Seeing Modern Pictures

In front of a landscape to-day the modern artist is aware of a conflict between his subjective feelings about it and the detachment needed to create a work which will be a plastic object in its own right. In my present paintings I have tried to resolve this conflict and present a synthesis for myself by using colour relationships to suggest space and rhythm and minimal figuration to present a sense of place. Olga Davenport

In this chapter, I would like to look more closely at the nature of depiction. Within the constraints of pictorial Modernism with which Olga Davenport was working, her abstract paintings were, nevertheless, pictures – they had pictorial content. They were, for the most part, landscapes. What is the nature of a spectator’s experience when she ‘sees’ the content in a representational painting? And, more pressingly, what is the nature of that experience when looking at a Modernist picture? The first of these two related questions is very general and I shall start by considering the two most likely candidates put forward in an attempt to answer it. These are (i) the illusionist view; and (ii) the transparency view. The illusionist view is widespread amongst artists and art historians alike. The illusionist claim is that when I look at a picture I undergo an illusion such that it is phenomenologically just as if I were seeing, face to face, the depicted scene. Illusionism is an ancient view which has persisted at least since the time of Aristotle’s contemporaries Zeuxis of Heraclea and Parrhasius of Ephesus (and later Athens). According to Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, the two painters are reported to have staged a contest to determine which of the two was the greater artist. When Zeuxis unveiled his painting of grapes, they appeared so naturalistic that birds flew down from the sky to peck at them. Zeuxis then asked Parrhasius to draw aside the curtain from his painting, only for Parrhasius to reveal the curtain itself was a painting; and Zeuxis was forced to concede defeat. Zeuxis is rumoured to have said: ‘I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis.’ In other words, while his work had managed to fool the eyes of birds, Parrhasius' work had deceived the eyes of a man, and more particularly an artist whose profession it is to create illusions.

More lately Ernst Gombrich at some places in his Art and Illusion seems to think that the experience we have of pictorial content is to be identified with face to face seeing of the depicted scene. We may know that we are not seeing the depicted scene, but qualitatively our experience, despite our better knowledge, presents us with a content exactly similar to the face to face seeing,

Illusion, we will find, is hard to describe or analyse, for though we may be intellectually aware of the fact that any given experience must be an illusion, we cannot, strictly speaking, watch ourselves having an illusion.

Further in the same passage Gombrich recruits Kenneth Clark’s attempt to provide a description of the phenomenology of looking at pictures:

A master of introspection, Kenneth Clark, has recently described to us most vividly how even he was defeated when he attempted to ‘stalk’ an illusion. Looking at a Velázquez, he wanted to observe what went on when brush strokes and dabs of pigment on the canvas transformed themselves into a vision of transfigured reality as he stepped back. But try as he might, stepping backward and forward, he could never hold both visions at the same time, and therefore the answer to his problem of how it was done always seemed to elude him.

Thus we have come to think of the double aspect of seeing pictures as seeing a surface and through seeing that surface undergoing the illusion of seeing the content. A final passage of Gombrich much further into the book makes the point most clearly. First quoting Quatremère de Quincy, he goes on to insist that the two experiences provided by the painting - one of a flat coloured object, the other as a depicted three-dimensional scene – are incompatible and cannot be enjoyed simultaneously:

When the painter packs a vast expanse into a narrow space, when he leads me across the depths of the infinite on a flat surface, and makes the air circulate … I love to abandon myself to his illusions, but I want the frame to be there, I want to know that what I see is actually nothing but a canvas or a simple plane.’

These demands have been echoed ever since in French art criticism. They formed the basis of the aesthetics of Puvis de Chavannes and his Swiss follower Hodler and were given their most famous formulation in the injunction by Maurice Denis to the Nabis: ‘Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a plane surface covered with paint in a certain arrangement.

It is a fact not very difficult to remember for those who are engaged in storing paintings or packing them into trunks. But is it possible to ‘see’ both the plane surface and the battle horse at the same time? If we have been right so far, the demand is for the impossible. To understand the battle horse is for a moment to disregard the plane surface. We cannot have it both ways.

It is as a corrective to such a view of depiction that Richard Wollheim developed his ‘twofold thesis’, the importance of which, for both the practice and appreciation of fine art, cannot be overstated. What Wollheim observes, quite correctly, is that the appreciation of representational painting, far from forbidding distributed attention between surface and depicted scene, requires attention to both aspects at one and the same time. Some form of the twofold thesis is required to provide an account of our aesthetic appreciation of representational painting. And the twofold thesis is the best account of representation to explain the preoccupation of Modernists in the furrow ploughed by Olga Davenport and painters with whom she is associated. Wollheim, that is, provides an account which at once belongs both to the logic of pictures (What is the nature of grasping depicted content?) and to the aesthetics of painting (How do we come to appreciate, and hence value, representational painting?) In answering the first of those questions we come to see how it is that any picture – say a photograph of Marilyn Monroe – is understood. In answering the second question we come to see how it is that a painter exploits a medium in such a way that pictorial content can be seen to reside in the worked surface. So, the second explanation ‘rides’ upon the answer to the first question.

The twofold thesis holds that when we see any picture, we attend to the surface features of the picture and, whilst sustaining our attention to them, we have an experience as of the depicted scene. Wollheim claims that we see the depicted scene in the distribution of colours across a flat surface. And so the twofold thesis argues against the illusionist view in that we are required to attend to the surface of the picture in order to see the depicted content in it. Our attention is therefore distributed between surface and content. And this seems to chime better with our experiences of pictures. After all, it hardly seems adequate to the experience that we have in front of pictures that we think we are in the presence of the depicted object. But on the illusionist account the only difference between my seeing the depicted content in the picture and my seeing that same content face-to-face is that in the second case I know that I am looking at a picture – a flat surface. But this added knowledge is not experiential – ex hypothesi.

We need to add to the twofold thesis that pictures feature in a number of different contexts – different economies, so to speak. Now, as a matter of will, I can ignore features of the perceived world in favour of securing a particular experience. Whilst perfectly aware that I am looking at a cloud I can ‘see’ a grotesque old man screaming as he chases across the sky. This phenomenon relies upon our ability to have imaginative experiences. And it is at this intersection of the perceptual and the imaginative that I believe painters exploit their medium to aesthetic ends.

As long ago as Aristotle the difference between imagination and perception was beginning to be delineated.

That imagination is not the same as perception is clear from the following arguments. (i) Perception is either a potentiality or an activity, as for instance, are sight and seeing, yet there are appearances in the absence of either of these, such as the appearances in sleep. (ii) Perception is, but imagination is not, always present… (iii) While perceivings are always veridical, imaginings are for the most part false… (v) Visions appear even to those whose eyes are shut.

When philosophers discuss images they are speaking of what might normally be referred to as ‘mental images’. The importance of mental images to our enquiry will become clear presently. Imagination, the ability to call up mental images, is one component of the complex experience of seeing pictures. Armed with Aristotle’s advice let us think again of seeing the old man in the clouds. A way of describing the experience is to describe the differentially patterned cloud as a series of tones. These tones make up the surface of the cloud in such a way that we can recognize what we are looking at: ‘Look! Clouds!’ The clouds are apparent to me in my perception. However, the further and more complex imaginative experience of seeing the old man in the clouds is made available to me only if I can recruit the look of the cloud to the task of supporting that further experience – as of the old man. (I project the old man onto the perception of the cloud.) Clouds are not pictures. However, the analysis of the experience we have when we combine imagination and perception in such cases ought to illuminate what it is to look at pictures. Artists, as it were, prepare surfaces for us to see; and these are the surfaces upon which we can fasten the further imaginative experiences. Our attention is therefore distributed between that which we literally see and that which we imagine based upon what we see.

In his discussion of ‘aspect-seeing’ Wittgenstein considers cases of looking at drawn figures that we see under descriptions – as when I see a black-line triangle on a white page and see it as variously, hanging from its apex, as a triangular void in another-wise solid plane, as a pyramid, as a two-dimensional triangular plane tilted away from us and so on,

It is as if [a mental] image came into contact, and for a time remained in contact, with the figure[the black line drawing].

The thought here is that the experience we have when looking at a figure is part perceptual – we see the black linear triangle – and part imaginative – we project content onto the perception and thereby change the character of the experience we undergo.
More recently still, in his impressive work on the relations between mind and world, Brian O’Shaughnessy, has written on imaginative perception as a species of perception,

[Depiction] consists in seeing expanses of colour in such a way that, while remaining expanses of colour for one, they simultaneously in a special imaginative sense bring a landscape into view.

This version of the twofold thesis provides a basic account of what it is to be able to ‘see’ pictorial content. However, we need to supplement this account in order to get a grip on what is peculiar to painting. Different economies of picture-making will have their own appropriate ways of demanding the attention of the spectator. So whilst it is true to say that in pictorial apprehension we distribute our attention between surface and content, there will be some economies where attention to surface is properly filtered out in order to concentrate on the content. Photography in most cases (with the exception of fine art photography) tends toward a focussing of attention on content. Think of the way in which we enjoy our holiday snaps.

Some have taken this to support a view of depiction as transparent. The transparency of pictures is largely taken for granted by an unreflective populace; and, indeed, by some who have reflected upon the nature of pictures. Modernism denied it. But philosophers of various stripes have argued for it, against it, and for certain modified versions of it. What is it? And why does it matter when considering the artwork of Olga Davenport within her own version of Modernism? Alberti, for one, has thought of the painting as a window onto the content – so that when we look at a perspective painting we are seeing through the window onto the scene depicted.

Transparency can be put quite simply. When I look at a photograph of my mother in her blue cotton printed dress, what I see is my mother in her blue dress. The photograph is a record of her sunny smile on Morecambe pier in the nineteen-fifties. This is similar in its structure to the times when I listen to Miles Davies’s Sketches of Spain by inserting a recording of his music-making, captured in digital code on a compact disc, into my CD player. My player does not contain within it a trumpet and so what makes the sounds is a range of frequencies captured in code. That code is then reconverted into frequencies. Compact discs, like photographs, are transparent. We hear the music by hearing the sounds emitted from the disc player by the amplification of laser scanning. I see my mother in her blue dress by looking at the photograph.

Kendall Walton goes so far as to claim that photographs are prosthetic devices enabling us to see things that we otherwise could not. According to the American philosopher, I look at a photograph of Marilyn Monroe and on that basis I quite literally see the now dead star full of life holding her white dress down against the upward draft of a New York subway grating. After all, argues Walton, we are happy to say that we see in the night sky other stars that have been long dead, the light emitted from them millions of years ago only now stimulating our retinas. We see microbes through microscopes and lunar craters through telescopes. There are things that I see with my spectacles, the number of a bus in the distance for instance, that I could not see without them. We have recently seen on television the movement of tanks through the ‘night-sight’ cameras of the allied forces in Iraq. The tanks do not reflect light but rather emit heat, which the infra-red sensitive sights convert into ‘pictures’. Pictures, according to Walton, are transparent in the same way. We look through them and see those absent objects presented in them. Walton does not subscribe to the ‘illusionist’ view. We do not suffer the illusion that we are in the presence of Marilyn. But nevertheless it is Marilyn we see when we look at the photograph. Here is Walton on transparency,

The flatness of photographs, their frames, the walls on which they are hung are virtually always obvious and unmistakable. Still photographs of moving objects are motionless. Many photographs are black-and-white. Even photographic motion pictures in 'living color' are manifestly mere projections on a flat surface and easily distinguished from 'reality.' Photographs look like what they are: photographs.

Nevertheless, Walton holds that photographs are transparent and that what we literally see when we look at a photograph is the person, thing or scene depicted. Couple the description of the phenomenology of looking at photographs with his commitment to transparency and we come to understand that transparency does not entail illusionism. Indeed we come to see that the two theses are incompatible. (If I really see Marilyn in her photograph, then it cannot be an illusion.)
However, Walton’s transparency relies on the depicted content being caused in the right way by the rays of light emitting from the photograph’s surface to the spectator’s eye. And this could not be a requirement for what Walton calls hand-made pictures. We could not say of a painting of a unicorn that what we are literally seeing is the unicorn that caused the picture; for there are no unicorns.

(I take this, in combination with the twofold thesis, to demonstrate that fine art photography relies upon our understanding of painting. And so, is a secondary form of the medium. It is not true that photography replaced painting, nor could it. Representational painting requires our attention to the making of pictures by hand, so that I do not, and could not, literally see the depicted content of a representational painting. But that is a matter for discussion on another occasion.)

Representational paintings, then, are neither illusionistic nor transparent. And their opacity is a major feature of the Modernist’s concern with the material quality of painting. For it is in the gap between the two folds of the complex experience that we see the work of the artist in bringing these experiences to fruition. It is just because we are required to distribute our attention between the two folds of the complex experience, we can see that the artist has manipulated her medium to hold both aspects of the experience together. Hence we find aesthetic pleasure in seeing the manipulation of a surface such that it renders representational effects in the surface appearance. We see the achievement of the artist in the imaginative work of preparing a surface in which these effects are to be secured. This is what the Modernists understood and what they exploited in their work.

Modernism on both sides of the Atlantic sought to oppose the view that pictures are either transparent or illusionistic. Paintings are both plastic – that is to say material objects whose materiality matters to them as paintings – and representational in that they provide experiences as of space and light they do not literally contain. With this in mind let us move into discussion of the paintings.