Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Making and Seeing: Matisse and the Understanding of Kuba Pattern.1

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Making and Seeing: Matisse and the Understanding of Kuba Pattern.1

Article excerpt

A new icon has entered the public domain in Britain as a result of the development of late twentieth century communication technologies. Some British railway companies now use a black and white image to indicate that you are travelling in a coach where mobile phone use is discouraged (albeit with varying degrees of success). The centre of the image is occupied by an irregularly-shaped solid black form. Curved upper and lower edges perhaps suggest that it is set in a circular frame, but in fact it is surrounded by a white expanse and has no continuous visible edge so that it appears to be a single isolated icon. Or so it initially seemed to me; for, on the first few occasions I noticed the image, it puzzled me - even though I had deliberately sought out the 'quiet coach' on the train and might have expected some entirely understandable warning to observe a muted presence. Yet, despite this, I saw the shape as something like an umbrella playing a saxophone. It took several trips before it dawned on me that what I was supposed to see was a face in profile holding an index figure to the mouth in order to encourage passengers to be unobtrusive. I was reading the solid black shape as having primacy when in fact it was the outline that I should have been paying attention to and the white shapes which it inscribed. Now I know what it is, I can shift back and forth between the two images, a kind of 'lenticular' way of visualising a single image.2

This essay explores how different ways of seeing the same image may co-exist, but how that may be obscured by a western preoccupation with the linear - a habit so ingrained that it has come to seem instinctive, as has been insightfully analysed recently by Tim Ingold.3 A crucial element of the discussion to be developed here concerns the differences in visual perception which arise from the ways in which objects and images are created. This, in its turn, has implications for the ways in which images are seen across cultures and even within them. This is especially notable in societies which draw a gendered distinction between the kinds of making that are appropriate to men and those which are restricted to women, as in the example discussed below.

The question of whether different ways of making imply identifiably different ways of seeing has a limited bibliography. Τ o the extent that we can find analyses which move in that direction, almost all discussions of the matter find it difficult to get to grips with the question or avoid it altogether. Neither Gombrich4 nor Berger5, though both rich in insight, quite tackle the issue in its cross-cultural context; nor indeed does Wittgenstein in his classic discussion of the image of a duck which is also a rabbit.6 We can find sympathetic phrases here and there in other works concerned with ways of seeing. Julian Spalding remarks: 'To understand the art of other ages and cultures, we have to make an imaginative leap into the minds of the people who made it. And to do that, we have to forget our modern ideas about art, history and about seeing itself.'7 Agreed; but, working backwards from what we see now to how the same images and patterns might have been seen at other times and in other places, is far from easy. In the end the thesis Spalding develops is a rather bland one about art as a medium for creating a sense of wonderment - a perspective much more comprehensively argued by Alfred Gell.8 James Elkins explicitly discusses 'the nature of seeing' at length; again, though he examines pictorial images from beyond the western canon, the issue of whether there might be different ways of seeing based on different cultural and artistic practice - and, if so, what those differences might be - remains largely unexplored.9

The most sustained argument of the kind developed here is perhaps that by David Summers in his discussion of the idea of 'facture'.10 Summers notes that the word 'artefact' combines the idea of the final object with the processes of its making. …

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