Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Painting, Gestalt, and Reversibility
Maurice Merleau-Ponty's last essay about art, Eye and Mind, refers to many painters, to painting, and even to sculpture. Yet there is hardly any use of the traditional categories used in art criticism to categorize artistic movements or to evaluate painters' contributions to their period. Instead, he uses terms such as `body' and `flesh' that are alien to that tradition, thereby indicating that he clearly intends to go beyond commenting on and assessing the artistic value of the works he mentions. Instead, the essay is a reevaluation of meaning of painting as a whole. Merleau-Ponty says that all painting from Lascaux to our day has been a celebration of `the visible.' However, to understand what he means by `the visible' involves considerable complexity. The standard by which Merleau-Ponty evaluates painting emerges from his phenomenological and ontological research into perception. I argue that in fact Eye and Mind answers a question that arose in his first major book concerning the relationship between consciousness and nature. Because the evolution of the ideas underlying the Eye and Mind's answer is so vast, the goal of this dissertation is to trace the thread leading from his earlier work in order to provide a unifying viewpoint that will ground an adequate understanding of the essay's various arguments. The dissertation argues that Merleau-Ponty's notion of the Gestalt or structure is the framework for understanding the origin and depth of the aperçus developed in Eye and Mind. Ironically perhaps, this notion is not mentioned in Eye and Mind. As if it had lost its original meaning, it is only referred to indirectly and vaguely in terms of transcendence. Nevertheless, the main issue settled in The Structure of Behavior dominated his understanding of the body in The Phenomenology of Perception, and underwent a transformation when Merleau-Ponty discovered language as a diacritical structure. This made possible the radical use he made of it in Eye and Mind without expressly mentioning it. Once the interpretation of Gestalt in relation to Paul Klee and Rudolf Arnheim had been worked out, this dissertation could use this notion--usually undervalued in Merleau-Ponty scholarship--to make sense of Eye and Mind's main contention in light of the interpretive reconstruction of the notions of expression, reversibility, body, and flesh Merleau-Ponty elaborated on the way to that essay. Part I of the dissertation deals with the phenomenology of the Gestalt structure prior to Merleau-Ponty's ontological turn, which in turn frames and underpins many of the insights achieved in this pre-ontological period, especially those about the body. The first two chapters introduce the notion of structure as it emerges in its application to behavior, and explain Merleau-Ponty's own contribution to the notion through the overcoming of earlier psychologists' static reduction of the notion to the physical level. The third and last chapter of Part I discusses the structural dimension of the body. There are two extraordinary things in Eye and Mind: the first is Paul Valery's statement that the painter "takes his body with him"; and the second is the analogy between the problems of the body and the problems of painting, by which Merleau-Ponty proposes that understanding one is indispensable for understanding the other. To clarify his proposal we have to return to The Phenomenology of Perception's analysis of the body according to embodied intentionality or motor intentionality, in which the body operates according to an "I can" that must replace the mechanical reaction to a stimulus. Here Merleau-Ponty was helped by Kurt Goldstein's insight into the body as a Gestalt. The dissertation illustrates what this could mean for the structure of a painting by using examples. What was formerly Part II profiles Merleau-Ponty's embodied notion of the Gestalt form against Arnheim's aprioristic account, which explains the relationship between consciousness and nature through an isomorphism that is even more ambitiously totalizing than the ones envisioned by the original Gestalt psychologists. Because of the detailed nature of our account this part is in two appendices. What is now Part II focuses on the problem of painting more directly. Using both the Notes de Cours (where Merleau-Ponty's most extensive comments on Paul Klee occur) and Paul Klee's own celebrated Notes, Chapter Four on Paul Klee reconsiders the relationship between consciousness and nature as the one between the painter and the world. Klee interpreted abstraction in terms of Gestalt as a form of transcendence involving the visible and the invisible, in contrast to Sartre's idea of transcendence, which also employs the figure/ground formation of the Gestalt. In Eye and Mind the expression of painting is interpreted as "a `visible' to the second power, a carnal essence or icon of the first." So Chapters Five and Six discuss the notion of structure from the viewpoint of expression. The doubling of expression in painting is seen first as analogous to philosophy as a hyper-reflection, and then in the linguistic distinction between le langage parlé et le langage parlant, which allowed Merleau-Ponty to interpret and generalize the model of expressive language via the diacritical structure of language and not restrict expressive language to bodily gestures. Rather than a return to the original (as The Phenomenology may have suggested), the point of this doubling aspect of expression is the recognition of the qualities of reversibility and difference that constitute `depth.' With the clarification of terms such as `perceptual faith' and `style,' Chapter Seven introduces the notion of reversibility before exploring its meaning, specifically in the second chapter of Eye and Mind. In Chapter Eight the earlier focus on the beginning of the definition of a painting as "a `visible' to the second power, a carnal essence or icon of the first," shifts to the meaning of the term "icon." This rounds off the meaning of `depth' and completes the exploration of the theme of the Gestalt structure. Now it becomes clear that the meaning of `depth' is articulated as the depth between the visible and the invisible, because the model used to understand depth is the by now very familiar basic articulation of the perceptual Gestalt: the articulation of a figure over a ground. Like a stain on a rug--in painting, in history, in philosophy, in language, or in perceptual faith--the crystallization of what appears always disguises an invisible dimension, whose invisibility is what makes the visibility of the visible possible. Chapter Nine then concludes the dissertation. It first considers Jean-Luc Marion's use of the icon in painting, in which, as in our interpretation of Merleau-Ponty on depth, uses his own idea of the depth between the visible and the invisible; and second, it responds to observations on Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of art by Veronique Fotí and criticisms of it by Michel Haar.