What Is It to Truly ‘See’ and How to Deal with the Unseen

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Alexandra Courtois de Vicose, History of Art

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2015

Predicated on seeing, the discipline of art history often surprises students with paradoxical problems of simultaneous visibility and invisibility. We see, but how and what do we really see? We ask students to not only remember dates, geo-political forces significant to the meaning of an artwork, theoretical concepts, but also to translate verbally the purely visual. A difficult task. When confronted with a Monet water landscape last spring and asked, “What do you see?” they rightly answered, “A boat.” “You understand this shape as a boat because, culturally, you know what a boat looks like. Keep in mind, however, this is but an amalgamation of pigment on a two-dimensional surface. So, really, what do you see?”

In my three experiences as GSI, all of us in section were gifted with sight. Yet to help them see, on a whim, I asked my students to imagine I had lost mine. Standing there, my hands covering my eyes to physically trigger their awareness of my robbing myself of sight, I asked them to dig deep into the well of their vocabulary and visual acuity to share their visual experience with me. “Let me see through you.” The energy in the room completely shifted. More voices arose, speaking excitedly; voices of the timid joined in; they started addressing each other rather than just me, contributing the building blocks of the composition, a more nuanced evaluation of color. More importantly, the voices were articulating how shapes were materialized on canvas: a thin but assertive blue-grey vertical line, adjacent to a gestural white triangle, positioned above two thick horizontal brush strokes of melding blue and white… I started to feel less foolish, arms up over my face, because here was the boat. The boat was pigment applied by a seemingly quick hand. The boat was just enough color, arranged to make you believe in what it was meant to signify. No longer were they just reading recognizable objects organized across a picture plane, they were seeing the paint itself, as a process of materialization. In the following weeks, I noticed the students practicing this new mode of seeing, of description, until one day a complex pictorial process challenged them: what was visible to them was not the entire story. Indeed, the artwork looked like a pastel: bold, chalky colors on paper fashioned a cabaret singer on a stage. And yet, their study guide listed a black and white printing process called “monotype.” It soon became clear that the object as a whole had lost its legibility; even though they could vividly describe its surface, they did not understand its making and were tentative discussing it, afraid of being wrong. The invisible was hindering the visible encounter.

When they walked into the next section, boxes of dry pastels were awaiting them. I gave each student a photocopy of a monotype (black and white bathers Edgar Degas had drawn with ink on a glass plate, onto which a sheet of paper was pressed, resulting in the mirrored impression of the image.) After a quick review of this unique printing process, I distributed the pastels, two to three colors per person, so that they could see how the pigment could be applied as chalk, moved around with a finger, softened and blended into another color, manipulated in a variety of ways… Reactions were encouragingly positive: “Cool,” “Fun,” “Oh wow, this is much more opaque than I expected.” Indeed, soon, the black and white bathers were masked by color, students’ hands guided in their own mark-making by the photocopy, as Degas’s had been by the monotype 150 years prior. This new surface, the only one visible to them, was mapped onto a layer made invisible by accretion of pigment. By physically involving their hands in the mechanical process of design, they gained insight beyond what they could see, into the stages of creative development. They could now discuss with confidence what they perceived visually and what they knew about the object’s manufacture. For the rest of the semester, the “What do we see?” question was amended with “and how does what we don’t see affect what we do see?” I believe this activity was enjoyable and constructive as a number of evaluations mentioned it, and its insight was reflected in the language they mobilized in their exams in very productive ways.