Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1908–61)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 23, 2024, from

6. Painting

Merleau-Ponty applied his phenomenology to a great variety of subjects, including issues in history, sociology and politics; but his discussions of painting are especially interesting.

The classical painting of the Renaissance, he argues, with its perspectival delineation of distinct objects, is an art that is informed by the goal of capturing what is seen as the appearance of objects in their own right, related to the eye only in ways legitimated by an objectivist conception of the world. Impressionists such as Cézanne, by contrast, ‘did not want to separate the stable things which we see and the shifting way in which they appear; he wanted to depict matter as it takes on form’ ([1948] 1964: 13). Thus painters such as Cézanne, to whom Merleau-Ponty returns frequently, aim to capture on canvas the true phenomenology of the visual field. In their paintings the elements of the scene depicted emerge only through the interplay of often indistinct colours and shapes, sometimes unfolding without a single perspective; and yet ‘it is Cézanne’s genius that when the overall composition of the picture is seen globally, perspectival distortions are no longer visible in their own right but rather contribute, as they do in natural vision, to the impression of an emerging order’ ([1948] 1964: 14).

Similarly, one may say, it was Merleau-Ponty’s genius to see that when classical phenomenology is combined with psychological insight, a new way of thinking about human life emerges, one that can throw light on modern painting as much as on old questions of metaphysics.

Citing this article:
Baldwin, Thomas. Painting. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1908–61), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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