Merleau-Ponty, Realism and Painting: Psychophysical Space and the Space of Exchange

Prendeville, Brendan. 1999. Merleau-Ponty, Realism and Painting: Psychophysical Space and the Space of Exchange. Art History, 22(3), pp. 364-388. ISSN 0141-6790 [Article]

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If Merleau-Ponty was able to give painting a central place in his philosophy, it is because European painters of the realist tradition anticipated his themes in their practice. He implicitly defined painting as a form of inquiry, where the inquirer is corporeally engaged in the field of study, as opposed to science, which ‘looks down from above’, and he took painting as a model for his own thinking of sensation. A source for the spatial antitheses that recur throughout his writing is found in perspective construction, particularly in its seventeenth-century genre and realist versions. It is the disembodied matrix of linear perspective, imposed ‘from above’, that makes situated perspective possible. Merleau-Ponty is both a critic of perspective and a perspectivist; a critic of science and its interlocutor, requiring that which he opposes. The study of perception is a ground on which all three fields of concern – science, painting and philosophy – come together, the nineteenth century being a critical period for this encounter. The nineteenth-century concept of ‘milieu’ is relevant here, because it unites the spatial antitheses referred to; it also introduces the theme of mediation. Without losing his commitment to sens– sensuousness and meaning – Merleau-Ponty increasingly dehumanizes his philosophical vocabulary, introducing terms suggestive of mediation. This shift to the middle is signalled by a use of terms like ‘exchange’ and ‘commerce’ to describe the ‘two-sidedness’ of perception. The language of exchange articulates the psychophysical, in Merleau-Ponty’s later writing, informed by an underlying concern with Hegel and Marx. There is a parallel here with realist paintings by de Hooch and Degas which combine a ‘space of exchange‘– a secular and commercial modernity structured by shifting coordinates – with a space open to sens, where vision enters the visible. These paintings combine the systematic and the sensuous, in contexts of social and commercial exchange. The physicist Ernst Mach’s diagram of perception, which presents an extreme of spatial systematization, both compares and contrasts with spatiality in Degas and in Merleau-Ponty. The theme of commerciality, and its intersection with Merleau-Ponty’s ‘strange system of [sensory] exchanges’, finds a parallel in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, which sheds oblique light on the philosopher’s late writing and its motifs of reflection and opening.

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Visual Cultures


September 1999Published

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14 Mar 2016 16:37

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07 Jul 2017 14:30

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