Fillip 7 — Winter 2008

Untitled (Behold, I show you a mystery)
Paul Chan

The first philosopher of the window is also the first philosopher of painting: Leon Battista Alberti. Alberti’s De pictura (1435) paved the way for the ascension of painting, carrying within its development the hopes and ideals of the early Renaissance. De pictura was a manual of sorts: how to paint using geometry, perspective, and colour. In the sense that it is a manual for painters on how to paint, it is also a manual for viewers on how to look at painting. De pictura showed for the first time how single-point perspective can be used to create the illusion of depth within the frame of painting. Alberti’s synthesis of art and architecture transformed painting into a window: painting became the new window that looked out onto the new world taking shape in the wake of the Renaissance. De pictura did not drastically change the world overnight (an apple was still an apple), but a fundamental shift did occur, and it was in how that apple was viewed. Before Alberti, during what we loosely call medieval times, the visible world was the manifestation of divine power. Art was the sensuous medium that both invoked the glory of this divine power and celebrated its appearance on Earth. After Alberti, an apple became simply red and ripe. In other words, the visible world became endowed with qualities for the new gaze of men and women who were severed from the servitude of a transcendent order. The philosophy of Humanism in the early Renaissance was the first salvo fired against religious orthodoxy: the apple became ours, so to speak, and the window helped us see this, perhaps for the first time.

The psychoanalytic writer Gérard Wajcman has proposed that the tableau-window signalled the birth of a new type of human: the spectator. This new species of humanity learned, by looking out through the window, and then looking at paintings, a new taste for things of this world. This fresh pleasure in seeing was also a taste for watching, staring, and spying. In describing the tableau as window, Wajcman paints a portrait of the new human as someone who has a taste for seeing secrets. The pleasure of seeing is really the pleasure of seeing what is not supposed to be seen. Art, then, in the form of painting, becomes the new window from which we experience the world—in secret.

It is an unheralded accomplishment of the Renaissance that secrecy became a positive value. Before the Renaissance, the divine light of the Creator illuminated every part of the visible world so that religious doctrine could be scripted on every possible surface. It is a supreme irony that we call this time the Dark Ages, for it was anything but. Light as a religious doctrine worked to ensure that every part of the world was visible and therefore accountable to the ecclesiastical order. Good subjects should be lit and in the gaze of others, especially from above, at all times. This was truly the first surveillance society. There was no shade.

Alberti’s window and the epoch that made his ideas possible transformed darkness, and the very idea of secrecy, into a positive form of existence. In facilitating an encounter with the visible world that resisted the tempting certainty of religious dogma—for learning, for experimentation, and, above all, for pleasure—Alberti’s window also gave new value to the parts of the world that were not visible. It was in the shadows, beyond the engulfing light of divinity, that Wajcman’s spectator came of age. The window became the nexus for two new powers: one that framed the world in a new light for secular contemplation, another that protected the new subject in the darkness of an interior, allowing him to gaze out the window with indiscretion: to study, to measure, to adore. “Free will” is the scholastic name for the debate around this newly evolving right to secrecy. Darkness began to lose its dimension of dread and entered into a new dialogue with the living. Life in the shadows became a condition for the coming enlightenment.

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