Berger attempts to reverse this emphasis on physiognomic analysis, which presupposes a passive sitter being ‘read’ by the artist, and instead concentrates on the conscious act of ‘portrayal’ by both the painter and the sitter: not only do we see the subject as the artist saw them but, by use of what Jacques Lacan calls the ‘gaze’, the sitter is empowered “to imagine and represent themselves, to give themselves to be seen” and also that the gaze constitutes us “as beings who are looked at, in the spectacle of the world” (Lacan 1978, as cited in Berger 1994, p. 95). It is by the conscious decision to represent oneself, the desire to ‘pose’ that the sitter sets in motion “the three-way diachronic transaction between painter, sitter and observer” (Berger 1994, p. 99).
That three-way interplay between artist, subject and observer is also the main focus of ‘Seeing Eye-to-Eye with Mughal Miniatures: Some Observations on the Outward Gazing Figure in Mughal Art’. In it, Minissale describes the introduction of the outward gazing figure to art of the Mughal dynasty, in northern and central India, in the latter half of the 16th Century following the increasing exposure during this time of Mughal artists to European art through the medium of engravings brought to the Mughal court by Jesuit missionaries.
This outward gazing figure is based on the ‘festaiuolo’ or ‘compere’ in European historia paintings (complex scenes depicting historical events, often with multiple characters) and was intended “to act as a mediator between….the viewer and the image” (Minissale 2007, p. 41). Minissale contends that the adoption of this device shows a desire on the part of the Mughal artist to create a “psychological interplay” between the observer and the subject that was previously unknown in Eastern art. In paintings where the main protagonists are engrossed in enacting their own narrative, the use of a figure gazing out of the image directly at the viewer creates a reciprocal form of dialogue. As Minissale argues: “the illusion that the painted figure’s gaze penetrates the viewer’s space arrests the process of inspecting a painting, perhaps because of the fleeting illusion, which one has to check, that someone in the picture is looking at us” (Minissale 2007, p. 42).
The placement of the outward gazing figure, often on the threshold of the painting further served to “demarcate outer and inner pictoral space by bringing to the attention of the viewer the idea of the threshold” (Minissale 2007, p. 48), reflecting back the gaze of the viewer so that the observer becomes the observed.
It is the power of the ‘gaze’, as understood by both authors, which involves and challenges the observer to question their role in the dynamic of artist/sitter/viewer. This interplay requires that none of the participants are passive: the artist, through whose lens we must necessarily view the performance of the ‘pose’; the sitter, whose decision to “be seen being seen” (Berger 1994, p. 92) makes possible the portrait itself; and the viewer, who is challenged to identify the subject, or indeed, identify with the subject, Minissale (2007, p.48).
So, in both these articles, we understand that it is the device of ‘direct gaze’ which ultimately provides the connection inherent in the act of painting/posing/observing. Both Berger and Minissale cite Alberti’s contemporary treatise ‘On Painting’ (Leon Alberti 1435) in which he writes “I like there to be someone in the ‘historia’ who tells the spectators what is going on, and either beckons them with his hand to look, or with ferocious expression and forbidding glance challenges them not to come near, as if he wished their business to be secret, or points to some danger or remarkable secret, or by his gestures invites you to laugh or to weep with them” (Alberti & Kemp 1991, pp. 77-78).
The commonality of the device of the direct outward gaze in both Early Modern portraiture and the work of Mughal artists a century later serves to underline that it is a very human compulsion to communicate the essential, to ‘tell the story’. It is this desire to involve the observer in the narrative of both the artist and subject that has made eye-to-eye connection an indispensible device in art throughout cultures and time.
Image: Leon Battista Alberti