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  • Writer's picturePiotr

Edge Is The Limit

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

Painting Without Boundaries

Once upon a time there were no rectangles.

The area surrounding contours of painted animals in prehistoric rock surfaces was circular and infinite*. Contractual boundaries of the scenes that were often overlapping in layers were fleeting and dispersed like edges of galaxies. No one would be able to precisely indicate a specific demarcation line of the image painted on a rock. The architecture wasn’t yet around. Prehistoric artists didn’t bother to mark the edges of their scenes with the help of, say, dashed lines because they didn’t quite know the idea of a clear edge. Cropping their viewed reality was foreign to them. Dare I say, so was the very idea of a rectangle!

Cave painting found in South Africa

The surfaces of cave walls and rocks - some of the few relatively flat surfaces available at the time, may not have been of great significance to the cave artists since they didn’t have many other choices**. Perhaps the idea of the background did not even exist, and the only point of focus for the painter's attention was the very silhouette of the painted animal, even if the inevitable and irritating irregularity of the rock had to be used in some imaginative way. It’s difficult not to suspect that rock imperfections were seen as a problem to be solved rather than a chance to shine with ingenuity. Portable painting in the form of decorated tools or pieces of wood or tattoo*** and body paint patterns did not survive the test of time because of their ephemeral nature.

Vase from Northern Iraq 3100-2900 b.c.e

I suspect, however, that a rectangular image, or even the abstract shape of a rectangle as a painting surface, was not known before architecture.

The earliest “near-rectangle” containing a painting motif can be seen on some ceramic vases from Northern Iraq (3100-2900 b.c.e.). However in this case, the edge of the "not quite rectangle" is not an absolute limit but only a geometrical pattern serving as a "stage" for an animal shape.

New Surfaces

The image with no boundaries has long reigned among people. Even after the introduction of straight lines and architectural angles, painting was long practiced in a "cave manner”, except the rock surfaces were now replaced by stone temples, houses and the tombs of the wealthy adorned with scenes from daily life and mythology.

In ancient Rome, the interior and exterior walls were often covered by illusory visions of imaginary architecture painted according to the rules of linear perspective: meta-architecture. Thanks to the smoothness of the walls, the surface irregularity problem has been resolved. The straight lines were not disturbed except by the edges of the walls which now were adorned with frame-like arabesques, often spilling around the corners of the buildings. It was where the rectangular nature of the walls began to squeeze the painting into a "frame". The domineering shape of a rectangle began to train and tame human minds long before the invention of plasma screens.

Greek painters had a highly developed awareness of shape. Ships painted inside the rim of the vase were supposed to give the impression of floating on the surface of wine filling the vessel. Athens, archaic period, 525-500 BC

Greek vases - another example of painting nearly without borders and in three dimensions - were as much of a common painting surface as today's stretched canvasses.

A very unique approach to painting is illustrated in Egyptian sarcophagi and burial objects. Their three-dimensional form is covered with hieroglyphs and pictorial scenes on each side: even in places inaccessible to the potential viewer. The patterns were after all of a magical or ritual nature, not to be admired by the mere mortals!

It is difficult to imagine today’s artists having to cope with the prospect of burying their creations in the depths of dark tombs.

Museums of art are misleading us today by hanging the portraits of Fayum on the walls. The flatness of these rectangular or almost rectangular tiles was dictated by the function of the ritual. These portraits were to be attached to the head part of sarcophagi and placed in tombs. Such "ritual" or "magical" painting will appear again in the Middle Ages.

Portable and Holy

With the emergence of the Silk Road, the tentacles of trade and culture began to extend far beyond the territories to which ancient sedentary tribes had become accustomed. More or less permanent changes of place, development of navigation, crusades and pilgrimages have become more frequent than in times of agrarian local self-sufficiency. Perhaps it would be a far-reaching speculation to imagine the first situation in which a pre-medieval traveler had a lot of trouble parting with a beloved wall painting. It was rather impossible to cut out a piece of the wall to take it on a journey****. A good option would be to create a portable copy on a rectangular panel.

From there the path to painting portable pictures with limited edges was quite obvious. Medieval church architecture contributed to the creation of panel painting composed of separate parts forming the entire altar or reliquary. Such a portable rectangle (or sometimes other geometric shapes) was painted on with very durable egg tempera and gold leaf. It was very easy to store on ships and in merchant carriages. Along with the development of trade and the written form, miniatures painted on a strange substrate made of bleached plant fibers called paper also flourished.

Although undoubtedly such a portable rectangle was easier to transport, ritual considerations were much more important. Depictions of deities according to the orthodox Christians were their living incarnations. Bringing the icons to processions, pilgrimages and battlefields had (and still has) a great ceremonial meaning. Icons surrounded by the greatest piety could be viewed only at certain times of the day during ceremonial unveiling. A wooden rectangle bearing holy image of a deity became, in the eyes of believers, a "window to the infinity" completely independent of its temporal surroundings.

Sail Away!

In the face of developing bourgeois class, religious schisms and thaws, the need for secular themes has increased. Market development meant that art could also become a commodity. The use of sailcloth as a canvas helped in the practical solution of the problem of storage, durability and image format. Thanks to the possibility of rolling the canvases, the image format could be increased. A life-size portrait of a long chinned monarch on horseback could now be easily transported from place to place.

Sails painted on sails. What could be more meta! Willem van de Velde Younger "Sailing ship in fresh breeze", 1665-70, oil on canvas

Portable canvasses covered with secular themes have led to the development of framing industry. The enrichment of secular mercantilism awoke a monster we now call the "art market". The boundary between the image and its surroundings has now turned into an impenetrable fortress wall of a thick ornamental frame. Framing all painted rectangles has since become a desirable way of distinguishing the illusive world of the image from the rest of reality. Thanks to the progress in understanding rules of perspective and optics, the subject matter bent towards illusion of realism. The effects of chiaroscuro in Rembrandt's portraits submerging most of the faces in dark shade would probably be read by prehistoric viewers as some kind of skin lesions or leprosy. Because the rectangle limited the field of view, the artists learned to crop their reality. Today, in the era of smartphones, everyone is cropping everything without giving it too much thought.

Antoine Watteau “La Perspective (…)” , 1715 (frame and no frame)

Back To The Cave

Let us now fast forward the tape of art history through several hundred years. Around the middle of the last century, the borders of paintings and their surroundings began to blur again. Piet Mondrian, in the most developed period of his painting, focused on the repetition of horizontal and vertical lines as if the interior of the painting became the echo of its exterior. To his "infinity game" Mondrian not only invites the content within the frame, but also the surrounding architecture of the room, building, city, space and time.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s many paintings were still separated from "reality" by thin slats until the frame disappeared completely and the idea of image without edges was contemplated again. Brushstrokes lost their illusive qualities and the paint stopped pretending to be rainbows, sunsets and waterfalls. The paint became... paint.

Jackson Pollock's painting and the edge of a Jackson Pollock's painting

For those who stayed within the rectangular panels, the edges of the picture became almost the same obstacle that the cave painters faced trying to solve the problem of bumps on the rock surface. The edge of a painting - the nightmare of many painters! Even Jackson Pollock, who unleashed the wildest instincts on canvases spread on the floor, obediently and respectfully tamed his savagery at the predicted edges of the canvas.

The Curse of a Finite Image

To this day, painters struggle with the question of whether the side surfaces defining the thickness of paintings should be left untouched, framed, painted with certain colors or covered with parts of the image visible from the front, thus turning the panel of canvas or a board into a flat box decorated on five sides and hung on the wall. Painters often struggle with the dubious pleasure of covering canvases attached to the walls flat because painting on the surface that is "neither a mural nor a separate panel” is just disappointing. Not to mention the terrible consequences of canvas warps and their insolent “sticking out” from the walls, as if to point out the error of painting on finite surfaces. Few painters are brave enough to make strictly two-dimensional (thin) images look good. Thin appearance of paintings contributes to the perception of cheapness and impermanence. Paintings on paper are usually framed and placed behind the glass not only for protection, but also for adding three-dimensional quality to a two-dimensional image.

László Moholy-Nagy “EM2”, porcelain enamel on steel, 1923. Thin can be beautiful.

Everything Has Been Done. Why not keep doing it?

It may seem quite comforting to note that none of the above-described stages of the image-making transformations caused the earlier imaging methods to expire. The introduction of portable canvases did not leave wall paintings behind, and the madness of Jackson Pollock and Dan Flavin did not devalue easel painting in any way. The frame industry is still in high demand. Today, we admire images in all their forms: seen in a cave-like manner (street art and murals), or as a separate illusion of reality (realistic and hyper-realistic images, photography and film) and purely formal painting in which paint does not pretend to be something else (abstract expressionism and minimalism). Painters still paint on vases and other objects just like they did thousands of years ago.

Grayson Perry “Brexit Pots”, 2017

Today's paintings, pictures and TV screens are usually rectangular. Horizontal rectangle is preferred in television and digital technology because within the field of a rectangle we can fit more content than, say, within a circle. Rectangles are most limiting and at the same time most capacious of shapes.

Grażyna Smalej "A Little Roe Deer"


* of course, the opening of the cave can be considered as such border but if one covered the mouth of a cave with more painting, it would just spill out into the open world. As far as the artist was concerned, there was no clear indication of what the “edge” of the image should be. The shape of the cave creates a three-dimensional figure, similar to a tube wrapped around itself and devoid of beginning and end

**it’s worth noting that the term “cave art” comes from the fact that most paintings on rocks we know now were found in the caves and they owe their survival only to the limited oxygen levels and limited erosion in time capsules of collapsed caves. In reality it’s safe to assume that all kinds of rock surfaces have been used by prehistoric artists, not just caves.

*** although some well preserved mummified or frozen remains of prehistoric people indicate wide use of tattoos

**** it happens today with some of the Banksy’s works

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