The Brain-Eye: New Histories of Modern Painting
Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015
Philosophers who have written about visual arts have traditionally not been able to see the works for text only. When Immanuel Kant wrote his aesthetics in the 1790 years, he had little access to visual arts, so the examples he used to substantiate theories he had read only in books. When philosophers first write about art, they tend to be the most "articulated" artists from the canon of modernism. The philosopher Graham Harman recently became embarrassed by Jacques Derrida's seemingly total inability to write about "actual, full blown" objects».
Picturesque thinking. Eric Alliez is also a philosopher, and i The Brain-Eye: New Histories of Modern Painting the whole modernist menagerie is coming up: Eugène Delacroix, Eduard Manet, Paul Seurat, Paul Gaugin and Paul Cézanne. Admittedly, the preface assures the reader that the book does not intend to follow the usual linear and teleological history of modernism, where a group of heroic men break with tradition in the spirit of progress. But even such non-linear readings of modernist art history are gradually old.
But Alliez differs from many of his philosopher colleagues' previous attempts to embrace the art by not only actually describing and analyzing an enormous amount of paintings in depth, but by also seeking to locate a kind of "painterly thinking" that manifests itself in and through pictures.
The painting and science. Eric Alliez earned his doctorate under Gilles Deleuze in the late 1980s, and Deleuze and Guattari have been a turning point for much of his work since. Among other things, he has been editor of the collection The Guattari Effect and wrote the book La Signature du Monde ("World Signature"), which addresses Deleuze and Guattari's recent collaboration What is philosophy? Alliez previously worked at the Vienna Academy of the Arts, and is currently a professor at Kingston University in London.
What it does The Brain-Eye interesting is that the author puts forward a painting's development that takes place in parallel with related studies in science. The book's hypothesis is that painting through the 1900th century was experimental in the same way as the so-called "psychophysical" science, and like this one investigated the relationship between sensation and stimuli. Through readings by Delacroix, Manet, Seurat, Gaugin and Cézanne – both the images and the artists' own texts – Alliez seeks to trace how the major breaks in modernist art history throughout the 1800th century can be understood as "mutations in the relationship between the eye and the brain". Hence the title The Brain-Eye. According to Alliez, this occurs primarily through the use of colors.
Between matter and the eye. Surprisingly, the first protagonist in Alliez's story is no painter at all, but an amateur scientist who, through a vast amount of experiments, tried to understand the phenomenon of color in all its complexity. This is none other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe's color theory was initially intended to be a refutation of Isaac Newton's color theory, which states that white light contains all colors. Rather, Goethe believed that the colors were produced between the matter and the eye, and thus refused to choose between an understanding of color as an inner subjective phenomenon on the one hand and Newton's objectivism on the other. Goethe's research was rejected by science, but influenced several artists who believed that there was something fundamentally correct in his theories that colors were neither i the objects or in the viewer's performance.
The major violations of modernist art history can be understood as "mutations in the relationship between the eye and the brain".
Visual Phenomena. In Delacroix's paintings we can trace a similar insight, writes Alliez: For Delacroix, colors are a medium that exists independently of the objects they characterize. Delacroix's images involved a radical break with the classic painting's use of so-called local colors – colors that were presented as they would appear in ideal lighting, and delimited from the influence of other colors. Delacroix mixes colors and lets objects reflect each other in a kind of "color modulation". In doing so, he further develops the intuition that lay behind Goethe's color theory, for Delacroix paints the visual phenomenon.
The counterpart to Delacroix's colorful experiments is the work of chemist Michel-Eugène Chevrul, who researched color contrasts at the Gobelin plant. Here Alliez gives a good example of the parallel development between science and painting. Chevrul concluded that no colors appear as they really are when placed next to other colors. One of his discoveries was the optical phenomenon called simultaneous contrast, where the color or brightness of colors is influenced by adjacent colors. Curiously enough, Chevrul painters advised against utilizing his own discoveries to enhance the effect of the colors; on the contrary, he urged artists to bond. Of course, they didn't.
The painting as research. The Brain-Eye consists of a series of very precise and sensitive close readings, in which Alliez explains the development of modernist painting as a series of experiments that challenge not only the painting tradition, but also the perception itself. Manet creates an in-depth painting that no longer has the perspective of any viewer, making him "the first of several centuries who have no prejudice against what he sees." Seurat's paintings consist of dots so close to each other that the colors blend on the viewer's retina; thus a technique that corresponds to the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz's principle of the retina understood as a mosaic of photoreceptors.
It is important to emphasize that during this period the artists did not illustrate such scientific theories, but that both science and art evolved into a common cultural background where perceptual boundary phenomena such as dream images and hallucinations were discussed. And this is perhaps the foremost merit of Alliez's book: Painters like Seurat and Cézanne are not presented as heroic characters in an evolutionary art history where the ultimate goal is a liberation of painting from representation; rather, he shows how these artists do their experiments as a kind of researcher who conducts a kind of "psychophysical" science on the canvas. "The canvas is for the painter that the board is for the mathematician – a basis for solving problems," said one contemporary critic about Cézanne. And Alliez adds that there is a thinking in and through painting that philosophy cannot grasp without stepping out of its own domain. IN The Brain-Eye Alliez goes close enough to the surface of the paintings to give an excellent indication of how such picturesque thinking can be written.