Dancing Eyes, Unclear Pictures

BY Antoni Ziemba

Maria Poprzęcka's fascinating book tells the story of art and artists interested in the phenomenon of uncoordinated and misty seeing

3 minutes reading left

The famous university professoressa Maria Poprzęcka has just published a new book. A non-scholarly book, as she claims herself. It is a paradox worth pausing over from the start. A scholar herself, she is suspicious of the “scholarly nature” of art history. Her book is made of articles that are erudite, yet non-scholarly by design, which must definitely be read for one to understand how strange and confusing the discipline referred to as the history of painting is. And finally: to understand how confusing and blurred all looking at the world (and paintings) is.
The author has rejected the writing of history as a reconstruction of a huge edifice of entities long gone by, as a coherent “great theory” explaining (allegedly) “how it really was,” how art developed, what the original and true intention of the author was (“what the author meant”) and what paintings really are, regarded merely as symbols of a given historic culture, period or social formation, as transmitters of something that is beyond them, not as autonomous works.

Impaired vision

Maria Poprzęcka, Oko, widzenie, sztuka.
Od Albertiego do Duchampa
słowo/obraz terytoria Publishing House,
Gdańsk 2009
Historians and theoreticians of the New Art History analyzed how paintings are perceived and how the eye sees them. They explored how mediations between the author, the work of art and the audience multiply, and how works of art, breaking away from the author, become unconscious and finally conscious coincidences of various cultural texts from different periods in history. They showed that we are no longer able to “see” the Mona Lisa without a mustache (the famous mustache painted in by Marcel Duchamp).
Historians of the New Art History examined the perceived image, the visual form of works of art and their species (as medieval Arab and Latin opticians and philosophers would say) and they touched the phenomenon of different types of perception. To them, it was one thing to look and watch (a glance first, then building a comprehensive overview), another to perceive (visual sensation, noting with the eye), and yet something else – to see (more or less consistently: in the eye, or perhaps already in the mind). Maria Poprzęcka goes even further. She is not interested in the painting as such, but the painting in the eye – the very act of looking.

Poprzęcka is absorbed by perception as impaired vision, by seeing that is blurred and misty. By "dancing of the eyes", when eyes are unable to focus on an object, incoherently registering its surroundings instead. By seeing through a glass with its reflections and the reflection of the beholder, when subject and object of seeing overlap and blur each others acuteness of seeing and overview. Seeing that is painful, when pain under the eyelids deforms an allegedly "sharp picture". Seeing through squinting eyes, which (contrary to what was written by Alberti in 1435) does not make the view sharper, but quite the opposite: more dispersed, with blurred contours, misted over, softened and pulsating. Seeing through tears. And through fog. And through the chaos of cluttered and tangled scraps of views, images and ideas memorised in the brain.

In spite of the lynx-eyed
The reader need not be worry: the book is not a lecture in the physiology and biopsychology of seeing. It is about art and artists who not only did look into the phenomena of such uncoordinated, unordered yet necessary ways of seeing, but made them the subject of their work and theoretical consideration. About those who, contradicting the assumption of the existence of an innocent eye and our allegedly inherent neutrality of coherent overview (geometric, perspectival and mathematically describable), understood the indispensability of blurred seeing and the impurity of perception.

Leonardo da Vinci, William Turner, Odilon Redon, the pioneers of photography, Claude Monet, Marcel Duchamp, Maya Ying Lin (the author of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington), Christian Boltanski and Leon Tarasewicz have one thing in common – the war against the “lynx-eyed sharp seers”: Alberti, Poussin, the sixteenth and seventeenth century theorists of convergent perspective the type of Abraham Bosse and their successors, who co-created the dictates of the “intelligent eye” art and methodical overview of the world. Poprzęcka spins a fascinating tale of the entirely new model of artistic perception which germinated in the modern era and with difficulty began to gain space in the era of nineteenth-century modernité and twentieth-century modernism.

From the history of looking
One can say, of course, that we have seen it all before. Euclid already knew that the mathematical “rays of seeing” are not physical, and Aristotle and the Greek Stoics were aware that seeing is dynamic and takes place in a given environment.

As early as in the second century Claudius Ptolemy said that seeing is dulled, loses focus and becomes “misted over” in the resisting air. Arabs in the ninth century understood that the eye does not see objects, solids, shapes, surfaces of color, but only points – a point next to a point and point by point. Those points form an abstract mosaic of light impulses. We do not see images; we build them in our brain.

All of them still considered air, water and glass to be transparent space and they all wanted to correct the lack of coordination of visual experience through mathematics. The Latin West did not understand the teachings of Alhazen, an outstanding representative of the Arab mind. As Hans Belting writes in his book Florence and Baghdad: a West-Eastern History of Seeing (2008): the West made a picture of the mosaic of light and color impulses and, between the fourteenth and eighteenth century, subjected it to the logic of optical and geometric perspective. This led to the final parting of the two civilizations – the image culture of Latin Europe and the imageless Islamic culture “looking” through color, light and abstraction of ornament.

This is where Belting meets Poprzęcka. He is, however, more interested in the fact that Europe took the road of re-constructing space and objects, rather than that of “iconics” abandoning the images of the body, like Islam. Poprzęcka, on the other hand, is interested in the fact that that paradigm of methodological, geometric logic of seeing excluded the “other seeing”: fuzzy, unclear, uncoordinated, distracted, blurred, refracted, reflected a couple of times and broken.

Extra modernist seeing
Again, one could say: we have seen it all before. The reflections of light in the eyes of figures portrayed by Jan van Eyck, Dürer or other Dutch and German masters of the fifteenth and sixteenth century. The fuzzy contours in Arnolfini's mirror; the mist in Leonardo and Correggio’s sfumato. The Mannerists’ psychedelic “escapes of space” in which the eye gets lost and the logic of perspective disappears. The glittering shades of foliage in the Flemish landscapes from around 1600, where the focused eye becomes dispersed and disintegrated into a dance of tones and stains. Pontormo’s pulsing of color, painful to the eye. The misty and soggy air of Claude Lorrain and Dutch landscape painters of the seventeenth century...

But all those tricks existed in the history of art as a deliberate game of deformation of the undisputed model of art, still subject to the dictates of the parameters of logical, coherent and geometric seeing that governed the whole painting. Maria Poprzęcka describes art breaking the foundations of that logic of the painting. Art “different” by design, aiming to present or reveal the very process of perception with its inherent vagueness and randomness of the visual impression and inconsistency of the image. She writes about art that is “excluded,” “rejected” and not tolerated by the reasonable and rational canon of modern and contemporary culture. In a sense, she writes about art that is extra-modernist (though preceding our “post-modernism” by centuries).

Dirty Mona Lisa
To show the author's way of thinking I will give an example which is as banal as it is provocative towards my favorite professoressa (I beg of her to forgive me). Maria Poprzęcka has been looking into the reception of the most famous “icon of European culture” for a long time, and she is probably fed up with that question today.

So there it is, hanging on the wall, the Mona Lisa fitted with anti-reflective glass. An epitome of seeing derived from the assumption that there can be an innocent, unbiased eye and there can be a "clean" painting compatible with the intention of its author. When she was put on display, they decided that all that was secondary had to be cut off: the reflections of light and all reflections of external objects. Protective glass will not do – an anti-reflective coating is necessary! We believe it to be perfectly transparent and that by looking through it we will see the autonomous work of the author’s genius.

So what they want to give to the audience is the original look of the work, the undisturbed “clean painting” – the impression of standing face to face with La Gioconda. To reconstruct the painting, just like a traditional art historian reconstructs the history of art, the events and intentions materialized in works. Seemingly, he reconstructs, but in fact he only constructs.
Meanwhile, the painting planted behind the glass is not “innocent,” “primeval” or “clean.” It is dirty – not just metaphorically. Of course, you can call it the patina of age, but in fact it is just dirt: a dirty skin of darkened, tarnished varnish from the eighteenth or nineteenth century. We look at La Gioconda both through the glass and through the veil of varnish. We look, but we do not see her.

Radiography, X-rays and other devices
The only way of knowing (not: seeing) what she looks like underneath is to examine the results of technological research recently published by the Centre de Recherche et de Restoration des Musées de France (C2RMF 2006) including ordinary and layered X-ray, infrared reflectography, fluorescence photography, computer simulation of color-falsified spectral reflection, electron radiography, X-ray fluorescence analysis and Raman spectroscopy, spectroscopic measurement of paints, digital three-dimensional analysis of painting surface relief, and finally multispectral colorimetric digitization (phew!). The eye is unable to see “the first picture.” It can only access its “mediations” through the apparatus of physical sciences. That’s first.

Secondly, even the transparency of the anti-reflective glass is only alleged. The glass only cuts off a portion of the refracted light, leaving some of the glass's mirror effect still there. Strange concurrences and collisions of reflections are hence likely to happen, creating unexpected, but very natural interference of seeing.

Here I am: that grumpy “lynx-eyed sharp-seer,” in fact only seemingly lynx-eyed because I am correcting my impaired vision (short-sightedness and the long-sightedness that came with age) with spectacles, the other day at the Louvre, looking at the Mona Lisa behind glass that was not even anti-reflective at that time. What confusion! What deception of the “methodical eye,” when instead of the “real” smile of the “real” Gioconda I see her split, fragmented, repeatedly discontoured face in an interferential refraction of subsequent reflections.

In the protective glass, I can see the reflection of what is reflected in the glass of my spectacles, including my own eyes, and yet another very vague reflection in them – is it the Mona Lisa herself, or is it my face reflected in the glass? By now I have no idea what was reflected in what and what was refracted in what. What do I see, in the end: the painting or my own eye, my own face, my own look? I see a lot, but not La Gioconda’s famous smile. And on top of all that, my eyes are wandering, looking around uncertainly and hopefully to find a spot with no moustache. And once again, I am unable to see Leonardo's Mona Lisa.
So what did I see? Was it not my own blurred seeing?
That is what this fascinating book is about. You must read it to see what you cannot see.

translated by Michał Czarniecki