When you look at an impressionist painting from a short distance, you see paint strokes, not shapes. A small section of such a painting might look like a piece of abstract art. If you look at the painting from some distance, the single strokes become “invisible” as such and what you start seeing are shapes, like trees, buildings, ships, animals or people.
In an exhibition in in Bucerius Kunst Forum in Hamburg last weekend, I was able to study this effect looking at some impressionistic paintings, especially while looking at two paintings of Gustave Caillebotte, a painter who, I suppose, deserves more attention than he is normally getting. The paintings are showing views of roofs of Paris in winter. One of the pictures I have not found on the internet, the other one you can see above. The colors in the original are a bit brighter, as far as I remember the original, the painting is less brownish than it appears in this photograph, and you cannot really see much detail here, but you can get an idea.
Looking at the painting from a short distance, I would see it as paint strokes on the canvas. The snow on the roofs seems to have been painted with a slightly dry brush, so that at some points, the paint did not cover the brown paint of the layer below. As a result, there are small brown specks forming a texture (this might be the reason why on the photograph, it seems darker and more brownish than it actually is). In place of the “smoke”, you just see meandering strokes of paint.
If you step back, however, suddenly there are roofs, chimneys, and clouds (make sure there is no other visitor of the exhibition standing behind you before you step back).
The process of perception is clearly using all available information here, including the context of the painting itself. A blob of paint that would not be identifiable as anything becomes a piece of a roof or a part of a cloud in the context of a painting. The parts are interpreted in the context of the whole and the whole is interpreted on the basis of the parts, in a hermeneutic circle.
Some knowledge about the world is clearly used in the perceptive process. If you have never seen roofs, chimneys or snow, if, for example, you have spent your entire life in some camp in a rain forest, this painting would probably look to you like an abstract painting. Interacting with the world around you, you develop knowledge. The “hermeneutic circle” of interpreting the painting is embedded into the larger process of your life. Single perceptions and experiences are used to build a worldview and this worldview is used to interpret further single perceptions and experiences, like the perception of a painting you are looking at. Large hermeneutic circles are embedded into smaller ones. Even the totality of your life is not the highest level in this hierarchy. The process of building up knowledge involves the history of the whole culture and ultimately, humankind.
A colorful blob of paint in a painting might “become” a human being in the context of a painting. The paint from the painter’s palette takes on a form and “becomes something” on the easel. Later in the exhibition, when you look at the painting, knowledge from your life and the tradition you came from, as well as from the painting in front of you itself, is used to give each of those blobs of paint their meaning.
All that knowledge comes together in this moment and turns white, brown and black strokes of paint into roofs, chimney, sky and clouds. It lets you perform an “ontological transition”: from a world of paint strokes it transports you into a world of meaningful objects. Unlike the 17th and 18th century paintings in the first part of the exhibition on the ground floor, where painters tried to hide this process of transition as much as possible, the impressionist way of painting makes it visible.
Standing in front of this painting, for a moment I am the single person seeing this painting, experiencing it alone. I am peering through a small whole into the past, seeing what Caillebotte saw more than a hundred years ago.
(The picture is from http://www.wikiart.org/en/gustave-caillebotte/roof-under-the-snow-paris.)
There is another exhibition of impressionistic paintings at the moment in Hamburg, showing paintings of the little known painter Thomas Herbst. I was able to see this exhibition the next day. Highly recommended as well, see http://www.jenisch-haus.de/de/sonderausstellungen/der-maler-thomas-herbst-1848-1915.htm#.ViKn5n7hC00.