Seeing is Believing

Newsletter 33 (13 November 2016)

Sometimes I can see a picture in a gallery and make a successful guess as to who painted it. It’s not always a top-flight artist who is instantly recognisable. They often develop and change in relation to new movements and styles. The B-team are liable to be more repetitious, and therefore more easily spotted. When it comes to the vast majority of paintings in most galleries,  I note that I feel vaguely guilty when I find myself reading the labels to find out who painted this or that work; and, if the painter isn’t on my radar (which is changing gradually year by year), I walk on by. The life that’s left seems too short to make the effort to be vigorously interested in Boltraffio or Raffaellino della Colle, though I am sure there are hundreds of excellent painters, possibly these two included, of whom I know practically nothing at all.

    We see what we hope and expect to see, and when we know the painter, our consciousness and attention alters. “Oh: so this Madonna and Child is a Bellini. I will now inspect it with particular care.”

    Yet the attributions of paintings have changed many times during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and may still be changing. Is this work by Titian, or Giorgione? Or someone else entirely, and perhaps of less account? Is it a copy? Fateful word: we don’t want to bother ourselves with mere copies. When the western world’s galleries were busily buying up as many works by great artists as they could find, experts could influence the future reputations of artists, and possibly their own fortunes by means of a legitimate or carefree ascription or two.

    Looking and seeing can play tricks with us. Wordsworth in his strange poem ‘Resolution and Independence’ (which starts by examining how mood swings sharply affect how we react to the world about us) comes upon a figure by a remote pool in the mountains, and initially imagines this person to be something else, a boulder, or a seal: ‘As a huge stone is sometimes seen to lie/ Couched on the bald top of an eminence …/ Like a sea-beast crawled forth, that on a shelf/ Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself;/ Such seemed this Man, not all alive nor dead/ Nor all asleep—in his extreme old age.’ Wordsworth’s optical illusion or mistake is turned into a metaphor. When the figure is realised as a human being, a very old man mysteriously stirring a pool, it transpires that he is a leech-gatherer, bound to an unglamorous and wearisome occupation. But the poet continues to think of him as exalted, as a sage, and keeps asking him with great earnestness ‘how is it that you live, and what is it you do?’ apparently hoping for an answer to the ‘meaning of life’, rather than further explanation of the hazards and difficulties of collecting leeches. You couldn’t say this is a comic poem, but the poet-narrator describes his own mistaken solemnity with irony, while concluding that there is still a lesson in the old man’s admirable resilience and fortitude.

    Obviously how we encounter an object or an event colours, or warps our view of it. More remarkable is the viewer’s capacity simply not to see or to ignore what is not expected. A decade ago I organised (with much help) a trip to Burgundy to enjoy the many Romanesque churches amongst those green rolling hills and vineyards. In Autun we were admiring the ‘Last Judgment’ by Gislebertus in the west tympanum of the cathedral of St Lazare (I have reminded myself of this ascription by recourse to the Internet). Suddenly a small bird starting fluttering in front of us, gently worrying at the bas-reliefs. Quite how I was able to name it as a Wall Creeper, I’m not sure (too much leafing through bird books over the years). This is an unusual and thrilling bird, mostly jet black, including its beak, except for patches of rich crimson (‘blood-red of wings only glimpsed’ but ‘when shifting position… gaudily marked’ says the Collins Bird Guide). A bird that looks as if it would be more at home in Madagascar or in an Amazonian rain forest, than on a chilly April day in central France. There it was in the middle of our field of vision, flitting amongst the stone grapes and foliage, for what seemed an age: five, or ten, or fifteen minutes? Some of our group had seen it and wondered what it was. But for me the amazing fact was this: more than half of our group simply had not noticed this marvellous creature, intent as they were on the intricacies of a stone vision of heaven and hell. I do not criticise them for this: I and some others just happened to be attuned to noticing birds whenever they appear (thankfully often), even at the expense of a uniquely well-preserved twelfth-century masterpiece of religious sculpture.

    How often do we really see what we are looking at, in its entirety? How would we know? Everything we experience is filtered through our expectations and frame of mind, our knowledge and our prejudices. The raw world cannot exist for us, as it might for a baby or a child. This is one lesson to be drawn from my sneakily reading labels in the art gallery. Far easier to relax into what we think we know, and what we think we want to know. It may be impossible to do otherwise.