Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, “Allegory of Sight”
“We are all visionaries, and what we see is our soul in things,” wrote Henri Amiel in his journal. The psyche presents itself most directly through images. The world we look at is like a cabinet of curiosities: the collection my eyes see is different to what your eyes see. I love the wonderful plethora of objects huddled in this painting: looking at it, I feel dizzy but also excited about discovering an unclassified world of wonders. I believe the true seeing comes from within and what we see reflects the degree of our attunement with the soul. In an extraordinary novel by Jose Saramago called Blindness, the inhabitants of the whole city, except for one woman, become blind. She becomes the soul of the book, the only one who able to see, nurture others and save them.
Like John Berger, a celebrated art critic, I believe that seeing comes first, before words and thoughts. “When in love, the sight of the beloved has a completeness which no words and no embrace can match…,” wrote Berger in his book Ways of Seeing, which I am reading now with great pleasure. It is only when we are in love that we feel what it really means to see and be seen.
Beautiful images have always exerted a very seductive influence on me. In our digital era, we all have equal access to beautiful images. In the painting featured above, we see a collection of objects that once belonged to a rich aristocratic couple. “For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same was as a language surrounds us,” says Berger in the same book. But as we are bombarded by millions of images every day, is our gift of seeing becoming sharper? If all images come to us from without, do we still make the effort to imagine out of the depths of our souls? I want to regain my sense of sight. This is why I am going to work my way through John Berger and his Ways of Seeing and another book by him, under the title The Sense of Sight. In the latter book he meditates on visibility, presenting looking as a profound form of meditation:
“Visibility is a quality of light. Colours are the faces of light. This is why looking is to recognize, enter a whole. … The fact is visibility (inseparable from light) is greater than its categories of measurement (small, big, distant, near, dark, light, blue, yellow, etc.). To look is to rediscover, over and beyond these measurements, the primacy of visibility itself.
The eye intercepts the continual intercourse between light and the surfaces which reflect and absorb it. Separate objects are like isolated words. Meaning is only to be found in the relation between them. What is the meaning to be found in the visible? A form of energy, continually transforming itself.
At everything which overflows the outline, the contour, the category, the name of what it is.”
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Landscape with a river and a Bay in the Distance