Lately, I have been thinking about how when we look at a painting we not only complete or finish what the artist began, but we also can become unwitting participants in the fictional world of the painting. In his wonderful essay “The Work of Art and Its Beholder,” Wolfgang Kemp argues: “In the same way that the beholder approaches the work of art, the work of art approaches him, responding to and recognizing the activity of his perception.” Kemp’s essay is essentially an explanation of ‘aesthetic reception,’ a methodological approach to art history, which takes this aspect of works of art very seriously. Aesthetic reception recognizes that works of art are made for an “implicit beholder” and that looking at works of art involves an “asymmetrical” communication between the artist and the real beholder.
He develops his theory through an interesting analysis of Nicolas Maes’ The Eavesdropper (1655). Our status as ‘implicit beholders’ is obvious because the painting addresses the viewer through the maid who looks ‘out’ of the painting. The painting is a comment on the moral implications of looking, and it invites consideration of when an onlooker becomes an eavesdropper. In a sense, The Eavesdropper provides the viewer with a fictional choice. Should we join the maid in her invitation to be an eavesdropper? Should we pull back the curtain? Although the maid invites us into the scene, it is, of course, impossible to see or hear what is happening in the room beyond. As Kemp says, it is “by the art’s grace [that] we have “only” the painting.”
After reading Kemp’s discussion of The Eavesdropper, I was reminded of the work of contemporary painter Eric Fischl. Many of his paintings, like Maes’, have a domestic setting, but in these familiar and intimate settings (at least for those who live in homes like them) Fischl often confronts us with disturbing scenes. What is most interesting about Fischl’s work, however, is his ability to make the viewer feel as though he is witnessing and potentially implicated in the scene before him.
His painting The Bed, The Chair, Dancing, Watching masterfully draws the viewer into the action of the scene. A middle aged man sits, nude, upon a white chair covered in a strikingly red floral patter. He looks straight at me, scrutinizes me. I become aware of a shadow on the wall, and I recognize that a woman is undressing before this man, and that I am somehow standing in her place. What relationship do these two people have? What exactly is going on here? Needless to say, I feel uncomfortable and unnerved by looking at this painting. I am thrown into the scene and become a complicit participant as this narrative unfolds. While Maes offers us the grace of a curtain, the only grace offered by Fischl is that we do not see what happens next. The bed directly behind the man suggests where the story is headed, and his gaze is hardly one of love and care.
Both Maes and Fischl place the viewer into awkward positions. By simply looking at these paintings we are caught up in a tense moment when some choice, or some action, is demanded of us. While such a position can be unnerving, it may help us to explore a moral dilemma in a ‘safe place.’ Furthermore, they may also help us to develop sympathy for others faced with difficult decisions. Because we are participants in these scenes, we cannot simply judge the actions displayed as though we are on the ‘outside.’ In a fictional, and yet powerful, way we stand in the shoes of another.