Recent posts here on the topic of edges and their sharpness (or not) have been finding echoes in other places. For example, I’ve just read the intriguing but peculiar short story by Balzac, entitled The Unknown Masterpiece, which I learned of by reading that Picasso was asked to illustrate an edition. He (P) was apparently fascinated enough that he rented a studio in Paris thought to figure in the story; that’s where he painted Guernica.

In the Balzac story, the master painter Frenhofer says the following regarding edges:

I have not marked out the limits of my figure in hard, dry outlines, and brought every least anatomical detail into prominence (like a host of dunces, who fancy that they can draw because they can trace a line elaborately smooth and clean), for the human body is not contained within the limits of line. In this the sculptor can approach the truth more nearly than we painters. […] A line is a method of expressing the effect of light upon an object; but there are no lines in Nature, everything is solid. We draw by modeling, that is to say, that we disengage an object from its setting; the distribution of the light alone gives to a body the appearance by which we know it. So I have not defined the outlines; I have suffused them with a haze of half-tints warm or golden, in such a sort that you can not lay your finger on the exact spot where background and contours meet. Seen from near, the picture looks a blur; it seems to lack definition; but step back two paces, and the whole thing becomes clear, distinct, and solid; the body stands out; the rounded form comes into relief; you feel that the air plays round it.

Thus, for Frenhofer, nuanced edges are simply facts of physical reality, and hence, in a painting, reflective of greater artistic skill in holding the mirror up to nature. Of course, the argument applies better to organic, rounded objects than to manufactured, hard-edged ones.

Detail from Untitled, Laurie Fendrich 1985

Detail from Untitled, Laurie Fendrich 1985

I was also reminded me of some statements by the elsewhere mentioned painter Laurie Fendrich about soft vs. hard edges in geometrical abstraction:

Most “geometric abstract painters” are also “hard-edged.” I was already not hard-edged. Instead, I liked including a soft touch in these paintings. Up close, you can see the interstices between the triangles carrying a lot of previous coats of paint. I was infatuated with that kind of underlying revelation that a painting can give a viewer. It’s certainly fun to paint that way—to leave traces of what happened before—and I remain infatuated with leaving traces of what’s underneath the top layer even today.

To me, the lovely leftovers of underlying painting layers are beautiful to look at if you get up close to a painting. And I like the halo or echo that these edges create from a distance.

The notion of realism is more or less irrelevant in this context, but nonetheless there is a kind of distinction between natural and artificial. Now it relates to the process rather than the subject, the imperfect (by hand) vs. the precise (by tool).

Perhaps it’s not surprising that edges can play a significant role in our appreciation of an artwork. Edge detection is one of the most prominent mechanisms of perception that allows us to identify distinct objects, i.e. segment the visual field. It is so powerful that it can be easily led into various illusions. For example, the impression of edges of the Kanisza triangle, even within the white spaces, refuses to go away, despite our rational conviction that there are none.