At the museum, paintbrush in hand

How can we manage to express the experience of the painter and the viewer in front of the canvas, what interests them and gives them pleasure? By trying to stay as close as possible to what we see, answers Alberto Frigo, but, paradoxically, with the help of all the senses.

It is … with a work of art as with a dream: one is never sure of having completely interpreted it; and even when the solution seems satisfactory and without gaps …it is always possible that the work, like the dream, has another meaning.

Meaning and experience. The painting experiencea book by Alberto Frigo with a very significant title, confronts painting not with meaning, but with the senses; he does not consider the work in its meanings, but in its sensations. Touching, looking, feeling, hearing painting, all this forms, the author tells us, the experience. But as he describes and discusses it, experience is more than a sum of sensations, more than an accumulation of knowledge: it is, Frigo insists, “a beginning of the universal” (p. 144) – in other words, it is already knowledge. In this quest for knowledge and pleasure, the eye wants its part, and A. Frigo demonstrates this in three parts, three essays announced as independent, but which participate in the construction of the same discourse. Time to see, Interest in seeing And The pleasure of seeing. Through these three arguments and in close dialogue with Diderot’s inventions, A. Frigo offers a reflection on the freedom of the eye that looks, that stops and starts again, that “flirts on the canvas” (p. 99). Understood as knowledge resulting from a practice, the experience is that of the painter at work, but also that of the spectator in front of the work. The three essays propose to reflect first of all on the creation in action, then on the reception of the work and finally on the pleasure, where painter and spectator merge. Painting and observing a painting become a gnoseological activity, and the philosopher here sets about declining its specificities, in a work where art history, historiography and aesthetic reflection are cleverly intertwined.

Diderot, another disciple of experience

Throughout the pages, A. Frigo shows to what extent Diderot is the undisputed master of the painting experience. Living rooms are a place of emotions, appeals to the senses and pleasures that the author brings back to life with enthusiasm and from which he weaves his theses. Diderot’s “experiences of looking” constitute the framework of the work, they come to the aid of abstract discourse and in favor of looking at works, in their significant materiality. First of all because the philosopher art critic understood, the author explains to us, “that it is more pleasant to paint than to have painted” (p. 24). Faced with the very short time of human existence, “the possibility of making and unmaking the painting endlessly therefore projects the act of painting towards an eternity which, although impracticable, is nonetheless possible and thinkable” (p. 22). It often happens, moreover, that Diderot finds himself faced with the impossibility of speaking of the visual without reducing its effects: “The works of Vernet! It is almost impossible to talk about them, you have to see them.”

The time of creation first, then that of speech and finally of delight, so many approaches to experience that Diderot treats in all its forms. The eye delights, reflects, knows, discovers.

Harmony and syncopations of the gaze

The work is a whole. The painting is a machine (Roger de Piles), a machinery, we would prefer, thinking and polysemic. In this whole, the eye enjoys judging whether a painting is harmonious, whether its harmonics are in resonance, in balance. The painter’s work will consist of putting its parts in concert. Introduced by A. Frigo, in the footsteps of Diderot and other classical authors, the musical metaphor is very fortunate because it proposes an analogy between the temporalities of the gaze (of the painter and the spectator) and the unfolding of a piece of music. Seeing takes time, because the interests that nourish and feed the eye are multiple and cannot be discovered without mediation.

There are works where the colours go together, where the painter, A. Frigo tells us, listens to the harmonics of his hues and distributes them harmoniously on the canvas – or on the wall. The observer in turn is taken to witness this research, his eye is called to scan the surface to the rhythm of the chromatic references, “incessant movements of the eye which follows, admiring, the traces and gestures of the painter, stunned by the pictorial material even more than by the painted subject” (p. 95). The eye likes to find harmony, but also takes a liking to dissonances, to syncopations. This is what A. Frigo calls the “happy uncertainty” of the eye, and it is with the novel that he proposes a parallel: to experience a work, he says, is to rediscover “the pleasure that we feel when we are solving puzzles or following the plot and which disappears at the exact moment when the solution and the final outcome appear” (p. 100).

The problem, which opens his text (p. 11), of the comparison between sculpture, painting and architecture, this famous paragone that every philosopher of classical art must speak of, is evacuated. It is useless, A. Frigo tells us, to compare these arts based on drawing, because their language is the same: they address the intellect through the eye. And what if we tried to understand painting with the help of music, or poetry? Real constructions of knowledge come to life in the very beautiful lines on this very particular creative activity that is translation: by reflecting on the exercise of the translator, A. Frigo opens a discussion on the question of realism in painting (p. 138-139). He suggests substituting for the comparison between visible and visible an experience of the visible through the other senses.

The musical metaphor is richly spun by the author throughout the book and guides the reader towards the question of pleasure. A. Frigo cites as examples these cadence of ingannocurious harmonic cadences that offer a resolution different from that which the ear expects. Aesthetic pleasure lies in repetition, there is no doubt about it: we love the Beatles, we listen to them again. It comforts us, we expect the happiness they offer us. Similarly, if we love jazz, we know that we will be surprised by the turn of an improvisation, the musician does his best to amaze us: “We know that we will be surprised, and yet we cannot help but be surprised” (p. 54). Thus, in painting, A. Frigo tells us, there are works that “enjoy the inexplicable privilege of never disgusting the one who admires them”. It is that “attention finds there the opportunity to wander, free, without the constraint of a dominant and main interest, this is doubtless the secret of their lasting charm” (p. 122). This is another theme dear to Diderot, and A. Frigo dwells on it: those he recognizes as these “pretty paintings on which one can count” (p. 56) are those of which one never tires, which our eye never ceases to scan and rediscover. And then, when one loves, one does not count.

Painting pleasures

Without words, like painting, pleasure can be brief, like shock, or long, like waiting, like desire. And when you work with passion, you lose track of the hours that pass: pleasure then frees itself from time. In both cases, it is the primary object of the interpreter: the historian’s task will be to invent the right terms, the right words and the right rhythm to transmit it. From attention to pleasure is born a specific relationship to knowledge: shock, emotion, jellyfish. It is at this moment that the gaze, in trying to put words to what it sees, summons its knowledge. But, at times, in order not to stifle the work, it must stop. These back-and-forths between pleasure, surprise and knowledge create a specific and original way of seeing, a medium for delight. A.’s main source of inspiration. Frigo, Svetlana Alpers denounces the mania historians have for interpreting, for squeezing meaning out of the canvas, without dwelling on the singular uniqueness of the visual experience. She makes us understand to what extent it is not a question ofexplain painting, but of theexplainin its paradoxes, its extraordinary irony and its shifts. In our opinion, painting, indiscreet and giocosa, plays with the given figurative material and develops a skein of meanings whose threads the interpreter must pull, without untangling them, but by highlighting the gaps which, like knots, preserve its complex polysemy. We can cite here an idea expressed, like a methodological manifesto, at the very end of a rarely cited writing by Daniel Arasse, an essay entitled “Seven reflections on the prehistory of genre painting”:

(…) it is time for the history of art to no longer neglect this specific dimension of artistic works: the types of pleasure they gave to their spectators and the fact that artistic pleasure was as much an ideological as a psychic condition of the material existence of these works.

A. Frigo deals with this subject in a personal and original way. Always through the senses, and through practice. We will take only this example and let the reader discover the others over the pages. In the first essay, A. Frigo lists two verification practices: the one that consists of judging one’s work by looking at it in a mirror, and the other of leaving it for a while turned upside down against the wall. Two types of reversal: the first reverses, symmetrically, the composition and, visually, the choices of the painter. Thanks to what A. Frigo calls a “salutary alienation” (p. 35) the painter will be able to see if his painting “holds up”. Indeed, the mirror transforms the painting into an image; it can be judged coldly, without affect, without meaning. The second reversal consists of leaving one’s work face down against the wall, then picking it up again to ” to be taken by surprise by his own work” (p. 36). Titian, A. Frigo tells us, examines the canvases as if they were his worst enemy, after having kept them covered. Here, the painter confronts and stares at the painting, at the risk of remaining stunned in front of the enemy. He is no longer in the long and passionate creative delight, he is in the judgment of an image that has its own life, which he can only perfect, correct, revise by confronting it. The painting comes to “inaugurate” a knowledge in the painter, then in the spectator, and not to renew it. To defend this crucial idea, this book never abandons the classical references, from Aristotle to Roger de Piles, via Leon Battista Alberti. A. Frigo thus guides the reader in this creative process of the painter/observer, legitimizing a classical paradigm with new tools: it is true, one is rarely discreet when one looks.