English, Department of



John Rignall

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 25 (1994)


Published by The George Eliot Review Online https://GeorgeEliotReview.org


The problem of vision, of what the artist or writer sees, is among the most fascinating of the links between literature and painting, which separates them both from music. Vision itself implies something seen which cannot be separated from an inner quality of how it is seen. The I seeing and the eye seeing involves a synthesis which again distinguishes them both from the camera. The presence of this 'magic' which resists analysis has obsessed artists as frequently as critics, and led them to reject what seemed incapable of completion. A poem, according to W.H. Auden, was never finished, only abandoned. T.S. Eliot found in every attempt to use words a 'new attempt, arid a different kind of failure.' For the painter-and it is from Velasquez' Las Meninas that John Rignall's book begins-the problem is often stated by the inclusion of the figure in the painting who observes the painter; or by mirrors which reflect the scene being painted, so that we, the observers, can never forget the painter observing himself, and what he or she observes. The wit of Magritte's painting springs from his conjuring with this problem, as in the example of the artist who is working on a portrait of a woman who still has only one arm, except that at second glance he appears to be painting a model who is one-armed. In every portrait, and in every novel, there must always be the shadow of a self-portrait, of that whole process of selection which constitutes-to use Goethe' sword-the charm of the subject, in which another eye would find no special or obsessive interest. Observation of the world-however keenly, however sharply-is always an act of self-contemplation. When Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra set out to walk the streets and note the qualities of people, they also set out to note the qualities of themselves as lovers.