The Saturday Essay: The bewildering pleasure of looking at paintings

I have never loved a painting I can master completely. My love requires a sense that something has escaped me
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The Independent Culture
When I was 19, I saw Giorgione's The Tempest for the first time, not the painting itself but a slide projection of it on a wall in an art history course. I had never heard of the artist and knew little about Italian Renaissance painting, but for some reason the picture caused a physical response in me - a genuine tremor of amazement. I fell in love with it then and there, in those 40 seconds before the professor clicked to the next slide. But why? What happened to me? I am not alone in feeling an almost electrical connection to a painting. I know any number of people who travel great distances to see a picture they have longed to see, who stand before a flat rectangular canvas covered with paint and have what they deem "an important experience".

The Tempest is a small picture of three people in a landscape, painted in 1503 or 1504. A man with a staff stands in the foreground, looking towards a woman who is seated on a hillock nursing an infant. A stream runs between them. She is naked except for a white cloth, which is draped over her shoulders and is spread out underneath her where she sits on the ground. Some curious ruins and a deserted city lie behind the figures. Above them is blue-green sky with a frail stroke of lightning and a clouded moon. Nobody knows what the painting is about.

Marcantonio Michiel, a Venetian nobleman and antiquary, kept a notebook between 1525 and 1543 in which he refers to the picture as Giorgione's rendering of a soldier and a gypsy. In the 18th century, the painting was called The Family of Giorgione, out of a mistaken idea that it depicted the artist, his wife and child. (The latter two never existed.) Salvatore Settis, an Italian art historian whose book on The Tempest was first published in 1978 and appeared in English translation in 1990, argues that the painting is a veiled account of the Eden myth, that these two people are Adam and Eve and that there's a snake in the picture. No one has ever seen this snake but Settis.

A more convincing argument, detailed by Jaynie Anderson in her monograph of Giorgione (1997), is that the canvas is a pictorial version of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphilo, a romance about Poliphilo, who in his search for antiquity comes across Venus feeding Cupid, but that's only a guess. There are also scholars who believe the painting is about nothing, that it's an example of a free-form fantasy.

Between my first viewing of the slide and a visit to the Accademia in Venice, where I saw the real painting for the first time four years later, I made a startling discovery. The image I carried in my mind was very accurate, with one exception: I left out the man. My memory of the painting was of the woman, the child, the landscape, the ruins, the city, the sky, the lightning - but no man. I gave this extraordinary gaff to the heroine of my first novel, The Blindfold, who also remembers the canvas perfectly but has no memory of the fellow in the foreground. My obliteration of this man is a commentary on the painting, on me, and on the odd business of looking at paintings.

Every painting is still. It doesn't move. It is usually some kind of rectangle which mimics the architecture of a window. Its existence implies a spectator, just as a book implies a reader or a piece of music implies a listener. It is a dead thing animated by the presence of a living person who enters into some kind of relation with it. Not long ago, a woman wrote a letter to The New York Times in which she cited her experience when she saw Michelangelo's David in Florence. She wrote: "What a thrill it was to stand there and soak in its beauty and power. But how long I had to wait in the gallery for things to quiet down so that I could concentrate on it."

Two things interest me about her statement. First, that she experiences the David as if it were active and she were passive - she "soaks" in the statue - and second, that she needs quiet for this saturation to take place. Her view of looking at the statue is a common one. The stone David radiates something in her direction and she prefers to have no distractions during those emanations. We rarely experience other inanimate things in this way. Think of a fork, for example, or a chair. Art is made to be seen. It is activated both by a cultural mythos that has decidedly religious undertones and by a real, even transforming, relation between the viewer and the thing viewed.

I have looked closely at The Tempest in the Accademia only three times. Each time is a repetition of my first rapture before that projected image in the classroom. I now know there is a man in the picture and that he serves as the vehicle of my entry into an image I don't fully understand, but understand enough to be fascinated. The staff he holds suggests that he is on a journey, that he has been walking. Now in repose, he looks over at the undressed woman calmly nursing her baby in a storm. He looks at her, but she is not looking back at him. She gazes outward toward the viewer, as though she has just lifted her eyes in the knowledge that somebody is spying on her.

By recognising me, the spectator, her eyes draw me into the space of the canvas, where I imaginatively become the man's double. In a painting, everything occurs simultaneously, and I find myself trapped in this triangular seduction of looking - the direction of her gaze at me, coupled with the direction of his at her was what triggered my amnesia of him, the wandering male spectator. I forgot him because I was him.

The man and I occupy a similar space, because neither he nor I will ever get across the stream to speak to that woman or touch her. Nearly every analysis of the painting I have read acknowledges the insurmountable chasm between the figures. The stream separates them as it recedes backwards into the landscape. There is a bridge, however. Our hero wouldn't have to wade or swim through that stream. He could use the bridge, but he never will.

Why? Although the two figures are not very far apart, they appear to exist in separate realms. For one thing, he is dressed in contemporary clothing. Anderson suggests that this identifies him as a member of the Confraternity of the Sock, a group of young, unmarried noblemen who were engaged in amateur theatre productions. The woman, however, is nude, a signification of timelessness in that enchanted landscape, where a curious bit of wall is topped by two cylinders and where classical buildings coexist with houses that resemble those in rural areas outside Venice.

The woman's face is illuminated by a light from a mysterious source. Every one of her features is perfectly visible, while the young man's face is shadowed. The rest of him is easier to make out. He is obviously young and his jaunty pose and elegant clothing exude confidence. His body is fully inside the frame of the picture, but not by much. He seems to have just stepped in from another world.

The Tempest's ambiguity has baffled its viewers for hundreds of years because it defies pre-existing codes for understanding paintings of the period. We are always reading art through known codes and precedents, even when those codes are unconscious. Nothing can take place between viewer and image without them. Most people have had the experience of seeing a work of art that is simply unintelligible to them. It doesn't mean that the work can't be comprehended. It means that the viewer's entry is blocked by a lack of orientation. The image can't come into view because it defies expectation, and expectation determines to an enormous degree what we actually see.

I remember walking into a large hotel lobby of some architectural complexity and looking down a corridor at a person standing at its far end. I didn't recognise the person for a couple of seconds, and then, with a sudden shock, I realised that I was looking at a reflected image of myself. I needed to know that the wall was a mirror before I could see myself in it.

Very good and very bad paintings are often confused. A very good work may defy codes to a degree that renders it not only nonsensical but irritating, and because of this viewers pronounce it bad. Innumerable despised works have gone on to command prices in the art market that take one's breath away. And yet, although sophistication in a viewer may help orient him, it may also bar understanding. After all, those who have been most spectacularly wrong about works of art were usually people who wrote about art for a living. Rigid expectation is blinding.

The Tempest is a painting that seems to wriggle out of the best-laid art-historical interpretations, but just because we can't name the characters in the painting or place them inside a known narrative doesn't mean that the work defies recognition or that it's meaningless.

If the painting is an allegory, it was probably, as Settis argues, an intentionally obscure one, a secret known to the painter, his young patron and perhaps a few other cognoscenti. The Tempest was owned privately, and it once had a painted cover which could be opened like a cabinet. Only then was the underlying image exposed. This method of looking at a painting is a seduction in itself. The spectator is allowed to open the door and peep inside, and what is he met with when the image is revealed but more voyeurism, a game of glances in an imaginary place?

Bewildered, he is drawn into the mysterious otherness of the nude woman, who has caught his eye, who appears to see him, but her body is turned in the direction of that young stranger in the foreground, who is also looking at her. Furthermore, she is not alone. She has a child at her breast, a fact which distances her further from the two spectators - one outside and one inside the painting. The lovely woman is not a reclining odalisque. Her erotic presence is defined by the fact that in this moment of nursing motherhood she is more unattainable than if she had no child beside her.

The drama of looking depicted in The Tempest is a reflective one. I, as spectator, am made conscious of my status as voyeur, which in turn binds me to the fellow in the foreground. His presence destabilises my position as someone securely outside the canvas, and the teetering effect it has on me creates an awareness of painting as the illusory projection of an artist. Whenever we look at a painting, we occupy the position once held by the painter who has now disappeared - that hidden body or ghostly presence behind every canvas. Even self-portraiture has this effect - the imago which remains of a living face and body, now immobilised in paint.

Giorgione's picture coaxes us into a scene which announces itself as a dream or an inner vision. Just as when we examine the backgrounds in a Leonardo painting we know we are looking at an emotional landscape, we know that the countryside of The Tempest is not a representation of a real place. The weather is bad, but nobody seems to notice. If there is a wind, the trees are not much disturbed by it. We have stepped into the mirroring realm of the imaginary. If Anderson is right, and the young man with the shadowed face is wearing the colours of a group of young patrician players, what could be more appropriate to this painting than an allusion to theatre and to art, a world that enchants us through our eyes? In that case, the youth would become a human image of artifice, which by extrapolation would announce the presence of the painter himself.

Giorgione died when he was only 32 years old. Legend has it that he caught the plague from his mistress. He was always young. And it seems to me that the young man in the foreground doesn't look different from the self- portrait Giorgione did of himself as David. It's just a thought. The features of the wanderer are perhaps too blurry to be identified with any certainty. But even if, by some miracle, a scholar discovered a letter written by Giorgione, in which he explained all the references in this strange canvas, it would not solve the painting. One can't understand an image by placing a narrative beside it.

I do know that I have never loved a painting I can master completely. My love requires a sense that something has escaped me. This quality of cryptic excess may be responsible for the language people use to talk about seeing art as if an inanimate thing were endowed with an elusive, almost sacred power. In a culture flooded by facile images that race past us on a screen, peek out at us from magazines or loom over us in a city street - pictures so heavily coded, so easily read that they ask nothing of us but our money - looking long and hard at a painting may allow us entry into the enigma of seeing itself, because we must struggle to make sense of the image in front of us. The Tempest resides in room 10 in the Accademia in Venice. I think it will always resist my complete understanding, and that is why I will go back to look at it.

Siri Hustvedt's latest book is `Yonder: Essays', published in the US by Henry Holt