The Art of Sight

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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.

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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:

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“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.

To look:
At everything which overflows the outline, the contour, the category, the name of what it is.”

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Joseph Mallord William Turner, Landscape with a river and a Bay in the Distance

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32 Responses to The Art of Sight

  1. AB says:

    Brilliant 🙂

  2. Awesome! thanks for introducing these books here along with your impressions. What you s0 elegantly described about light in many ways influenced the theme of my blog. I look for the light component in art and in nature. Sometimes I am too busy and then I need to slow down.

  3. Don says:

    Wonderful post Monika. I’m always fascinated by the way the shimmering light blurs the line and form in Turners paintings. It’s precisely that which gives so much of his work a kind of mystical and eternal essence. I’ve often wondered how he must have looked at things. Again, thanks Monika – your posts are always such a pleasure to read.

  4. cindy knoke says:

    Brilliant, illuminating post! Thank you~

  5. Berger’s ‘Way of Seeing’ was also made for the BBC in the 1970’s. You can watch the 1st episode here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk

  6. Berger’s ‘Way of Seeing’ was also made for the BBC in the 1970’s. You can watch part one here –

  7. This is just uncanny! I have a half-written “Ways of Seeing” draft in my dreamrly post queue right now! Glad to see we are so in sync! One of my favorite professors in college called it a “required read for any vigilant citizen.”

    I never saw the same again….

  8. And I have to speak out at last about the seductive influence of the aesthetics and the words of this blog!
    Dear Monika,
    I haven’t gotten the chance to contact you earlier, since we have too many struggles here in Greece.
    I have relished every post I read in your divine refuge, and I gratefully received your Like-sparks of appreciation. We have so many interests in common, I deeply resonate with your words and with your spirit, and the way you meander through your themes is enlightening and enthralling to me.
    You are lovingly included in my next post –to be published within the next few days– where I am opening up my heart and explaining a bit about our backgrounds and our lives with Plutonia. Too many harsh realities, I’m afraid, but I hope my always-reaching-for-the-light soul will be leaving an uplifting message of gratitude. I think you will also enjoy my small astrological self-study.
    Thank you, Monika, for all that you are and share.
    Leon

    • Dear Leon,
      That is some comment – thank you so much for all your validation and appreciation. I cannot imagine the struggles you need to face right now in Greece. You must have noticed how deeply I am fascinated by the Greek cultural heritage. Sadly, I have never been to Greece but it is on a short list of countries I must see.
      I am looking forward to your next post.

  9. ptero9 says:

    What a wonderful post Monika! The book sounds fab and like others here, I feel a sense of synchronicity to recent explorations of my own. The senses, or what might be called embodiment, is becoming more prominent in my attempts to understand what psyche wants from me/us. Seeing, as one of the animal senses, is so necessary for us, I think. Like all the senses, hearing, touch, smell, taste, seeing is a primary way we physically experience the world and make soul through relationships to all that reaches us.

    Seeing, in particular is primary as a physical sense, but also as a soul sense. To say, “I see what you’re saying,” might even be said by someone with limited physical sight. Seeing is the first step in perceiving, so if images are primary, as you also suggest here, seeing is a crucial part of something primary, or primal, in us. Seeing though, unlike the other senses, can easily be taken for granted, and so, not felt as deeply, or emotively as say the sense of touch or taste. Seeing has perhaps, a deeper connection to the soul because it seems less or not as physical.

    A while back you and I. if I am remembering correctly, talked a bit about having a curiosity in Jung’s writings about what he called psychoid, the physical, bodily aspect in us where instinct meets psyche. More and more I see the relevance of how we understand and live through the body for soul and what Hillman and Keats called, Soul-making.

    I hope to have some time today to write on the value of bodily sense as it relates to soul.

    Thanks for being inspirational (again).

    Debra

    • To me there is no psyche without embodiment. I feel this realization was a key moment for me.
      Seeing is much wider and deeper than the physiological act, I agree with you. We always seem to SEE things similarly, anyway. And I’m really looking forward to your post.
      Hugs,
      Monika

  10. Great post. Reminded me of a book I read a long time ago (which I still have and am considering rereading now): Huxley’s “The Art of Seeing.” Add it to your list if you have not read it yet.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Art_of_Seeing

  11. Gneiss Moon says:

    Another wonderful post, thank you !

    When I was young (8 yrs old maybe) I remember very clearly reclining on a couch (bored at my babysitters) in a special sitting room staring at a tin ceiling.

    I began to play games with my sight… alternately focusing into and focusing out wide. The result was the ceiling appeared holographic, split into two levels.

    One level was as it appeared in the mundane, just a ceiling – the other was several feet closer to me, a shimmering chimera shifting and moving on a plane with my sight, ready to disappear in an instant.

    Such a strange revelation for one so young, I sensed not everyone could do this. In my 30’s mass market 3D stereograms appeared and proved my point, many people are unable to shift their sight to see them.
    Thank you much for the book recs, will hunt up next library trip !

  12. Pingback: Ways of Seeing | Dreamrly.

  13. I love this post, as I do all of your posts, but this one is particular speaks to me. Perhaps because *seeing* i.e. the world of visuals, is so much of my experience. I think it’s time to reread John Berger comprehensively, who I skimmed many years ago, slowing down when something grabbed my eye. This is a great quote: “We are all visionaries, and what we see is our soul in things,” wrote Henri Amiel in his journal.
    And if one has no ‘image bank’ created by hearing stories/fairy tales/folk tales,songs etc… [connected to touch] when very young, then what? How does one even know how to look? So I think hearing & touch is very much connected to a visual imagination.
    Great post, thanks so very much.

  14. Pingback: It’s April Already? | Terri Patrick's Blog

  15. Mandy says:

    When your heart and thoughts is ready on one thing, you
    will never surrender. You will do whatever it takes to realize it.

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