So, puss, I shall know you another time

Peter Campbell

  • The World through Blunted Sight by Patrick Trevor-Roper
    Allen Lane, 207 pp, £16.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 7139 9006 6
  • Visual Fact over Verbal Fiction by Carl Goldstein
    Cambridge, 244 pp, £40.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 521 34331 3
  • Hockney on Photography: Conversations with Paul Joyce
    Cape, 192 pp, £25.00, October 1988, ISBN 0 224 02484 1
  • Portrait of David Hockney by Peter Webb
    Chatto, £17.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3401 1

Evolution does a wonderful job on eyes. In the matter of seeing in dim light, for example, we are not just supplied with a good tool, but with the very best the system – the rest of the body – will allow. A recent paper in Nature describes work on human and toad perception. Humans are very sensitive – a dozen or so photons are enough to trigger dim sensation; but toads will make a strike at a moving target at light levels where humans can see nothing. The best explanation of the difference between ourselves and toads seems to lie in our higher blood temperature. This sets the level of random change in the photoreceptor molecules – the level of background ‘noise’ – which in turn determines the level below which seeing is impossible.

An imaging system with a specification as advanced as this is intolerant. If the ratio of arm length to height varies by a few per cent nothing very serious follows, but an eyeball which is a little too long prevents the focusing of distant objects and one which is a little too short makes close ones blurred. Short and long sight are the first disabilities which Patrick Trevor-Roper discusses in The World through Blunted Sight, his newly-revised exploration of the effect of eye-defects on personality, art and literature. He endorses T. Rice’s epitomes of short and long-sighted personalities which, made some sixty years ago when the climate was more favourable to psychological determinism, are still cogent, if comical summaries.

The long-sighted, Rice suggests, are likely to be outgoing, socially adept, lazy and inattentive at lessons, caring little for books or fine detail, but also ‘tanned, masculine, very aggressive, and likely to be a devil with the women’. The short-sighted (a sixth of the population) will tend to be swots, to have no taste for the theatre, to be quick to notice error in class (and therefore unpopular), and will get ‘the reputation of a know-it-all and a grind’.

A recurring problem for Trevor-Roper is to determine how far such stereotypes, derived from clinical observation or test statistics, relate to individual character and performance. He is at pains to point out that eyesight never explains everything, and often explains very little, but as pathology gives access to good quantitative evidence – sometimes preserved very precisely in spectacle lenses – of the degree and kind of eye-defect suffered by men and women whose work and character is well-known, it offers a particularly valuable test of medical determinism. Assuming that most people chose spectacles which were reasonably efficient (Trevor-Roper does not say how accurate he believes early prescriptions were) and that not too many heirs followed Mrs Holman Hunt, who changed the concave lenses of her husband’s spectacles for convex ones to conceal his myopia from posterity, a spectrum of close to long-lookers can be drawn up: Hindenburg (+4.5D), Edward Gibbon (+4.37D), Martin Luther (+3.0D), Bismarck (−3.0D), Schopenhauer (−3.5D), Schubert (−3.75D), Beethoven (−4.0D), Gregor Mendel (−4.5D), Marie Antoinette (−4.0D), Goethe (−6.0D). The figures represent dioptres, which express the strength of spectacle lenses: minus when concave to correct myopia and plus when convex for hypermetropia. Very strong glasses for the 3 per cent of the population who are very shortsighted reach – 20D or more. Most spectacle lenses are less than 5D in strength.

Thinking about the differences in individual sensory worlds is salutary. Imagine, for example, the myope’s world, limited to a blurred sphere a few metres across, in which the details of close things are seen in microscopic detail. Trevor-Roper quotes an eye-surgeon saying: ‘But you don’t understand, we myopes are different people.’ Yet the most striking conclusion one draws from this book is that language, and even visual art, disguise more disabilities than they display. That a painter is colour-blind or a writer blind is not immediately evident from their work, and if this is the case at the extremes, other differences (which are, moreover, often corrected by spectacles) should be even harder to identify in writing or painting.

Correction has a long history. With the invention of writing, and even more of printing, presbyopia, the long-sightedness which develops in middle life as the ageing eye has progressive difficulty in focusing became a real disability. Although it is difficult to be certain when cheap glasses first became available on a regular basis, a few bits of evidence – the record of 1151 pairs being imported through Port of London in 1384, for example – suggest that the literate were less often cut off from books by bad sight than by vanity. Pepys only found relief when allowed in old age to use the glasses which had been denied him earlier as ‘unsuitable for a young man’; and in Johnson’s account, the wilful refusal of optical amelioration was the prime cause of Swift’s self-isolation. ‘Having thus excluded conversation, and desisted from study, he had neither business nor amusement; for having by some ridiculous resolution or made vow, determined never to wear spectacles, he could make little use of books in his later years: his ideas, therefore, being neither renovated by discourse, nor increased by reading, wore gradually away, and left his mind vacant to the vexations of the hour, till at last his anger was heightened into madness.’ But cases like that of Monet, who preferred a blurred world, suggest that vanity cannot account for all coyness about seeking obvious remedies. There are positive aspects to the creative effort which goes into resolving what is dim, blurred or fragmentary.

Trevor-Roper is careful to isolate logical flaws when looking at the possible effects of ‘blunted’ vision and spontaneous and drug-induced hallucinations on poetic imagery and on form and colour in painting. If the world of the astigmatic is drawn out in a Greco-ish way one would expect the same astigmatic’s drawings automatically to correct the distortion. (El Greco himself was a mannerist – about his eyesight we know nothing.) Trevor-Roper shows that this is partly, but only partly true. A preference among short-sighted poets for descriptions of detail and tactile imagery could doubtless be tested statistically; more usefully, writers with a visual handicap may be stimulated to stretch the connotations of words. Trevor-Roper quotes Tennyson’s ‘the wrinkled sea beneath him crawls’ as an example of short-sighted imagery, and the translation by the blind poet W.H. Coates of a stanza from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound shows how distant visual phenomena can be described in close physical terms:

The point of one white star is quivering still
Deep in the orange light of widening morn

becomes

One cold metallic grain is quivering still
Deep in the flood of warm ethereal fluid.

The fact that a blind poet could make the translation suggests that the problem was not one of understanding, but of giving a non-seeing reader a poem of the same emotional warmth (but not, to be sure, colour) as the original. In the world of the totally blind, Trevor-Roper writes, the subject tends to either reduce large things to touchable size or to project himself into the scene. Thus one blind man described his attempt to visualise a battle by way of a puppet show – the battleship bathtub-size, the attacking plane being followed with cupped hands, ‘as I might the flight of a wasp’. Another, describing the same scene, said he did not conceive the whole thing at all, but broke it up into its component parts: ‘me on the bridge, me in a turret, me walking along a corridor below the waterline.’ But despite the fact that the blind are cut off from imagery of colour, space and distance, verbal communication between the blind and the sighted is astonishingly unconfused. The fact that the blind can, on one level, understand Shelley, but on another feel the need to make a translation, suggests that when the meanings of one statement are mapped in two minds very large gaps may be left which cannot be detected by mere lexical unpacking. Trevor-Roper’s discussion of what the blind or partially-sighted know and see, and say about what they know and see, makes questions about the relation of meaning to language strikingly concrete.

Because the eyeball is so camera-like it is hard to understand how much sorting must be done before the mind ‘sees’ the retinal image, and to appreciate fully the obvious fact that we do not, in any sense, look ‘at’ our own retinas. Accounts by blind people who have gained or regained sight show how little is conveyed by the unprocessed retinal image (the image which tonal painters have, through dis-education, learned to re-create). In an account of his early impressions of the visible world given in 1728 to the eye surgeon William Cheselden, one patient, a young man, said that ‘when he first saw, he was so far from making any judgment about distances, that he thought all objects whatever touch’d his eyes (as he express’d it) as what he felt did his skin, and thought no objects so agreeable as those which were smooth and regular, though he could form no judgment of their shape, or guess what it was in any object that was pleasing to him. He knew not the shape of anything, nor any one thing from another, however different in shape or magnitude ... but upon being told what things were, whose form he before knew from feeling, he would carefully observe, that he might know them again ... having often forgot which was the cat, and which the dog he was asham’d to ask; but catching a cat which he knew by feeling, he was observed to look at her steadfastly, and then setting her down, said. So, puss, I shall know you another time.’ Older, less well-motivated patients are, not surprisingly, sometimes unwilling to tackle the strenous business of learning to see, and remain ‘behaviourally blind’ even when they can see quite well.

The ability to call up and transcribe the retinal image is like Luria’s memory-man’s too-total recall, a skill which suggests the suppression or short-circuiting of higher-level sorting mechanisms. It is to the point that linear perspective was mastered not, as might have seemed easier, by plotting an image in relation to a grid of threads (using the kind of device shown in Dürer’s famous woodcut of the artist and model), but by a feat of mathematical abstraction. It was a proof, like Muybridge’s series of photographs of a galloping horse which showed that at no time were all four hooves off the ground simultaneously, that seeing is indeed believing, and that some beliefs will prove false.

Once a kind of representation which was to some degree ‘photographic’ became the norm, formally innovative painters began to produce work for which an analogue can very often be found in accounts of damaged sight or drug-induced visions. Paintings (and, indeed, doctored photographs) which resemble the fringes induced by migraine headaches, the blurred vision of the short-sighted, the colour changes brought about by cataract or colour blindness, the distortions of astigmatism, opium dreams and LSD-intensified colour perception, can all be pointed to. Some are directly derived from distortions of vision, some not. Viewed in this light, the history of modern painting can be read as a set of transformations of ‘normal’ images which bear a close resemblance to the effects of faulty sight.

The blurs, distortions, mistings-over, narrowings and fragmentations of vision which follow from mechanical failures like distortion of the eyeball and damage to the retina may isolate, depress and disturb. The blind are, however (and particularly in contrast to the deaf), at a social advantage. ‘The blind man,’ Trevor-Roper writes, ‘tends to become increasingly responsive, since his whole orientation depends on constant communication with his fellows; should he start as an intelligent introvert, this secondary extroversion that he accomplishes may yield a personality-amalgam approaching the ideal.’

Hidden within the fear of blindness, and the revulsion caused by the thought of damage to the eye, there is a contrary desire to escape from the tyranny of appearances and the responses which appearance mediates. Democritus of Adbera, Trevor-Roper tells us, ‘eviscerated his eyes so that he might think more clearly, and this was the practice of some of the muezzins, who, after learning the Koran by heart, thus ensured that they could not be distracted by beauty.’ When, in H.G. Wells’s story ‘The Country of the Blind’, the inhabitants’ sensitive fingers find the twitching evidence of sight in the hero’s eye sockets, they plan to blind him, to protect him from the evils of sensory over-endowment. Yeats not wanting his daughter’s beauty to be such as would make a ‘stranger’s eye distraught’, or the child that is beaten because its eyes are too close together, or the fat man who reaches out for another unnecessary piece of cheese, all have reason to complain of the power of sight, above all other senses, as the occasion of actions which, however rationalised, have irrational roots.

Trevor-Roper’s anatomy of unclear sight is, like Burton’s anatomy of melancholy, compendious. Although his book, unlike Burton’s, is a short one, it shares with such 17th-century treatises an interest in arguments which illuminate by the richness of the evidence adduced and which move easily from scientific fact to psychological probability and literary example. Innovative artists are, metaphorically, people who see things differently; the fact that they sometimes literally see things differently is (as Trevor-Roper frequently cautions) usually marginal to their achievement. But thinking about what are (again literally) different ways of seeing brings into focus oddities which arise when an evolved optical system of exquisite refinement is married to a dangerously over-engineered brain. The picture is stranger than I thought.

Carl Goldstein is concerned with a kind of distortion which affects, not the world, but works of art. How are we to see pictures ‘made in the more or less distant past’? His subjects are the Carracci – Lodovico and his cousins Annibale and Agostino, who worked in the latter part of the 16th century in Bologna and Rome. Reynolds’s second Discourse gives a notion of how high their reputation stood in 18th-century England (he is addressing the students of the Royal Academy School):

It is not an easy task to point out those various excellencies for your imitation which lie distributed amongst the various schools. I will, therefore, at present only recommend a model for Stile in Painting ... Stile in painting is the same as in writing, a power over materials, whether words or colours, by which conceptions or sentiments are conveyed. And in this Lodovico Carrache (I mean in his best works) appears to me to approach the nearest to perfection. His unaffected breadth of light and shadow, the simplicity of colouring, which holding its proper rank does not draw aside the least part of the attention from the subject, and the solemn effect of that twilight which seems diffused over his pictures, appear to me to correspond with grave and dignified subjects better than the more artificial brilliancy of sunshine which enlightens the pictures of Titian.

Learning by imitation and constructing a painting to achieve a calculated emotional effect is so alien to our present temper that I suspect the Counter-Reformation spirituality of the altar-pieces Reynolds admired, and even Annibale’s complex and immensely accomplished decorative scheme in the Farnese Palace, can win from most of us more admiration and intellectual respect than hair-rising-on-the-back-of-the-neck excitement. However, their programmatic complexity and the richness of visual reference make them prime subjects for art history. Indeed, one of the implications of Goldstein’s book is that they are only truly accessible that way. To approach the work of the Carracci ‘merely as artifacts appealing to the senses’ you ‘would have to underestimate their ambitions’. But to overestimate their knowledge of and interest in (for example) the laws of optics and aesthetic theory would be to ‘sidetrack an investigation’ and lead to ‘a misapprehension’ of the nature of the Carracci reform. Goldstein examines, as others have, the meanings which can be given to the general thesis that the Carracci ‘altered the course of Italian painting’ by re-opening it to the influence of Classical and High Renaissance sources. What he says about eclecticism (that the term applies to the Carracci), and about the tenets of Renaissance biography (that both conventional and quasi-fictional elements can express truths and co-exist with sound factual information) is a challenge to some art historians.

In the present context all one can say is that many of the differences which divide Goldstein from his colleagues seem to have to do with interpretation, not facts, and will not be much affected by his re-examination of the sources. The last words in his book – ‘a study of visual art should examine, before all else, the visual facts’ – begs the question of what a visual fact is. That the interest and enthusiasm the Carracci arouse in art historians has not yet had much effect on the common sensibility is, for example, a visual fact, or at least a fact about visual response. When responses change, the change seems to owe rather little to effortful historical intelligence. Readers may wonder whether the aim of seeing these pictures as their contemporaries saw them is relevant. The art of the past is renewed through its relevance to modern sensibilities. The late 19th-century interest in Velazquez had more to do with Manet and what he stood for than with a better understanding of the 17th-century context, and the Japanese influence on European painting and the African influence on 20th-century sculpture took no account at all of the context in which the works were produced.

Goldstein’s illustrations of Carracci drawings provide a sample of ways of transcribing things seen and things imagined. He uses them, in particular, as evidence for the statements in early sources that the Carracci were the first to introduce the regular practice of life drawing. He contrasts their figure drawings with those of their predecessors, and his case for saying that very few High Renaissance drawings were done from life, or at least that life drawing took on a new function, seems to me well made. Here the visual facts do tell. The relationship between drawing and looking, which Trevor-Roper makes one think about, is such that, while drawings made from life may look as though they were made from the imagination, drawings from the imagination hardly ever have the qualities of drawings done from life. The architectural and perspective drawings are evidence of the things – seen, copied and imagined – which were tossed into the stewpot. (Bernini – and Goldstein says it was praise – compared Annibale’s art to a stew.) The art historian enjoys identifying the ingredients of the stew, but to eyes brought up on single flavours – which grow stronger as the handwriting of individual genius comes to be more highly valued – the Carracci mixture either seems over-articulated, or when the evidence is sublimated by those skills Reynolds admired so much, too generalised in feeling.

One reverts to the kind of considerations Trevor-Roper’s book encourages. Two contrasting modes of representation are present among the Carracci drawings: on the one hand, the transcription of what is glanced at (patches of tone or colour, no one group of which is strictly a nose or eye, but which collectively translate into a face); and on the other, the construction of meaningful shapes (the oval with marks which stand uniquely for nose and eye). When the life drawing is transformed into a figure in a history painting one mode becomes the basis for the other. The source of the unease which, despite the best efforts of art historians, much 17th-century painting in the grand manner produces in modern eyes may lie in perceptual as well as in cultural embarrassment.

A laconic note from David Hockney prefaces Paul Joyce’s conversations with him. It ends: ‘My photographer friends said it wasn’t really photography but painting. I’m not so sure, but I think that’s where I’d like to leave it.’ Whether it is ‘it’ the work or ‘it’ the discussion, there are reasons to agree with him. Hockney’s ‘joiners’ – multiple images made up of many small ones pasted together – are only ‘not photography’ in uninteresting ways, and the interesting things to be said about them are not affected by their status as specifically photographic art. But one can also feel that there is no need for many more of them, or at least that the joiner technique becomes intrusive, driving out other interest and meaning. There is one showing Annie Liebowitz preparing to photograph Hockney in the snow. Hockney tells how he tried to convince Liebowitz, who made her reputation with portrait assignments for Rolling Stone, that she, too, should do joiners. They worried her because ‘they had extended the limitations and she was now working under some artificial limitations.’ But she also felt that they were his style. To copy the technique would be unoriginal. For Hockney, joining is a discovery – like perspective; for her, it is also a trademark. A possible comparison is with Pointillism. It was too obviously a technical ruse to become a mode of picture-making anyone could pick up without feeling parasitic, but, like the joiners, it is effective at the perceptual level.

The most remarkable effect of joiners (all of them, not just Hockney’s, which suggests that he is right to a degree about this being a discovery not a mannerism) is, as he puts it, ‘that you can go on and on looking at them, which is unusual with photographs. However good the photograph it doesn’t haunt you in the way that a painting can. A good painting has real ambiguities which you never get to grips with.’ The eye lights first on one photograph, then on another. Because the alignments and convergences which the brain uses to set up spatial reference points are in conflict, the composite image works like an optical illusion, offering more than one possible solution. You go on looking for a resolution. Some music works in much the same way – holding the attention by building and disappointing expectation. This aspect of the joiners is suggestive art-historically. Perhaps Cubism, which seems to give the eye a very similar set of conflicting spatial instructions, works in a similar way, giving the brain the pleasure and excitement of sorting out fugal spatial instructions, rather as Impressionism gives it the pleasure of interpreting blurred images. Some of the most delicious of the images are consciously cubist – for example, the rectangular chest of drawers splayed out so that top, front and sides can all be seen. The images combine with Hockney’s comments on photography, other painters – Picasso in particular – and the business of being a painter to produce practical criticism which is part pictures, part words. But the recorded interviews which make up the text should have been edited. You can say things which you would not write, and Hockney’s sharpness and intelligence deserve to be de-chatted. Joyce is an eager intrusive interviewer, and the discipline of excising his own comments might have improved the book by removing passages like: ‘Wendy Brown came back and said: you’ve got to see that, it’s the most interesting thing that’s happened in photography for years. So we got straight in the car. And I must have told half a dozen people, key people ... ’

Peter Webb’s ‘portrait’ is, like one of Hockney’s own coloured-pencil drawings of his friends, a mixture of the objective and the flattering. Hockney’s life, from his time at the Royal College to the present day, has been easy to publicise. His pictures look particularly good on the printed page and his comments are funny and interesting. His high public profile leaves the biographer little to reveal except more detail; much of what Webb writes is an expansion and correction of what is already a well-known story.

Only a few painters – or photographers, like Lartigue – can match Hockney’s attention to the passing detail of his own life. Webb’s book captions his pictures. Almost every paragraph puts a drawing or painting of a friend, lover, hotel room or pool in context, giving details of time and place, of who else was there and of how relations stood between them. Because of this, they look a little different – more overtly homosexual, for example – but the question of whether Hockney is a serious painter, and whether that matters, is as open as ever. Webb quotes Hockney’s opinion that Picasso had a greater emotional range than Matisse – who ‘couldn’t paint a family with tenderness, which Picasso could do’. Hockney’s own limited emotional range has, Webb suggests, led him to offer ‘a hedonistic view of the world at the expense of real passion’. ‘At the same time,’ he adds, ‘one can see the very positive use made of irony and humour.’ That seems fair, and, one would have thought, enough. Hockney is a popular painter, and pleased to be. The accusation that his work is merely entertaining and lacks weight is, in the face of the quantity and variety of three decades’ worth, less easy to make than it was. So one can argue that Hockney should not have been hurt by Robert Hughes’s description of him as ‘the Cole Porter of modern art’. He has been true to his talent, which is great, and avoided boredom for himself and his audience by turning to photography, computer graphics or Picasso when a line of development did not seem to be leading to anything new.

Perhaps his work changes rather than grows; his modes of drawing (rapidograph mono-line, softly shaded pencil and so on) seem alternatives, rather than a single enterprise gaining authority with time. He is England’s favourite painter, and his appearance on the guest-list of the Thatcher-Reagan farewell banquet suggests that he is willing to be seen as British Art’s official representative. Henry Moore was once the Establishment’s chosen man for that role: his sculptures, which suggested ancient hills and showed fallen warriors and kings and queens, fitted in rather well with the image of an old country which could still innovate. Hockney’s blond boys, pools and views of the Hollywood Hills are appropriate now. He is a painter of good times, the right official image-maker for those who say that is what we are having.