Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 26, 2018
Éric Alliez The Brain-Eye: New Histories of Modern Painting Trans Robin Mackay Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2015. 472 pp. Paperback $49.00 (9781783480685)

Philosophically inflected histories of modern painting take many forms. French phenomenology shapes one of the richest and most deeply ingrained of these. Éric Alliez’s The Brain-Eye offers an alternative to this standard way of charting European painting from roughly 1825 to 1900. His account is alternative in that it shifts emphasis decidedly away from what has become comme il faut in such philosophical studies, i.e., approaches that give pride of place to “impressionism” as an ordering concept. Alliez wants to resist this way of parsing the development of modern painting, and the artists and works he discusses are chosen to allow him to deploy them as pivots, swinging the reader away from what he takes to be the status quo. Each of the artists whom Alliez considers are canonical figures in the “pre-Impressionist/Impressionist/post-Impressionist” classificatory schema. For Alliez, they are means to undermining the very terms of their usual reception.

Alliez presents Goethe as inaugurating an alternative approach to sensation, the first in a line of thought on color and sensation that provides basic materials for the reconception of modernist painting. Newton analyzed color as the fixed-spectrum result of white light refracted through a prism. Goethe treated Newton’s discovery as a special case of a more comprehensive phenomenon. Goethe was impressed by the fact that the colors of refracted light merge and change in character when one moves the surface upon which they are projected farther away from the prism. It is the triadic structure of light/prism/location that is primary for Goethe. Color is finally interpreted as an intermingling of the poles of light and dark (darkness for Goethe is not the mere absence of light, but light’s “dialectical” opposite). Advocates for Goethe’s color theory have typically viewed it as adaptable to idealism (Schopenhauer, Hegel) or as suggestive for phenomenology or philosophical psychology (Wittgenstein). Still others have seen in it an interesting model for how theories can function speculatively (Benjamin). Goethe was (uncharacteristically) a bit tentative about his formulation—the title of the book is qualified by the words zur (“toward”) and Lehre, often translated as “theory” but with a slightly less formal feel in the German of Goethe’s time, suggesting something like “study.” However, he thought the idealist interpretation of his views mistaken and would have no doubt resisted their annexation to phenomenology as well. Scientific consensus cedes the ground of an objective theory of color to Newton. Nineteenth-century psychophysicists and physiologists like Helmholtz rejected out of hand Goethe’s specific criticisms of Newton as misguided, as results of shoddy experimental procedure and unchecked exuberance, in equal measure. Nineteenth-century scientists were quite taken, nevertheless, with probing for the basis in perception of several sorts of color experiences not contemplated by Newton, experiences in which the eye and brain “supply” color to moving black, white, and gray forms, for instance. What Alliez gleans from this literature of the optics of color is an account of sensation in which human reflective capacities do not structure antecedently what is sensed as a condition precedent to sensation being fully available to the mind. In fact, the whole idea of sensation being “available to the mind”—as if what is sensed is in a raw, inert state prior to its further cognitive processing—is one Alliez wishes to attack. Focal intentional mental states in such experiences are not primary; they are effects not causes. This may seem similar to Merleau-Ponty’s conception of embodied intentionality, but it is not. Merleau-Ponty—for many still the grand presence at the intersection of phenomenology and modernist painting—operates with a notion of synthesis in which coarse, dispersed, and essentially meaningless pre-experiential materials are tamed and given meaning by being combined, refined, and focused mentally. Alliez insists that this idea of fundamental focal meaning is incorrect. Sensate experience is deposited in the brain in a reflection-occluded differential plurality. The etymological derivation of “aesthetics” reveals that it consists of treating the sensate being of painting (color), so to speak, as radiantly silted in the brain, not preordered by intellect. The basic mode of sense-being is multiplicity that is not readymade to collapse into identity.

This way of looking at things is greatly indebted, I think, to Gilles Deleuze, but Georges Bataille, Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and others are also recruited to lend a hand. What stands out about Alliez’s book, though, is not the business of crafting a general theory of perception or of color; it is, rather, the always innovative and sometimes arresting discussion of the paintings in question, treated less as a domain upon which philosophical theories are overlaid than an active field in which the philosophy of painting is realized by its objects. If the mind is essentially a constantly modulating sensate receptor and not by default a focal preceptor, it might stand to reason that organized sensation in which there is a great deal of play—modernist painting in some of its main sorts—establishes a reciprocating exchange, and that mind and thing coordinate adaptively over time in a materialist version of what Gombrich called “making and matching.” Alliez presents five extensive case studies, in chronological order, through close treatments of Delacroix, Manet, Seurat, Gaugin, and Cézanne. Alliez invites one to consider Delacroix’s vitalism as the result of a grasping of color independent of representational necessities, a sense of color sifted through his brain and then embedded in the paint. This is the ground zero of the account of brain-eye and color, the historical force of which is that Delacroix unseats the otherwise always-first Manet in Alliez’s retelling. In turn, Manet’s “realism” takes on a decidedly new look. The nature of the canvas here is that of scalar montage, its surface assembled as an allover cutout. If Delacroix and Manet provide Alliez with his palate for pre-non-impressionist painting, Seurat commences the consideration of post-non-impressionism. Alliez resituates La Grande Jatte as objective. Seurat’s painterly points do not register the subjective dimensions of light and color; rather, they embed in the paint the incipience of photography—an interchange within a point between brushstroke and exposure. Gauguin’s extruded color-sight is a viscous reinvention of the world as more than itself and, therefore, as suffused with spirits. Cézanne is in many ways the most challenging candidate for inclusion in Alliez’s alternate history, but for that very reason also the most potentially illuminating. One of the glories of Merleau-Ponty’s oeuvre is his consideration of the artist, and prizing Cézanne away from the grasp of phenomenology is in many ways the high-stakes game of The Brain-Eye. Alliez fastens on what he takes to be the over-embeddedness of the sensuous in Cézanne’s paintings. Many interpret his work as having a certain “unfinished” quality. According to Alliez, if I understand him correctly, this is due to a hyperactive kind of “correction”—one might even say, self-correction—present in the work. Color (and thus sensation) are so replete that they cannot help but overwrite linear elements in pictorial space, tokening thereby a continuously self-disclosing form. Again, the point is that this is a mode of seeing past objecthood—of allowing the patterns of thought their non-focal operation in paint. This tack reminds one of Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation (1981; see esp. chapter 6), which traces the meaty materiality of Bacon’s work back to Cézanne’s idea of a subintentional “logic of sensation” that has its epitome in color and its pattern in rhythm.

The Brain-Eye is a challenging but rewarding read. It is a book that bristles with source material, and at times this can obscure argument. Any such difficulty is more than offset, however, by the expert handling of the studies, all of which convey deep engagement with the work and a coordinate sensitivity that permits that work—and the eye—to speak for itself. 

Fred Rush
Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Notre Dame