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Caravaggio's Supper: Picture Frames and the Nature of Human Consciousness

F. David Peat

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A text only version of this essay is available to download.

Let's look at the meaning of the frame that encloses a painting and use it as a way of exploring questions of reality and imagination, immanence and transcendence, and the nature of human language and consciousness. The picture frame is a boundary between what is to be seen and what is to be bracketed, between what is art and what is not. Exploring the ways in which artists have played with the convention of a frame, is to make an excursion into boundaries in theatre, film, music, science, mathematics, psychology and language. It is to discover the nature of consciousness and the basis of human action and creativity.

The boundary of a painting acts to focus and isolate our sensations and sensibilities from their normal engagement in the commonplace world. The eye moves within a painting and suggests that human consciousness and even the muscular dispositions of the body experience a similar movement. Artists, from all periods and societies, have employed a variety of structures (for which the term "visual codes" is introduced) to order and control this movement. Thus, the act of reading a painting becomes a deep and unifying experience in which one's whole being, thought, emotions and muscular equilibrium, is engaged.

The work of the artist is, in part, devoted to understanding the order and structure of our being in the world, at a cognitive and perceptual level, as it is reflected in the making and reading of a painting. In this way, various elements of line, mass, color, gesture, tone, and fields of movement come together in complex and subtle ways to create a satisfying visual code.

Clearly, one of the problematic issues involving painting is the issue of its physical edges and boundaries. How is the perceptive act to be confined, and what is the deeper meaning of this act of inner focus? Working within the convention of a rectangular space, how do visual codes direct consciousness to approach a painting's corners? What significance is to be given to the surface of the painting? And what is the cognitive structure of this physical boundary, placed around a painting, that differentiates it from the rich structure of the external world? How does the frame which surrounds the painting relate to that conceptual membrane that divides the surface of the painting from our own world?

Different artists have explored the convention of the frame in different ways. In a number of his paintings the Sienese painter, Simone Martini, allows the fingers of a saint to escape from the edge of the painting and spill over into our world. In perhaps his most famous fresco, of Guido Ricco de Fogliano, the left fetlock of Guido's horse moves down and forward, escaping the space defined at the lower edge of the painting so that one has the awe-full impression that horse and rider, painted high upon the wall, have actually swung out from the fresco and are about to enter the space in the Sala del Mappamondo, in Siena's Palazzo Pubblico.

Centuries later, Caravaggio similarly broke though the confines of pictorial space with his "Christ on the Road to Emmeus". In a dramatic gesture, an apostle's arm thrusts out to the very edge of the canvas, his finger almost touching the frame. In this way, a physical presence is established right at the limit of the picture plane, that boundary between our world and that of the painting itself. Yet the saint's thumb, drawn in extreme perspective, points forward and thus there is nowhere else for it to exist but in front of the fingers, outside the canvas and within our own world, our own space. Through a dramatic use of visual codes, Caravaggio therefore threatens our security as viewers by allowing his world to enter ours and, in so doing, draws us in as participators into the drama he portrays. The contemporary New York artist, Todd Watts, building with light and the photographic process, explores a related area of the surfaces and boundaries and feels a deep connection to Caravaggio's approach.

Notions of presence and absence, that dynamism whereby the work of art breaks through its membrane, either by penetrating into our own space or by attracting us into its dark void, is powerfully explored by the sculptor Anish Kapoor. The contemporary American artist, Janine Antoni explores the absence and presence of the human body in art, the boundary between self and other.

Artists like Seurat and Rosenquist applied spots of paint to the surrounding edges of the painting, creating a resonance between that which lies inside and its surrounding boundary. Degas created a dynamism between the space of the painting and its cognitive or imagined extension in space through dramatic cropping and unexpected viewingpoint. Turner used colour perspective in order to create a swirling movement in which the effect of a painting's corners were diminished.

Perspective provides another powerful tool by which consciousness is directed into a highly structured space. This is contrasted with more subtle movements in, for example, Chinese scrolls and Byzantine painting, an approach that has more recently been explored by David Hockney in his Very New paintings.

By exploring movements within and across the surface and frame of a picture we also begin to develop insights into the structure of human consciousness. This exploration is continued by looking at similar movements in other arts and the sciences. The Indonesian Shadow Puppet play, for example, explores the enfolded nature of reality in the way that various levels are reflected in puppet, operator and their shadows, as well as in the context of the drama itself which is played out in the period from dusk to dawn when the human spectators themselves move between dream, fantasy and wakefulness.

Drama itself lives though the ability of thought and imagination to enter into and animate the theatrical space, thereby allowing it to escape from the everyday into heightened, abstracted, and sharper focused aspects of reality. Thus, in Henry V, Shakespeare invokes us to create the scene itself; interplays of levels reflect the heightened fantasy associated with sexual desire and jealousy in A Midsummer Night's Dream; and the play reflects itself in Hamlet. Monologue becomes the device which bridges inner contemplation and outward action, and in so many of his plays Shakespeare explores shifting levels of reality as manifest in, for example, sexual and social identity.

In the films of Antonioni, Fellini, Goddard and others, landscape moves between realism and the hyper real or dream-like. Likewise, in music the boundary between that of sound and silence is explored and transcended, for it is within the silence that follows a note that its overtones and internal relationships unfold and resonate. Thus, it could be said, music itself lies not simply within its playing but in the active space between sounds. From around the world comes a preoccupation with masks as presenting something simultaneously abstract yet, at the same time, more real. Masks thus allow for a world of spirits and energies to enter into our waking world of matter.

This movement between the real and the non-real, the object and its representation, is also present in science and mathematics. while certain branches of mathematics grew out of practical considerations, such as land surveying, commerce, engineering and determining the odds at gambling, its highest and purest form is the abstract study of "relationships of relationships"; that is, the ordered movement of pure thought.

The great enigma of mathematics, however, is its "unreasonable effectiveness." Why should totally abstract excursions of the human imagination play such a powerful role in a science that represents the physical world? Why should David Hilbert's development of functional algebra have, decades later, proved to be the perfect tool in which to express quantum theory? How was it that Riemann's development of non-Euclidian geometry, turned out to be the ideal language for Einstein's general relativity? Why does the irrational number Pi allow not only for the computation of areas and volumes of spherical objects but also probabilities and the movements of the earth's tides? How is it that the abstract aesthetic beauty that allows for the development of new mathematics should, at the same time, mirror the physical structure of the world?

Clearly an elusive connection exists between the abstract play of mathematics and the concrete world of matter. This, in turn, leads to the whole question of the ontological role of the equations of physics. Are these equations no more than the passive representations of nature? The physicist John Wheeler believes otherwise, for he has suggested that certain forms of logic are "the nuts and bolts out of which the world is made". Likewise, David Bohm noted the deep connection between algebras of thought and algebra out of which space, time and matter may emerge.

This exploration of boundaries and frames in art, theatre and science leads to a consideration of the way in which the mind moves between inner and outer worlds. Indeed, it is argued that the analysis of paintings made in the first part of the book provides powerful clues as to the nature of consciousness. Babies engage in a movement across the boundaries of the self and other, and even small children create internal, abstract maps of their environment in order to carry out complex tasks. Thus, it is suggested, consciousness reaches out to scan and analyze the world, internalizing various aspects by means of complex codes, images, symbols and language. There is a constant interplay between this innerworld and its projection back onto an external reality.

By highlighting and abstracting the world, by means of codes or representations of objects, movements, relationships, it then becomes possible to transform and manipulate the inner world - a world that itself has its own complex structure and organization. In this way, it then becomes possible to engage in creative play and imagine the world to be other than the way it presents itself at the present moment.

To create a world that is different from its actuality is clearly only possible with the aid of representation and symbolization; that is, with the elements of thought. Thought itself therefore only becomes possible when a boundary can be created between inner and outer. For to live exclusively within the outer world would be to become contingent to its every transformation. Active movement across boundaries, however, is the essence of consciousness, the creation of a rich interior structure which can then be projected outwards as the basis for action. Our actions in the world therefore consist of ways of bringing the external world closer to that of our internal reality. Consciousness is a constant movement between the inner and the outer. It is an activity of abstraction and symbolization that is matched by action in the external world and, as these two worlds approach each other closer and closer together, the imagined it brought into concrete manifestation.

Language plays a particularly powerful role in this for with its aid the external world becomes symbolized as the complex structural (syntactic and semantic) relationship between words. Human language is the rich arena in which the play of reality takes place, an arena moreover which exists at a shared, social level. Words are no mere representations of things, for they exert their own active power in mind and body, each word evoking complex memories, emotions and physical reactions. Language therefore acts to structure a complex electro-chemical ecology thought within mind and body. Moreover, as a result of its subtle structural laws it also allows for that freedom to play, create and imagine in ways that can be projected back onto the external, social world.

The ability of consciousness to move across boundaries is also discussed in terms of the ability to deal with paradox and transcend the traps of "logical types". Thus, unlike computers, which are often conditioned hierarchically and algorithmically, the human beings can escape from the infinite regression of the Cretan Liar or Russell's Paradox by leaping into new orders of thought. It is through such flexibility of movement and creative play that consciousness has the ability to both create and dissolve concepts and categories of thought.

Like a painting or drama, our relationship with the world, our memories and imagination, and the society in which we live, becomes a constant, subtle, complex movement across boundaries, a movement of projection and interiorization, of comparison and structure; a world in which action and symbol, word and object become inseparable.

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