Ways of Seeing in the Global Perspective

Text/ Alex Taek-Gwang Lee (Kyung Hee University)

A couple of years ago I visited Delft, a Dutch small town well known as a place where a famous painter Vermeer was born into and spent his entire life. The purpose of my trip was to look at Vermeer’s painting, View of Delft. In those days, I was writing on the Impressionists and hinted that Vermeer’s technique taken for the work seemed to anticipate Pointillism.

Standing in front of his work which testified to the Dutch Golden Age, it occurred to me that Vermeer’s picture did not show the neighborhood of Delft. Its title indicated that the image is Delft, but not any street or interiority of the town or features of the location, but rather only its façade. It was merely a landscape. It was quite a monotonous representation. Undoubtedly this was Vermeer’s style. However, you could easily watch the everyday life of the town, the vivid reality, even if calm and contemplative, as in other of Vermeer’s paintings. The representation of daily life, the veneer hiding the natural law or the circle of life, was the typical subject matter of the Northern Renaissance. His aesthetics lay in the revelation of caesura, the rupture of daily temporality. However, View of Delft inspired me from a different viewpoint; it was not what I had known of Vermeer up until that time.

I was curious about where Vermeer took the scene for the painting and decided to look for the setting. Dutch painters were not actually interested in working outdoors as much as the Impressionists. It is not until the 19th Century that painters brought their brushes and palettes to the countryside. The traditional painters usually finished the artistic procedure within their studios. This suggests that Vermeer may not have had a real vantage point for the painting, but an imaginary place only posited in his mind., Nonetheless, I chose my direction and started to step on towards.

The problem was that the Dutch people I met did not care about an obsessive aficionado like me interested in searching for the imagined place for a painting in a museum. There was no information to designate where to go if you wanted to see the real location in which Vermeer actually projected his idea onto the landscape. I was traveling all over the place. I have not a brain like an elephant, but a sharp nose like a dog in the pose of the pointer. I realized that Delft still had a church Vermeer described; finally I found where the painting was done. There was a small bank covered with clumsy cement. It was not confusing to square the viewpoint with what Vermeer depicted on his canvas. The pier seemed to be still in use. Small boats and ships were busy shuttling cargo.

That was the moment when an idea occurred to me. What Vermeer accurately represented in his work was nothing less than the very gaze of the outsider, who just arrived at the outskirts of the city, Delft, which was famous in those days for the trade across the world. What is the meaning of the gaze? The gaze belongs to the other, the representation of a total stranger. The meaning of the painting is very intriguing, in the sense that Vermeer depicted his hometown from the perspective of the foreigner, whose origin was unknown to the people living in Delft. Why did Vermeer take this view of his hometown? Of course it was a nice place to see the whole landscape of Delft. As a famed painter, he necessarily chose the perfect point to describe the characteristics of the prosperous city. However, there was a further implication in his pursuit.

What was in fact revealed in View of Delft was the way in which Vermeer became estranged with his experiences of the city where he was born and had grown up. Perhaps he would meet some travelers or traders from different countries, or some military officers who had explored the unknown world. Just like his contemporaries, Vermeer might listen to what visitors talked about and collected news from them. In View of Delft, he discovered a lacuna in which the alter gaze of the outsider should be placed. The gaze was not attributable to any specific person, but rather purely abstract, while the image of the city of Vermeer really exercised painter’s some of finest minds. Yes, it was an image, or ‘image-work’ as such in that Vermeer sought to establish the objective eyes on the view in his descriptions of Dutch civil society by endorsing the scientific knowledge of things.

In Vermeer’s time, Dutch society was transforming from military to the civil state, from monarchism to republicanism, from Catholicism to Calvinism. Above all, the turbulent war ended and was replaced with trade in the market. His paintings were correspondences to the social transition and served as a defender for the new pleasure principle of civil society. View of Delft was the by-product of the historical change, the imaginary crystallization of the aesthetic demands in the public sphere. In short, the “image work” embedded in the painting was the representation of modernity, the theorization of the relations between the community and the sovereign power through which the idea of equality came to exist. For Vermeer, the gaze of the stranger was the point that the whole scope of the city could be visible. The gaze is mutual. It is not only the other who gazes at me, but also I who gaze at him or her from a different world. In this sense, the point of the outsider is the neutral position of conversation, the symbolic exchange of individual interests.

What Vermeer visualized in his painting is merely the way in which an image works as a theoretical moment. The gaze of the outsider is the locus of theory. Theory preserves the way to see, a perspective to classify the order of things, which emerges in terms of modernization. Modernity as such would be the theorization of the worldly relations such as community and immunity, interiority and exteriority, politics and economy, etc. The crucial factor in such theorization is the new foundation to accredit the new epistemological-aesthetic regime. “I think, therefore I am”, Descartes’ announcement would be the new starting point from which the origin of modern subjectivity recognized itself. Vermeer also observed what that subjectivity accounted for. Descartes aspired to achieve the new beginning of the truth by eliminating all preconceptions of knowledge. What he persisted was a simple argument: to doubt everything given. Finally, as is well known, in epistemology nothing is left except “I think”.

Strictly speaking, Descartes’ conceptualization of thinking was the way of doubting. So, the proper translation of the original sentence would be “I doubt, therefore I am”. To sum up, the doubt was the foundation of modern subjectivity, the preparation for rationality. Impressively, his idea was inspired by architectonic imagination. It seems to me that Descartes’ invention of “I think” was indebted to architecture. He adopted a bird’s eye view when recounting the method that he discovered the absolute foundation of knowledge. From a distance above the earth, a philosopher or an architect could map out the whole scope of the world. This is a moment when the idea of objectivity comes to stand for itself. Yes, the idea stands alone, once accomplished. There should be self-fulfillment, separation from the generic process. The objectivity is completed as if it has no origin. It contains the origin, the gaze of the outsider, and finally seals it within itself. What is the origin of the objectivity? It might be the real, what is missing in the construction of the objectivity, like an architect’s gaze from the beginning of building up any architecture.

Vermeer’s painting disclosed the secret of the gaze, that is to say, that which the objectivity hides in it, the excluded locus of the nameless stranger. He constructed the image of Delft, but the truth of it was from without. This shows how an image works. Not in its content, but with its form. The form of an image tells the truth of the world in this way. Vermeer seemed to understand it and represented a glimpse on the theoretical moment of modernity. Considering Vermeer’s modernity, a question occurs to me. Why is that we Koreans don’t have a painter like Vermeer? Of course, Koreans are not Dutch. It might be stupid if anyone asks why Koreans are not Dutch. The Korean peninsula in which Koreans are born and live is a geographically different place. Such a physical barrier prevents Koreans from accessing Vermeer’s modernity. However, it seems to me that the deeper meaning is submerged under the surface. It might be interesting that the first modern painting in Korea was influenced by Impressionism. In other words, in Korea, the history of modern paintings began with Impressionists, not Vermeer. Indeed, Koreans have no Classicism and Romanticism, but only Impressionism. There was a rupture between traditional aesthetics and modern aesthetics by the introduction of so-called ‘Western painting’.

Of course, modernism means the aesthetic break with tradition. However, the effect of the modernist shift from the old to the new was quite dramatic in the history of Korean art. Let’s have a look at one of the earliest Korean modern paintings, which has been known as the first Western painting produced by a Korean painter. The title is Self-portrait with a Pan and painted by Koh Hee Dong. Koh was the first Korean who studied Western art and was trained as a modern painter in Japan. According to record, he went to Tokyo in 1908 and graduated from Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1915. He was initially an administrative officer in the government but developed his career as a modern painter. What is interesting in his Self-portrait with a Pan is the reproduction of the Impressionist theme of ‘self-portrait’ and ‘a pan’, at least the brush touch of a glimpse and rough matière. These are entirely new factors in early modern Korea.

Jacques Rancière points out that modernism is the embodiment of a democratic aesthetic-political regime. The aesthetic regime depends on the distribution of the sensible. The old sense is transformed into the new one. The dislocation of the sensible is significant in changing the given aesthetic regime. Modernity means “here now”. In other words, it dilutes the geographical boundary and creates the new sense of temporality, which is symbolically universalized. That is the way in which Vermeer discovered the gaze of the outsider. Vermeer’s objectivity was the product of the estrangement from the habitual perception of his location. A similar thing happened to Koh’s encounter with ‘Western painting’. The aesthetics of Impressionism allowed him to create the distance within his perception of the sensible. The given distribution of the sensible consists of the regime structured with ethical agreements among community members. Ethics are based on common consensus as to which one is good or bad.

The gaze of the stranger has the advantage of the respective position, being dislocated from the communal norms. Korean audiences would regard Koh’s painting as the new sensible, even though it was at best the late arrival of Western avant-garde art. The reception of ‘Western painting’ in Korea shows the way in which the image works as an estrangement effect. It is inserted from the outside to the inside, and so creates the heterogeneous spatiality in the previous regime of perception. Let’s take another example for this. I have explained that Koh went to Japan for studying ‘Western painting’. That implies that Japan had the established educational system to teach modern art. Yes. Japan was friendly to receive Western civilization from the early 17th Century and further contracted an international treaty with the United States in 1854. What happened to Japan following their encounter with the stranger? It could be traced in the transformation of Japanese traditional paintings. There was the putative transition from the old sensible to the new sensible. The unexpected chemical affinities were happening to 19th Century Japanese paintings.

One Japanese traditional painting is Ukiyo-e, which literally means the painting of a view from the sky. It turned out to be the woodblock print for mass-production in the 19th Century due to booming tourism. Similar to 19th Century Paris, there was the development of public transportation in Japan and the flourishing of demands for the consumption of landscapes. The Ukiyo-e print of the famous places was trendy in those days. Ando Hiroshige’s work, Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake, tells us plainly what Ukiyo-e looks like. This image would be familiar to the Western audience because Vincent van Gogh copied it for his training. Just as ‘an objective eye’ in cinema, the gaze of the viewer in the painting seems taken from an upper distance.

However, one can see something different in Cherry Blossoms under the Full Moon another work carved and printed by Hiroshige in the same period. What is described by the same painter does not resemble the way in which Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake depicts reality. The painter adopted the Western way of seeing, so to speak, the perspective that dominated Western art since Renaissance. Interestingly, this painting illustrates the mixture of two forms; the traditional style was preserved, while the modern form revised the original framework; hence, the figures of the crowd were depicted according to the skills of Ukiyo-e, but the buildings followed the principle of perspective. This was what happened when the East met the West. The new sensible in the East came out of the old sensible in the West.

The Western avant-garde such as the Impressionists rejected the rule of perspective by introducing the aesthetics of Ukiyo-e into their works. They aimed to criticize the Western tradition, reclaiming the possibility of non-Western aesthetics. Indeed, it is ironic that the early modern Japanese painters had an advantage of the perspective for reinvigorating their traditional form of art. What does this imply? The significant point is the formality of image-work rather than its message. The visual view in the history of Western art vindicated the aesthetic regime of enlightenment, or the axiom of representation, in a neat manner. It was easily believed that the perspectival representation was firmly related to the science of perception. The disposition of the order of things aligned from a vantage point reflected the early modern geometrical imagination. The perspective was as if the representation of truth, regardless of the unresolvable discrepancy between image and thing in itself.

Therefore, it might be necessary for those modern painters who assured themselves with realism that the traditional framework of seeing the world should be refuted and give way to the more immediate perception of nature. Japanese paintings were for them the excuse to justify the fact that the non-Western aesthetics were possible. On the contrary, the visual perspective, the Western tradition of representation, influenced Japanese painters in the name of ‘modern art’. From this, it is not an exaggeration to say that the modern is contingent. There is no clear boundary between the old and the new. It depends on the location, in other words, not only geographical difference but also aesthetic estrangement.

The newness is created in the conjuncture due to the dislocation of the sensible. In this way, an image is a traveler. When encountering the unknown world, it articulates the new conjuncture of aesthetics. The image separates itself from its original location and stands for itself. No doubt, this is the way in which an image works in itself. This way of image-work explains Lee Kuang-Yu’s language of sculpture. His works serve as the examples produced by the non-Western aesthetics with the Western grammar of art. This aspect of his works is not unusual, but common to any non-Western art.