Arts feature

The tyranny of the visual

Stuart Jeffries on the tyranny of the visual

6 November 2021

9:00 AM

6 November 2021

9:00 AM

In 1450, the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro, became monocular after losing vision in his right eye following a jousting accident. In order to improve the peripheral vision of his left eye, he had surgeons cut off the bridge of his nose. In Piero della Francesca’s 1472 portrait, the Duke is depicted in profile, so we can see that an equilateral triangle of flesh and bone has been chopped from what must have been an elegant aquiline beak.

I have been more fortunate. In the past year I’ve had four operations at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London to repair a detached retina that made me blind in one eye. I didn’t have to cut off my nose to spite my face and improve my vision. What was impossible in the 15th century has become routine in the 21st. I’m one of 6,000 or so Brits this year who have this surgery. My surgeon Georgios Varakis has patiently repaired what he poetically calls my posterior starfold. He has drained fluid from my eye, filling it first with silicone oil, then gas, then lasered it to create scar tissue to repair retinal tears and installed a synthetic lens. Lovely drugs have dulled what would otherwise have been awful pain: during one op I happily chatted to Georgios about Christmas goose while he burned my retina with laser probes.

Looking at Piero’s painting made me think about the fate of those who had retinal detachments before 1921. They were doomed to lose their sight. Then, a century ago, Swiss ophthalmologist Jules Gonin invented so-called ignipunctures. The procedure involved using a sharp stick — like the one that had done for the Duke of Urbino’s right eye, but much, much smaller — to restore vision, rather than destroy it. And it did: millions around the world should be grateful to Gonin for pioneering eye surgery that has since developed using laser and cryogenic freezing techniques.

Millions, too, should be grateful to a pair of British men. In the skies over Winchester on 15 August 1940, Hurricane pilot Gordon ‘Mouse’ Cleaver lined up behind a Junkers Ju 88, but his plane was raked with machine-gun fire destroying its window, and making acrylic shards stick in his eyes. The Hurricane burst into flames but, though burnt and bleeding, Cleaver flipped the plane upside down in order to fall out of the cockpit and then parachuted safely to the ground. After 18 operations, Mouse still had plastic splinters in one eye. His doctor, Harold Ridley, noted that these splinters had no effect on his sight, nor did his body make an effort to expel them. This gave him an idea: plastic lenses might replace defective cataract lenses and restore vision. On 29 November 1949, Ridley implanted the world’s first interocular lens. The pseudophakia that Georgios installed to replace my natural lens was a consequence of Ridley’s insight.

One morning earlier this autumn, I was strolling on London’s South Bank with my newly attached retina and plastic lens to see some art. My left eye does not have the acute vision I had formerly, so I find myself squinting to read or study details. I was wondering what it would be like if I had lost my sight entirely. When Gloucester is blinded in King Lear, Regan adds her own cruel twist: ‘Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell his way to Dover.’ If he were a dog, he might have been able to do so; humans are less skilled in smelling. Even if we cannot see, we are tyrannised by the visual. Our language is rich in visual metaphors; our science overwhelmingly discovers through looking; and when we can’t see — inside the atom or into the distance — we still think in visual terms. No one ever sniffed out the existence of a star. As an arts journalist, I’m forever looking at things before I write about them. Dover? I couldn’t smell my way to Waterloo.

At the Hayward Gallery a new exhibition of British contemporary painting made me appreciate as never before how lucky I am to see. Room to room I went, squinting the while but often feeling like applauding. That said, the first picture I saw in the show stopped me in my tracks. ‘The Captain and the Mate’ by Lubaina Himid depicts an imagined scene inspired by a real-life tragedy. In April 1819, a French slave ship called Le Rodeur was crossing the Atlantic when disease swept through the fleet making all 60 slaves and all but one of the crew blind. Himid depicts two African men holding each other for comfort in the middle of the painting, and below left two African women in a tender embrace. I squinted to read Himid’s note next to the work. ‘I was struck by the horror of the incident, but also by the dread of losing sight, especially as a visual artist.’

Blindness and the rape of slavery are thematically yoked together by Himid. But here’s the thing: what I saw in Himid’s painting isn’t only visual; I can almost feel the tenderness of the two couples as they hold each other. Many painters achieve such synaesthetic transfer. I can almost taste Cézanne’s apples and pears, feel the embroidery on the ‘Laughing Cavalier’s slashed sleeves. But the eyes still have it: to get those sensations at all, vision is necessary. Upstairs at the Hayward I admire Rachel Jones’s glorious picture (with its bizarre title) ‘lick your teeth, they so clutch’. Jones says she wants the experience of viewing her paintings to involve ‘feeling with your eyes’ as if her pictures are for the whole body, for a democracy of senses.

I wandered further along the Thames to Tate Modern where Anicka Yi’s new installation in the Turbine Hall is trying something different. She wants us to feel with our noses. She is an artist who tells me she hates visual art and instead works in the medium of smells. ‘I sculpt the air,’ she says. To that end she has floated giant airborne cephalopods, with long, squid-like arms in this cavernous space, each one of them drawn to human heat and each one emitting evocative scents to do with London’s past — be those the aromas of spices used to ward off the Black Death; Precambrian period marine scents; prehistoric vegetal decay; the stench of the Industrial Age, ozone and coal smoke.

The pathos of Yi’s installation is that I and most other people I’ve spoken to don’t have sufficiently sophisticated noses to detect these wafting, fragrant sculptures. We remain in thrall to the visible even if our vision is blurry. Even if, perhaps, we are blind, we still think in visual metaphors. There is no democracy of senses for humans; just a tyranny of the eye. Until we have prosthetic noses or can share dogs’ olfactory experiences or the nasal sophistication of the best oenologists, olfactory art, I suspect, will have limited appeal.

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Mixing It Up: Painting Today is at the Hayward Gallery until 12 December. Anicka Yi: In Love with the World is at Tate Modern until 16 January 2022.

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