The fights of the eye and the hand

Deleuze's lessons on painting consider not the finished painting, but all the psycho-physiological conditions which preside over the act of creation.

Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) taught a series of courses at the University of Paris 8-Vincennes-Saint-Denis, most of which are available in audio version (notably thanks to the recordings of Richard Pinhas). Editions de Minuit published the 1981 course devoted to painting. The remarkable editorial work of David Lapoujade makes it easy to follow the development of the argument (notably thanks to the introduction of summaries for each session or numerous footnotes which refer to the books whose development clearly follows closely) without losing the oral tone of the presentation. The interest is to be able to follow the progressive deployment of a thought of which published books generally provide the final version and condensed into formulas that are both striking and even sometimes difficult to understand for those who are not familiar with the Deleuzian corpus.

The experience of disaster

The aim of this course is to give a general definition of the painting: not the characteristics of this or that movement in particular (impressionism, expressionism, etc.), but of painting as such, understood as a activity or like a practical artistic. Indeed, Deleuze does not approach painting from its final result (namely, the painting understood as a finished work), but places himself at the level of the act of painting itself: the aim of the course is therefore to describe all of the conditions which preside over the act of creation.

More specifically, the challenge is to understand how we move from the surrounding sensory world, with its characteristics in terms of colors and shapes, to a work which is not content with represent said sensitive world, but rather produces a transfiguration that it is precisely a question of analyzing. However, according to Deleuze, the fundamental conditions of the creative act must be sought very early in the process, from the lived experience of the painter himself, when he perceives the landscape or the object being painted. For this, he relies in particular on a testimony from Czanne who reports that, to paint a landscape, he first exposes himself to it for a long time, often in full sunlight, so that, when he returns, he his eyes protrude from his head, are bloodshot. According to Deleuze, this type of experience is in no way anecdotal and on the contrary constitutes one of the primary psycho-physiological conditions of pictorial creation. The painter must go through a moment ofcollapse of visual coordinates (p. 101) which consists of destabilizing our perceptual habits, and which Deleuze calls the disaster (p. 18).

These visual coordinates designate the set of schemas or patterns which unconsciously organize our perceptual experience and which Deleuze calls cliches visuals (pp. 42-43). Thus, the notion of cliche does not only designate a type of artistic production in the sense of a banal and stereotyped image; it also designates the framing device perceptive which leads to interpreting (or reacting to) any scene in a banal and stereotypical way. To be able to create an image which is not a simple representation of a pre-existing sensitive structure, one must therefore go through a stage of destruction of these organizational structures, a stage which Deleuze essentially locates in the face-to-face which opposes the painter to his object and which he described as a blurring (or even chaos) of standard visual coordinates.

Insubordination of the eye and the hand

These coordinates designate various characteristics which refer sometimes to distance vision (which allows us to understand a scene in its entirety), sometimes to the perception of perfectly individual objects (which allows us to identify them with precision), etc. Usually, this optical order dictates to the painter the model that he must reproduce on the painting so that the hand is subordinate to the eye, according to a metaphor which runs through the entire work. But the catastrophe experienced by the painter, by destroying this optical order, also frees the hand from its relationship of subordination: the hand thus empowered produces a series of lines or strokes (which eventually turn into scribbling) whose logic is first kinetic before to be optical.

Deleuze here follows the analyzes of Wilhelm Worringer who evokes these moments when the painter is animated by a strong inner impulse, an impulse which takes precedence over the desire to faithfully reproduce a landscape or an object seen. These developments make it possible to clarify the Deleuzian theory of the image which is particularly present in the two volumes devoted to cinema (Motion filing And Time-filing). On the one hand, the image refers to a sensorimotor theory of perception which states that what we perceive depends on our capacities for action. On the other hand, within this general paradigm, pictorial creation begins when the artist allows his usual sensorimotor arcs to be interfered with by certain impulses which confuse their coherence. The lesson On painting multiplies in this regard the oppositions between optics, and its overall visual economy, on the one hand, and the manual, or thehapticwhich does not refer so much to the movements of the wrist as to the jolts of the nervous system who orders them (p. 252). The entire history of art is then interpreted as the history of the combat of the hand and the eye. one extreme, the hand follows the visual order that imposes itself; at the other extreme, the hand forces the eye to twist which allows it to perceive what it did not initially perceive:

Instead of the hand following the eye, the hand, like a slap, will impose itself on the eye. She's going to do violence to him. It will be difficult for him to follow the diagram. () Is the eye able to see what the eye's free hand is doing?? It's complicated. It is a real twist in the relationship between two organs (p. 101).

It is this twist which justifies the mobilization of the sensorimotor framework in Deleuze and justifies his taking up Klee's formula according to which the role of art is to make sensitive (p. 75) which is not yet.

A new history of pictorial art

The clichés correspond to a certain collaborative and stable use of faculties (notably the subordination of the tactile to the visual, but not only); going through the catastrophe leads to the development of new relationships that the philosopher of art must identify and that Deleuze names diagrams (p. 97). The diagram designates the device through which the painter captures invisible forces and manages to transcribe them onto the canvas (making them, by this very fact, visible). For example, Bacon's genius would be to paint the sensation of the body that escapes us (p. 88), that is to say the impression of no longer being master and possessor of one's own body. However, to do this, it is not simply a matter of representing a example of a body that escapes the person's will (an illness, vomiting, etc.); it is also necessary to use a series of devices (elongated contours, faded colors, etc.) which express the feeling of dispossession on a pictorial level.

Among the devices studied, the course notably offers a history of the progressive release of the line from its status of simple outlinethat is to say of its progressive independence from any figure preliminary, to become a complete being. To do this, Deleuze draws in particular on the work of Alos Riegl, Heinrich Wlfflin and Worringer: these authors allow him to identify different pictorial currents according to the coefficients of deformation of the sensible which predominate in this or that manner of painting. Deleuze essentially distinguishes three of them (p. 142 et seq.). First, cases of total liberation of the hand from the eye, which corresponds schematically to expressionism; then, examples where the mastery of color and line translates into a true independent code, which rather corresponds to abstraction; finally, an intermediate case where the forms are preserved, but distorted, and which he calls art figural.

This problem probably does not claim to account for all of the specificities posed by the history of painting.; nevertheless, it has the merit of re-establishing a certain amount of evidence. Thus, Deleuze affirms that the problem of perspective spatial (the fact of having to give the illusion of three-dimensionality and depth from a two-dimensional support) is only a minor problem of painting, wrongly elevated to the rank of cardinal problem by certain artists and theorists (p. 115).

From eye education to environmental sensitivities

in this regard, On painting points in two directions that the work only indicates. On the one hand, a theory of reception aesthetics, which would study the effect of the perception of a painting on the general perception of the spectator. If the course is in fact centered on the experience of the painter, Deleuze also puts forward the idea according to which the painting perhaps gives birth to an eye within the eye (p. 251), so that it would produce a second genese of lil (p. 31), where the constitution of a third he (p. 109). In doing so, Deleuze actually follows the Bergsonian thesis according to which the role of the artist is to see and make us see what we do not naturally perceive.

But to follow this line of argument, it would then be necessary to open the theory of the experience of disaster (which, as it stands, applies to the painter's relationship to the environment and precedes artistic creation) on a theory of second disaster: this would rather apply to the relationship of the spectator to his environment, through artistic creation (understood this time no longer as the process of creation, but as its final result, namely the painting). It would then remain to understand how the fight against clichés actually occurs and therefore what the scope is specifically social of art within such tension.

On the other hand, and symmetrically, Deleuze's course points towards a theory of aesthetic production, which would study the effects of the consumption of artistic works. Indeed, if Deleuzian analyzes focus specifically on art as pictorial creation, that is to say as a struggle against visual clichés, the fact remains that art, understood as a social field or socio-historical domain, is itself a producer of visual clichés that artists seek to destroy. Now, this thesis should not be trivialized. We have in fact become accustomed, under the influence of Ernst Gombrich or Erwin Panofsky, to considering that there exists a real education of lil and that art plays a decisive role in this education. However, at a time of climate crisis and the collapse of biodiversity, the question of educating the eye and perceiving the environment is once again becoming a hot topic. This is notably the thesis defended by Philippe Descola in Forms of the visible. According to him, the relationship we have with our environment does not ultimately depend on the emergence of modern sciences, as is usually said, because these sciences themselves depend in a certain way on see and of look the world that was produced by Renaissance painters:

It is not just the projective geometry of the XVIIe century which is () a product of the artist's studio, it is more probably the totality of the epistemic reconfiguration witnessed by the works of Galileo, Bacon or Descartes which can be envisaged as the result of a new way of looking at and depicting men and women. things that appeared two centuries earlier.

This articulation between our ways of seeing and exploiting nature, between our visual images and the nature on which they relate, constitutes one of the possible updates of the course On paintingthe intersection of the phenomenology of artistic experience and the history of environmental sensitivities.