The Phenomenon of Painting

“In a forest, I have felt so many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me. . . . I was there, listening. . . . I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe and not want to penetrate it. . . . I expect to be inwardly submerged, buried. Perhaps I paint to break out.”     – André Marchand[1]

When does a painter cease her painting? Who determines when a painting is complete? The very word painting, as both a noun and a verb, implies action. A painting never ceases creating and being created by the very nature of the word humanity has assigned to describe it. Or perhaps that word was never assigned, it simply emerged from  the phenomenon of painting, just as the imagery of a painting seems to emerge not solely from the artist or the canvas, but rather from a mysterious intermediate ground between the two. Yet what is that ground? How can we contemplate that which emerges from ambiguity?

Light Iris

Merleau-Ponty writes, “From the writer and philosopher. . . we want opinions and advice. We will not allow them to hold the world suspended. . . . Only the painter is entitled to look at everything without being obliged to appraise what he sees.”[2] Even to sit here and write of painting, as I am doing in this moment, brings a literal concreteness to the ambiguity I am attempting to describe, that which can only emerge between world, artist, and art. When one looks at a painting, or even more so when one looks at a painting that is in the process of being created—perhaps even by the artistry of one’s own hand—there is a presence that exists within it that is beyond the intention of the artist, no matter how controlled the artist may try to be in her execution of the artwork. A painting has a life of its own, perhaps even before the artist ever conceived of it. Merleau-Ponty continues,

I would be at great pains to say where is the painting I am looking at. For I do not look at it as I do at a thing; I do not fix it in its place. My gaze wanders in it as in the halos of Being. It is more accurate to say that I see according to it, or with it, than that I see it.[3]

One sees according to the painting, almost as if the painting had its own will, a will separate from the will of the artist. This returns our thought to the question of how a painter knows when a painting is complete, especially if there is an internally active quality to the very existence of a painting even, or perhaps especially, in its completeness. It is as though the painting already existed before ever a brush was set to paper, and the painting is only complete when the already existent painting and the actions of the painter meet in the middle.

“I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe,” Marchand writes, “and not want to penetrate it.”[4] A painter, it seems, is a vessel of the world, a receptacle that births the form with which matter is pregnant.[5] “So many painters have said that things look at them,”[6] Merleau-Ponty writes, almost as though those things wish to be born through new media.

The eye sees the world, sees what keeps a painting from being itself, sees—on the palette—the colors awaited by the painting, and sees, once it is done, the painting that answers to all these inadequacies just as it sees the paintings of others as other answers to other inadequacies.[7]

The painting itself, in this quote, seems to call forth the very existence of the painting. The colors are ‘awaited’ by the painting, the painting itself ‘answers.’ When is a painting complete? Perhaps when it wills it to be so.


Work Cited

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception. Edited by James M. Edie.
Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

[1] André Marchand, qtd. in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 167.

[2] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 161.

[3] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 164.

[4] Marchand, qtd. in Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 167.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 12.

[6] Ibid, 167.

[7] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 165.

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