The way we perceive reality is tempered by everything that happens around us. Where one person might have been looking at the car just before it crashed, someone else might have been looking in the same direction, but at the beautiful bird perched on the tree just behind the accident. There is an essential ‘truth’ to this moment, yet absolutely nobody saw it.
What does that mean? If you took a composite of statements from everyone present, you might get a more whole picture, yet still incomplete. Because you can’t see everything at once, your perception of reality is limited. This limitation is even more substantial when emotions are taken into consideration. Anger can limit your willingness to engage in your surroundings, clouding not just your vision, but your memory of that moment in the future.
Whilst these ideas have long been interrogated in psychology, philosophy and literature - where one can discuss a concept in detail - painting provided a paradoxical pathway into the study on human perception. Firstly, artists had to conquer how best to paint what they saw in a manner that abstracted reality and reflected their emotional response. It sounds simple now, but only because it's been done. Then, on the other hand, when artists began to be able to visualise this, their artwork fast-tracked the development of associated ideas in the aforementioned fields.
Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, as one example, heavily influenced the psychological and philosophical thought-leaders who explored the ideas of perception and reality - so much so, that we probably think of an image when we think about this subject (although not necessarily van Gogh's).
There are various names for understanding the perception of reality, but in art, one of the most innovative and significant is the post-Impressionists, with van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gaugin and Georges Seurat as its figureheads. A predominantly French movement, particularly in origin, it reconciled Impressionists key aspects - a vivid palette, thick strokes and depictions of real-life scenarios.
Where it differed was the emphasis on form. Post-Impressionism was like Impressionism dreaming. The edges were more blurred, the colours just slightly skewed from reality. Impressionism itself abstracted realism and naturalism with its more ‘impressionistic’ brush strokes, giving the prominent artists more scope to emphasis their individual style and, through that, weave in their own biography.
Still, Impressionism was in no way unrealistic. Deriving a great deal of its imagery from its bourgeois subjects and their recreational activities - lighting emphasised faces and places, almost as a cinematographer now would. Post-Impressionism rejected this almost altogether, eschewing natural light for one that was almost a psychological light that picked out what was most important to them - just as the passerby saw the bird and not the car crash.
When a person notices something, it’s a subliminally symbolic artefact. It has significance in their life. For the post-Impressionists, they gave their subjects an emphasized presence by drawing the audience’s eye to it. Whilst hitherto artistic depiction would be rooted in reality, now the light, the contrast and the work's emphasis symbolised something internal. At its heart, it was an emotionally driven way of painting the world - just as it is the way we would see it.
In this manner, the subjects of the paintings were chosen more for what the artist can say about themselves, than about their ability to produce an aesthetically appealing composition. Whilst post-Impressionism might not have been the first to tackle ideas of the perception of reality (although, in many ways, it was) it was certainly the first where artists could use motifs and symbols in an autobiographical manner, allowing the audience an insight into their interesting and in many cases, fractured psychologies.
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