Today’s sermon: Seeing with Poussin’s eyes

This may be one of the most embarrassingly obvious aesthetic observations every made, but it occurred to me, the other night, as I enjoyed a late viewing at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, that to stand in front of a painting of a certain type – of a certain size and scale – is to become intimate with the artist in a very particular way. It is, and I gawped at myself as I thought this, to see with their eyes.

The gallery was quiet, I was there to see the Hockney prints, but took advantage of the near-total absence of people (not least children, not least my own children) to wander rooms I knew well, but at my own pace, and without distraction.

I was looking at a Poussin – it doesn’t really matter which one – and it occurred to me that I was standing in relation to it exactly as he had stood to paint it. It felt like my gaze was caught in some spectral zone, that my eyes were haunted by his, commanded by his, and that I was seeing what he had seen, centuries ago.

Can I explain this thought? Or rather: can I explain the feeling that it was somehow important?

It wouldn’t happen with music. It wouldn’t happen with prose, or poetry, or drama, or film, or dance – or even, really, sculpture.

To create the painting, the artist would have had to stand in relation to the canvas exactly where I was standing. When he lifted the brush the first time, he was standing where I stood. To see what he had created, and decide it was finished, ditto.

The intellectual thrill I got from this went far beyond seeing, for instance, the manuscript of On The Road, or the room where so-and-so wrote such-and-such, or the typewriter or desk they wrote it on. That stuff has always interested me not at all. This is something particular to painting, and painting of a certain type; to a canvas that is laid on an easel to be painted, and then hung on a wall to be looked at. That small, that intimate.

It didn’t happen with the Hockneys – the mode of fabrication was different. He didn’t stand, tense, waiting, looking, waiting to act, in front of those works.

It didn’t happen, a few days later, with Helen Frankenhalter, at Turner Contemporary – they were made differently, too – laid out on the floor, like Pollocks. She didn’t see them as I saw them, when she was making them.

It didn’t happen, also, my wife pointed out, with the Canelettos at Dulwich – the distance you have to stand at to look at them is different from the distance he would have stood at to paint them.

So it’s about distance, and the way that paintings have of commanding a certain area of space in front of them. In his superb book The Sight of Death, TJ Clark writes that:

pictures create viewing positions – don’t we know that already? Yes, roughly we do; but we have only crude and schematic accounts of how they create them, and even cruder discussions of their effects – that is, of how the positions and distances are or are not modes of seeing, modes of understanding, intertwined with the events and objects they apply to.

He also writes:

I think the idea of a good picture being visible from a determinate distance, at which or from which its actions and entities make ethical sense – I think this holds good.

I’m not sure about the ethics of the painting I was looking at – I can’t even really remember which painting it was – and in any case it wasn’t the painting itself that held me, its content or its form, but the act of looking, of there being form and content there for me to find.

Obviously this is about time, too. The miraculous persistence of the object, over the centuries, carrying its meaning, or at least its signifying ability, all for us to see, today, and make meaning of. But it was the strange trigonometry of my two eyes and the canvas that held me. I was seeing what he saw. He was making me see it. I was haunted.

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