from Eye and Mind – Maurice Merleau-Ponty

The entire modern history of painting, with its efforts to detach itself from illusionism and to acquire its own dimensions, has a metaphysical significance. This is not something to be demonstrated. Not for reasons drawn from the limits of objectivity in history and from the inevitable plurality of interpretations, which would prevent the linking of a philosophy and an event; the metaphysics we have in mind is not a body of detached ideas [idees separees] for which inductive justifications could be sought in the experiential realm. There are, in the flesh of contingency, a structure of the event and a virtue peculiar to the scenario. These do not prevent the plurality of interpretations but in fact are the deepest reasons for this plurality. They make the event into a durable theme of historical life and have a right to philosophical status. In a sense everything that could have been said and that will be said about the French Revolution has always been and is henceforth within it, in that wave which arched itself out of a roil of discrete facts, with its froth of the past and its crest of the future. And it is always by looking more deeply into how it came a bout that we give and will go on giving new representations of it. As for the history of art works, if they are great, the sense we give to them later on has issued from them. It is the work itself that has opened the field from which it appears in another light. It changes itself and becomes what follows; the interminable reinterpretations to which it is legitimately susceptible change it only in itself And if the historian unearths beneath its manifest content the surplus and thickness of meaning, the texture which held the promise of a long history, {his active manner of being, then, this possibility he unveils in the work, this monogram he finds there – all are grounds for a philophical meditation. But such a labour demands a long familiarity with history. We lack everything for its execution, both the competence and the place. Just the same, since the power or the fecundity of art works exceeds every positive causal or filial relation, there is nothing wrong with letting a layman, speaking from his memory of a few paintings and books, tell us how painting enters into his reflections; how painting deposits in him a feeling of profound discordance, a feeling of mutation within the relations of man and Being. Such feelings arise in him when he holds a universe of classical thought, en bloc, up against the explorations [recherches] of modern painting. This is a sort of history by contact, perhaps, never extending beyond the limits of one person, owing everything nevertheless to his frequen-tation of others. . . .

‘I believe Cezanne was seeking depth all his life’, says Giacometti. Says Robert Pelaunay, ‘Depth is the new inspiration.’ Four centuries after the ‘solutions’ of the Renaissance and three centuries after Descartes, depth is still new, and it insists on being sought, not ‘once in a lifetime’ but all through life. It cannot be merely a question of an unmysterious interval, as seen from an aeroplane, between these trees nearby and those farther away. Nor is it a matter of the way things are conjured away one by another, as we see happen so vividly in a perspective drawing. These two views are very explicit and raise no problems. The enigma, though, lies in their bond, in what is between them. The enigma consists in the fact that I see things, each one in its place, precisely because they eclipse one another, and that they are rivals before my sight precisely because each one is in its own place. Their exteriority is known in their envelopment and their mutual dependence in their autonomy. Once depth is understood in this way, we can no longer call it a third dimension. In the first place, if it were a dimension, it would be the first one; there are forms and definite planes only if it is stipulated how far from me their different parts are. But a first dimension that contains all the others is no longer a dimension, at least in the ordinary sense of a certain relationship according to which we make measurements. Depth thus understood is, rather, the experience of the reversibility of dimensions, of a global ‘locality’ – everything in the same place at the same time, a locality from which height, width, and depth are abstracted, of a voluminosity we express in a word when we say that a thing is there. In search of depth Cezanne seeks this deflagration of Being, and it is all in the modes of space, in form as much as anything. Cezanne knows already what cubism will repeat: that the external form, the envelope, is secondary and derived, that it is not that which causes a thing to take form, that this shell of space must be shattered, this fruit bowl broken – and what is there to paint, then? Cubes, spheres, and cones (as he said once)? Pure forms which have the solidity of what could be defined by an internal law of construction, forms which all together, as traces or slices of the thing, let it appear between them like a face in the reeds? This would be to put Being’s solidity on one side and its variety on the other. Cezanne made an experiment of this kind in his middle period. He opted for the solid, for space – and came to find that inside this space, a box or container too large for them, the things began to move, colour against colour; they began to modulate in instability. Thus we must seek space and its content as together. The problem is generalized; it is no longer that of distance, of line, of form; it is also, arid equally, the problem of colour.

Colour is the ‘place where our brain and the universe meet’, he says in that admirable idiom of the artisan of Being which Klee liked to cite. It is for the benefit of colour that we must break up the form-spectacle. Thus the question is not of colours, ‘simulacra of the colours of nature’ [Delaunay]. The question, rather, concerns the dimension of colour, that dimension which creates identities, differences, a texture, a materiality, a something – creates them from itself, for itself. . . .

Yet (and this must be emphasized) there is no one master key of the visible, and colour alone is no closer to being such a key than space is. The return to colour has the merit of getting somewhat nearer to ‘the heart of things’ [Klee], but this heart is beyond the colour envelope just as it is beyond the space envelope. The Portrait of Vallier sets white spaces between the colours which take on the function of giving shape to, and setting off a being, more general than the yellow-being or green-being or blue-being. Also in the water-colours of Cezanne’s last years, for example, space (which had been taken to be evidence itself and of which it was believed that the question of where was not to be asked) radiates around planes that cannot be assigned to any place at all . . .

Obviously it is not a matter of adding one more dimension to those of the flat canvas, of organizing an illusion or an objectless perception whose perfection consists in simulating an empirical vision to the maximum degree. Pictorial depth (as well as painted height and width) comes ‘I know not whence’ to alight upon, and take root in, the sustaining support. The painter’s vision is not a view upon the outside, a merely ‘physical-optical’ [Klee] relation with the world. The world no longer stands before him through representation; rather, it is the painter to whom the things of the world give birth by a sort of concentration or coming-to-itself of the visible. Ultimately the painting relates to nothing at all among experienced things unless it is first of all ‘autofigurative’. 1 It is a spectacle of something only by being a ‘spectacle of nothing’, 2 by breaking the ‘skin of things’ 3 to show how the things become things, how the world becomes world. Apollinaire said that in a poem there are phrases which do not appear to have been created, which seem to have formed themselves. And Henri Michaux said that sometimes Klee’s colours seem to have been born slowly upon the canvas, to have emanated from some primordial ground, ‘exhaled at the right place’ 4 like a patina or a mould. Art is not construction, artifice, meticulous relationship to a space and a world existing outside. It is truly the ‘inarticulate cry’, as Hermes Trismegistus said, ‘which seemed to be the voice of the light.’ And once it is present it awakens powers dormant in ordinary vision, a secret of pre-existence. When through the water’s thickness I see the tiling at the bottom of a pool, I do not see it despite the water and the reflections there; I see it through them and because of them. If there were no distortions, no ripples of sunlight, if it were without this flesh that I saw the geometry of the tiles, then I would cease to see it as it is and where it is – which is to say, beyond any identical, specific place. I cannot say that the water itself – the aqueous power, the sirupy and shimmering element – is in space; all this is not somewhere else either, but it is not in the pool. It inhabits it, it materializes itself there, yet it is not contained there; and if I raise my eyes towards the screen of cypresses where the web of reflections is playing, I cannot gainsay the fact that the water visits it, too, or at least sends into it, upon it, its active and living essence. This internal animation, this radiation of the visible is what the painter seeks under the name of depth, of space, of colour.

Anyone who thinks about the matter finds it astonishing that very often a good painter can also make good drawings or good sculpture. Since neither the means of expression nor the creative gestures are comparable, this fact [of competence in several media] is proof that there is a system of equivalences, a Logos of lines, of lighting, of colours, of reliefs, of masses – a conceptless presentation of universal Being. The effort of modern painting has been directed not so much towards choosing between line and colour, or even between the figuration of things and the creation of signs, as it has been towards multiplying the systems of equivalences, towards severing their adherence to the envelope of things. This effort might force us to create new materials or new means of expression, but it could well be realized at times by the re-examination and reinvestment of those which existed already.

* * *

Because depth, colour, form, line, movement, contour, physiognomy are all branches of Being and because each one can sway all the rest, there are no separated, distinct ‘problems’ in painting, no really opposed paths, no partial ‘solutions’, no cumulative progress, no irretrievable options. There is nothing to prevent a painter from going back to one of the devices he has shied away from – making it, of course, speak differently. [. . .]

In ‘working over’ a favourite problem, even if it is just the problem of velvet or wool, the true painter unknowingly upsets the givens of all the other problems. His quest is total even where it looks partial. Just when he has reached proficiency in some area, he finds that he has reopened another one where everything he said before must be said again in a different way. The upshot is that what he has found he does not yet have. It remains to be sought out; the discovery itself calls forth still further quests. The idea of a universal painting, of a totalization of painting, of a fully and definitively achieved painting is an idea bereft of sense. For painters the world will always be yet to be painted, even if it lasts millions of years … it will end without having been conquered in painting.

Panofsky shows that the ‘problems 1 of painting which magnetize its history are often solved obliquely, not in the course of inquiries instigated to solve them but, on the contrary, at some point when the painters, having reached an impasse, apparently forget those problems and permit themselves to be attracted by other things. Then suddenly, altogether off guard, they turn up the old problems and surmount the obstacle. This unhearing [sourde] historicity, advancing through the labyrinth by detours, transgression, slow encroachments and sudden drives, does not imply that the painter does not know what he wants. It does imply that what he wants is beyond the means and goals at hand and commands from afar all our useful activity.


Originally published as I’Oeil et L’esprif in Art de France, vol. 1, no. 1, Paris, January 1961.

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