The Artist's Eyes: Vision and the History of Art

Alex Danchev on a clear-sighted, but narrowly focused, study

January 7, 2010

"Monet is only an eye," said Cezanne, "but what an eye!" Michael F. Marmor and James G. Ravin take this remark as their text for an investigation into artists' vision - think Specsavers, not clouds of glory or Christ on the cross - as understood by the optician, or perhaps the clinician. The Artist's Eyes concerns itself with exactly that. It is a primer on how the eye sees, the difficulties it encounters and the available remedies, in a highly selected subject group. The fascination of these subjects derives precisely from their ocular influence. Not only do artists live and die by the eye: they teach the rest of us to see. Cezanne had a quip for this too. "The sky is blue, no? It is Monet who discovered that."

It is presented as a compendium of capsule case histories, dressed up as a lavishly illustrated coffee-table book. The illustrations are well chosen, though (ironically) the colour values are not always what they might be. The text is properly cautious about diagnoses or inferences on the basis of fragmentary evidence, which is often all we have. As ophthalmologists, Marmor and Ravin are professionally averse to presumption. "It would be presumptuous, for example, to assume that non-representational painting implies poor visual acuity, or that painting with strong colours (or a lack of colour) implies the presence of cataract or colour vision abnormalities."

Their own contextualisation and explanation is plain and straightforward, sometimes to the point of blandness. "Picasso's work was innovative during his Rose and Blue periods, and with his explorations of Cubism and abstraction, but his late style, which is characterised by simpler colour and forms, has received mixed reviews. Though some critics have admired the work of this period, others have deemed it crude or repetitive." The writing is perfectly serviceable, with the occasional stylistic astigmatism. ("Renoir brushed the question aside.") The authors have been pursuing these questions for some time; they are impressively well read, but their references are not always helpful. Citing other studies of this sort, Patrick Trevor-Roper's The World through Blunted Sight (1970), for example, is not much help to readers who wish to trace the source of a quotation from the artists themselves.

The case studies are widely gathered - perhaps too widely - from Rembrandt to Chuck Close. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists figure large: Degas, Monet and Pissarro in particular.

In 1918, at the age of 78, Monet described his troubles of the preceding few years: "I no longer perceived colours with the same intensity, I no longer painted light with the same accuracy. Reds appeared muddy to me, pinks insipid, and the intermediate or lower tones escaped me. As for forms, they always appeared clear and I rendered them with the same decision. At first I tried to be stubborn. How many times ... have I stayed for hours under the harshest sun sitting on my campstool, in the shade of my parasol, forcing myself to resume my interrupted task and recapture the freshness that had disappeared from my palette! Wasted efforts. What I painted was more and more dark, more and more like an 'old picture', and when the attempt was over I compared it to former works, I would be seized by a frantic rage and slash all my canvases with my penknife."

Monet had bilateral cataracts. To be more precise, he had dense, yellow-brown nuclear cataracts. This resulted in blurred vision and a severe loss of colour perception (blurring the distinction between blue and green, for example). Degas had a chronic and progressive retinal disease. To close friends he confessed what a torment it was to draw when he could only see around the spot at which he was looking, and never the spot itself. Pissarro suffered from recurrent inflammation and infection of the lachrymal system.

In these cases, we know a good deal about their condition and treatment. The discussion in the book is correspondingly meaty and judicious. In other cases, where the existing literature is bare, the authors do little more than summarise our ignorance. Perhaps the most intriguing is Cezanne, who was diagnosed with diabetes around the age of 50, and accused of "retinal maladies" at about the same time - a textbook case of the argument for the prosecution (or the presumption) that defective painting can be explained by defective vision. If only more artists were as defective as Cezanne.

Marmor and Ravin are admirably clear sighted; but the retinal focus is too narrow for true illumination. As their expose of Monet serves to demonstrate, the trials and travails of the artist involve both the eye and the mind. In other words, the optical is intimately related to the psychological. What is of interest to us, said Picasso, is the drama of the man. That lies behind the eyes.

The Artist's Eyes: Vision and the History of Art

By Michael F. Marmor and James G. Ravin. Abrams, 224pp, £24.99. ISBN 9780810948495. Published 1 November 2009

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