Thursday, September 2, 2010

Still Not Looking at Pictures

Peter Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1565
As I sit thinking about not looking, I began my day with with Bruegel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, and I am finishing it, as has so often been the case, with Velasquez. Bruegel's peasant is so intent on his daily work that he fails even to look up when the disobedient Icarus first gets too close to the sun, and then falls to the sea. This dramatic and mythological tale is of no concern to the ploughman, as he, like me most of the time, is too caught up in the ordinariness of the work before him to even think about turning to witness the disaster. He is the perfect example of "not looking:" he stands in for our indifference to the death and destruction, to the suffering and injustice of those around us, even as their representation is right before our eyes. And yet, despite the seeming relevance of Brueghel's peasant, it's Velasquez who seems to have the first and last word (or should I say brushstroke) on what it means to look and not look in visual representation.
Las Hilanderas, Velasquez, 1657

Everything I read on the topic, and everywhere I turn, there is Las Meninas, as though the Infanta is calling to me, as though she wants me to look at her, like Icarus no doubt would have liked Bruegel's people to notice him. I saw Las Meninas last summer in Madrid, in fact, I went to Spain especially to see it, and while there got caught in the spell of Las Hilanderas (The Spinners) in the Prado. At the time I was interested in grey – caught up like the ploughman in what lay before me, I was writing my book on grey painting. Before Las Hilanderas I was struck by the background of the picture plane: while the foreground is of a passionate, devastating red, it was the background that drew me, a background in grey. The grey is fascinating because it behaves itself as a canvas which makes possible Velasquez’ lighting of the scene that takes place against it. Seeing for myself how he achieved this was a thrill and made the pilgrimage there worthwhile. But of course, I was meant to be looking at Las Meninas, the painting I had read about, written about, heard about and dreamed about since my days in smoke-filled undergraduate seminar rooms.

Las Meninas, Velasquez, 1656

In his probably canonical essay, "Not Looking at Pictures," E.M Forster catches me out. At least, that's how it feels. Forster doesn't say anything we don’t already know, simply that we spend most of our time not looking at pictures. He says that when standing before a picture, we see ourselves. We look into it as though it were a mirror of our own petty obsessions, our desires, and we start daydreaming, start thinking of our own self-important ideas, and just like the ploughman, all the things that need to be done before day's end. And when we behave like this before an image such as Las Meninas, we shut down and shut off to all possibility of what the picture has to offer.  It’s difficult to argue with that. How many times have I seen and overheard visitors  in museums discussing  the color of a Renoir fabric as the exact same one they want for their curtains? Or the man who sat next to me at the Rothko exhibit in London and pronounced he could paint those canvases. It’s all about me, the viewer. There is a lovely line in Forster’s essay where he quotes a picture, any picture who, dismayed at the viewer’s distraction and daydreaming, calls out to the viewer: “What have your obsessions got to do with me?” …”I am neither a theatre of varieties nor a spring-mattress, but paint. Look at my paint.” Isn’t that what everyone in Las Meninas is doing? the painter? The Infanta? The dwarf? Of course, Velasquez shows and his figures say much more than this because they are, at the very same time, confronting us with "why are you looking at me, you have no right to survey me like that, I will watch you with my roving eye until you leave this room." This double-edge is of course the brilliance of Las Meninas, a painting that can't be pinned down, a painting before which we can never settle. 

Bruegel was painting in the mid-sixteenth century, Velasquez in the mid-seventeenth century, and Forster wrote of our wont not to look at pictures in 1937. It makes me wonder, what is all this talk of distraction and degenerated concentration as a result of information overload and the barrage of images in the digital age? Clearly, practices of not looking, and pictures that are ambivalent about being looked at are a much older phenomenon. Maybe it's not anything to do with our century after all? 


Regina said...

or, it has something to do with every century...

Frances Guerin said...

or in every century a new form of not looking is born?

Anonymous said...

Or, something to do with us as human beings.