Please do touch.
In 1947, Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton organised an exhibition at the Maeght Gallery in Paris to announce the resurrection of Surrealism after the Second World War. Before the exhibition Duchamp (1887-1968) spent a few days with the artist Enrico Donati (1909-2008), attaching 999 fake breasts to the covers of the catalogue. Duchamp had originally intended to use a cast of the left breast of Maria Martins--whom he was having a relationship with at the time--for the cover, but this proved too difficult. In the end Donati sourced the 'falsies' from a supplier in Brooklyn. He transported them to Paris, where the artists painted the nipples to make them look more life-like before gluing the foam breasts onto a black velvet background. On the back of the catalogue they attached a notice that read 'Priere de toucher'.
It was a typically Duchampian gesture, playful and titillating. The cover begged to be touched, but it also warned you off: the nipple peeped out from its velvet frame like an accusatory eye, meeting the toucher's gaze. Years later, Donati recalled a conversation with Duchamp during which he 'remarked that I had never thought I would get tired of handling so many breasts', to which Duchamp replied: 'Maybe that's the whole idea.' In the year after the exhibition, a copy of the catalogue was seized in Geneva by the Procureur General of the Confederation because the cover was found to be 'immoral'. Priere de toucher (Fig. 1) wasn't just a scandalous evocation of the tactility of the sexualised body, however, but a comment on the way audiences were expected to interact with art objects. In asking to be handled, it invited viewers to transgress one of the most sacrosanct sensory barriers of the modern gallery.
Western art has historically had a fraught relationship with the sense of touch. Arguably the most famous representation of touching in the canon--Michelangelo's Creation of Adam (1511-12)--depicts a thwarted touch, one left incomplete and incompletable. As with Keats's 'still unravish'd bride' in 'Ode on a Grecian Urn', the potential tactility of The Creation of Adam is frozen in time. Man and God are forever on the brink of touching, their touch forever denied.
The Creation of Adam can be read as a playful rebuke, a reminder that, however effectively mimetic a work of art, haptic properties will always lie outside the artist's grasp. Though we can touch canvas, we can never handle objects represented on it. Even sculpture, which invites the hand in a way that painting cannot, is generally unable to replicate the textures of the things it represents. The story of Pygmalion is miraculous not simply because life is bestowed on an inanimate object, but because the sculptor was able to transform cold stone into warm flesh.
Visual art, and in particular painting, has often allegorised the irony of its making: that tactility is supplied to the eye but denied to the hand. Paint is resistant, oblivious to touch, while at the same time it often tempts us to touch it, suggesting the ghostly presence of the haptic through texture and surface structure.
If figurative treatments of touch, such as Michelangelo's, are always haunted by the ghostly impossibility of the feeling they depict, historically touch tends to have been considered a less misleading sense than sight or hearing in conveying knowledge of the world. This conceit has a Biblical origin. Central to Christian conceptions of the epistemological confirmation offered by touch is the story of doubting Thomas who, according to the Gospel of St John, would not believe in the resurrection of Jesus until he had 'put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side'. Thomas's doubt was most famously dramatised by Caravaggio in The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-02; Fig. 2), where the figurative treatment of touch again represents a challenge to the viewer. Thomas can touch Christ's wounds, confirming the testimony of his eyes, but we are denied the same confirmation. Iconographically, tactility implies a deeper form of acquaintance, as testified to by the worn right toe of Arnolfo di Cambio's Statue of St Peter (c. 1300) in St Peter's Basilica, Rome, gently eroded over the years by the thousands of pilgrims who have touched it.
Tactility is nowhere more thought-provoking, therefore, than when challenges to sight become the subject of a painting. John Singer Sargent's (1856-1925) extraordinarily moving Gassed (1918-19; Fig. 3) portrays the aftermath of a mustard gas attack on a group of soldiers in the trenches. Despite the horrors of its subject matter, it is a strikingly formal composition, emphasising the almost sculptural positioning of bodies in space. A stylised rendering of a group of figures moving across a plane, as in a frieze, the individual figures locate themselves using their hands, feeling their way across the battlefield by touch. One sighted soldier leads the men on. The third figure from the right lifts his leg exaggeratedly, anticipating an obstacle that is not there. (Virginia Woolf found the futility of the gesture incredibly poignant, calling 'this little piece of over-emphasis' the 'final scratch of the surgeon's knife which is said to hurt more than the whole operation'.) The floor is littered with the bodies of those who will touch no more. The essential futility of the scene depicted is heightened by its formal indebtedness to Pieter Bruegel's Parable of the Blind (1568; Fig. 4), in which the blind lead the blind, using touch to move forward but with no particular destination in mind. In both paintings we become voyeurs to blindness, spectators of the sightlessness of others, whose own experience is dominated by darkness and tactility.
As well as offering a comment on the untouchability of objects depicted in paint, Sargent's painting can be read as a commentary on the fragmentation of the human sensorium brought about by the traumas of war. During the First World War, the body itself became a battleground. Wounded soldiers were stripped of their sensory faculties; eyes, ears and noses were rendered useless. Presented with waves of broken bodies returning from battle, on the home front touch was reinterpreted by doctors not as a supplement to sight but as a replacement for it: a compensatory sense which would allow damaged men to live full lives. In Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature, Santanu Das describes Sargent's technique in Gassed as an extension of the surgeon's art. 'Painting, like surgery, requires a rare co-ordination of the eye and the hand,' he writes, 'every flesh brushstroke is a guiding and manoeuvring of touch on the canvas just as each little movement of the blindfolded soldiers in the painting is sensed through the hand.'
In the late 19th century, the dominance of what critic Martin Jay has termed the 'ocularcentrism' of Western art seemed assured. By the turn of the century, vision, writes Janine Mileaf, was 'credited with facilitating objective, theoretical knowledge, while touch [was] considered more qualitative and intuitive'. All this changed with modernism, when artists became interested not in depicting tactility figuratively in paint, but in creating works which employed texture and haptic form in their very composition. Aldous Huxley's playful account of the 'feelies'--a tactile equivalent of the 'talkies' that were just then becoming popular--in Brave New World (1931) was in part a reaction against the increased specialisation of sensation inculcated by modernist mnemonic technologies. After the gramophone, music no longer existed solely during performance: it could be stored and played at will. After the invention of photography, images could be reproduced indefinitely. Braille stored meaning in tactile form.
In his 'Manifesto of Tactilism', first read at the Theatre de L'Oeuvre in Paris in 1921, F.T. Marinetti (1876-1944) called for the development of a new art based on the sense of touch. Identifying the moment of his aesthetic awakening as an experience in the trenches during the war, he claimed that in the modern world: 'A visual sense is born in the fingertips. X-ray vision develops, and some people can already see inside their bodies. Others dimly explore the inside of their neighbours' bodies. They all realise that sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste are modifications of a single keen sense: touch, divided in different ways and localised in different points.' For Marinetti, touch was not only the basis of all sensation but a potential source for novel and exciting new modes for art. 'This still embryonic tactile art,' argued Marinetti, 'is clearly distinct from the plastic arts. It has nothing in common with painting or sculpture.' In his Futurist Cookbook, written 10 years later, which combined polemical attacks on pasta with demands for 'the abolition of everyday mediocrity from the pleasures of the palate', Marinetti did away with knives and forks, asking diners to eat with their left hands while stroking sandpaper and silk to create a haptic Gesamtkunstwerk. The tactile visual sense had practical applications also, he suggested: 'I am convinced that Tactilism will render great practical services, by preparing good surgeons with seeing hands and by offering new ways to educate the handicapped.'
Marinetti traced the origins of the new Tactilism he was promoting in the arts to the work of Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), whose Fusion of a Head and Window (1912, now lost; Fig. 5) was created, so Marinetti claimed, when the artist was 'feeling tactilistically'. It was constructed out of 'materials entirely contrary to each other in weight and tactile value'--iron, porcelain, clay and hair, combined not according to visual but to tactile harmony. It is--or was--a fun sculpture, a jaunty face peeping from, and constructed out of, a pile of found objects, the organic grin contrasted with the rigidity of the materials it is composed of. 'This plastic complex' Boccioni told Marinetti, 'was made to be not only seen, but also touched.' But the afterlife of Boccioni's sculpture testifies to the mutability of tactility in the arts. All that remains now of the work is an untouchable photograph.
As with Sargent's Gassed, Marinetti said that Tactilism had originated during the War, after an experience in the trenches. He recalled crawling on hands and knees through the darkness in an artillery battery's dugout. 'Hard as I tried not to,' Marinetti wrote, 'I kept hitting bayonets, mess tins, and the heads of sleeping soldiers. I lay down, but couldn't sleep, obsessed with the tactile sensations I'd felt and classified.' He outlined a series of exercises designed to facilitate the development of the tactile senses, instructing his acolytes to wear gloves for several days, 'during which time the brain will force the condensation into your hands of a desire for different tactile sensations', and asking them to swim underwater in the sea and attempt to 'distinguish interwoven currents and different temperatures' as they did so. 'In this way', he concluded, with typical self-aggrandisement, 'I created the first educational scale of touch.'
Marinetti and the Futurists were interested in the way the ephemerality of the reproducible image had led to a reawakening of tactility and the creation of monumental, aggressively textured sculpture and painting. Both Duchamp's readymades and Marinetti's Tactilism were reactions against the decline of what Walter Benjamin had called, in his influential essay on 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1936), the 'auratic' artwork: the one-off original. Much of Duchamp's work trades on the fact that we can read texture with our eyes even as we are denied the right to much. Surrealism itself can be read as a commentary on the inverted tactile economies of 20th-century art. Meret Oppenheim's (1913-85) Surrealist Object (1936; Fig. 6), as well as being a visual pun on lesbianism, is a composite of jarring textures, or potential textures, which beg to be touched but also make us recoil.
In line with a Surrealist tradition that emphasised the multisensory nature of art and experience, during the early 20th century viewers became handlers; the eye was replaced by the hand. But at the same time, such works questioned our right to touch the everyday objects they were composed of. The readymade placed things that people engaged with physically everyday--bicycle wheels, chairs, urinals--on plinths or behind glass.
In Britain, a Futurist-inspired cult of tactility was promoted by Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) and the Vorticists. For Lewis, the father of Vorticism and its chief propagandist, concerned as he was with challenging the 'child-cult' of Impressionism, touch was an ally: the 'enemy of the time-school' and the 'hot world of the senses' because 'the eye is [...] the private organ; the hand the public one'. In his sprawling 1928 manifesto Time and Western Man, Lewis argued that art should be dead, cold and externalised. It should be encountered by the hand rather than the eye; felt rather than seen.
Even at its most derivative, Vorticist painting and sculpture delights in the physicality of movement and the potential tactility it evokes. Rock Drill (1913-15; Fig. 7) by Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), a stylised human form perched atop an industrial drill (with its maker's mark still visible), is jarring and disconcerting because of the tactile vibrations it brings to mind. But it also draws attention to the bodily labour involved in the creation of sculpture itself. With its hard edges and wonderfully visceral form, we are invited to imagine the work of the sculptor and the tactile sensations involved in the work's very production.
Despite the best efforts of the Surrealists, Futurists and Vorticists, touching art still feels inherently subversive. But for the past few years touch has been regaining ground in our visual culture. Everyday we tap and prod at our iPads and smartphones, interacting with images using our hands. Increasingly, technology asks--demands--that we touch it. And curators are becoming more interested in the way objects feel as well as in what they look like. At 'The Springtime of the Renaissance' exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence this year (now showing at the Louvre until 6 January 2014), works were accompanied by touchable examples of the materials they were made of--shards of pottery, pieces of brass and cloth which visitors were encouraged to caress. And exhibitions focusing on tactility provide ways for blind or partially sighted people to engage with art: this year, the Touch Art Fair in London billed itself as 'the world's first-ever art fair celebrating tactile art', and featured work from Jake and Dinos Chapman as well as several young artists working in varied media. In New York, MoMA runs special tours for blind or partially sighted people.
Technology has also started offering new ways to acquaint us with the texture of works that were hitherto untouchable. Tim Zaman, a researcher from the Netherlands, has developed a high-definition scanning system that allows exceptionally detailed three-dimensional scans of canonical paintings to be made, capturing what he calls the 'topography' of the surface (Fig. 8). Zaman is primarily interested in creating better copies of great works-- so far he's used his technique to scan paintings by Rembrandt and Van Gogh. 'Paintings are not unlike sculptures,' he says, 'paint as a material has a huge impact on the way a painting looks.' Scanned in three dimensions and blown up, Zaman's images show the surfaces of paintings as alien landscapes or desert topographies. They are maps of the artists' own hands too, making brushstrokes and fingerprints readable.
The motivation behind the project, he says, is to learn about painting in a new way. 'Feeling the texture is less important, for us, then seeing the texture', says Zaman. 'A carving is not made out of pigments at all, the only reason you see anything in a carving is because the light casts a shadow on some parts, and highlights others. In paintings, the fact that this also happens is often overlooked. By comparing the reproduction with the original, we learn which aspects play an important role in the painting that we have not yet fully understood. Post-mortem, Rembrandt is still teaching us his techniques.'
But the technique points to another intriguing possibility, that of caressing the surface of a painting itself, a way of reclaiming Marinetti's Tactilism for all art. 'In that way' says Zaman, 'Van Gogh's paintings can be experienced without looking at them. One could also 'feel' Rembrandt's style changing, as Rembrandt painted with more texture later in life.' In the future, perhaps we will learn to look at art with our hands as well as our eyes.
Jon Day holds a Dphil from St John's College, Oxford, on modernism and the senses.
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|Title Annotation:||FEATURE: ART AND TACTILITY; visual art|
|Article Type:||Cover story|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2013|
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