Monthly Archives: August 2011

the twisted mass of the visible

The notion that visual art precisely does not parallel the operations of the visual brain, but is rather continually unsettling and refiguring our construction of the visual world is not unique to Carl Einstein—one finds it as early as 1876 in the writings of Conrad Fiedler. “Artistic activity begins,” wrote Fiedler, “when man finds himself fact to face with the visible world as with something immensely enigmatic; when, driven by an inner necessity and applying the powers of his mind, he grapples with the twisted mass of the visible world which presses in upon him and gives it creative form. . . . What art creates is the world, made by and for the artistic consciousness.” This is not a world, Fiedler insists, that existed prior to its realization through art: “What excites artistic activity is that which is as yet untouched by the human mind (Fiedler, On Judging Works of Visual Art, 48-49). In that same year Stephane Mallarmé wrote of impressionism: “the eye should forget all else it has seen, and learn anew from the lesson before it, should abstract itself from memory, seeing only that which it looks upon, and that as for the first time.” This is consistent with how Claude Monet described his practice to Lilla Cabot Perry:

“When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you—a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you . . . until it gives your own naive impression of the scene before you.”

He said he wished he had been born blind and then had suddenly gained his sight so that he could have begun to paint in this way without knowing what the objects were before him.

It is noteworthy that the young Wassily Kandinsky, not yet a painter, experienced bafflement when he saw a Monet Haystack for the first time: “That it was a haystack, the catalogue informed me. I didn’t recognize it. I found this non-recognition painful. . . I had a dull feeling that the object was lacking in this picture.” And yet this strange picture “gripped me” revealing “the unsuspected power of the palette.” There are countless such examples.

In other words, effective visual art does not, as Zeki claims, parallel the operations of the visual brain, which always favor generalized repetition of the previously seen; rather art is continually unsettling and refiguring our construction of the visual world, working against the brain’s reproductive and classificatory operations.

Carl Einstein, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Cubism, and the Visual Brain


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