Katalin Kovács: TACTILITY, TOUCH, and senses
– Fragmented thoughts, based on French art theory –
Seeing the unusual exhibition, the question inevitably arises in the visitor: what connects the works of art exhibited here? What is the mysterious binder – thought, idea, concept – along which these works of different materials, of different genres are displayed in one exhibition space? I would like to outline some fragmentary thoughts along the lines of tactile, tactility, materiality – and senses – on the basis of French art theory, which is my narrower field of expertise.
I would start with an etymological remark: in French, the words brushstroke (la touche) and touch (le toucher) are coming from one dagger. Namely when the painter touches the canvas with his brush – or his thumb – or the sculptor the material with his chisel, he comes into some physical contact with the image and the sculpture. In this context, it is worth mentioning the anecdote that Jean-Siméon Chardin, the greatest colorist painter of the 18th century, was rumored to have, – as Diderot writes in his Salon of 1767 – used his thumbs as many times as a brush in his work.
The French verb “toucher”, like the Hungarian word “megérinteni” (to touch in English), has a double meaning, in addition to the specific sense of touch, it is also used in the sense of touch, move. This is not a coincidence at all, as these two activities are intertwined in the aesthetic thinking of the eighteenth century: according to the unanimous opinion of French art critics, a good work of art touches the viewer and not only enchants his eyes, but also touches his soul.
Tactility, however, is also tied to the tradition of depicting the senses. But not in the usual sense, as when the paintings are personified by female figures or animal figures (for example, the spider symbolizes touch and the monkey symbolizes taste), but in a very specific, concrete sense: on the exhibited works the textures and surfaces are almost touchable, powerful dynamics are suggested by the moving – interlocking – spaces.
It is important to emphasize that from all of the senses, the closest to the body – corporeality – not in the longest period of time cherished vision was in art theory, but tactility was. Art theorists have traditionally seen vision as the noblest sense. In contrast to touch, the privileged role of vision means the superiority of painting over sculpture, and of the primacy of color in painting over drawing. There is a paradigm shift in this perception in the eighteenth century: philosophical ideas, including Condillac abbé’s Dissertation on Emotions, which states that our knowledge can be traced primarily to tactile sensations, are also confessed by art theorists of the era that all visual arts based on touch.
In the perception of paintings, vision obviously precedes touch: vision, which shows the distant, and touch, which shows the near, can be seen as opposite to each other in the process of cognition. However, the question arises as to whether we perceive the same thing, perceive the same way from near and from far? When we affiliate the works of art in the exhibition, both sight and touch are essential, presupposing and complementing each other.
However, in the Age of Enlightenment, the question of the lack of the senses was also considered: Diderot, for example, reflected on the aesthetic experience that a blind-born man could have. He says that “sight is a kind of touch”. In this regard, it is worth thinking about the fact that there are similar experiments in contemporary art: if we exclude sight and rely only on touch, how do we perceive works of art, and among them primarily and especially sculptures?
Sculptures evoke the viewer’s desire for tactile experience even more than paintings and photographs. But the role of touch and tactility also arises during the reception of works of art. Diderot alludes in his Salon in 1763, to Chardin’s fruit still life that he wants to bite into the fruits on the picture, squeeze out the bitter orange juice, drink a glass of wine, and dig into the pate with the knife which is hanging from a tablecloth. Looking at the apple cob sculptures of Attila Rajcsók at the 2019 exhibition, I heard from one of the spectators: “Who bit into this cob”? Indeed, the sculptures are so material that they invite the gaze, but at the same time the hand also: the viewer feels the urge to touch the works of art gently.
As a concluding remark, all I would say about the senses – and perception – is that it is no coincidence that aesthetics was born in the age of the Enlightenment as an independent discipline, one of the aims of which is phrased by its eponym Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten that “the science of sensual cognition” this suggests that the “art of thinking beautifully” is based on perception and is related to feelings.