[Note: what follows is a pretty raw transcript of my first lecture for my class, "The Viewer in the Painting." I edited it occasionally as I was transcribing it, skipping mutterings about malfunctioning equipment, occasionally finding a more felicitous term than the one I had used in class, or fixing my syntax. But I did all this just as I was typing, and I have not gone back over the text to revise it.]
Here are four images, by Edward Burne-Jones, telling the story of Pygmalion. As you know, Pygmalion is a classical story best known from the Latin poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses—a long poem about, well, things turning into other things. In this case, a statue turns into a real woman, it comes to life. Pygmalion, the sculptor who makes beautiful statues but is otherwise unhappy with the women in his city, is enthralled by his own statue and invokes Venus, the goddess of love, to bring his own statue to life. Venus shows up, brings the statue to life, he falls in love with the woman she now is, and so on.
What is interesting is that the story of the statue coming to life is pervasive through popular culture, in fantastic stories, myths, films, opera. It has become one of the ways in which not only our culture, but cultures for millennia have encoded our relationship to a kind of work of art, sculptures, and specifically statues of people. We can all think of other examples: if you have ever seen a stage performance of Don Juan, or a staging of Don Giovanni, the opera by Mozart, you have seen another statue coming to life. Don Giovanni, the infamous seducer, is punished for his evil deeds by a statue—a statue come to life-- of the father of one of the women he has seduced.
Other examples can be found in the pages of fantasy books, episodes of the Twilight Zone, and so on.
This fantasy seems to have a connection to the atavistic notion of art as being something beyond, or before, the aesthetic—where the aesthetic sees art as just something to be appreciated formally, or intellectually, etc. It has something to do more with cult statues, inhabited by gods, or with the icon in Greek Orthodox or Catholic worship, which is prayed to—and even when short of idolatry, seems to have a kind of power, it looks back at you, it’s more than a simple representation of a saint or a divinity.
This is one of the myths that encodes one kind of relationship we have with statues, with works of art. Another such myth is the notion of the portrait whose eyes follow you around the room. You may all have heard that. If you go for example to a house museum, the tour guide or the docent may point you to a painting of an ancestor and direct you to walk around the room, to notice how, wherever you are, the figure in the painting is looking at you.
Thinking of this myth, I wondered what, according to the wisdom of the internet, are the paintings that most do that, so I googled it. The most popular example seems to be the Mona Lisa. If we imagine her looking around the room, at us, we begin treating her as a person, we are somehow endowing her with subjectivity, yet at the same time we know it’s just a plain old painting, though perhaps the most famous and most expensive painting in the world. But it’s not a real person. Nevertheless.
Looking at these myths, the statue coming to life, the figure in the portrait whose eyes follow you around the room, you realize we begin to develop a different kind of relationship with the work than simply that of viewing subject versus viewed object.
I looked further in the google results—and I want to emphasize, that these relationships in no way need apply only to elite or famous works of high art, or even things we might objectively think of as good—and here was the next popular result. On deviant art, art, a digital painting by May Fang Robinson, who seems to do digital paintings of very traditional Chinese women, rendered in a kind of academic/pin-up aesthetic. And their eyes, supposedly, follow you around the room. Now, believe it or not, this is not just a myth—there is a specific scientific reason as to why that might seem to be the case, and we’ll discuss it when we get to geometric perspective—but because of that, we begin granting the painting something much more than simple objectness. And the fact of it being a human face, one to which we can relate, which brings to mind eye-to-eye encounters with real human beings, helps too.
Having said that, I wanted to say that this class is modeled after two models. On one hand, a professor of English at the University of Rochester, Kenneth Gross, wrote a book in the 1990’s called “The Dream of the Moving Statue.” It is specifically about this notion of statues coming to life, studied from many varied angles, and gives many more examples than I can give here. It’s a beautiful, very poetic book, and I found it inspiring me to take a similar look at other myths about the reception of art, specifically those centered around the fantasy of the viewer in the painting.
Secondly, when I was in college, I took a class, primarily to satisfy a requirement, the distribution of which was called “Moral Reasoning” and included philosophy, ethics, and so on. Taught by a philosophy professor named Stanley Cavell. Now, I was a film major at the time—film and studio—and this class promised to have a lot of film showings, which is why I took it. Turned out to be an extraordinary class (which Cavell later turned into a book, called “City of Words”), primarily because it attempted to teach philosophy through popular culture. For example, Cavell claimed that some of the philosophical ethics of Kant or Emerson could be found in Hollywood comedies or melodramas of the 1930s or 1940s. He made quite a powerful argument that this was the case and that, indeed, the viewers of those movies somehow absorbed, along with their entertainment, such moral lessons.
I realized that even in a class on philosophy or theory, the texts studied did not necessarily have to be philosophical expository text, but could be works of fiction, of popular culture within which such philosophy inheres, and from which it could be derived and re-applied. Those works would not necessarily be studied as aesthetic work in themselves, but as repositories of philosophical thought. In our case, there is a philosophical component—a theory of criticism, of viewer reception, of how we interact with works of art—in the various seemingly fantastic scenarios I have described.
The other myth, and the main myth that this class is about, is that of being able to enter a painting. Again, many examples can be found in fiction, in popular culture, some that I will show you today in class, others in Twilight Zone episodes, again, or even more clearly in episodes of Rod Serling’s next show, “The Night Gallery.” This scenario again encodes, becomes an allegory for a profound relationship we have to the works of art themselves. I was just looking online last night for a book by a professor of art history, currently at Berkeley, named T.J. Clark; I was looking for something else entirely, when I found this line by him: “When I am in front of a picture the thing I most want is to enter the picture's world: it is the possibility of doing so that makes pictures worth looking at for me. (p.222)” So I thought, oh, there is another person who has this dream of entering a painting.
What we will do in this class is take this notion—begin from popular culture, from these myths—and from there build up a more complex theory of how we respond to images; but it will still remain what we might call a “vernacular” theory of viewer response: how do we respond to works of art? How do they affect us emotionally? And so on.
And I thought I would begin with a very simple example, that all of you have seen previously. “Mary Poppins.”
Here is the question. How do you enter a painting? What does Mary Poppins say? “Bert, why do you always have to complicate things that are really quite simple?” And, even without Bert’s spell (or, rather, because she didn’t use it) she managed to get them all inside the painting. Because, you know, she’s magic, a witch or a fairy. (What is Mary Poppins anyway?)
If we study the entire sequence again, though, we can derive a few provisional notions of HOW to enter a painting—or, if you think of that as an allegory, how to relate to it, to respond to it powerfully. Provisional notions which of course we will rephrase in more scholarly terms, and revise and transform, during the course of this class.
Notice that, to begin with, the children are going to go with Mary Poppins for a walk in the park. But of course, Mary being magic, a walk in the park with her cannot be just a walk in the park, as Bert points out. They will still end up in a park, though, just one that is much, much better. And notice—this is very obvious, but still needs to be noted—that the painting they will enter is a landscape. Landscapes are the genre that has most provoked this “viewer in the painting” fantasy. Why is that? You could also imagine it happening with other genres—for example, genre paintings, paintings of everyday life, you can imagine a scene of people in a room and you entering, past the frame, to be in their company—but this almost never happens. It’s always landscapes. That may be because an important function of landscapes, from the beginning, was to take you somewhere else. Diderot, an eighteenth-century writer whom we’ll discuss again later on, wrote specifically about how we collect landscape because, caught in the dreary city, we want to be transported to somewhere else, a more beautiful countryside. The fact that he himself had moved from the country to the city, and still felt nostalgia for the place of his birth, probably had something to do with his view too. But nostalgia plays an important role here, as we shall see.
Now, one more thing. Our very notion of parks, as open to the public—in America it’s a much more modern notion, primarily nineteenth century, but even in England, Hyde Park, which opened in the seventeenth century being one of the earliest there—was a matter of bringing something of the countryside into the city itself. Artificial countryside, it functioned like landscapes, the way Diderot saw them. It helped people escaped to a more natural, more beautiful green world than their depressing urban surroundings. And public parks were based on private parks, in the countryside, around mansions—and the landscaping for that kind of park was based, more often than not, on landscape paintings, especially like those of—and I will now introduce for the first time a name that you will be hearing a lot during this entire course—Claude Lorrain.
Claude is very important for this class because it is in the commentaries to his work—commentaries that span the period from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, and beyond—that perhaps this desire, this dream to enter the painting is most often articulated.
Claude’s work is most often associated with the genre of pastoral painting—the depiction of a countryside world imbued with the pleasures of shepherds and shepherdesses who have no worries, no anxieties (gods too may come to visit), they can spend their time singing, playing music, or in amorous dalliance. This becomes a dream of a more perfect world for much of Western culture. Again, we’ll discuss it at much more length, but keep in mind that it’s the dream behind the creation of parks—and also, even, of the American suburbs.
OK. Back to Mary Poppins. So they’re going into the park. But it has to be a special park. They’re going on a “Jolly Holiday,” as Bert sings. An easier life. The life of the pastoral—where they, too, can sing.
Bert begins by making-believe. The magical entering into the painting begins by enacting the poses of the characters in the paintings. You make believe, even if you don’t really believe, until the magic actually happens. But, by playing the tightrope walker, the boatsman, in a way he already is in the painting.
Then the girl, Jane, wants to enter the painting, and Bert draws, with chalk, a way for her into the painting. Literally, a road, a bridge. Two things here: notice that the thing you need, to enter a painting, is imagination. You have to see in your mind’s eye the fair that you can’t actually see in the painting itself, that is before your eyes. That is how you build up that world, and give it life. Then you have to have the road: the painting has, so to speak, to give you an inroad into itself.
As I said, this course is about viewer-response theories, and we already see here two kinds. There are three kinds, really, and perhaps some further subdivisions, but I will only mention two here today. We’ll build on this schema later. When you have viewer response, what do you need? A viewer and a work of art. Viewer response theories can address each one of these poles. Focusing on the viewer, you can see what he or she brings to the encounter, to make the image come alive: what has been called “the beholder’s share.” The imagination, in this case. Now you can study this psychologically (though that shades into the third category, that I don’t want to discuss yet), or you can study it empirically, sociologically. For example, if you want to know how people respond to images, you can do a survey of museum patrons, and see what their backgrounds are, economic, educational, and compare that to which works of art they prefer. This kind of sociological study has been done by a number of German response theorists (perhaps more when studying literature than art), and by a French sociologist named Pierre Bourdieu. I will mention this here, because we won’t be doing much of this kind of analysis in this class.
But, anyway, you have the pole of the viewer, and on the other side of the axis of vision, you have the pole of the artwork itself. And here we talk about formal theories of response; instead of looking at the viewer, we look at how the painting addresses the viewer. How does it invite his or her participation? The painting needs to make itself inviting: to have that road, that meets the bottom side of the frame and therefore seems to continue into the space of the viewer; to have that bridge that crosses the river. (And, notice, that once they magically enter the painting, the kids will go into the depths of the painting across that very bridge, along that road. The drawn bridge becomes an actual bridge in the world of the image. Imagination has to do something with this, too.) So you look at what in the picture itself—in its form, but also in the content—accounts for that address, that invitation. A good example is one-point perspective, through which the painting opens itself up, in depth, and continues the space of the viewer, and also by clearly establishing the axis from the viewer’s eye to the vanishing point, draws him or her into the image, to its very depths—since the vanishing point is at infinity, after all.
So there are formal structures, in the painting, that address the viewer. But also, there are structures of content (though, in most cases here, content and form are not so easy to separate), for example the construction of a pastoral paradise—of a more perfect world—that does the inviting. Because life seems easier there, because everything looks more beautiful there.
Back to the movie.
Bert: “All right, I’ll do it myself.”
Mary: “Do what?”
Bert: “A bit of magic.”
Michael: “A bit of magic?”
Bert: “It’s easy. Let’s see. You think; you wink; you do a double blink; you close your eyes, and jump.”
[They jump onto the painting drawn on the sidewalk.]
Jane: “Is something supposed to happen?”
Mary: “Bert, what utter nonsense. [sighs] Why did you always complicate things that are really quite simple? Give me your hand, please, Michael. Don’t slouch. One, two…”
They fly up in the air, and get smaller at the same time, to be absorbed into the painting.
Maybe this is stretching it. But is the exchange between Mary and Bert, when she says “Why did you always complicate things that are really quite simple?” (and notice that it’s “did,” not “do.” Mary and Bert clearly have more of a history than the movie tells us)—is this exchange about not overthinking, not over-intellectualizing one’s response to the image, so as to be able to be open emotionally to it (which is quite simple, if you don’t think about it too much), to be able to respond to it, make it come to life? Is it an allegory of those times when—because of a depression, bad mood, etc.—we cannot relate to artworks that, in other, less involved mental states, we respond quite readily?
OK, maybe that’s reading too much. We’ll see.
Now they’re in the world of the painting. Notice that, in the painting itself, the colors are brighter, everything is more beautiful, and even they themselves have changed: they are more beautifully dressed, in their Sunday best—they’re more ideal versions of themselves, the best versions of the people they can be. When they’re inside the image.
So, we can build a whole theory out of this. Out of this four-minute scene, on the sidewalk, from a Disney musical.
You have all seen “Mary Poppins,” right? You know what happens next—or, not immediately next, but in the world of the painting, what famous song they sing? “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” of course. It’s part of the magic of that world.
Let’s move on.
What’s interesting is that, if Claude is the painter who most invited these fantasies, of entering his world, from the seventeenth through the ninetenth century, the one who seems to have most done so since the twentieth century has been Van Gogh.
[to be continued...]