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Looking With Our Bodies

Adam Smythe, curator of Bluecoat’s exhibition Left Hand to Back of Head, Object Held Against Right Thigh, takes a look at how art can physically affect us.


Natalie Finnemore, Untitled, 2016 (Left) and Rowena Harris, Accreted Part 1, 2013 (Right)


On 15th February researcher Sally Blackburn led a Useful Knowledge Reading Group, part of an ongoing programme of readings linked to the Bluecoat programme, focusing on Aesthetic Responsiveness: Its Variations and Accompaniments by Vernon Lee. The essay, which deals with the emotional and physiological aspects of aesthetic experience was chosen in response to Bluecoat’s current exhibition Left Hand to Back of Head, Object Held Against Right Thigh, featuring works of art that affect us and physically act on our bodies.


Vernon Lee was the pseudonym of the British writer Violet Paget (1856 – 1935). Lee is best remembered for her supernatural fiction, but also wrote essays on aesthetics, music, travel, archaeology, biology and social sciences. Her output was uneven, often moving in and out of discrete disciplines such as art and science. Lee was a contradictory figure, shifting between radical political positions and, as a writer, would come to distance herself from her own work as her ideas progressed. Her writing on aesthetics combined scientific technique (she was known to measure the breathing and heart-rate of her partner Kit Anstruther-Thomson during gallery visits) with wild speculation and imaginative thinking.


Another of Lee’s essays, Beauty and Ugliness, written collaboratively with Clementina (Kit) Anstruther-Thomson and published in 1897, makes a number of propositions that resonate with a subsequent shift in the arts to acknowledge the role that our bodies play in experiencing visual art. In its republished form, presented in an anthology of Lee’s writing in 1912, Beauty and Ugliness is dotted with addendum, corrections and apologies. In one footnote Lee writes ‘I must apologise to all readers versed in psychology for this cocksureness of extreme ignorance’[1]. Lee backtracks further by bracketing Anstruther-Thomson’s contributions to the essay, attempting to distance herself from her past work. Nonetheless, Beauty and Ugliness raises interesting ideas on how our bodies are called to action through visual experience.   


Lee first defines a problem of language, in which we have become accustomed to use descriptive words such as ‘height’, ‘breadth’ and ‘depth’ objectively, as though these qualities exist as fact, independently of our own bodies. Lee claims that a more accurate use of language would have us speaking in terms of ‘I feel roundness, or height, or symmetry’ rather than ‘this or that object is round, or high, or symmetrical’[2]. This boundary of language excludes many of us from Lee’s definition of a ‘thorough realisation of Form’[3], one in which we are attuned to the subtle changes in our own bodies as a consequence of looking. But, according to Lee, artists are able to access this profound experience of form, and with the aid of Anstruther-Thomson, a trained painter, Lee attempts to reveal this to us.


Anstruther-Thomson embarks on a four-page description of a simple chair, starting with a prosaic list of the chairs basic dimensions and shape, followed by details of the bodily movements that occur when we view it. ‘While seeing this chair, there happen movements of the two eyes, of the head, and the thorax, and balancing movements in the back’[4]. Anstruther-Thomson tells us that the chair brings both eyes into play as it is bilateral and creates a feeling that ‘the width of the chair were pulling the two eyes wide apart during this process of following the upward line of the chair’[5].  The fact of the chair having two sides also brings both lungs into play according to Anstruther-Thomson. The chest of the viewer feels pulled apart and the body of the viewer contracts as the eyes follow the sides of the chair. The act of looking also stretches the body of the viewer. The feet find themselves pressed hard on the ground ‘in involuntary imitation of the front legs of the chair’[6] and as the eyes move up along the legs of the chair the body stretches upward. For Lee and Anstruther-Thomson these movements are not responses to what we see, but part of the complexity of looking; contractions in our lungs help guide our eye.


From the mid 20th century artists also began to think differently about the way that we view objects. Artists such as Donald Judd and Robert Morris produced unadorned sculptures that did away with decorative features in order to heighten the shape and mass of their work. By reducing objects to singular shapes, these artists focused our attention on the way that we look, move around and experience works of art. Natalie Finnemore uses similar strategies in her work, which can currently be seen in Bluecoat’s exhibition Left Hand to Back of Head..... The absence of ornament in Finnemore’s two untitled sculptures at Bluecoat foregrounds the overall shape and size of the objects and their scale forces us to physically move around the sculpture in order to view it. Finnemore addresses the body further with a series of handles in her sculptures, which seem to anticipate our bodies and imply a function that is never realised.


Lee, Anstruther-Thomson and Finnemore put forward an idea that looking is an act of movement. But for Lee and Anstruther-Thomson this movement is best realised in symmetrical, harmonious objects that balance the body. Finnemore on the other hand allows her objects to throw us off balance and disrupt harmony. Her sculptures each have one side painted in the exact colour of the bare wood that they are made of. The effect is a subtle distortion in light and shadow, confusing the eye. The top surface of one of her sculptures is left purposefully off-kilter in an otherwise uniform object. These quirks resemble the computer software that Finnemore’s sculpture was designed in, with awkward digital rendering and misalignments. Whether centring the body harmoniously or disrupting it playfully, Lee, Anstruther-Thomson and Finnemore remind us that the act of looking goes far beyond a passive act and challenge the idea that the eye operates independently of a static body.


See Natalie Finnemore’s work in Left Hand to Back of Head, Object Held Against Right Thigh at Bluecoat until Mon 28 Mar.


Learn more about the work of Vernon Lee in our upcoming event Hauntings on Sat 21 May.




[1] Lee, V. and Anstruther-Thomson, C. (1912) Beauty and Ugliness: and other studies in psychological aesthetics. London: Lane p162

[2] Ibid. p159

[3] Ibid. p160

[4] Ibid. p163

[5] Ibid. p163

[6] Ibid p.163


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