Silence of Painting

Silence of Painting February 10, 2017

In Hand to Hand, Jean-Louis Chretien meditates on silence in painting. He doesn’t simply mean that painting is a visual rather than an audible art. Instead, he argues that paintings must not only be viewed but listened to:

“To say that painting is silent is to say that we not only see it, but that we listen to it as well. Crossing hearing and seeing Paul Claudel shed light on this issue with great rigor in the formula that serves as the title to his book on painting and informs the title of this book, as well: The Eye Listens (L’œil écoute).”

In the sense that Chretien means it, not all paintings are silent, and not all silences are identical: “There are garrulous, speechifying, and deafening paintings, and others that are intensely silent, but with a silence that certainly tells itself in several ways, in death or in life, in presence or in absence, in anguish or in prayer. Despite first appearances, the silence of painting and the silence in painting present a rich internal differentiation, and the grain of their phenomenality is as fine as it is varied.”

Painting’s silence is “a communicative, radiant, and cordial silence, which invites us to live within it. It cannot be reduced to a silence of privation, to the obviously and trivially insonorous character of a picture.” It is like the silence of music, which is never simply the absence of sound, but a communicative silence: “If we were to look upon musicians playing through a pane of glass so thick that it prevented us from hearing what they were playing, this would not be a music of silence, but rather a forbidden music, a frustrating music that would exasperate our desire to hear. But all of the songs of angels or of men, all of the pictorial concerts, performed solo or by groups, which traverse the many centuries of painting, give us silence to hear. We are deprived of nothing; on the contrary, we are filled.”

The rest is as essential to music as the note and the chord. And we must attend to the silences of a painting in order to hear it well.

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