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Questions on the Merleau-Ponty Reading

I received the following email from Nicky concerning Friday’s reading of Merleau-Ponty which she was unable to attend, any feed back/other comments, from those present?

Eye and Mind

I found this piece of writing difficult to understand as Ponty wove his argument around the inconsistencies of Cartesian models of perception and thinking to explain the operation and significance of painting.  The Chapter from ‘The world of Perception’ was very helpful in its presentation of a more condensed and clear statement.

His theories about the metaphysical significance of painting are based on his concepts of the nature of perception—as the ‘dehiscence of Being’    ‘whereby the visible makes present a certain absence, its rear side, its inside, its past’  So painting is the attempt to express or make visible anew ways in which the visible world forms itself to our eyes.  Thus painting may convey the perception of the outward appearance of ‘things’—in a manner that is independent of assumptions.  Like the experience of seeing, the direct perceptual experience of things or paintings is of great value, distinct and separate from a process of analysis.

In Ponty’s discussion about perception he seems to be so preoccupied countering the Cartesian model that the roles of memory, the imagination and intellectual deduction in painting appear to be dismissed.  Certainly modes of perception are the conduits along which experiences enter our minds, but once inside instead of being absorbed on a blank slate they are interpreted, thought and felt about and compared to previous personal experiences and anecdotal ones of others.  I think this happens in the process of painting to, rather than the painter’s hand operating simply a conductor ‘which reaches the support and engulfs it.’

The main area that I would have liked to hear people discuss is that of the nearly exclusive linkage that Ponty forms between painting and perception.  I certainly don’t claim to have a complete grasp on understanding his ideas, but this aspect rests uncomfortably within me.  What do the others think?



May 30, 2009 - Posted by | Reading 3, reading group | ,


  1. Kerry left this comment on the ‘Reading Groups’ page

    I would like to say thank-you to Jude for her Merleau-Ponty “Pearl”. While it was dense on first read I am anxious to begin it again just for the pleasure, without the imperative. I wonder at how different we all are, why some are so eloquent and literal, while others are non-linguistic in the words and the vision of our ‘Being’ that we all passionately ‘inspire’ and ‘expire’ as artists.

    Comment by kerryannie | May 29, 2009 | Edit | Reply

    Comment by Vivienne | May 30, 2009 | Reply

  2. I’m pleased you enjoyed it and are undaunted Kerry. I think one has to get into the spirit of it. One of the visitors, from Photomedia (or was it Ceramics?), agrees with you Nicky, regarding the exclusivity of MMP’s focus on painting and visual perception. he thought more attention could be given to spatial awareness and other senses like smell, hearing etc. MMP mentions Blanchot somewhere in the essay, whose “Poetics of Space” and “Poetics of Reverie” cover some of the bases you mention. My sense of it is that MMP is speaking more generally about the way the senses function in the construction of our sense of self. He is responding to the “primacy” of vision and the powerful links that it has to empirical (rather than rational) processes. He is excited by how painting can uncover (or perhaps “recover”) the complexities of vision which is so instrumentalised in daily existence. And this in order to return to us a sense of integrity with the world.
    But I agree, he is very bent on the argument with Descartes and I have to admit the details that middle section don’t interest me as much as the bits on either side.

    Comment by Jude | May 30, 2009 | Reply

  3. I thought about Merleau-Ponty’s writing as supportive and descriptive of the observational approach to painting and drawing, but also the significance of it as a transformational process through an intensity of vision not experienced in the everyday. As Deborah mentioned, his writing can be used as a weapon to argue in support of painting as a re-invigoration of vision rather than an illustration of an idea. Although it is clear from the discussion that the hegemony of the eye does not sit well with contemporary artists. Evocation of alternative senses is something I have been trying to deal with in the shroud process, which is not really painting, but rather an embedding in the ground of my multi-sensory experience with the death of the subject. My own ‘hangups’ concerning the detachment/involvement dialectic were encapsulated in the opening line “Science manipulates things and gives up living in them.” It was satisfying to read a text supporting the observational approach as more than a “data-collecting technique” due to my ‘addiction’ to this creative act being the foundation of my desire to make.

    Comment by vanessa | May 31, 2009 | Reply

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