The curious unseen



Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I hadn’t turned this painting around in a long time: my wife reminded me that our one and only, rather small Impressionist painting had the artist’s name on the back in graphite: Amy Atkinson (1875 – 1954).

I have always been curious about the back of paintings: there’s a lot to be read online on the subject: art dealers, galleries and auction houses place stamps, gummed labels and other markings on the back to assist with identifying and cataloguing the work, establishing the authenticity of the piece and so on.

In one idiosyncratic sense I prefer the back of a painting to the front. The painting itself of course is a sort of magic act, it’s an illusion, an image of a 3 dimensional reality on a 2 dimensional plane. Of course this is a simplistic statement: abstract paintings, collage and so on break as many rules as traditional oil paintings may appear to keep. Nonetheless, the back remains for me the curious unseen.

For a moment though, let’s turn the painting the “right” way round: it is titled Chinon from the Quay. It depicts a  landscape with a river, a bridge, the French town of Chinon in the distance and a woman seated on a small wall in the foreground.  We don’t doubt that this is a scene the artist saw and decided to recreate in oils on a wood panel. And the woman was probably sitting on that wall, and the light was playing on the landscape and the water was flowing beneath that very bridge. But it is an illusion nevertheless: what we have before us is gesso-painted wood, oil paint, dried linseed oil, varnish. The artist has, in a way, fooled us, and yet her intention was to share with us the pleasure of her own visual experience of this landscape in whisch she once stood.

From one perspective, the image Amy Atkinson created is but one aspect of this artwork, of a larger story. The back, as it were, is integrally a part of the front. We rarely look at the back of a painting but it exists in tandem with the front face. And more than this, the whole is more than the sum of the parts. What of the materials used, the seasoned wood panel that was cut long ago from a tree (and who, for that matter, cut the tree down? Where – and through how many generations did it grow? Who leaned against it’s trunk? Did lovers meet there secretly, did a weary worker throw himself down in the cool shade, did a child climb in its branches, did a dog lift it’s leg at its base …). The pigments and and oil of the long dried paint came from where exactly? Vermillion and ochre, burnt sienna, raw umber and paynes grey … a painting is always more than what the artist intends.


“Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.” – Walter Chalmers Smith (1824-1908), 1867


From these musings I move to a metaphysical one: perhaps the world is like a painting: it is an appearance, and the atheist is like a fellow who sees only the illusion painted on the front, who cannot imagine anything beyond. Because he cannot see the back with its markings and paper labels, the structure of the panel or canvas, he assumes that the image is the reality (a notion challenged by Plato and Hinduism, and now, thousands of years later, by quantum physicists. The frame, the stretcher, the materials and the interrelated stories about how this small work of art came into existence are like the unseen we call God; the atheist (and I think here of the God Delusion by Dawkins) seems incapable of thinking beyond the illusion on the thin, front surface of the camvas or panel – and more pathetic still is that he fails to see, as quantum physicist s would point out, that the painting, the landscape, the physical object hanging on the wall – all of these are constructs. They exist as concepts in our minds. 


The curious unseen: it asks questions of us, our preconceived ideas, our sacred dogmas of what is.



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