Perceptual systems, an inexhaustible reservoir of information and the importance of art.
Thoughts Towards a Talk
“There is my developing experience as a painter going blind which is unusual and interesting and as you know I am interested in that. But I am equally interested, possibly more interested in a conception of what figurative art can be as a way of mining new experience and in some sense or other recording it so it’s communicable. Now essentially all my drafts are trying to put those two together and it seems at first like a paradox, but it’s a paradox that I think I can perfectly resolve… and it’s what I want to do… the third element which is very hard to separate from the other two, is the perceptual learning applied to the perceptual systems, made possible through consciousness… That does require an analysis to do with things to do with the anatomy of the eye and the brain, which most people haven’t got a clue about but which is absolutely crucial.”
Sargy Mann January 2015.
In the last months of his life Sargy was working on a talk, which he was scheduled to give in London in May 2015. In early 2015 he had two or three drafts, each with a very different emphasis and he was still coming up with new ideas. Thinking it might help him edit his material down to the allotted eighteen minutes I filmed him trying out what he had written and also kept the camera rolling as he talked about the ideas and what he was hoping to achieve.
Sargy died in April 2015. The talk was never finished but he had continued working on it or ideas that had come out of the process until the very end.
What you are about to read is not a version of the talk he would have given. It is my attempt to combine all of the ideas he had been working on, from the various versions that had been typed up, recorded onto his Dictaphone and also the footage I filmed into a whole that I believe conveys what he wanted to say.
Isaac Newton said ‘I have seen more by standing on the shoulders of giants’. He meant, predominantly, I think, Galileo and Copernicus. Galileo and Newton, by inventing better telescopes and in Newton’s case, more importantly, better mathematics, the calculus, saw and understood more of the truth that was already present. Those telescopes and that mathematics did not exist in the real world before they invented them, but by means of them, they discovered the truth of the heavens…which was always that truth, but nobody had understood it before, nobody had seen it.
And so it is with painting I believe.
When I first went to art school in 1960 I met remarkable painter teachers, notably Dick Lee, Euan Uglow and Frank Auerbach who said to me ‘we will not teach you how to paint, but we can teach you through the practice of painting and drawing to see more, to see better; if you look at the real world in front of you as intensely and as freely from visual preconceptions as you can and try to record as truthfully as you can what that experience is, you will in time see more, see better.’ And I found that this was true. And this belief, corroborated by experience, has been enough to keep me painting all my life and even into total blindness.
The human eye is a very average instrument, not remarkable in any particular respect. Hawks can see rodents from three miles up, and insects — who have a completely different kind of eye — detect varieties, nuances and intensities of colour, that I can only envy. The hawk and the insects have need of this information for survival and we do not. But that information, and far, far more, is there…is part of the reality of the world.
Our senses, our sight, (though here I would rather use the term insisted on by the experimental psychologist J.J.Gibson, — perceptual systems — which is to say the anatomical organ of perception together with the relevant portion of the brain) evolved over millions of years to deliver to our unconscious ancestors only the relevant information to aid their survival, to receive more would be a waste of energy. But when, with consciousness (which is a whole mystery anyway) we began to be conscious of having our experience…we could evaluate it, choose…and in time, learn, how to learn to have more of it. We learnt, of course, from our own endeavours and from each other.
Most people are perfectly happy with the idea that a tea taster can detect tastes and smells that are completely beyond them. They are completely happy with the same idea about scent or wine. In a slightly different way they are completely happy with the same idea in relation to physical prowess, they know that Federer and the greatest dancers have levels of physical understanding, control and discrimination which are miles beyond their own capabilities… they don’t fight that. But nobody wants to be told that somebody sees better than they do.
But I believe it is the case. Some painters are experts…they have given their lives to it. And someone like Monet who gave a very large part of his life to it, and was a total genius, just saw more, understood more through his eyes than possibly anyone else ever has… now that is a thrilling thing to me… and the sum of those things that he saw and understood is in those paintings. And if we have the right sort of interest, and the right sort of energy, and the right sort of humility, we can share some of those discoveries. Now that for me is the glory of art.
My first twenty years of drawing and painting left me in absolutely no doubt that the world I saw and loved was a different, more surprising, richer, more varied world than the one I had known when I went to art school in 1960.
I discovered that the act of painting changed the way the world looked to me, and I mean that absolutely as objectively as you could say when you are talking about perception, which is by definition subjective. Quite literally the act of painting can change the colour of the light you see, the experience of space you see, and it changes it for the better.
I have always been interested in the nature of visual perception and what I would call perceptual painting, painting about direct visual experience. Everyone’s visual experience is unique, so no one can tell you how to paint your visual experience. You can pick up some tips, look at Monet and see how he painted his visual experience…maybe that sort of visual language will help you. Artists will use whatever they can borrow in order to get closer to their own experience. That’s clearly what the great artists have done, and if they are people like Monet or Cezanne or Picasso that leads to innovation because their own experience is so different from what has been painted by other people.
With this learnt deepening and enriching of experience came the bonus that I found myself getting increasingly more from the work of the masters. I am absolutely only talking about figurative painting here, and I suppose figurative painting which is concerned with a direct perceptual experience of the external world. Not necessarily exclusively, but that’s the game we are talking about.
Romanesque, Byzantine representations, which, when they came from great artists such as Cimabue, are absolutely wonderful…but they weren’t engaging with a sort of direct perceptual experience of the form of another human being in your space…then in around 1300 Giotto started to do that and it was a massive advance…and then you got Masaccio who in a very short space of time, because he was only 26 when he died, with help from Brunelleschi and Donatello, actually understood linear perspective. That gave him a fantastic tool for organising forms in a unified space. Now it’s not as if there had been nothing that referred to that in Western painting before but nobody before Masaccio really made a consistent, single viewpoint space, and it had such a hell of a lot going for it that it held sway really until cubism. Piero della Francesca, who was a mathematician, and had the temperament he had, used this wonderful new drawing and perfected it in a certain way. The great Venetian painters, Bellini, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, who had of course taken on this sort of drawing, also took on Giotto’s feeling for form and how form could be realised by paint and because they were geniuses they developed this. Then particularly in the case of Titian, who was the greatest, there is a new kind of colour structure, in the same way that you could say perspective unifies drawing in one space, Titian was well on the way to discovering a way to order colour on the canvas which unified local colour and light in one space. And then you get Claude Lorrain who sort of cracked it and lead on into the Impressionists…because he was probably the first painter to understand aerial perspective.
There is a portrait by Rembrandt, a portrait of an old woman sitting in a rather severe armchair. We look at it and say — Yes, brilliant, this is how she would look — but this is nothing, small beer, loose change. What that painting contains is an experience of more, arrived at by one of the greatest painters of all time through thousands of hours of drawing and painting. What Rembrandt saw when he looked at a fellow human being — only a few feet from him — brush in hand — was something of such richness and depth; he saw it with such comprehension of human feeling as to be quite unintelligible to us; except to some extent, through our comprehension of his painting.
He saw and felt the space separating him and Margarita’s head he saw and felt and understood the structure of that skull and the spare muscles and flesh that encased it, he saw and felt and understood and was deeply moved by the intelligence within that skull which animated its appearance. And all of this without words, importantly, without words. It came through looking and through touching, with paint, the canvas.
Looking at that portrait by Rembrandt one experiences a surprising but totally convincing reality of being in the presence of the head of an old woman rather close-to. And this wonderful invention by Rembrandt was a stepping stone to the always unknowable, I imagine, even more heightened and strange experience that he had when he looked at his subjects.
The human eye does not see the same over. The field vision of the two eyes is very large, almost 180 degrees from left to right but in the centre of each eye is a small disc called the macular which sees only about as much as your two thumbs side by side at arms length. This macular has a much higher resolution, sees in more detail.It is what we ‘look’ with. ‘Looking’ means that you move your eye such that the piece of the external world you are interested in, that you are thinking about, projects onto this macula. For most people the rest of the field of vision, which is rather confusingly called the periphery, is entirely unconscious.
You will find this surprising but many of the ophthalmologists who operated on me told me that most people can lose half their field of vision in an eye and be quite unaware of it, only noticing when the macula begins to detach. I, on the other hand got to the point where I could detect tiny holes or tears in the extreme periphery of my retina before the ophthalmologists could see them with their instruments. This is something of which I am very proud. Partly because it corroborates the assertion I am making that we are capable of very considerable perceptual learning.
The main purpose of this conscious macular vision is to enable us to recognise, to name what we are looking at and the neural system that achieves this is wired up in quite a different way from the rest of the eye (the periphery), so the conscious human eye is really made up of two different perceptual systems.
The history of Western figurative painting can to some extent be understood as artists being conscious of and understanding more and more of their peripheral vision and learning to suppress the preconceptions associated with conscious central (macular) vision. This new sort of perceptual learning culminated with Monet and the Impressionists. I believe that Monet was able to access at will, consciously, the whole of his peripheral vision, and totally suppress his central vision and that meant that he could invent a sort of totally ordered coloured pattern which had this astonishing ability to communicate a very convincing and real experience of coloured forms in light and space, which, broadly speaking, is what people now see, and they love it. But when Monet and the other Impressionists first did this people thought the paintings were an absolute joke. Now why was that? And it suddenly struck me, its obvious, it’s the fact that the punters had learnt nothing of this new way of using their eyes and brains. Looking, for them carried on being what they were conscious of on the macula and when they looked at a Monet impressionist painting it looked unbelievably crude and unstructured and nothing like looking at things, as distinct from the horrible academic, salon art which they were used to and valued which was entirely designed to appeal to the macula and presented them with an incredibly sort of detailed and, as it were, believable, fine structure of form and colour, but it was a totally different sort of experience. Now I think that in time the punters have to some extent caught up with Monet and the Impressionists and so they now see something much nearer what Monet saw, and they like it.
Monet learnt all this, he arrived at this more, this better sight through painting and drawing all day every day (I mean, really, he did work the whole fucking time). Painting for Monet was like a telescope for Galileo, an invention (a means) that enabled him to see more of the world.
On one occasion when I was painting in a friend’s garden in Suffolk I saw out of the corner of my eye, in quite the wrong place, to the left of the sun, a little piece of rainbow. Was I hallucinating? I called my friend, Graham, pointed and said ‘what do you see there?’ ‘My God’ he said, ‘it looks like a bit of rainbow! What can it be?’ I tried to paint it and then, back in London, searched through the Encyclopedia Britannica for an explanation. We had seen a parhelion, popularly known as a sun-dog (a name of which I’m very fond). They occur far more often than rainbows and I have pointed them out to hundreds of people but never yet met someone who had seen one before I told them.
In 1971 I became aware that my sight was not quite as it had been. It seemed to be getting a little grainy and point sources of light were breaking up. Also colour seemed to be changing. This change developed and intensified over the next six to nine months and I started to worry that I might be going mad. But then an ophthalmologist diagnosed cataracts in both my eyes. They were operated on, and were, as I had hoped they would be, the orange-brown cataracts that Monet had had in old age. My resulting vision was of a world of unimaginable beauty and intensity of light and colour such as I had only once experienced before on the occasion when I took LSD, sadly in a matter of weeks my brain adjusted to the new balance of light coming into my eye returning my vision to what it had been before the cataracts started to grow. The memory of this heightened experience delivered by my eye and brain from the information in the real world persisted as a sort of talisman of what the brain could achieve.
Some time in the seventies I had an experience, looking at a Bonnard self-portrait which was one of the weirdest experiences of my life. I came across it in Wildenstein’s, in Bond Street, I didn’t know it, and it was a fabulous painting. I just stood there and looked at it for an hour…more…and at one point I was just entranced by the little sort of turquoise cap on the glass bottle on the shelf at the bottom, and the brush, bristles down…and there’s something else on that shelf…there was just something, somehow, so utterly present and completely convincing about them, and yet, the paint they were made of was so delicate and ravishing and non-descriptive, and I just thought, bugger me, this is beautiful, and then my eye caught the piece of blue material in the background and I moved my attention from the bottle top, to the bit of blue material and I just kept on looking at one and loving it and then going back to the other, and then for some reason I just glanced up and for a micro-second I got the absolute shock of my life. I just thought: that’s not me, that’s not what I look like! And I think in that minute passage of time I had, to some extent, an experience of what it was like to be Bonnard, age 72. Extraordinary. It was absolutely amazing.
In 1979 the retina in my right eye detached and two unsuccessful operations left me blind in that eye. One-eyed vision is not so bad but you do have to be careful doing things close-to like pouring drinks…at this range touch comes into its own. Then my left retina also detached and things became really serious, as from now on total blindness was an ever-present possibility.
Throughout the eighties I had a succession of operations in my left eye always leaving me with worse sight, but, and this was what interested me, with different sight. When, as I always did, I returned to painting, my subject — what the world looked like — was a new subject, and my way of painting about it had also to be new, as my materials, and what I did with them also looked different. So every time I had to relearn how to paint and this was challenging and exciting.
After one operation, when I started to draw my eye began to weep so copiously and continuously that I could hardly see anything. When I stopped drawing I stopped weeping which seemed very unfair. Then on one occasion I thought, to hell with it I will keep going with this drawing even though I can’t see what I am doing, and after about an hour my brain seemed to take the hint. It did some magic that brains seem to be able to do. The weeping stopped and until my next operation I was able to paint and draw in my new normal state.
Another operation — I can’t remember why — cut away a lot of my iris so it no longer adjusted for different levels of light. For a time I had to wear dark glasses. But I hated dark glasses, they seemed to interfere with the world as I knew it, and to mess up colours in particular. After a period of time, and exposing my eye to much brighter light than it felt comfortable in, my brain learned, though much more slowly than the iris would have, to adjust to the different levels of light I was experiencing, such that when I went to Italy or Portugal or India, for the much brighter southern light that I preferred, I would have to spend the first day in a darkened room in a sort of fever while my brain recalibrated to the much more intense light. Then on the next morning I would emerge seeing a beautiful and manageable, but quite different and surprising world of light.
In 1989 Moorfield’s Eye Hospital registered me as blind, not partially sighted, but blind, as the sight that I had was so poor — it was just a small peripheral spot in my left eye — but to my astonishment and even more the astonishment of the ophthalmologists I was making very good use of it.
When I think of my experience at this time what I actually remember is the paintings that I made. I begin to relive, to some extent, the experience that gave rise to them. This is what I would like to happen for a viewer of my paintings, but I fear most of them stop short with enjoying the surface pattern. My experience was far too different from theirs, too unsettling for them to take the risk of giving their own up in order to experience mine.
In 2002 my sight had become so bad, because of the deterioration of the cornea in my left eye, that we decided to risk a corneal transplant. The operation was successful and this was the first time since my cataract operations that my sight actually improved. At Liverpool Street Station on the way home from the hospital I suddenly found myself laughing. I was very conscious of the shape of appearance of the scurrying figures very close to me, and these shapes were ridiculous triangles, wide at the top and going down to tiny little feet. This was something I hadn’t consciously seen for years. But again, later, my brain got to work and I began to see human beings very close to as ‘normal’.
The improvements were short lived and in 2005 — almost completely blind again — I went to Cadaques in northern Spain with my son Peter. It was my perfect subject: deep blue sea, orange pantile roofs, all manmade surfaces painted blinding white and all in the Mediterranean sun. But I could see almost nothing and had Peter not been continuously by my side I would have plunged to my death on steps or ramps or over parapets. We explored Cadaques trying to find subjects…when I did find something I thought I could paint, Peter would describe it, and I would pace about measuring distances and heights and widths with my white stick. My subjects were almost always very wide-angle views and Peter would make a photo mosaic of the whole scene, which would get assembled back in Suffolk.
We returned to England for my birthday, which was a perfect day with the whole family present. I awoke the next morning with acute pain in my left eye, and when Frances looked she said, “My God it’s bleeding.” An ulcer had perforated and my eye had in effect exploded. It was what I had always dreaded; total blindness and therefore I assumed the end of painting.
A few days later, mooching about my studio and wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life — some sort of sculpture I supposed, although I had little enthusiasm for this — my head again flooded with the Cadaques subjects and I thought, well what is to be lost I might as well have a go. I played through the Cadaques subjects in my memory — chose the most luminous and felt the canvas, thinking about what would go where, what the main divisions of the rectangle would be. Then with excitement, but probably more trepidation, I put ultramarine on a brush and painted the top right hand corner of the canvas and I had one of the most extraordinary sensations of my life. I saw the canvas go blue. It wasn’t a projection, it wasn’t me remembering what it was like, it was a percept for sure, but a percept clearly created somewhere in my visual cortex.
I carried on painting for an hour or more and then when my daughter was passing I said, “What do you think?” “God Dad that’s beautiful.” “Great but can you see what it is?” “Well yes I think so…that looks like Peter on the left across a little table with sky and hills and sea through a window behind him and then bright sun coming through an open door on the right and reflecting off the sea.” She had described my subject perfectly. So perhaps there was painting after total blindness.
Over the next year, or eighteen months, I painted all the Cadaques subjects. I largely forgot that I was painting blind — this was simply once again what I did.
In the 25 years of worsening sight before total blindness, because of the continual deterioration of the anatomical part of my visual system, I had to make enormous demands on the brain part, the visual cortex, in order that I should go on accessing some of the more — the infinitely more — of reality, that was still available to my depleted eye.
The problem now was to know what to paint next. The Cadaques subjects had been the last things seen. Dreams, though incredibly visually perfect, were no use as they didn’t hang around for more than a few seconds and I could never return to the same dream again — also they did this curious thing of morphing. Distant memories were somehow insufficiently precise or compelling and I didn’t want to paint second or third versions of subjects I had painted in the last twenty or so years.
So I asked my wife Frances to sit in the armchair in my studio while I knelt on the floor so close that I could touch almost all of her with my outstretched hands. I then tried to understand her pose, the form of her body in the space that enclosed us. And I found that I was building up an understanding, a sort of two-dimensional drawing of this three-dimensional experience from the position of my eyes. So this was what I started to paint.
I painted things the colours I knew them to be but with little thought of directional light. Then, with one painting, I thought, I don’t want to paint the chair that dark brown I will do what I did some years ago and cover it with a white cloth, then as I was taking the cloth from the cupboard I thought ‘you silly bugger you can’t see it anyway — you can paint the chair any colour you like.’ This was, for me, an astonishingly liberating breakthrough and from that moment on I started using colour in a much more intuitive and decorative way.
I decided that I wanted to paint a much larger picture along the same lines. I imagined a street side café and set up a little table and chairs in my studio. I got Frances and my son Michael to pose for the near figures, which I could almost touch. Then I imagined the space opening out behind them into a street scene, which was loosely based on Cadaques. I had by this time devised a more sophisticated system of measuring at greater distances, using longer sticks and then, for very long distances, taut pieces of string. Working out the three dimensional geometry of the street scene, and where the figures were in relation to myself, and also working out the three dimensional geometry of sunlight, and being able to translate that into a meaningful two dimensional geometry on the surface of the canvas was extremely challenging and used aspects of my personality which probably had not featured very much in my painting before.
I had trained as an engineer before I went to art school and done a lot of mathematics, and this scientific side of my personality is unquestionably a part of who I am, and I think it has played a much bigger part in the paintings I have made since being totally blind. This may mean that these paintings in some sense do represent more of me than the purely visually inspired earlier pictures.
I certainly would never have chosen blindness but the extraordinary paradox is that going blind has taught me to see more and differently, it has taken me somewhere new and exciting, and I have been thrilled to discover that I can make paintings without sight, and that this activity is far more like a continuation of my previous painting experience than I could possibly have imagined.
I’ve wondered long and hard why the paintings I’ve made since being totally blind are as good as they are, and indeed, quite a lot of people think they’re the best things I’ve ever done. When my sight was relatively normal — I mean it was never normal, but I could go along to galleries and look at paintings — I think probably I was always a bit on the timid side. I think I was too influenced by the masters I revered, and it’s not so much that I was over influenced by their language, their way of doing it, because I absolutely knew that was a catch, I think what I probably was too influenced by was their vision, their experience, and I think that when I went out to choose a subject, in a sort of way I was choosing a version of Monet’s subject or Bonnard’s subject rather than my own, and when I started going seriously blind that option of going out and finding Monet’s subject wasn’t there, and because I was so thrown back on my own limitations, curiously, I think this led me into a much more personal world, a world that was more my experience and my way of responding to it.
J.J. Gibson wrote, in The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, “The environment provides an inexhaustible reservoir of information. Some men spend most of their lives looking, others listening, and a few connoisseurs spend their time in smelling, tasting or touching, they never come to an end, the eyes and ears are not fixed capacity instruments like cameras and microphones with which the brain can see and hear. Looking and listening continue to improve with experience. Higher order variables can still be discovered even in old age. Getting information to the receptors becomes troublesome when the lens of the eye or the bones of the ear lose their useful flexibility but higher order variables in light and sound can still be discovered by the artist and musician.”
I think that art can be a unique, essentially non verbal, channel of experience, by means of which one can access new and surprising experience and understanding of the infinite variety of reality — of the reality that is the world external to ourselves — and in the case of art the process both discovers and invents a metaphor capable of communicating that experience to oneself and others.
Now, that to me is just such an exciting idea. And you see I want to extend that into the other arts, I want to say that Bach and Miles Davis, by inventing new structures of expressive sound, actually experienced depths and subtleties of emotion which possibly had never been experienced on the planet before. I mean it’s an extraordinary idea, but I think it’s perfectly possible. And I think the same is true of Shakespeare. I think that Shakespeare’s absolutely astonishing ability to structure language in the most ridiculously inventive way enabled him to plumb depths of personality and relationship which probably nobody had experienced before him. And because they’re artists, what they made has, in principle, the power to pass some of this on to us; I mean it certainly doesn’t happen automatically, we’ve got to make a hell of a lot of effort of the right kind, but even if we can’t see what Rembrandt saw, we can, through looking at his painting, see a hell of a lot more than what we see when we look at an old woman in a chair.
And I want to tell people how utterly extraordinary and worthwhile that is. Because — you see, most people, I think, their ambition in terms of what art can offer them, is so incredibly modest and I want it to be very…very ambitious.
Sargy Mann 2015.
This essay was originally conceived as a talk which Sargy was scheduled to give in April 2015. The process of working on that talk was partly filmed and edited into a version of the talk Sargy would have given titled ‘More, Different. Better’, which can be seen here.