One of our shticks at A&P (in a good way) has been our interest in learning about perception through findings in neuroscience, psychophysics, and related fields, as well as through introspective observation of our own seeing and art-making. Though this interest is not unique to A&P, it certainly isn’t very common, either. So I was delighted to come across two examples in a day of cognitive science finding mention in current art criticism at a rather higher level of visibility. It was especially nice that these references truly illuminated the discussion of the art viewer, in one case, and the artist, in the second.
Exhibit A is Peter Schjeldahl’s recent New Yorker article on paintings from the Norton Simon collection, now visiting New York (to see the full article requires a free registration, but there’s an open podcast also).
I was pleased to discover, at the Frick, that my mental image of them had been close to photographic. No nuance of the dusky russet shadows and tiny green inflection, in the fruit’s yellow, surprised me. But the other objects registered with a jolt: I didn’t remember and oranges, basket, cup, or rose. My recollection had amputated two-thirds of a tour de force.
Research has confirmed what experience posits: strongly emotional events linger in vivid but narrowly focussed memory, etching certain facts–a gun pointed at you, say–while occluding pretty much everything incidental to them (such as the color of the gunman’s hair, or whether he had any).
But remember how Bonnard worked. He didn’t go directly from perception to painting. He didn’t set up his easel in the dining room and go to work. Instead, he waited and he pondered. He made pencil sketches of the basket of oranges that might not be there tomorrow, took notes about the way the door was open just so. He’d leave the painting alone for a few years and then go back to it when the time was ripe. Bonnard paints from understanding back into perception. That’s why his work is so often described as “intelligent.” Bonnard is not dealing with the moment of recognition, but with experiences that have been sitting in the brain for a long time. The fact is, we are always working on the images we collect as we move along, living. We’re always going through memories, altering them, adding and subtracting, recreating the crap of our minds to fit the ongoing narrative that makes you, you and me, me. There’s an entire world in our heads. This world corresponds to the one we live in, but not exactly. It has its own rules, its own meaning. Bonnard is painting from that world.
So that’s my haul for the day. Any other examples out there?