(Currently writing on space and body for the PhD, reminded of this very old essay from my degree, so in lieu of time for any new writing for this much neglected blog, here is the old essay to provide a stopgap as it is sort of *aww bless* sweet...)
This essay will explore the ways in which modern art has utilised the senses, particularly in its employment of optical effects to challenge the ways in which we view art, manipulating the viewer's bodily reaction to become part of the experience the work is trying to convey. It will be divided into three sections that feature possibly the strongest manifestations of this embodied phenomena: the sense of movement, the physiological effects of colour and the senses of space and proprioception. I will be suggesting that the choice of technical effects used in these paintings inform the viewer of the agenda of the artist/art movement. For example, the work of the pre-WW2 Italian Futurists expresses a love of technology, dynamism, speed and modernity: through creating effects of motion their paintings give the dizzying impression of hurtling into the future.
Using the ideas on phenomenology devised by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, I will look at paintings with a haptic, tactile eye that encourages an embodied reading. I will also use Vivian Sobchack's theory of film-phenomenology to assist my analysis of how the senses are evoked. Sobchack's thesis on the reflexive exchange of communication in the experience of embodied cinematic spectatorship can easily be applied to the act of looking in the visual arts; as she states, 'all viewers viewing' are 'engaged as participants in dynamically and directionally reversible acts that reflexively and reflectively constitute the perception of expression and the expression of perception'. As Luce Irigaray states: '...in a certain way nothing is as sensitive, especially to touch, as my sight'. Haptic perception (perception related to the sense of touch) will be privileged in this essay, not in the sense of whether the paintings themselves are 'tactile', but in the sense that visually 'touching' works of art leads to a heightened sensitivity that allows for the works' use of space, movement and colour to touch us as viewers.
The embodied art viewer, being connected to and aware of bodily responses, can be more in tune with the intentions of the artist: our physical reactions are translated and made sense of through the intellect. During his trip to Italy, immersed in the multi-sensory experiences of the sights, smells, tastes and the temperatures of a new place, Goethe wrote of the richness of embodied perception: 'I think and compare, see with an eye that can feel, feel with a hand that can see'. Merleau-Ponty furthers the notion of the fruitful endeavour of paying close attention to bodily cognition: 'All knowledge takes its place within the horizons opened up by perception'. Although coming from different art movements, all the painting analysed here come under the categorisation of abstract modern art, formed of a visual language composed of form, shape, line and colour. Therefore, without 'realistic' subject matter to mislead or direct our ideas of what we are perceiving, a truer interpretation of how the senses are manipulated can be gained.
The Sense of Language and Psychology of Colours
The Russian artist and theorist Wassily Kandinsky created semi-abstract then later purely abstract paintings that expressed the formation of his ideas on the spiritual made visible. The 'spiritual' to Kandinsky is more like the expression of the artist's soul: the ability to project their inside outside to make what moves them visible. He states: 'literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt'.To achieve a visual representation and evocation of the artist's soul that is felt and experienced by the viewer, Kandinsky experimented with painting music. The assigning of colours and shapes to sounds functions as a display of synaesthesia, meaning that the viewer can 'hear' the music, or get an impression of what moods or sounds the music may convey, by looking at the painting. Talking of artists such as himself, who rejected realistic representation and showed admiration for the musician's ability to convey abstract emotions, Kandinsky states: 'in his longing to express his inner life...he naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art. And from this results that modern desire for rhythm in painting, for mathematical, abstract construction, for repeated notes of colour, for setting colour in motion'.
Kandinsky terms the effect of colours as psychic effect and as a spiritual vibration; these are quite useful ways of thinking about phenomenological colour affect. The phenomenology of colour reception works in several ways: what the eye sees is felt by the body, then later the mind makes sense of the associations of what different colours signify. Kandinsky explains it thus: 'the soul being one with the body, the former may well experience a psychic shock, caused by association acting on the latter'. Looking at Kandinsky's Composition VI (1916) at first glance there is something troubling about it, something jarring and unnerving. Yet aesthetically it seems a perfectly pleasing picture: it is colourful and lively, the colours blend into each other smoothly. It is the use of colour that provide the psychic effect of shock, the dark blue is rather ominous as it threatens to take over the rest of the composition. The inky blue cloud-like mass swoops up from the bottom right of the painting suggesting a deluge of many sounds heard together. The eye picks up the sharper more defined hot red shapes/sounds that break out of the deluge, seemingly as they fizz or burst out of the mass of sounds. This response corroborates Kandinsky's hypothesis: 'In the first place one receives a purely physical impression one of pleasure and contentment at the varied and beautiful colours. The eye is either warmed or else soothed and cooled'.
Yet as the majority of the colours are cool in tone, the impression is of something sombre and the 'coolness' is more like a chill. The emotional state of the painter could therefore be read as chilled, in sadness perhaps. The formal disorder of the piece may also be a reflection of an emotional disorder: there is a sense that the deluge, a perhaps overwhelming sadness, is washing over the spiritual life of the painter. The experience or the affect of looking at these paintings can be translated to that of the embodied film viewer Sobchack discusses, 'The experience is as familiar as it is intense, and it is marked by the way in which significance and the act of signifying are directly felt sensuously available to the viewer'. Whether it be emotions, mood, atmosphere or sounds, this painting communicates sensations to its viewers.
The inspirations from musical composition can be clearly seen in the formal qualities of this painting: the abstract shapes and lines of sounds/emotions rising and falling give the impression of movement in time to the painting, like the effects of duration in a piece of music. There are also the slightly abstracted images of the musical instruments themselves: the strings attached to a frame in the top and top right of the painting that makes the connection to music explicit. This figurative clue is totally removed in the later painting Composition VIII, from 1923, which is done in pure abstraction.
This picture is formally much neater than the one before: the lines and shapes have been sharpened and positioned with precision. It does not have the same emotional effect but can be seen as an study that conveys an experimental attitude to both painting and music, by breaking away from traditional figuration and composition. The objects within the frame appear as if floating in space; this is very much what music does, notes and sound waves exist to us abstractly in space. When we listen to a piece of music, certain sounds 'pop out' while others seen smaller, quieter, more in the background. With this painting Kandinsky places the viewer within the same space as the sounds, the more recent the noise the nearer and larger it appears to us. Possessing a knowledge of art history can provide an intellectual pleasure by a familiarity with the language of formal abstraction, yet this is not essential. The pleasure is also derived visually by the haptic perception of joining colours and shapes in space. Although the use of colour in this piece is quite sparse and paired down, it has the effect of a dynamic assemblage of tones and moods. Kandinsky as painter is like the constructor or composer of these tones and moods; as he states, 'colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul'. As this painting is purely abstract, the colours used function less as signifiers carrying meaningful connotations of emotional states, and more as tones that warm or cool the eye, felt by the body as a pure jangle of abstract discordant sensations. In Merleau-Ponty's words, 'We must therefore stop wondering how and why red signifies effort or violence, green restfulness and peace; we must rediscover how to live these colours as our body does'.There is no intended 'meaning' here, only sensation.
The Sense of Motion in Italian Futurism (1909-1916)
The Italian Futurists were interested in speed, technology and machinery, and gloried in the idea of war and the destruction of humanist sensibilities. The Futurists were very much against the idea of the spiritual or soul in art theorised by Kandinsky, they wanted rid of subjective experience, love, sentimentality, the nude, nature and other 'natural' figuration in art. Their work is typified by the frenetic, frantic pace of modern technologies: large buildings, cars, planes, motorcycles etc. The Futurist manifesto's declarations on 'painting the technical' express their inhuman, mechanical aesthetic: '4. That all subjects previously used must be swept aside in order to express our whirling life of steel, of pride and of speed....7. That universal dynamism must be rendered in painting as a dynamic sensation'. Again in antithesis to the theories and practices of Kandinsky, the use of colour in Futurist painting is very minimal. The emphasis is on the construction of shapes that convey the sensation of movement.
The painting by Giacomo Balla Speed of a Motorcycle (1913) expresses the Futurist's love of speed. The picture expresses the blurring of the object when in motion, capturing that when at high speed the object seems multiple. Here the wheels of the motorcycle can been seen in a sequence of repetitions which capture movement, making the intangible solid. As Rodolf Arnheim points out: 'Motion is the strongest visual appeal to attention'.The Futurists' desire for immediacy, for a propelling of oneself into the future, can be seen in the way we experience their work: it grabs the viewer's attention fast, and we are carried along by the sensation of motion. Linking the acute awareness of sensing motion to human and animal survival instincts, Arnheim calls the effect of witnessing motion a 'happening'; these,, he states, 'attract us more spontaneously than things do, and the prime characteristic of a happening is motion'. Thinking of Futurist paintings as 'happenings' is quite useful, as the experience of viewing is an embodied response to motion: we are complicit in the way the art work functions, it needs a viewer to make it a 'happening'. In a sense it only 'moves' when it can move the viewer. As Merleau-Ponty states, the experience of the perception of movement in art can be 'the experience of a certain bodily disposition and suddenly the sensation runs into and “spreads through the visual domain”'.This effect also works vice versa: the movement the eye witnesses spreads to the bodily domain, and the body seems to see itself moving. The notion that the viewer is in a reflexive communication with the art work is compounded by Merleau-Ponty's theory of the trajectory of visual perception as a phenomenon of bodily sensation: 'it has long been known that sensations have a 'motor accompaniment', that stimuli set in motion 'incipient movements' which are associated with the sensation of the quality...and that the 'perceptual side' and the 'motor side' of behaviour are in communication with each other'.
The Charge of the Lancers (1915), by Umberto Boccioni, again has a strong sense of movement. It is less abstract than Balla's painting: the shapes of shields and figures can be made out, while the spear-like lancers themselves dominate the picture, jutting out from mid-left to upper right and leading the eye into following their charge. This picture is 'pictorial' in a similar manner to the work of the Cubists: all objects are reduced down to straight lines and angular geometric shapes, with impossible-for-the-human-eye multiple viewpoints. This also accentuates the violence inherent in this picture: the shapes are sharp, and they are in fast, blurred motion.Looking at this picture provokes a quality associated with 'Stendhal syndrome', a psychosomatic effect brought on when looking at works of art that can trigger hallucinations in the viewer, or feelings of being overwhelmed or dizzy. The dynamic representation of movement, of surging forward, with the blurring of figures further away, has a similar effect to synaesthesia: the embodied art viewer feels the lurch of the charge. The sympathetic feeling of motion can be felt in the stomach of the viewer like sea-sickness: the viewer stands still, but the image in front appears to posses the affect of motion, destabilising and unbalancing the viewer's proprioception. The Stendhal syndrome-like effects evokes the sounds of the march: the repetition of the shapes of the semi-abstract lancers that increase in size the nearer they get to the viewer/foreground, amplifies the crashing thump-thump rhythm of charging, the sounds of the angular shields and bodies that, along, with the images of the Lancers moving forward at great speed, can themselves have a dizzying effect. This painting communicates with the viewer, but the aggression of its destabilising effects of forward motion is also alienating and disorienting.
The sense of space and proprioception in Optical Art of the 1960's
The Op Artists of the 1950's and 60's also produced works that could be said to provoke 'happenings' between the viewer/subject and the art/object. Most strongly, the op-art works manipulated the sense of sight, and created the illusion of space and depth.These optical effects play with the viewer's sense of proprioception (the body's awareness of itself in space, the unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from within the body itself).The Op Art paintings disrupts our sense of space and balance as we move in and out of the space the painting creates. As our bodies are also in space, a blurring takes place between where we are situated as viewers, and the impression of moving into a space opened up for our bodies within the frame of the painting. As Merleau-Ponty suggests: 'our body is not primarily in space: it is of it'.Taking further the notion of a visual haptics that allows for space to be touched and experienced bodily, Merleau-Ponty illustratively continues: 'If I admit that space belongs primarily to sight and that from sight it is transmitted to touch and the other senses, then since there is in the adult to all appearances, a tactile perception of space...the 'pure tactile data' are displaced by an experience having its source in sight'.
Our whole bodies can be put in the service of the senses in order to aid our perception of the world around us. For Goethe, the hand that touches can see: we touch things with our hands so that we can gain a sense of what they might look like. Equally, our bodies can perceive in different ways to their main function, so that (according to Irigaray) the eye can also act as a tactile organ, touching what it gazes over. In Movement of Squares (1961), the painting by Bridget Riley, the eye moves over and across the frame; guided towards the centre, the squares give the impression of distance by descending in size (they are 'smaller' due to being further away). Once the eye lingers on this optical affect and is drawn into the illusory space created in the middle of the frame, the impression of the painting bending in on itself occurs. Thus is can be read as a 'happening': the viewer's sense of disorientation in space is necessary for the painting to have performed its optical 'effect' successfully. If the viewer is in a sense 'touching' the painting (to follow Irigaray), then this creates a sense of movement within the viewer, causing a disruption of the body's perception of its place within space, which again produces a slight dizziness.
Much like Movement of Squares, Cataracts 3 also from 1961 (below) plays with our perception of depth by using the painting's formal characteristics, specifically the varying thickness of its lines. These rippling lines are red and blue; the blending of these two prominent colours into separate purple lines unifies the piece. The thickening and thinning of the lines creates an effect of bending and waving in and out of hills and valleys, producing a sense of movement on the surface of the canvas that undulates up and down across the painting. Our eyes then follow the motion down and across the painting, as do our bodies, destabilising our sense of balance. The body's reaction to this, obeying the motion of the lines, could have a soothing effect, a gentle rippling motion like being on a boat on a calm sea. Yet the choice of colours in this painting upsets the possibility of a soothing affect created from the shapes the lines forge. Instead, looking at the painting produces has a rather queasy feeling in the embodied viewer: the thicker red lines that appear as if rippling over hills nearest to the viewer are almost oppressively felt as too close to the eye.
Goethe in his Theory of Colours explains how the combination of certain colours can produce a harmonious effect in the viewer, while others disturb the eye and clash together unpleasantly. In his analysis of these effects, Goethe says of the colour combination of red and blue, and the mixing of these colours that forms purple: 'Blue deepens very mildly into red, and therefore acquires a somewhat active character, although it is on the passive side. Its exciting power is, however, of a very different kind from that of yellow-red. It may be said to disturb rather than enliven'.Putting aside the slightly contradictory statement of 'active, on the passive side' that perhaps says more about Goethe's subjective reactions to this colour, he is correct about the jarring rather than pleasing pairing of blue and red. The combination of red, purple and blue do not sit comfortably side by side: it is as if the colours react aggressively against each other, almost like chemicals that should not be mixed.
In this painting Riley expresses an experimental attitude to the use of colour as well as shape. The end goal is not to produce a beautiful picture but one that creates a 'happening' between the viewer and the work. Looking from a distance at the painting, it appears (due to the blending of red and blue) to possess the predominant colour of purple. It is unusual and rare to use a colour that, though not despised in art, is generally avoided due to its artificiality compared to more 'natural' colours. Goethe says of the effects of purple on the senses: 'This unquiet feeling increases as the hue progresses, and it is safely assumed that a carpet of a perfectly pure deep blue-red would be intolerable'. Even the choice of the painting's title, Cataracts 3, has a slightly miasmic character. Besides being a condition that affects the eyes, a 'cataract' is defined as 'a large or high waterfall' and as 'a great downpour; a deluge'; either of these two definitions can be seen to fit with this painting. The rippling lines can be seen as a deluge over the space of the canvas; the viewer also physically experiences the effect of motion as a deluge of sensations. The title is also a kind of play on words with the most common use of the word 'cataract', as the optical effect of the painting, although not reducing the viewer to blindness, distorts the eyesight, disrupting our sense of space with dizzying effect. The connotations of the optical effect brought on the embodied viewer are not unambiguously positive, as the painting its self is not quite pleasant.
Although aesthetically distinct from each other, all of the discussed art works, from different movements throughout the first part of the 20th century, express a keen interest in utilising the bodily responses of their viewers. A system of exchange and experience is formed between the artist's intention, the created artwork, and the reaction of the viewer; thus, art viewing can be said to be 'a system of communication based on bodily perception as a vehicle of conscious expression'.In incorporating the viewer's response back into the economy of the art world, every viewer is given agency to experience a physical cognition: whether it be pleasurable, alienating or unbalancing, we are all involved. This modern 'happening' is quite utopian as it involves everyone: the sometimes elitist art world language and history falls away in favour of the phenomena of the viewer's own sensations. As Merleau-Ponty points out: 'In space itself independently of the presence of a psycho-physical subject, there is no direction, no inside, no outside'.The boundaries between viewer/body object/painting are lost, the viewer gets inside to inhabit the space created by the painting.
Mind and body have often been separated in the analysis of art and literature; a further important feature of sense-orientated and sense-inclusive analysis of visual art is that it undoes this binary split,. The fruitful possibilities for one who is aware of and uses their body to perceive and gain knowledge is illustrated by Irigaray as a haptic unfolding 'causing the possibilities to recede, thanks to an intimacy that keeps unfolding itself more and more, opening and reopening the pathway to the mystery of the other'.This suggests that an active awareness of the senses can make all perception richer, allowing for new possibilities to open up. Merleau-Ponty expresses this call to arms to reconnect the mind and the body:
we have relearned to feel our body; we have found underneath the objective and detached knowledge of the body that other knowledge which we have of it in virtue of its always being with us and of the fact that we are our body. In the same way we shall need to reawaken our experience of the world as it appears to us in so far as we are in the world through our body, and in so far as we perceive the world with our body. But by thus remaking contact with the body and with the world, we shall also rediscover ourselves, since, perceiving as we do with our body, the body is a natural self and, as it were, the subject of perception.
It is by knowing ourselves and understanding our existence in space that we come to make sense of the world around us. In the case of the art works discussed above, without this stance the 'happenings' brought about by the power of colour to make one feel sombre and lost in a flowing blue deluge, or hear and feel the crashing of the charge of the lancers or the move in and out of a strange space of abstract sea-sickness, would not be possible.