After graduating from the L’École normale supérieure in 1965, Daniel Arasse began writing his graduate thesis in art history on Bernardino of Siena at the Sorbonne in 1966. But when in Florence someone broke into his car and stole its contents—including the sole copy of his thesis—Arasse decided to start over again, choosing a different subject and advisor entirely. At L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Arasse resumed his studies under Louis Marin, the celebrated semiologist who saw in painting a symbolic structure, an ordering or disordering of signs—a teacher and writer who fostered many points of contact with the world of contemporary letters. Arasse titled his work La Thèse volée, which clearly referred to the thesis stolen from his car, but also cleverly referred to the story by Poe, “The Purloined Letter,” which was a contemporary subject of intense discussion about the relationship between truth and representation—a discussion carried out in periodicals, books, seminars, and a public conference whose most notable participants were Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Barbara Johnson. One hundred years after its translation by Baudelaire in 1869, and at the beginning of Arasse’s career, the story’s title, La Lettre volée, foreshadowed a scholar eager to intervene in, if not to accept, the broader consequences of what was then called, perhaps too readily, post-structuralism. Arasse’s insistence that the viewer not overlook what was there just under his nose, his location of painting’s meaning at the point of a breakdown in the visual ordering systems, continued into his later works such as Take a Closer Look.
The book’s translator, Alyson Waters, who is well regarded as the translator of Aragon’s Treatise on Style, shows her exquisite talent once again in her rendering of various modes of address, ongoing puns, provocative idiomatic expressions, and art-historical terminology in several languages. The tone and the delicately worded insights of Arasse’s French shine forth clearly in this English translation, up to and including the book’s title, On n’y voit rien: déscriptions—translated as the imperative Take a Closer Look.
To “take a closer look,” for Arasse, meant first to acknowledge the presence of zones of unintelligibility in a sequence of representations from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. His déscriptions articulate the place where this erudite historian of art and we, his readers, initially think we don’t see a thing. On n’y voit rien: déscriptions could be translated more literally—and certainly without Waters’ artful touch—as “we see nothing there: descriptions.” The subject of Arasse’s book is the “there” in which “we see nothing”; his “descriptions” treat this zone of unintelligibility not simply as an oversight to be corrected, but as a point where painting makes contact with the conditions that allow paintings to function as representations.
In the essay “The Snail’s Gaze” (Le regard de l’escargot), for example, Arasse focuses our attention on the presence of a snail at the bottom edge of Francesco del Cossa’s painting The Annunciation, completed between 1470 and 1472. The presence of this creature fascinates and disquiets its viewers. It calls out for interpretation rather than mere acceptance of the representation of the annunciation it depicts, or even the natural history it displays. To create the interrogative space that does not take the presence of this snail for granted, Arasse writes the essay in the style of a dialogue that has already become heated, between the first-person writer and the reader, who has been placed, before even starting to read, in the position of criticizing the critic. “You’re going to tell me yet again that I’m going too far,” Arasse begins, “that I’m having a good time, but that I’m also overinterpreting.” Arasse’s mode of address places two sets of eyes on the painting instead of one. This perspective impels readers to think, with Arasse, about what they do not comprehend in this remarkable painting, to think about what they have not seen before, and to see what one usually skips over in the process of explaining.
Arasse asserts, through the first-person critic, that snails are unique in paintings of the annunciation; yet he directly asks, in case the reader is in possession of more iconographic knowledge: “do you know of any?” The reader soon realizes that this rhetorical positioning of the writer in a dialogue with herself serves a greater purpose than merely asking for additional facts that could not possibly be available. The interrogation, rather, approximates the manner in which Cossa’s painting calls out to its viewers.
For a while this ‘problem of the snail’ obsessed me and I wound up seeing in it the painter’s appeal to my gaze, a question he was asking at the painting’s edge of those who were looking at it and who, for centuries, would continue to look at it.
You know how it is: you think, you think, you get nowhere, and then all of a sudden, bingo!—you see.
This is where the double set of eyes becomes necessary: seeing the act of seeing. The space immediately around the snail and the ground upon which the snail moves horizontally both destroy the illusion of space erected by Cossa’s elaborately constructed perspective. In fact, and with curious purposefulness, the snail draws the viewer’s attention to the material presence of the physical painting. The flatness of the snail interrupts the power of perspective, which had extended well beyond the palace in Cossa’s painting, into the era it helped to define as a symbolic mode.
Perspective in the fifteenth century came into its own as a means of common measure, of the commensurability of things and people according to the knowingly constructed rubrics of human society. The snail alerts the viewer to the gap between the finite realm of social measure, and the (hoped-for) realm in which this measurement becomes meaningless. The gastropod draws our attention to the theological construct that, like the physical support of the two-dimensional surface, functions as The Annunciation’s condition of possibility. According to this construct, God is incommensurate on his own, as he is infinite. Through becoming a creature of the earth he sacrificed infinity for finitude, transformed his omnipotent and omniscient invisibility into the visibility of a being comparable with others. It’s hard not to think in this instance of Nicholas of Cusa, who Arasse so admired. In Dei Vision Dei (1453) the theologian, who worked as a Papal envoy, compares God to a painter:
Formerly you appeared to me, O Lord, as invisible by every creature because you are hidden, infinite God. Infinity, however, is incomprehensible by every means of comprehending. Later you appeared to me as visible by all, for a thing exists only as you see it, and it would not exist unless it saw you. For your vision confers being, since your vision is your essence. Thus, my God, you are equally invisible and visible. As you are, you are invisible; as the creature is, which exists only insofar as the creature sees you, you are visible.
Cossa’s snail represents God’s presentation of himself as one of his own, lowly creatures. The initial, earthly instantiation of the annunciation appears, here, as an artifact of nature, possibly a Helix pomatia, scarcely separable from its trail of slime. Arasse concludes:
On the edge of the perspectival construction, on its threshold, the anomaly of the snail reaches out to you; it appeals to you to see differently and makes you understand that you are seeing nothing in what you are looking at. Or rather, in what you see, you fail to see what you are looking at, what you are looking for, what you are expecting to find, namely, the emergence of the invisible into the field of vision.
To take on the subject of the annunciation from the perspective of the snail—“from the snail’s gaze”—as Cossa did in this painting, is to adopt the gaze of a creature that cannot trust his sight and must sense differently (“il paraît qu’ils ne regardent rien”). This fact of theological history movingly recorded by the painter is also a fact of natural history. “Despite their two eyes at the end of well-extended horns,” Arasse writes, “ils n’y voient pratiquement rien,” and with those words, he echoes the book’s French title: snails see nothing.
In the following chapter Arasse once again slows down in the face of painting to consider a conspicuous absence—which is perhaps the face of a constitutive presence—in The Adoration of the Magi by Bruegel. The title of the chapter, “Paint it Black” (Un œil noir), refers directly to the eyes of the third king in the story of the adoration of the magi, who, according to painterly traditions in Western Europe of the sixteenth century, was of an ambiguous African descent. This “African” figure, Gaspar, finds himself solemnly painted in an otherwise farcical scene. His eyes have become nearly all-pupil, dilated in the extreme, as if attempting to adjust themselves to the dark and rain-soaked landscape of Northern Europe. In Arasse’s view, the king’s depicted skin color initially makes him disappear. In a device used in contemporary painting by Kerry James Marshall, the viewer sees a reduced tonal range in Gaspar’s face, where a symbolic or typological darkening occurs, requiring the viewer to come as close as possible to see the face’s expression. Bringing one’s face closer to Gaspar’s encourages an intimacy with the viewer, a fellow-feeling impossible to locate in the faces of the two white kings beside Gaspar. As if to highlight this potential intimacy with Gaspar, Arasse writes the chapter “Paint it Black” (Un œil noir) in the third person singular. By replacing “I” with “He” the writer breaks the symmetry between the “you” and the “I” that has developed in the previous chapter. Now, if the reader would like to identify, this identification must develop in the eye-to-eye interaction with the third king, questioning what that eye sees, in the third person.
For Arasse, the subject of Bruegel’s painting (and the reason Bruegel paints this “black” king without comedy), is the gaze and the uncertainty of the knowledge it retrieves. Gaspar first draws the viewer’s attention to this because he looks directly at Balthazar. In the figure of Balthazar, struggling to see with his entire, bent body, the gaze aims falteringly at the recently circumcised penis of Jesus. Yet the baby Jesus has moved his legs to deflect Balthazar’s gaze. The viewer sees Gaspar who acts as witness to Balthazar’s missed encounter with the bloody trace of God’s incarnation. Arasse writes, “we can’t see anything there; for us there is nothing to see.”
Just as Arasse’s analysis makes no attempt at bombast while describing the miracle of Jesus’s recently circumcised penis, he also does not reduce the “nothing to see” in the Adoration of the Magi to a proof of the absence of God. Quite the opposite. It is in the “nothing to see” of this painting that the painting makes contact with its theological support. When it comes to “the (in)visibility of the divine sexual organ,” writes Arasse, summarizing the theological suspicion of relics in the period between Luther and Calvin, “blessed are they who do not see and yet believe.” For those lacking in faith, or the generally incredulous, the possibility of sharing the sight of this “nothing to see” with Gaspar, who has arrived at the scene from an impossible distance—resting for a moment in a miracle that remains dark—offers an alternative to the blind acceptance of the merely existing. “As if, after Saint Thomas,” Arasse concludes, “one had to see to believe, to believe only what one sees.”
Take a Closer Look also considers the encounter of painting with its conditions of possibility in secular terms. The book’s last chapter, on Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas offers an interpretation of this painting so well represented in commentaries and theories of visuality that he hesitates to say anything more—“Everything’s been said about it! Everything? Or nothing? What’s the difference, enough is definitely enough!” Arasse takes as his point of entry Foucault’s well known essay “Las Meninas” published in Les Mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines in 1966. Rather than adding his name to the list of clever art historians who have pointed out how Foucault’s claims lack historical specificity, Arasse contemplates the oversight as productive to interpretations of the painting. In fact, Foucault’s lack of attention to the specificities of King Philip’s court makes room for anyone looking at the painting to lose themselves in the spell of “gaze of the master.”
In his own analysis Foucault focused on the mirror in the painting, the top corner of which marks the exact center of Velázquez’s painting. The figures seen reflected in this painting are those depicted on the large canvas that is turned away from the viewer toward the painter, who we see at work. In the mirror’s gleam the figures find themselves caught in a representation of a representation, in addition to a representation of a representation they (and we) cannot see: the painting Las Meninas depicts a painting (itself from behind) which may offer a likeness of whomever stands in the privileged place of the King of Spain, who is in turn represented in the mirror. For Foucault, if the viewer substitutes herself for the King, Las Meninas offers an allegory of the conditions of the representation of the human subject in which that subject disappears into its representations rather than masterfully controls them. By dispensing with the specific historical identity of the figures in the room, Las Meninas stages the problem of locating truth in the identity of subject and representation. Truth decouples itself from vision; seeing and believing diverge. For Foucault, this painting is not about the reflection of historical or biographical reality, but the reality of reflection.
Arasse knows as well as anyone how to identify the figures in the painting: Infanta Margarita and her surrounding maids; the chaperone; the bodyguard; the female dwarf; the Italian boy Nicolas Pertusato; the beautiful mastiff with closed eyes; Velázquez with his brush in hand; King Philip IV and Queen Mariana; and, to their right, José Nieto Velázquez, the queen’s aposentador. But Arasse does not try to penetrate the meaning of the painting by reducing it to biographical detail. Rather than dismissing Foucault’s insights for their anachronistic relation to the conditions in which the painting was commissioned and first shown (in King Philip’s personal office), Arasse insists on the importance of Foucault’s interpretation, specifically because of its anachronism. Arasse writes, “on the contrary, it is this anachronism that gave it its efficacy, that led to new inquiries, and that makes us look at the painting better, and that, in many instances, allows us to see it.”
Arasse here talks to himself in the second person and so enacts, in writing, the semblance of a self in question, depicted in Valezquez’s painting, described in Foucault’s essay. Alyson Waters’s translation makes this evident in English: suddenly the you that called out to the reader to interrogate his own vision in the presence of Cossa’s snail has replaced the authorial I. Arasse has entered into the tableau, this staging of the self before mirrors and representation and has come out in the “second person,” in the self-referential narrative Arasse has come up with order to liken his analysis to the mirror of Las Meninas, which Foucault said “initiates a metathesis on visuality that at once captures the represented space of the painting and its nature as a representation; it makes visible, in the canvas’s center, what the painting keeps, twice over, invisible.”
This second-person narrative continues by attempting to ground its understanding in a straightforward look at the painting. While the mirror may initiate an epistemological rupture, Arasse would like to slowly retrace the steps of how that occurred in the making of the painting. The mirror does not remain simply blank; it depicts—questionably, hazily—the King and Queen of Spain. Before he allows himself to come to a grand conclusion, Arasse considers the painting as plainly historical scenario: the Infanta Margarita came down to surprise the king and the queen as they had their portraits painted. Reversing this scenario, Arasse comes to a straightforward interpretation of the painting: “The painter represented what happened when he was representing the king and queen . . . he represented the conditions of representation.”
One condition of the representation—that which has structured the characteristics of this painting but does not appear, fully realized, as one of its characters—was the arcana principis, the shroud of mystery surrounding his person. In Arasse’s view, Velázquez used this “mystery” as the driving concept of his painting. Because it must not fully articulate the king’s body, the status of the mirror remains unknowable, a void of dark pseudo-reflections, in line with Foucault’s claims. Arasse goes on to quote Foucault: “Among all these elements intended to provide representations . . . [the mirror] is the only one that fulfills its function in all honesty and enables us to see what it is supposed to show.” A little further down, he notes that, “it is reflecting nothing, in fact, of all that is there in the same space as itself . . . It is not the visible it reflects.”
Arasse concludes that the painting indeed elides its subject as much as it eclipses its object, by focusing on the conditions of representation according to which the contemporary viewer as well as the king and queen of Spain have become “impossible to guaranty.” Whether the viewer finds herself fascinated by the nimbus of the royal personage, or unfastened from herself as a subject of the (still reigning) scopic regime, the triumph of the painting consists in referring to these as a non-visual, conceptual reality. Most importantly for Arasse, Velázquez models this conceptual reality, which the author likens to Kant’s description of the transcendental object, in the act of painting. Velázquez leads the viewer to the point where sight breaks down without the aid of external theoretical insight through the act of depiction. In the example set by Las Meninas painting provides its own theory of representation: “It is as if the painting were visually producing meaning, independently and beyond the ideas that the painter and the one who commissioned it could make of it—and long after their deaths.”
In Arasse’s conclusion to the “Gaze of the Master,” which also concludes Take a Closer Look, the art historian returns to a lasting theme in his own critical work: the empowerment of viewers and artists through the insistence that artworks offer the best means for conceptualizing themselves. The best theorization of artworks, he contends, develops within artworks’ own structures, makes itself legible, even in the dissolution of that structure, on their very surfaces. Arasse’s work demands that its readers observe the threshold between the verb “voir” (to see) and the verb “savoir” (to know).
By pointing out painting’s zones of unintelligibility, as well as the places where previous art histories and iconographies break down, Arasse does not seek to simply replace these interpretations with the “latest and greatest” theory of art. On the contrary, the various prose styles of Take a Closer Look allow us to conclude that this book represents the attempt to relinquish its author’s authority. It tempts its reader to look out for the moments in which the writer does not see clearly, or perhaps “sees nothing”—the last step before the reader undertakes the challenge of analyzing with their own eyes. This places the reader of Take a Closer Look in a position similar that of Gaspar, in Bruegel’s Adoration of the Magi, about whom Arasse wrote, perhaps with his own eye suspended in a wink, that he “looks slightly surprised and vaguely dumbfounded by the behavior of his old white colleague.”
One thinks of Brecht’s invitation to his audience to see the characters in his plays not seeing the circumstances in which they were caught. Interrupting themselves to display a blindness—donne à voir un aveuglement,¹ as a young Barthes said of Brecht—they invite viewers to recognize themselves in theological clouds of unknowing, if not the historically conditioned ignorance, that continues to haunt our representations.
Jeffrey Stuker makes artworks and writes about art under various insignia, both fictional and actual. He has taught at Wesleyan, Yale, and Marlboro College. He was appointed co-director of the Seeld Library in 2012.
¹Barthes, Écrits sur le théâtre, p. 232