Simon Bell

Note: Uncredited quotes are taken verbatim from Vanda Harvey, and other views are entirely the author’s, for which he takes full responsibility. However, he would like to acknowledge the rewarding and illuminating nature of this collaboration, and to thank Vanda Harvey for her generous and perceptive insights.


The Abstract Eye

‘I can see what the painter has done, and not necessarily what the painter saw’

Federico Zeri’s view that any reading of art needs a complementary understanding of its context and genesis in order to avoid ‘serious distortions’ (1990: 210), could be seen to discourage imaginative and personal analysis. Vanda Harvey’s comment that ‘meanings shift in terms of context and time, as values alter for subsequent generations’ would seem to support this view, suggesting the further disconnection and irrelevance of any unsanctioned or unresearched response.

This short paper, based on a conversation in June 2008 with Harvey in London’s National Gallery about Diego Velázquez’s The Rokeby Venus (c. 1647-51), Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ (c. 1440s), Edgar Degas’s La Coiffure (c. 1896), and with reference to her own work, demonstrates how a practitioner’s reading of a painting, based on perceptive formal analysis, can reveal transcendent truths. In this way the evident logic of Zeri’s perhaps inhibiting stance can be reconciled with Susan Sontag’s perhaps more appealing and liberating one, which declares that the ‘function of criticism [of a work of art] should be to show how it is what it is […] rather than to show what it means’ (1994: 14).

* * *

A quick reading of Federico Zeri’s and Susan Sontag’s relative positions might suggest an almost militaristic opposition at first sight, a drawing up of battle lines as a last resort after all negotiations have failed. Sontag thinks with disarming clarity and directness – for example, when discussing Last Year at Marienbad she is prepared to sideline its putative ‘multiplicity of equally plausible interpretations’ (1994: 9), and to declare that any temptation to interpret it should be ‘resisted’ (1994: 9). The real issue, in her view, is the ‘pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its [the film’s] images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form’ (1994: 9). Whilst this appears to celebrate an untutored response, Sontag might concede that appreciating any handling of problems of form presupposes a practitioner’s understanding.

This concession would bring her fractionally more in line with Zeri’s view that ‘it would be a mistake to apply the purely formal criterion […] to earlier works [that] we have been unable to interpret’ (1990: 210). Zeri adumbrates implicit authority and reward in hermeneutic archaeology, especially as he goes on to state that ‘we must not assume that, because we cannot read them, these messages are not there, or can be ignored’ (1990: 210). A degree of patience is required, as it can take ‘time for the message to become comprehensible again’ (1990: 210).

However, this might not unreasonably be seen to disenfranchise those in the here and now, who by an accident of timing would, in Zeri’s view, have no right of access to certain works of art. Vanda Harvey’s position sets her as a mediator between the Zeri and Sontag factions, whereby a sensitive and informed approach – informed, that is, by the rigour of practice – celebrates the best in each and demonstrates where there might be surprising agreement and overlap.


Harvey declares, standing in front of The Rokeby Venus, that she is not ‘necessarily looking at the social context of the time [and that she is] just here in 2008 looking at a rectangle and what’s painted on it’. Responding to suggestions that she is abstracting it as she might one of her own works, Harvey concedes ‘absolutely – I would see this quite clearly as an abstract painting’. Her reading at first deftly sidesteps the familiar issue of the face in the mirror (if indeed mirror it is): ‘the thing that’s visually compelling about it is the shift in tone. There is a visual drama but it’s a soft transition [and] it takes [us] light/dark, light/dark all the way through’.

The question of the familiarity of subject-matter is of equal importance, in that the manner of its handling, if done with mastery, should licence a variety of readings. ‘A recognisable, reclining figure, which has been painted throughout history thousands and thousands of times. Why is this one so much better than all the others? Velázquez has [placed] squarely in the middle of the painting the fabulous line of that woman’s hip. You can’t escape [it], letting the eye explore the painting. Wherever else you go, you’re then taken back to that point on top of that hip. The body acts as another element in the formal reading – the oscillation – from bottom to top, and back again’.

Harvey’s analysis minutely considers specifics, thus unearthing fascinating notions: ‘if that left arm had been in a “natural” position we wouldn’t have got that extraordinary line [of the body juxtaposed with the material]’. As she points out, the figure is ‘slightly uncomfortably placed, [creating] tension’, a tension she sees mirrored in her own work, whereby she would ‘move and manipulate form until it has a crucial order within the composition as a whole’ – paradoxically (and beguilingly) the tension therefore unifies. This tension [in The Rokeby Venus] then holds the ‘half-black, half-white marriage between [the figure’s] body and the black [material]’. Whether the model’s body is stiffening up is unfathomable – ‘we’ll never know because we’re not the painter’ – thus favouring Zeri’s approach, but Harvey then demonstrates the folly of searching for interpretative absolutes (as many have done), rejoicing instead in the abstract[ed] qualities of the image in front of her: ‘it takes you so many places, this painting […] to ambiguity [which is] wonderful because it leads to engagement [and] we wonder about the possibilities. We create many scenarios’. Far from reiterating the reductive view that an abstract is open to limitless possibilities, Harvey is clearly showing the benefits of close, rigorous scrutiny of what is in front of her, using Frank Stella’s comment ‘what you see is what you get’ in a liberating, not limiting, way. Ambiguity is not seen as a licence for casual thought, but instead as something to be enjoyed responsibly: any view is acceptable – if supported by evidence.  

The ribbon seems to have a shadow rather than a pink, or even pink-based, reflection. If this means that the image in the frame is not a reflection of the model (and many have commented on the angle of the ‘reflection’ and the scale of the head in it), then it could be a portrait, brought down by the rather grotesque cherub. Do we see in this a picture of what ‘Venus’ might be like in years to come? Or do we see a picture of what she’s really like, with the figure on the bed being her own fanciful notion of what she’d like to be like? In that case, is the whole painting a fantasy seen through the eyes of a vain and insecure young woman, mythologizing herself? Venus is a mythical character – but there are Venuses being perceived and impersonated in every street in every town. Is the awkwardness of her pose, on the edge of the bed and not lounging resplendent in the middle of it as, for example, in François Boucher’s Marie-Louise O’Murphy (c. 1752), an indication of this uncertainty in her mind, a formal prop for an interpretative stance? If we accept, as we should, that Velázquez was not forced into errors, then a close, painterly reading of the evidence opens up possibilities that are neither vulnerable to desuetude nor to the vagaries of contextual certainty.  

Given the prominence and, perhaps, certainty, of its religious content, it may seem strange, not to say perverse, for Harvey – a committed atheist – to find della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ moving. However, she ‘can feel the breeze [in the painting]’, and cites the purity and abstract integrity – ‘a balance […] absolutely fascinating, so utterly compelling and moving, a set of sensations playing on the nervous system, nothing to do with subject-matter or inarticulate skills [which she despises], tonal shifts, dark/light, dark/light, then you look up and you have something even whiter...just when you think it’s all as white as can be – you see the dove’. Asked how abstract shapes can be moving, Harvey replies ‘because, as with nature, we react but we don’t label: labelling stops you seeing the image. It’s moving because the painter is absorbing alien values [and therefore not cynically falling back upon the familiar and the predictable]’. In her own work she uses blocks of colour, ‘rectangular markers [that] function like the dove in this one […] a pivotal point’. Discussing her own painting Origins, Harvey declares her art is not ‘arbitrary, and has associative value. The tension between the gradation of the orange diagonal and the placement of markers creates a spatial twist, and the delicate organic form is held. The point is that [the viewer] gets taken into different zones, and [the painting] is a porthole to somewhere else...where is reality?’ Of course, one also has to rethink what one means by moving – in a modern context, looking at a 500-year-old painting celebrating an event 1,500 years earlier, we can be forgiven for not having the same emotional or intellectual needs as della Francesca’s contemporaries, perhaps thus relegating the painting’s putative content to desuetude.

Harvey feels The Baptism of Christ lends itself to abstract transcription ‘via emotional engagement with the form, which can then lead to formal transformation beyond any literal transcription’. The content can be transcribed, the subject-matter not; subject-matter is thus seen by Harvey as a vehicle for content. Because of the painting’s frieze-like construction and ‘spatial divides’, she sees it as an artifice – ‘it’s not what was actually there in any sense’ – a critique unencumbered by religious scepticism. The figure on the right, taking off his vest – Christ the man? – could be seen as mildly comic or absurd today, but Sontag’s comments about Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire are pertinent here. Sontag feels that Elia Kazan’s film of the play had to reference grander notions – ‘the decline of Western civilization’ (1994: 9) – because the idea that the play was about ‘a handsome brute named Stanley Kowalski and a faded mangy belle named Blanche Du Bois’ was not ‘manageable’…as a ‘forceful melodrama’ it was perhaps too modest and direct (both 1994: 9). By the same token, Christ the man adds balance, and a continuation of a narrative – a formal integrity: just see the figure for what it does, not who it is – prompting Harvey to describe the painting as ‘ “divine”, but not in a religious sense’.  

This kind of analysis underscores the validity of Sontag’s claim that ‘the very distinction between form and content […] is, ultimately, an illusion’ (1994: 11). Content is content and not interpretative stock. Content is what the form tells us it is, and is neither speculative narrative nor an illogical reading, and Sontag aptly quotes Lawrence’s ‘never trust the teller, trust the tale’ (1994: 9). The point is clearly made when Harvey analyses Degas’s La Coiffure, and confesses to having ‘often wondered what this painting is about […] it’s definitely not about someone having their hair combed. It’s almost like an excuse to play with reds and to actually balance them out...against the pink of the standing female, against the red of the girl’s hair. Actually what Degas is giving us is an extraordinary figure-of-eight between the standing figure’s arms, the hair, the girl’s arms, and, in a way, I think the whole subject matter’s just a hook […] If you look how Titian paints hair we can touch it – the silkiness of every strand. Here, there’s no attempt to do that, so in fact the representational element is totally secondary’.

Harvey acknowledges Degas’s skilful drawing as a major factor: ‘the image is pulled together through drawing […] to actually get those fine shapes out of fairly desaturated reds is extremely difficult. The colour delimits and articulates the space. Degas lets it [the unfinished area to the left] breathe [by] creating a counterpoint to the apron’. The tension in the image, created by this formal opposition, means one is continually ‘tracing that figure-of-eight’ in a harmonious integrity not unlike an heraldic device. Degas ‘manages not to divide the painting into two halves – it breathes either side of the diagonal with a looseness that’s quite wonderful’.

Despite the explicitness of the gesture of the standing figure, pulling back the seated girl’s hair perhaps quite roughly, there is, in the slightly raised little finger of her right hand and her expression of calm assurance, a definite sense of timelessness in the repeated chore, yet these explicit gestures have no excessive detail – with true economy ‘everything is inferred’. It would be a mistake to see the mark-making as reductively over-simplified. Degas lets the canvas breathe and there is a rewarding complexity in the layering and texture of the paint. The sense of ‘true economy’ comes via the interpretative potential liberated by his handling, whereas the opposite would create more complete – and thus fewer, more loaded, less economical – possible readings. A more contemporary parallel is found in the work of Edward Ardizzone, who creates a dynamic between text, image and reader in this way. Ardizzone’s imagery, for example in H. E. Bates’s My Uncle Silas, prompts plausible alternative approaches to the text, and the imagery functions as a device that both enhances, explains and diverts: readers are encouraged to look and to read carefully, and to return to the texts time after time to seek new meanings, and so it is with Degas.  

The potentially disastrous colour-scheme (as Harvey puts it: ‘imagine sitting down to paint a red girl with red hair and a red dress in a red room [with] someone else in the picture also with red hair’) is intriguing. The seated girl, perhaps petulantly gesturing to the standing figure, can be read as part of the fabric of the building – or at least the room – in the way she matches its colour, a reading that would not necessarily follow were the image to be in conventional black-and-white monochrome, whereby a looser reading of the colour associations would probably result (Harvey does not see the Degas as a ‘tonal painting’). A mistress/servant relationship could therefore be suggested, as the standing figure’s blouse is pink, hinting at her gradual assimilation into the family, perhaps – but not a total acceptance, given her white skirts.

The objects on the table, which is also white, ‘articulate the space of the table-top’ but the brush perversely overlaps the white skirt when a useful space for it is just to the left. Presumably it is there for the standing figure’s convenience, and not for any compositional harmony. In this way a narrative reading confirms the formal one, and we are once again caught up in the figure-of-eight loop – the women in the picture need each other, but for reasons we cannot pin down, only guess at – as we realise the extent of the painting’s integrity: ‘inspiring […] in terms of abstract’.


In conclusion, this paper has not argued against contextual studies – instead it posits an alternative approach to the discipline and the activity, foregrounding the value of conceptualising a poetics of interpretation based on a reconciliation between the positions of Zeri and Sontag. These differing views can be reconciled – or at least tempered – by careful reading of the evidence in a painting. In this way there is a convergence of approach between the figurative and the abstract, with subject-matter an integral part of formal analysis – true content. We might criticise Zeri for not endorsing Sontag’s gloriously free-form delight, and we might criticise Sontag for not exploring formal pathways enough, but a critical engagement with both these critics’ views has clarified readings of the paintings. Interpretative activity is not excluded, but neither is it premised upon received notions or cultural myths, and nor is it elitist. The Rokeby Venus reveals a beautiful woman awkwardly posed, in apparent harmony with the disquieting cherub and the face in the proffered image, and in counterpoint to the easy rhythm of the deliciously painted material – a psychological reading could emerge. The Baptism of Christ has a formal integrity created by an adroit handling of white. This stunning range of whites both celebrates the other colours, and holds all the pictorial elements in place, with a mastery that can move the viewer whether one buys into the Christian agenda or not – although the sheer verve of the execution could be seen as irresistible evangelism. La Coiffure draws attention to its own explicit plasticity, yet deploys that to confound and thus to liberate. Degas’s composition and use of colour creates a fascinating overlay, and we are caught in both a formal and a narrative tension, the latter possibly suggesting a social critique in the painting. In all three works the reader has to be willing and active in order to be helplessly seduced.

The role of the reader is foregrounded in this analytic activity, as the evidence is irrefutable in its lack of dependence on emotional harassment or contextual knowledge. The emotional content is for the reader to supply, the intellectual rewards dependent upon degrees of scrutiny, recalling Stella’s ‘what you see, is what you get’ with a distinctly keener cutting edge. Harvey declares that a ‘combination of painted gestures and colours insist upon their physical presence on the canvas, emphatic and indisputable […] yet the element that best becomes art is not on the canvas at all. It’s in the transmission, the air and vibration between the painted surface and the viewer’, echoing Sontag’s epigrammatic ‘in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art’ (1994: 14). The analysis of these three very different paintings clearly demonstrates the value of close and dispassionate looking, an activity immeasurably enhanced by Vanda Harvey’s sensitive accomplice, her abstract eye.


Simon Bell,
Coventry, August 2008






Bates, H. E. (1953) My Uncle Silas. London: Jonathan Cape

Sontag, S. (1994) ‘Against Interpretation.’ In Against Interpretation. London: Vintage: 3-14

Zeri, F. (1990) ‘Fifth Conversation.’ In Behind the Image: the Art of Reading Paintings. London:
Heinemann: 210-68



Boucher, F. (c. 1752) Marie-Louise O’Murphy. Cologne: Wallraf-Richartz-Museum

Degas, E. (c. 1896) Combing the Hair (La Coiffure). London: The National Gallery

della Francesca, P. (c. 1440s) The Baptism of Christ. London: The National Gallery 

Velázquez, D. (c. 1647-51) The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’). London: The National Gallery


Simon Bell is a writer and lecturer at Coventry University’s School of Art and Design.

He has a Masters Degree in English Literature and is currently undertaking a PhD in academic writing. He has several ongoing projects, including Writer-in-Residence for the Coventry & Warwickshire Hospital Decommissioning Project, and editing the transcripts of a series of conversations with Vanda Harvey about her own practice and its wide-ranging relevance to creative endeavour and the teaching of fine art.