This article analyses Alois Riegl’s (1858‑1905) notion of an aesthetics of proximity (Nahsicht), to which he associates the dimension of the tactile and the haptic. Opposed to Nahsicht is what Riegl calls the ‘optical-fernsichtig’: an aesthetics of spatial distance that in his view responds more satisfactorily to the essence of architecture. While Riegl’s optical dimension relates to linear perspective, evoking a particular model of spatial construction, the haptic, on the other hand, alludes to planarity and to the drawing of profiles and details, promising to engender alternative modes of vision and spatiality. I intend to challenge Riegl’s proposed correspondence between the ‘optical-fernsichtig’ and the logic of architecture, connecting the later instead with his aesthetics of proximity: as already suggested by Walter Benjamin’s own reading of Riegl in the text ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936). Drawing from that connection, I will argue that some procedures typically associated to the haptic might be productively employed to interrogate and reinvigorate current architectural practice.
Our eye need only become a bit sharper, our ear a bit more receptive; we need to take in the taste of a piece of fruit more fully; we should be able to tolerate more odours and become more conscious and less forgetful when touching and being touched — in order to draw consolation from our immediate experiences which would be more convincing, more paramount, and truer than all the suffering that could ever torment us.
An intensification of our senses may counteract human suffering and thus neutralise violence and hostility, suggests the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a year after the outbreak of World War I.
Reverberating with Rilke’s insight is an articulation formulated some years earlier by the well-known art historian Alois Riegl. In the book from 1901 entitled Late Roman Art Industry Riegl discusses an aesthetics of proximity (Nahsicht) prompted by some natural and man-made constructions that allegedly have the ability to trigger an amplification of human perception. Riegl associates Nahsicht to the dimension of the tactile and the haptic, to miniatures and to oriental carpets. Opposed to it is what he defines as the ‘optical-fernsichtig’: an aesthetic of spatial distance that in his view better corresponds to the essence of architecture.
In Riegl’s view, architectural constructs bear little resonance to the heightening of perception envisioned by Rilke as a potentially redeeming social force. However, developing his theory, Riegl’s disciple Walter Benjamin suggests a different perspective, relating architecture to Nahsicht, and envisioning for it a powerful social influence, exerted through sensorial mobilisation. The aim of this article is to pursue the relationship between architecture and Nahsicht further. The text is divided in two parts. The first part, ‘Zooming In’, focuses on the dimension of the miniature and the detail, remaining true to Riegl’s own understanding of the haptic (Nahsicht). The second part, ‘Zooming Out’, expands Riegl’s vision and relates Nahsicht to wider spatial structures.
The short animation Seasons, realised in 1969 by the Russian animator Ivan Ivanov Vano, takes us through a miniature landscape, a dream-like virtual scenery, accessible through the patterned cover of a silver tray (Fig. 1; available at youtube.com). In it, the pattern leads the eye into a scaled-down enchanted field opened by its layered ornamental structure: a potentially infinite space built out of delicate fabric and mist, a magical scenery where a romantic promenade takes place. The film suggests the existence of a latent field hiding within the illusionary stillness of ornamented patterns: an enchanted dimension that pretends to be nothing but an embellishment — of a tray, of a vase, of a wall — but which hides a miniature fantasy world behind it. The message that the film Seasons conveys is that the intricacy of ornament stimulates our senses, transporting us to a different dimension.
The dimension that Seasons reveals operates in the domain of Nahsicht, close-up vision: a domain in which the eye gets so near that the sight starts to be contaminated by touch. When we look too closely at the surface of a painting, Georges Didi-Huberman reminds us, its image gets blurred and we gradually start to appreciate the materiality of its canvas, the texture of its pictorial field. Didi-Huberman calls the visual domain of the close up ‘panique’, meaning at the same time cloth-like and panic-provoking. As he defines, the “cloth effect [l’effet de pan] is like a panic [panique] assault of the local over the global, of the detail over totality … a punctual and poignant, insane, invasion of the detail.” Reverberating with Didi-Huberman’s understanding, Hélène Cixous defines close-up vision as inherently tactile. In this mode of seeing, she states, we are led to activate the “delicate tact” of our cornea, to allow our eyelashes to caress the flesh of the surface. But this domain of tactile vision is an unsafe one, she warns. In it, things seem to lose their hardness. Proximity leads us into a dimension where “reality loses solidity”, as Gaston Bachelard defines it. Figures convert into texture, and vision becomes then incarnated. We feel as if we are touching the surface — or rather we are touched by it — with our eyes. The materiality of our bodies resonates with the materiality of the world, as Cixous puts it. Proximity directs vision to the protrusions of the material, Bachelard writes.
In ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Benjamin suggestively compares the domain opened by close-up vision to the internal landscape of our body. Aligning the distanced activity of the painter with the one of the magician and the incisive close-up gesture of the cameraman to the one of the surgeon, he remarks:
The magician maintains … distance patient and himself … The surgeon the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient’s body … Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman. The painter between the does exactly maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law.
What is remarkable in the cameraman’s close-up, a derivation of Riegl’s Nahsicht, as Benjamin himself acknowledges, is its unique promotion of a “deepening of [tactile] apperception”. Resembling the surgeon’s startling cutting across the body, the proximity of the camera apparatus reveals a significant facet of reality that would otherwise remain unnoticeable. Consonant with Benjamin’s allusion to the surgical act is a classical close-up scene of Louis Buñuel’s surrealist film Le Chien Andalou (1929), where, as Didi-Huberman describes it, “insects … cease to be a ‘black point’, turning into a multitude; [they] cease to be immobile, in the margins of the image, and start swarming in its very centre; [they] cease to be a simple optical game, turning into a tactile wound, a scar opened in the middle of an infected hand”. What was purely visual and apparently harmlessly static is transformed, with the close up, into a tangible and threateningly dynamic form. Intriguingly, there seems to be an invisible thread bonding the shimmering and delicate landscape revealed by the close up of Seasons and the repellent act of magnification in Buñuel’s Le Chien Andalou. Common to both gestures is a fascination for a peculiar condition of perception, which, incited by an engagement with the miniature dimension, is located at the very threshold that both separates and unites the act of looking and the act of touching.
The film historian Linda Williams likens close-up vision with pornography. For her, the obscene quality of the close up relates to its activation of the “carnal density of vision”. Such a ‘density’, albeit tactile in essence, is, surprisingly perhaps, in fact independent from actual physical contact. Williams describes, for instance, some pre-filmic pornographic devices used in the nineteenth century where the observer uses the immoral imagery only as a voyeuristic means of stimulating tactile sensations, the material ‘object’ which presumably arouses such sensations being in fact absent. “Touch … is activated by but not aimed at, so to speak, the absent referent”, Williams observes. “Though quite material and palpable, it is not a matter of feeling the … object represented.” In other words, as she also defines, the close up stands for “a ‘visionary’ capacity of the body to produce sensations divorced from referents”. Albeit promoting a feeling that is essentially carnal, close-up vision actually departs from carnality as such, being fulfilled with its visual enactment only. The visual enactment of carnality is precisely what is at stake in Riegl’s concept of Nahsicht, a notion that became more widely known in art and architecture as haptic perception. Riegl defines the haptic as:
The plane which the eye perceives when it comes so close to the surface of an object, that all the silhouettes and, in particular, all shadows which otherwise could disclose an alteration in depth, disappear. The perception of objects … is thus tactile, and in as much as it has to be optical to a certain degree, it is nahsichtig.
Riegl’s haptic, or Nahsicht, refers to a peculiar condition of tactility which, being still “optical to a certain degree”, is characteristic — that is, internal — to vision. Being hooked in materiality, haptic vision is, according to Riegl, anti-spatial, since, in his definition, “space … is … not material but the negation of the material”. Denying depth and space, the haptic promotes a condition of ‘tactile impenetrability’: in Riegl’s view, an “essential pre-condition of … material individuality”. The art of antiquity is for Riegl the one which best materialises the ‘tactile impenetrability’ of the haptic:
The art of antiquity … was compelled, whenever possible, to avoid the representation of space as a negation of materiality and individuality, not because of awareness that space was just a notion in the human mind, but rather because of the instinctive urge to limit space as much as possible in the naïve search for the purest sense of comprehension of material essence. Of the three dimensions, height and width (outline, silhouette) as dimensions of the plane or level ground are indispensable in order to arrive at any notion of the individual material object; therefore they were recognized from the very beginning of ancient art. The dimension of depth, however, does not seem so necessary, and furthermore, since it may obscure the clear impression of material individuality, it is suppressed, whenever possible, by ancient art.
Because all it ‘sees’ is impenetrability — the absence of depth — haptic vision implies an idea of limit, border. Not only the material border of what it sees, but also the perceptual border of vision itself, the limits of what can be seen: the limits beyond which vision turns into something else — tactility. As Didi-Huberman reveals, in Aristotle’s De Anima (c. 350 BC.), the tactile is “at the same time [as] that without which no vision is possible, and that which establishes the limits of vision — but also, and precisely because of this … its télos: touch would be both the obsession and the fear of vision.” Haptic vision is inherently ambivalent. Rather than allowing us to see something, it forces us to see what we cannot see. “What the eye of the observer sees … is not simply an object but vision’s own … perceptions”, Williams claims. The haptic reproduces the conditions of (im)possibility of vision, denying us the entitlement to infiltrate into reality.
Haptic perception obstructs our access to reality to connect us to our own conditions of perception. In relation to the pre-filmic pornographic devices of the nineteenth century, for example, Williams claims: “it is not a matter of feeling the absent object represented but of the spectator-observer feeling his or her own body.” The close-up zone shifts our sensorial dynamics: we no longer perform as mere spectators or observers, becoming instead materially implicated in the perceptual process. It is not anymore a question of looking at something ‘out there’, but rather of feeling through sight.
Such a perceptual condition, however intense and intimate, is also inherently elusive. Conflating the optical and the tactile senses, the haptic works in the extreme capacities of both. For, as suggested by Didi-Huberman’s reading of Aristotle, in the aesthetics of proximity, not only we push our visual faculties to their very limit, in doing so, we also reach the frontiers of the realm of touch. In the haptic mode, it would seem, there would be not much sense in differentiating vision from touch: as the carnality of our eyes become activated, these two senses start to operate analogously.
The contact with objects presents us, paradoxically, with a blurring of limits — insofar as to touch an object is always to search for the exact borders of our own bodies. The touched object tends to vanish, while the skin starts to feel a strange swelling outside itself. “The outline of the skin is not felt as a smooth and straight surface; this outline is blurred. There are no sharp borderlines between the outside world and the body”.
The borderlines become dissolved, suggesting a condition of continuation between our body and what it sees/touches. Precisely because of this, it becomes impossible for us to infiltrate the outside world. What we perceive ceases to be something external, to be captured by our eyes or hands, seeming rather to exist almost in continuation to our own material substance. Nevertheless, this promised fusion with the world turns out to be, in the end, also precarious. In proximity, reality reveals itself to be at the same time too near for optical control and too distant for a full tactile amalgamation. As the Austrian psychoanalyst Paul Schilder (a pupil of Sigmund Freud) observed:
When subjects compare what they feel and perceive tactually on their body with the optic imagination or the optic perceptions of the body, they find that there is a discrepancy. The skin that is felt is distinctly below the surface of our body … It is a remarkable psychological fact that though we distinctly feel the object and distinctly feel our own body and its surface, yet they do not touch each other completely. They are not fused together. There is a distinct space between them … It is an interesting experiment to diminish the pressure of the fingers against the object. We feel the object less and less and the fingers more and more. When the fingers are finally only just touching the object, the object is scarcely perceived any longer, but we have a distinct feeling in the tips of our fingers … It is as if the skin were protruding over the surface and forming a slight cone, which almost reaches for the object.
Vision and touch are in the haptic mode always approximate: near but remote, present but lacking, concrete but elusive. Unlike distant vision, which in theory can provide “a centered human subjectivity a view of the things of the world”, the haptic, or the effet panique, as Didi-Huberman puts it, always resists our grasp, leading us too close and yet refusing us actual access or control over external reality.
Echoing Riegl’s notion of Nahsicht, and translating the qualities of the haptic from the miniaturised scale to a wider architectural dimension, the cultural critic Jane Graves observes that when enclosed “in a room where all the walls are patterned”, we are compelled to “look desperately for a point of focus, for the centre of the light”, without ever being able to do so. Because such a space presumably contains an illogical multiplicity of focal points, it fails to provide the eye with a singular point of reference, leaving it astray, and generating a sense of elusiveness comparable to the one invoked in the closeup look. This affinity with the haptic relates to the principles of construction that rule pattern-based artefacts, which, as Graves sustains, radically oppose the ones that define linear perspective. For while the latter, reproducing the conditions of distant vision, implies that “the vanishing point and the viewing point must be geometrically synonymous”, providing the observer with a fixed, stable standpoint from where to look, the former bombards the beholder with a potentially infinite profusion of targets, providing no clue as to where to direct the eye. As Riegl explains, in linear perspective:
The eye, on its own, can take in a multitude of real bodies simultaneously, along with the space they fill; here the tactile sense is not effective. The artist must therefore remove himself several steps from a group he means to depict until he can survey it in something close to a normal view. This did not happen during the entire ancient era. No single relief or painting from Antiquity adhered rigorously to a unitary vantage point.
The position of the viewer figures as an essential theme in Riegl’s iconic text The Group Portraiture of Holland (1902). When comparing, for instance, Rembrandt’s art with that of one of his presumably inferior contemporaries, Riegl argues that, adhering to the Italian perspective-based model, this master stands out precisely due to his unique ability to predetermine the way the viewer looks at the picture (Fig. 2). As he remarks:
The most important of the numerous aspects of [Rembrandt’s] work that reflect Italian influence is undoubtedly, from the beginning of his career, his resolute espousal of subordination as one of his principle means of artistic expression … Nevertheless, Rembrandt’s ultimate goal was to attain a perfectly resolved external coherence with the viewer, which … is the indispensable raison d’être of all group portrait painting. He must have realized early in his career that complete and well-defined external coherence — meaning the connection between the viewer and the figures depicted in the painting — depends on an already resolved internal coherence — meaning a subordinate relationship among the figures portrayed.
Subordination within the picture plane would therefore guarantee visual control over it: an opposite effect to the one of the patterned room described by Graves. Because the general tendency in traditional Dutch art was to counter the Italian principles of subordination, privileging, instead, non-hierarchical coordination, this art was for Riegl less effective in catching the attention of the beholder.
As a matter of fact, focused attention appears in Riegl’s theoretical scheme as a major aspect not only of portraiture painting but also of art in general, something to be pursued through a correct manipulation of form and composition: aspects considered in his theory as more important than content and narrative (Fig. 3). In Forms of Representation in Alois Riegl’s Theory of Art (1992), the critic Margaret Olin interestingly claims that even though Riegl chooses the figurative genre of portraiture to illustrate his vindication for the ‘attentive act’ in art, he is in fact more concerned with spatial issues than with representational ones. As she argues, Riegl’s discussion is essentially centred on “the spatial position of the viewer”: an architectural, rather than a pictorial problem, as Riegl himself declares in his analysis of the work by the sixteenth-century portraitist Dirck Jacobsz:
This kind of composition is architectural in nature, for it resembles a two storied façade articulated by a base, a subsidiary, and a main cornice. The components of the upper story, which can be thought of as pilasters, create a serene pattern of verticals and horizontals, with a definite emphasis on the latter. The components of the lower row, on the other hand, are in conflict with the whole: some of the vertical elements have attempted to break through the constraints of the subsidiary cornice, while others struggle free from the wall and step out in front of each other, as first seen in the multiple pilasters of Michelangelo’s courtyard in the Palazzo Farnese. Struggle below, constraint above, while symmetry succeeds in tying the whole façade together into a single, serene plane. This is basically the same architectural process that was taking place in Italy, starting with the vestibule of Michelangelo’s Biblioteca Laurenziana.
In Riegl’s understanding, the most remarkable aspect of Jacobsz’s painting is his gesture of zigzagging the figures of the lower row, making them “break up the plane and … recede in depth”. By doing this, the artwork starts to point towards three-dimensionality, promising to interact with the beholder in the same way that the protruding columns of Michelangelo’s building supposedly invited the spectator to penetrate into space. However significant, Jacobsz’s gesture is from Riegl’s point of view still rather modest in relation to what a master like Rembrandt would later achieve. On the whole, Riegl concludes that Jacobsz’s composition is still predominantly planar, failing to convey the sense of spatiality that would potentially ‘break through’ the flatness of the frame and engage the attention of the viewer:
There are still no instances where two figures interact with each other on a psychological level. All of the guardsmen in Jacobsz’s painting look out of the painting toward where a viewer would normally stand, with one important exception: the man to the extreme left of the lower row who gazes off at an acute angle almost parallel to the picture plane. However, he is not interacting with any of his comrades. Like the rest of them, he is looking out beyond the frame; the direction of his gaze simply does not happen to be where one would normally expect the viewer.
What mainly upsets Riegl in Jacobsz’s work is its lack of interaction: the sense of apathy that the painted figures suggested, with regards to each other as well as in relation to the beholder. This notion of indifference, Riegl argues, is a direct consequence of the multi-focal composition of the painting, which denies the observer a safe point of reference, preventing them from fully interacting with the work. Jacobsz’s painting exists for itself, not for the beholder, Riegl states. Unlike perspective-based, three-dimensional constructs, which boldly step “forward to relate to the viewer”, the planar, pattern-like composition of the Dutch painter was apparently oblivious to its spectators.
Riegl’s discontentment about the sense of self-sufficiency conveyed by the haptic logic of Jacobsz’s portrait resounds with a well-known anecdote recounted by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan about an incident that happened to him when he went fishing in Brittany. As he narrates:
One day, I was on a small boat, with a few people from a family of fishermen in a small port … as we were waiting for the moment to pull in the nets, an individual known as Petit-Jean … pointed out to me something floating on the surface of the waves. It was a small can, a sardine can. … And Petit-Jean said to me — You see that can? Do you see it? Well it doesn’t see you! … He found this incident highly amusing — I less so … The point of this little story … the fact that he found it so funny and I less so, derives from the fact that, if I am told a story like that one, it is because I, at that moment — as I appeared to those fellows who were earning their livings with great difficulty … looked like nothing on earth. In short, I was rather out of place in the picture.
Like the neglected observer of Jacobsz’s tableau, or the disoriented viewer of the patterned room described by Graves, Lacan feels at this moment bracketed out. He finds himself in an environment that is oblivious to him. Being cut off from the fishermen’s world, Lacan experiences the ‘certainty of impenetrability’ that Riegl speaks of when describing the perceptual structure of the haptic. As he defines it, the fishing incident introduces him to a condition of spatiality “that was elided in the geometral relation — the depth of field … which is in no way mastered by me.” To be in that position, Lacan concludes, “is something of another nature that geometral, optical space, something that plays an exactly reverse role, which operates, not because it can be traversed, but on the contrary because it is opaque — I mean the screen”. Lacan’s screen, it seems, like Graves’s patterned room, resembles a pan (textile, cloth), provoking an effect that is, characteristically, panique, perceptually as well as psychologically.
Riegl’s anxiety towards the haptic logic of Jacobsz’s pattern-like portrait appears to be tainted with a fear of the perceptual and psychological implications of the effet panique. His promotion of an ‘ethics of attention’ would in this sense work as a defence against the condition of thick impenetrability imposed by the haptic mode of perception.
If Riegl endorses focused attention, Benjamin, although drawing largely from Riegl’s ideas, is rather inclined towards distraction — a feature that he links not specifically to patterned walls, but, rather, to architecture and film. As Benjamin claims:
Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated as follows: A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it … In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art. This is most obvious with regards to buildings. Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction. The laws of its reception are most instructive … Buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception — or rather, by touch and sight. Such appropriation cannot be understood in terms of the attentive concentration of a tourist before a famous building. On the tactile side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side. Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit … This mode of appropriation, developed with reference to architecture, in certain circumstances acquires canonical value. For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is by contemplation, alone.
In ‘Haptical Cinema’ (1995), Antonia Lant remarks that Benjamin performs an intriguing subversion of Riegl’s theory in calling haptic or tactile a medium that in fact has “no actual tactile properties of its own.” For, as we know, the dark screen of the cinema offers “no modulated surface to feel”. Yet, even if apparently lacking in materiality, such a medium, being structured by a regime of visual nearness, is, according to Benjamin, still capable of promoting an effect that is essentially physical and jolting, rather than contemplative and ‘auratic’. Therefore, as Lant concludes, cinema is for the German-Jewish theorist “not fernsichtig but rather nahsichtig”: not distant but close, not optic but haptic. Through the techniques of the close up and slow motion most notably, the camera apparatus simultaneously reproduces and amplifies our perceptual processes, providing access to an unknown dimension of reality, and attuning our bodies to a more intense and nuanced way of perceiving. As Benjamin writes:
The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject … Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye — if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal.
Cinema breaks with the linear logic of perspective through the recourse of amplification. In doing so it promotes the intensification of the senses envisioned by Rilke as a means to counter human suffering. It is perhaps counterintuitive to refer to this intensified mode of perception as a form of ‘distraction’, as Benjamin’s text suggests; but the use of this term starts to make sense if we think, again with Benjamin, that the haptic provides a shift from “a space consciously explored by man” towards “an unconsciously penetrated space.” Concentrated, auratic perception communicates with our conscious selves; distraction seizes our unconscious.
In The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing (1953), Anton Ehrenzweig provides a scientific explanation for this. As he states, there exists a considerable amount of information that is assimilated by our senses but that our brain is just not swift enough to process. Because the camera apparatus magnifies our very process of seeing, it possesses a unique ability to account for the perceptual surplus that our brain fails to take in. In its capacity to alter our natural conditions of perception, the technical apparatus of the film exposes the gap between what we knowingly see and what we take in unconsciously.
The phenomenon of binocular parallax, theorised in the early nineteenth-century by the physiologist Charles Wheatstone, provides a clear picture of the process of perceptual disposal magnified by the camera apparatus. It is founded on the self-evident, though not conventionally acknowledged fact that, when confronted with an object or an image, each of the human eyes perceives it from a slightly different angle, as a consequence of their distinct position in the visual field. The ocular disparity that results from this phenomenon remains, however, largely unnoticed, meaning that a good portion of what we visually absorb remains unconscious. We have two eyes that are positioned in distinct locations of our face, but, perplexingly, our brain mostly behaves as if we had only one, situated in the centre. In addition to that, each time our eyes blink or shift, dependently or independently from the rest of our bodies, they potentially produce a slightly different picture of reality, increasing the surplus of visual information that needs to be discarded in the name of visual stability. As Ehrenzweig enunciates:
When our eyes or our whole body move, as for instance in a railway train, the objects outside, in reality stationary, often seem to move and indeed are moving on the retinal image. Something similar, but far more violent and spasmodic, happens with every oscillation of our eye which sends the retinal images of the things tumbling from one corner of our visual field to the other. Yet consciously, we know nothing of this unconscious storm of images. The objects in the external world keep their ‘constant’ localization in a stable space.
In order to conform to an illusionary picture of constancy, our consciousness needs to repress the outburst of visual information received by our senses. Wheatstone’s theory demonstrates that close-up vision is significantly more prolific in producing excessive perceptual material than the distant sight. For the nearer our eyes are to a given object or image, the greater the discrepancy between what each of them sees. Conversely, in faraway vision, our optical axes are virtually parallel, implying that the pictures imprinted in each retina are in such conditions not so dissimilar. Moreover, as microscopic or other instrumentally magnified forms of observation attest, vision in proximity is much more sensible to oscillation than the naked-eye, distant look, implying a more intense intake of different visual information in similar temporal intervals. This explains why the near sight feels often unstable and even physically demanding sometimes. For in it, the phenomenon of binocular parallax becomes particularly accentuated, forcing our brain to work harder to dispose of the surplus of information that needs to be blocked off in our mind in order to sustain the false illusion that vision is stable, centred and monocular.
Even though it technically reproduces the monocular (optic, fernsichtig), rather than the binocular (haptic, nahsichtig) model of vision, the film apparatus may nonetheless account for the surplus of perceptual material that we unwarily repress in the process of seeing. Through its unique ability to manipulate time — as in slow motion for instance, and space — as in the close up, the camera manages to unpack the internal mechanisms of vision, exposing its inherent contradictions. “Modern cinematography can, to a certain extent, imitate the space-distorting movement of the eye by moving the film camera itself”, Ehrenzweig observes. “The potent emotional effects of this cinematographic technique may be connected with their hidden relation to the unconscious storm of images in our retina”. Film directors have, since the birth of this medium, explored the irrational potential embedded in the technical apparatus of the film camera. Remarkable in this register is, for example, the work by the English director Alfred Hitchcock, who extensively employed visual tricks addressing the unconscious aspects of vision. Amongst such tricks is, for instance, the custom of surreptitiously inserting random frames into a coherent temporal sequence — flashes of discontinuity to be glimpsed in the fraction of a second — as if alluding to the condition of instability implicated in binocular parallax. Likewise, many of Hitchcock’s films are famous for their uneven juxtaposition of foreground and background, as if replicating the disparate conditions of perception of each different eye.
Not many spatial constructs explore the sensorial surplus alluded to by Hitchcock in his films. A notable exception to this is the eighteenth-century English picturesque garden. Echoing the interpretation of the film Seasons proposed in the beginning of this text, an important theorist of the picturesque, the Reverend William Gilpin, compared it to a ‘decorated surface’. Reading Gilpin, Ann Bermingham writes:
Like a white sheet of drawing paper, to be filled with rocks, trees, groves, mountains and extensive distances, landscape was a surface to be decorated. Details gave the landscape depth and volume and provided it with character and visual interest. Details are thus crucial to the Picturesque; in fact, one could say that … they are the landscape.
It is as if the picturesque garden was a spatial materialisation of the fictional landscape of Seasons; a field composed of shifting perspectives resulting from an overlaying of contrasting scales, viewpoints and materials. Due to their disjunctive constitution, picturesque gardens have often perplexed observers for their deceptive portrayal of size and distance, as well as for their strong susceptibility to change: as if mimicking the instability of close-up vision. A ruin that, from a certain point of view, evoked the image of a castle would from another angle turn into a rough pile of stones; a lake could resemble sometimes an ocean, sometimes a pond; a mountain could perform as a material barrier or as an abstract outline. The twentieth-century theorist Christopher Hussey claims that the picturesque aesthetic enables “the imagination to form the habit of feeling through the eyes”. It translates to the scale of the landscape that condition of perception (haptic, Nahsicht) commonly associated to the miniature. The picturesque “points to another world”, writes the architectural historian Katja Grillner. At the same time it enhances our senses it also comprises an elusive, dreamlike dimension, reminiscent of the perceptual surplus of our unconscious it comes to rescue.
To conclude this discussion, I will point to some aspects of a recently completed interior design scheme by the Sicilian architect Antonino Cardillo. This is a project modest in size that nonetheless illustrates well in my view how the dimension of the haptic may be integrated to architecture. The work is entitled House of Dust, and it consists of a domestic space in the centre of Rome, Italy (Fig. 4). The intriguing title refers to the coarse texture applied to the ceiling of the living room, a rustic volume made of brownish-yellow cement mixed with aggregate, which in its materiality evokes the image of a cave or of a grotto in a picturesque garden. Dust is, of course, minuscule, and, alluding to it, the scheme relates to the miniature world of Seasons, as well as to other protuberant surfaces previously illustrated here. The ceiling of the House of Dust is haptic in the conventional sense Riegl understood this term: it communicates a strong sense of tactility; it calls for the near look, but then it blurs the vision. Dust also has a temporal dimension — the dimension of time passing, to be more precise — and this adds to this ceiling a somewhat archaic feel.
Another notable feature of the House of Dust is a series of openings framed as arches: sometimes connecting the rooms, sometimes acting simply as cabinet doors (Figs 5, 6). In their proportion as well as in their chromatic scale, these arches call to mind some religious paintings of the fourteenth century (Duccio and Giotto, more specifically). In their unlikely arrangement (for if they all led to different rooms those would be too small to be inhabited) the arches follow a spatial logic akin to the one of the picturesque garden. They trick your expectations; they “point to another world” (to the representations in the fourteenth-century paintings, for example; Cardillo also mentions Alice in the Wonderland as an inspiration). They are, perceptually, ‘excessive’: tenaciously repetitive; uncanny, almost.
In connecting architecture to the realm of the haptic, both on a more tactile, micro scale (ceiling) and on a more visual, macro scale (arches), Cardillo’s architecture promotes the sensorial mobilisation envisioned by Benjamin as a potential force for social/political transformation. It also responds to Rilke’s call for an intensification of the senses as the only possible antidote to human suffering and violence. It is a hopeful piece that suggests that architecture still holds the power to awaken our senses and emotions for a deeper, more intimate and fulfilling engagement with the world.
Notes and references
- Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Letter to Princess Marie von Thurn and Taxis Hohenlohe’ (6th September, 1905), quoted in Gert Mattenklott, ‘Karl Blossfeldt-Photographs’, p. 17, in Karl Blossfeldt: Art Forms in Nature (Munich, Schirmer Art Books, 1999), pp. 13‑27.
- See Alois Riegl, Late Roman Art Industry (first published 1901), trsl. Rolf Winkes (Rome, Giorgio Bretschneider, 1985), pp. 19‑20, 31.
- See, for instance, Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film (New York, Verso, 2002), p. 247.
- See Alois Riegl, ‘Late Roman or Oriental?’ (first published 1902), trsl. Peter Wortsman, in, Gert Schiff, ed., German Essays on Art History (New York, Continuum, 1988), pp. 173‑190; 188.
- The connection between the trompe l’oeil and close-up vision is also discussed in Anton Ehrenzweig, The Psycho-Analysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing: an introduction to a theory of unconscious perception (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), pp. 242‑244. See also Georges Didi-Huberman, La Peinture Incarnée (Paris, Minuit, 1985), pp. 52‑61.
- See Georges Didi-Huberman, Phasmes: essais sur l’apparition (Paris, Minuit, 1998), p. 83.
- G. Didi-Huberman, La Peinture Incarnée, op.cit., p. 54. (Translation mine; in the original: ‘L’effet de pan serait ainsi comme le rabattement panique du local sur le global, du detail sur le tout … l’envahissement ponctuel et poignant, insensé, du detail’.)
- See Hélène Cixous, ‘Savoir’, p. 9, in, Hélène Cixous, Jaques Derrida, Veils, trsl. Geoffrey Bennington (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2001), pp. 1‑16.
- In ‘Savoir’, Cixous identifies myopia with the domain of unsafe, tactile vision. ‘Short-sighted’ people aren’t able to see things from a distance and therefore they can never see safely, she claims: ‘[a]s the myopic people know, myopia has its shaky seat in judgment. It opens the reign of an eternal uncertainty that no prosthesis can dissipate.’ (Cixous, ‘Savoir’, op.cit., p. 6). Conversely, the myopic is more prone to train the eye to look close and thus to develop a sensibility for the tactile properties of seeing. For more on myopic vision and tactility, see also Amy Landesberg, Lisa Quatrale, ’see angel touch’, in, Debra Coleman, Elizabeth Danze, Carol Henderson, eds, Architecture and Feminism (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), pp. 60‑71.
- 10. Gaston Bachelard, Essai sur la Connaissance Approchée (Paris, Vrin, 1927), p. 257; see also G. Didi-Huberman, La Peinture Incarnée, op.cit., p. 52.
- See H. Cixous, ‘Savoir’, op.cit., p. 9.
- G. Bachelard, Essai sur la Connaissance Approchée, op.cit., p. 253.
- Walter Benjamin,‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, pp. 235‑236, in, Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed., Hannah Arendt, trsl. Harry Zohn (London and Glasgow, Collins, 1973), pp. 219‑253 [emphasis mine].
- Ibid.,‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, pp. 224,237.
- G. Didi-Huberman, Phasmes, op.cit., p. 29. (Translation mine; in the original: ‘Cette inquietude prolifère par example, dans Un Chien Andalou, sous la forme d’insectes qui ne sont plus un “point noir”, mais une multitude; qui ne sont plus immobiles au bord de l’image, mais grouillent en son centre même; qui ne sont plus un simple jeu optique, mais une blessure tactile, stigmate ouverte au beau milieu d’une main crispée’.)
- See Linda Williams, ‘Corporealized Observers: Visual Pornographies and the “Carnal Density of Vision”’, pp. 3‑21, in, Patrice Petro, Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video (Bloomington and Indianopolis, Indiana University Press, 1995), pp. 3‑41.
- Ibid., ‘Corporealized Observers’, p. 11. As she acknowledges, the expression comes originally from Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: on vision and modernity in the nineteenth century (Cambridge and London, The MIT Press, 1990).
- Ibid., ‘Corporealized Observers’, pp. 15;11.
- A. Riegl, Late Roman Art Industry, op.cit., pp. 24‑25: the dimension of the Nahsicht is referred to as ‘tactile’ in this translation of Riegl’s text. The term ‘haptic’ appears only in the German edition of 1927, published posthumously, after Riegl’s lecture manuscripts. Hereafter I will privilege the use of ‘haptic’, to keep with the terminology used by most of Riegl’s contemporary commentators. See, for instance, A. Riegl, Late Roman Art Industry, op.cit., p. xv; G. Bruno, Atlas of Emotion, op.cit., p. 247; G. Didi-Huberman, La Peinture Incarnée, op.cit., p. 55.
- A. Riegl, Late Roman Art Industry, op.cit., p. 21.
- Ibid., p. 22.
- Ibid., pp. 23‑24.
- G. Didi-Huberman, La Peinture Incarnée, op.cit., p. 56.
- (Translation mine; in the original: ‘le sense tactile … est à la fois ce sans quoi la vision ne peut avoir lieu et ce qui fait l’eschaton de la vision, sa limite — mais aussi, et pour cela même … son télos: toucher serait comme la visée (obsession ou phobie) de la vision’.)
- L. Williams, ‘Corporealized Observers’, op.cit., p. 11.
- Ibid., p. 15.
- G. Didi-Huberman, La Peinture Incarnée, op.cit., p. 56. (Translation mine; in the original: ‘Le contact avec les objets reserve lui aussi, paradoxelment, un brouillage des limites, — alors que toucher un objet, cela fait aussi pour chercher l’exactitude des limites de notre corps. L’objet effleuré tend en effet à “s’évanouir”, tandis que la peau est ressentie comme quelque étrange turgescence hors de soi’.) The extract between quotation marks is from Paul Schilder, The Image and Appearance of the Human Body: Studies in the Constructive Energies of the Psyche (first published 1950; London, Routledge, 2000), p. 85.
- P. Schilder, ibid., pp. 85‑86.
- See L. Williams, ‘Corporealized Observers’, op.cit., pp. 6‑13.
- Jane Graves, ‘On Seeing Through Pattern: Glass and the Lacanian Gaze’, p. 79, in, Ana Araujo, Jane Rendell, Jonathan Hill, ‘Pattern’, special issue of Haecceity Papers, vol. 3, issue 1 (Autumn, 2007), pp. 77‑94.
- See Rosalind Krauss, ‘The /Cloud/’, in, Barbara Haskell, ed., Agnes Martin (New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992), pp. 155‑166;160.
- Alois Riegl, Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts, trsl. Jaqueline Jung, first published 1966 (New York, Zone Books, 2004), pp. 218‑219 [emphasis mine].
- Alois Riegl, The Group Portraiture of Holland (first published 1902), trs, Evelyn M. Kain, David Britt (Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, 1999), p. 253 [emphasis mine].
- As the Riegl states when contrasting Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp (1632) with Thomas de Keyser’s The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Sebastian Egbertsz Vrij (1619), ‘the most important distinction between the two anatomy lessons concerns not so much what the painting depicts but how things are depicted’: see A. Riegl, The Group Portraiture of Holland, op.cit., p. 257 [emphasis mine].
- Margaret Olin, Forms of Representation in Alois Riegl’s Theory of Art (Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992), p. 158.
- A. Riegl, The Group Portraiture of Holland, op.cit., p. 109.
- Ibid., p. 110.
- Ibid., p. 111.
- See M. Olin, Forms of Representation, op.cit., p. 158. In The Sense of Order: a study in the psychology of decorative art (Oxford, Phaidon Press, 1984), Ernst Gombrich expresses a similar anxiety around the non-hierarchic composition of pattern: see especially pp. 151‑155.
- Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed., Jacques-Alain Miller, trsl. John Forrester (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 95‑96.
- Ibid., p. 96 [emphasis mine].
- The expression ‘ethics of attention’ is borrowed from M. Olin, Forms of Representation, op.cit., pp. 155‑161.
- W. Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, op.cit., pp. 241‑242: Benjamin uses here the term ‘tactile’ in place of the ‘haptic’, keeping with the terminology first used by Riegl (see Note 19 above).
- Antonia Lant, ‘Haptical Cinema’, in October, 74 (Autumn, 1995), p. 47.
- Ibid., p. 69.
- W. Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, op.cit., pp. 238‑239.
- See J. Crary, Techniques of the Observer, op.cit., p. 119.
- A. Ehrenzweig, The Psycho-Analysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing, op.cit., p. 186.
- For a discussion on the monocular basis of the cinematic apparatus, see J. Crary, Techniques of the Observer, op.cit., pp. 25‑66.
- A. Ehrenzweig, The Psycho-Analysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing, op.cit., p. 187.
- See Dominique Païni, ‘Les Égarements du Regard’: À Propos des Transparences chez Hitchcock’, in, Dominique Païni, Guy Cocheval, eds, Hitchcock et l’Art: Coincidences Fatales (Milan, Gabriele Mazzotta, 2000), pp. 51‑78.
- Ann Bermingham, ‘The Picturesque and Ready-to-Wear Femininity’, in, Stephen Copley, Peter Garside, eds, The Politics of the Picturesque: literature, landscape and aesthetics since 1770 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 81‑119; 82 [emphasis mine].
- See, for instance, Christopher Hussey, The Picturesque: studies in a point of view (London and New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927), pp. 121‑123.
- Ibid., p. 4.
- Katja Grillner, Ramble, Linger, and Gaze: dialogues from the landscape garden (Stockholm, Royal Institute of Technology, 2000), p. 119.
- See www.antoninocardillo.com.
- Ana Araujo, ‘Feeling through sight: zooming in, zooming out’, The Journal of Architecture, vol. 19, no. 1, RIBA, London, Jan. 2014, pp. 14‑15.