Harold Berglund, still life painter, On Vision, seeing
LETTERS ON THE SUBJECT OF SEEING
To Professor Semir Zeki
I am writing in response to your book Inner Vision - An Exploration of Art and The Brain. Actually, I have only read reviews of the book as yet. However, since I too have been exploring the subject for the past twenty years, I wanted to present some of my findings for you, they being from a different point of view.
I am a
painter working primarily with still-life motives. My approach to painting is
based on the later works of Paul Cezanne, and primarily a letter from Cezanne
to Emile Bernard
"... I pursue the realization of that part of nature, which, coming into our line of vision, gives the picture. ... we must render the image of what we see, forgetting everything that existed before us. ... Now, being old, nearly seventy years, the sensations of color, which give light, are the reason for the abstractions which prevent me from either covering my canvas or continuing the delimitation of the objects when their points of contact are fine and delicate; from which it results that my image or picture is incomplete. On the other hand, the planes are placed one on top of the other from whence neo-impressionism emerged, which outlines the contours with a black stroke, a failing which must be fought at all costs. Well, nature when consulted gives us the means of attaining this end. ..."
[Nochlin, Linda. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism 1874-1904 Sources and Documents, Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1966 p. 95 (from John Rewald, ed. Paul Cezannes Letters, trans. Marguerite Kay, London, Bruno Cassirer, 1941)]
My thought when I started was that my eyes are relatively young so I should be able to render what Cezanne's old eyes failed to see. Working from real still-life objects in indirect natural light from one source in the room, I found that the edges of objects and planes were where the colors were the most active while the surfaces affected color relationships on a larger scale. Rendering the edges as accurately as possible leads to the image completion that Cezanne's failing vision prohibited. Also, like Cezanne, I found that the eye saw planes of color. The sizes of these planes are dependent on the rate of color change and their shapes are determined by the interaction of form and light. My goal is beyond illusion. Presenting each nuance as a separate color field, the color "logic" is made apparent for the viewer. Most astonishing is the range and complexity of colors in a portrayal of simple objects, far more than what a photograph can record. It shows what we are able to see if we take the time to look and we realize the quantity of visual experience often disregarded in everyday life.
An anecdote that made me feel a bit of success is when a woman who had seen my paintings stopped in the super market, held up an onion and looked at it a long time, wondering if it really had all the colors I had painted.
I hope you find my work interesting. I am looking forward to reading your book.
To Professor Semir Zeki
I have just finished your book Inner Vision and found it very interesting. As I wrote in my previous letter, I am an artist and have been working for many years with the questions of what one sees of reality and how this can be presented in art. There are several points in which I have a different view from the one presented in the book and I wanted to share these with you.
Your reasoning is built to a large extent on an interpretation of the difference between an artist "seeing with the eye" and "seeing with the brain" where you interpret the former as a passive form of vision and the latter as an active form. What I have learned from art history and from work as an artist is that "seeing with the brain" is the work of creating abstract forms and "seeing with the eye" is when the artist creates a representation of the visual impression of reality. "Brain" artists such as Malevich, Magritte and Picasso worked primarily with ideas using different means to visualize their thoughts in picture form, using pictures as a language to express intellectual or emotional experiences of reality. Their visual sense is used to guide the work process and to evaluate the success in achieving the expression sought after. An "eye" artist such as Monet instead attempts to capture the visual experience of the outer world, using analysis and theory to better render what they see. Their vision is put to a hard test in being able to see and reproduce color nuances. I find it hard to conceive of "passive" seeing and painting "with the eye alone" though there is a difference between Monet's lack of obvious color theory and Seurat's extensively theoretical approach. But the goal of rendering in art what your vision tells you of reality is clearly a different process from expressing a mental construction in artistic form (though there are those who would argue that a still-life painter is really only painting a mental construction as well!).
In working from reality, it is quite a challenge to comprehend what the visual input actually is from what is in front of you. It is a process of analysis and comparison that takes many years of training to be successful. I have found, for example, that in painting a picture of a red vase, only a small area of the canvas will be what is normally called red. Most of the vase will be shades of "red" ranging from deep violet to purple-blue, but also areas that are yellow as well as green. The different colors are the result of light, shadow, and reflection as well as various effects of light on one's vision. Seeing the differences requires being able to see each detail as part of the whole. Despite the wide color range, the casual viewer will look at the painting and see a red vase. In my work, I separate the colors to make it harder to be a casual viewer.
The idea of painting to express the essence or ideal of objects is as foreign to me as it is to many artists, I am sure. We do not paint objects but situations, color-form sensations, in other words, light. Objects are necessary to see light but they are of secondary importance in this art. What I seek is a rendition of color where objects cease to exist except for their roll as light-revealing forms. This is, I believe, what Monet was seeking in painting series of haystacks, cathedrals and water lilies.
What does the viewer experience in looking at such paintings? What is the point of capturing light on a cathedral facade in an oil painting? The work the eye and brain does in comparing and analyzing colors in my paintings is a challenge to the basic human ability to see and analyze color tones, a skill little used in the modern daily life. Exercising this skill gives sensations of excitement, pleasure, and harmony. It is an experience that no other activity gives.
I hope what I have written has been of interest and will be useful in your future work.