. Except for the birds."It is in the way the pair of birds suddenly appears as a design element that we can find the most significant clue to the psychological mind-shift that occurred in western Europe in the 18th century...

"The plate design's aerial view...offered highly charged elements which were the talk-of-the-town...Man and avian nature face to face, eye to eye...The Caughley design...might well have deliberately marked the success of manned ballooning.

"The success of ballooning gave humankind a new perspective on the world; it changed the nature of art's vision; it changed the essence of mapmaking and of concepts of waging war; it changed the way Europeans saw themselves and their symbols."

But how come the Chinese developed the aerial view, Quintner asks, and it is here he speculates on the idea of the Chinese having invented ballooning in the 14th century. After all they had already invented gunpowder in the 9th century, and rockets originated and were developed between 1150 and 1250 AD, and by 1350 multi-stage rockets were actually designed and used...

He also quotes from Chinese Art by William Willetts:

"In China (there is) the 'law of three sections'...each plane is drawn as though seen from the same angle of vision. Buildings and other objects in the middle distance and background, which should show a foreshortening proportional to their height above the horizon, are drawn as though they were at ground level. There are, in fact, three separate horizons...Separate objects are drawn as though the eye were free to vary the horizontal direction along which it looks into the depth of the picture...As a convention of primitive landscape, the bird's eye view may have been suggested by early experiments in map making."

Excerpts from Willow! by kind permission of the publishers: General Store Publishing House, Ontario, Canada. ISBN 1-896182-78-X

Balloon image: 'Utopian flying machines of the previous century', printed in Paris c.1890-1900. More images:

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