Aesthetics / Art / Culture / Musings / Philosophy / Thoughts

Thoughts in an Exhibition

Roof under the Snow, Paris - Gustave Caillebotte

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[1], 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



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

17 thoughts on “Thoughts in an Exhibition

  1. Very thought-provoking article Nannus, I haven’t heard of Caillebotte before, but this painting is interesting in its honesty of subject matter and palette. I’ll have a look at more of his work, thanks.

    • An interesting question, something to think about.
      I think that a lot of our perception is like that, when we identify something. But that is not all. If I look at abstract art, for example the wonderfull paintings you have posted on your site, something else is going on. We seem to look for regularity and shape, but without identifying shapes as something. That seems to be a more basic process. If I look at the faces on the other side of your web site, I indentify them as faces, but each is also individual (as are the shapes in the painting I was looking at in Hamburg). Forming an interpretation is only part of the perceptive process.
      In any case, I think that this form of a hermeneutic circle, where the parts are interpreted using information from the whole and the whole emerges from the parts in turn, is something that will reemerge in many processes of perception and thinking.

      In any case, I think that the process of perception is very varied because all kinds of knowledge might get involved, so it can change at is individual and depends a lot on previous experience. It is not just an algorithm but something that develops.

      In that exhibition, I could experience the individuality of it firsthand. Between the two paintings of Caillebotte, there was a small painting. I glanced to the side and thought: “Wow, that is an exceptional painting”. The small painting hanging between the two others that I liked so much turned out to be an early Van Gogh. I can’t really say why I found it so good (it is this one: I really can’t say way, but I thought: “for me, that painting is the highlight of the exhibition” (and not that there where no other very good paintings, there was Monet, Degas, Sisley and other great names). But the moment I thought this, a woman besides me told her husband (pointing at the Van Gogh painting): “I can’t do anything with that”. It resonated with me, but not with her. It is very individual.

      • Yes, I agree, when the process of visually perceiving is exhausted in having run through (what are in effect) memory files of percepts – this takes mere milliseconds – then the pattern-seeking shifts to more abstract concepts, such as harmony, balance and beauty in the visual arena. I suppose this could be ‘a more basic process’, as you say, but equally can be a more refined one perhaps?

        If we speak in terms of levels of sophistication, we can have at the most basic level the retained percept of ‘a tree’, then a more refined ‘post-impressionistic painted representation of a tree’, and then perhaps refining further a ‘Cezanne-like tree’ or maybe a ‘Chinese calligraphic tree’. As you say, these form part of, or a basis for, the final refinement of the perceptual process, in which perhaps we eventually conclude that the Cezanne-like tree painting is in fact a latter day Chinese copy of Cezanne’s The Big Trees, which was painted a hundred years previously but which sensorially is all but identical to the cheap facsimile.

        P.S the link you provide is to Clarissa Galliano’s site – was that your intent Nannus?

        • Of course that was the wrong link. I have exchanged it by the one intended. I had been looking at the paintings on your site. It was obviously too late in the night. 🙂

          More later, I don’t have the time now.

        • It still looks rather “normal”, the German text is talking about its similarity to the Dutch tradition of landscape, but the brush-strokes in the sky are already a bit like those “spirals” of his more “typical” paintings.

    • Actually, the thoughts I presented in this article are very preliminary and unfinished. They seem a bit shallow to me and I am baffled about the many likes this article has been getting. I was not shure if I should publish this. I regard it as work in progress, but I think it is better to publish something imperfect. Thanks for asking a thought-provoking question.

  2. I’m very short-sighted, have been since I was about 10 and had to wear glasses all my life (or contact lenses) – so I always see the world in a kind of impressionistic sense! Which is why the work of the Impressionists always resonated with me. Freedom, though is when you create work that is purely impressionist, abstract or non-representational and someone, somewhere ‘sees’ something in it that to them has meaning and imagery. That’s neat. That’s art (for me anyway). 🙂

  3. “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.”

    I’d never thought about impressionist work this way before. (Not that I’ve read much about impressionism, but I’ve always liked it). That transparency sounds like a beginning of art pointing back at itself, which is something that’s done all the time now, something we’re all pretty used to. But for some reason I’d never thought about impressionism in that way, perhaps because it’s somewhat a mixture of realism and abstraction. I’d always assumed impressionism had the goal of creating a more emotional response (which it certainly elicits from me). Your point goes further and I think you’re onto something.

    For me, impressionism hits the sweet spot. Photographic realism usually leaves me cold, although there have been exceptions. (Specifically a certain painting I came across in Santa Fe, a giant portrait that took my breath away. I very much wanted to buy it. I could imagine visitors coming over and just standing there, dumbfounded. Not a “conversation piece,” but a silencer. 🙂 ) Similarly, I don’t get into a lot of abstract art unless I can see something in it (not necessarily a determined empirical object, but at least a mood). If abstraction goes to far, I find it leaves me cold. And oddly, it’s just that transparency, that pointing to itself, that makes me feel that way. I guess for me it’s just a matter of degree…I need the transparency to combine with an emotional goal.

    Thanks for the illuminating post!

    • Your thought that this is the beginning of art becomming self-referential is really interesting.
      Personally, I find that a lot of the old European art leaves me cold (photo-realism as well). There are some exceptions (e.g. Goya), but it starts becoming interesting for me with some of the realism that is the immediate precursor of impressionism.
      Personally, I like some forms of Abstract art a lot.

      • I’ve like the abstract art that you’ve posted on your site. I guess I’m not really into Jackson Pollock stuff. It really just depends on what it is for me. But rarely will it win me over the way impressionism does. Plus, I tend to go for landscapes. I like being transported to a different place, and feeling the mood from that place being expressed (like in that Van Gogh sky). Sometimes it’s just a particular color in the sky, and I don’t know what it is that I like about it, but it brings back vague memories of feeling.

  4. Really awesome article. You really know your “stuff” which makes yours an interesting blog to read. Thanks so much for following my WordPress blog, as well. I really do appreciate it and will keep an eye on yours, as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s