On the red and visual perception

Adding more footnotes to the diss, this time about Merleau-Ponty’s patterns of the gaze in face recognition, but also more generally about different modes of vision.

Here’s the painting I am writing about:

Beaver Swamp Algoma 1920

Too bad you cannot see the red properly in this reproduction (or, for that matter, in any reproduction of this painting that I have seen, no matter how fancy) – it comes out and becomes alive in person only… Here’s what I wrote:

It has been already mentioned before, that the red of the trees flows, and the eyes of the viewer run with the red. It seems, there is nothing special about the eyes running, they do so most of the time in our everyday life, they follow the lines, glide on surfaces, dance around the details, and so on. Rarely do our eyes slow down to the point of almost stopping, rarely do they sink into the depth, rarely do they stay around the same place for a while, yet, his happens in Beaver Swamp when the eyes attune to the light of the bright spot on the horizon, and it is important, because this shift in motility of the visual field opens up for us a shift in the whole bodily attitude from the usual and familiar running around and dealing with entities, to the attitude that becomes sensitive to background and ground, to the generalities of light and color fields, but with that also to the possibility of sensing out Being and the holy. However, before we can shift into that attitude and that sphere, it is important to feel out and describe the “more usual” attitude and motility that is highlighted in this painting by the flow of the red.

I have named it the “focused vision”. It is already there as a pre-given, “default” way of looking when the eyes start examining the painting from a closer distance. It seems, the “focused vision” never stops and never has enough, trying to study and master the painting to the smallest details, trying to become “at home” in the painting and figure it out as much as possible. Similarly to how the eyes create patterns and “routes” when learning a particular face, and then are able to recognize the face through those patterns[1],they also create, or, rather, discover, the patterns of movement within the artwork, the “routes”which highlight the main features of the space of the artwork, its depths and perspectives, its tensions and regions. These patterns when learned, help the viewer regain some of the familiarity within the space of the artwork established during previous encounters and allow one to feel out and study the other or the subtler aspects of the artwork.

Here in Beaver Swamp, the focused visionfollows the artist’s lines in the artwork: the lines of trunks and of branches, the reds, browns and blacks. It follows the ridge of the top of the forest wall on the horizon, it glides on the surface of the lake in the distance, sometimes moves along the lines of clouds in the sky, it follows up-and-down the trunk of the tree on the right which still has some green foliage left on it, and it “checks” the green in passing. The focused vision loves to pass, it loves to follow, to slide, to move, and not just to move, but also to move on, to be always on the move, in motion. It likes details, and readily dances around them for a bit. It likes what is definite, de-fined, particular.[2] The favorite route though is going upwards from the red at the bottom of the trees on the left side of the artwork curving in a half-circle along the longest red branch that is pointing to the white spot in the middle of the horizon, hanging there and back horizontally a bit, but unable to hold on to anything there moving back to the red area where it has started, and doing the movement all over again. This movement draws on the textures and shapes in the painting, on branches and trunks, on browns and blacks. It is, however, the red that really fuels the circular run of the eyes and makes it repeat. It is the red, that attracts the eyes towards those branches again and again as only red could attract, and it is the red that actually “runs” through this movement, taking the viewer along.


[1] Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception gives us an amazing phenomenological description of how our gaze recognizes a face, which he concludes: “To see a face is not to conceive the idea of a certain law of constitution to which the object invariably conforms throughout all its possible orientations, it is to take a certain hold upon it, to be able to follow on its surface a certain perceptual route with its ups and downs, and one just as unrecognizable taken in reverse as the mountain up which I was so recently toiling and down which I an now striding my way.” (PhP 253 old)

[2] It is important to stress, that the “focused vision” is indeed geared into “particularities” – the lines, the figures, the “entities”, while the “background vision”, which is created in the painting by the light of the bright spot on the horizon, is attuning the viewer to the color fields and light, so to “generalities” rather than “particularities”. As we will see towards the end of this chapter, the “background vision” has a completely different style and manner of movement, to the point that we could perhaps even call it the vision of stillness, and it is one of the main perceptual entries for us into developing a sense of the different bodily attitude, the one which is sensitive to background and field, rather than figure and line, “generality” as opposed to “particularity”, and so which bring us closer to is feeling out in perceptual and motor ways being rather then only entities.

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