The opening statement of Nancy’s essay, “The Visitation, On Christian Painting,”  reads:

“Art never commemorates. It is not made to preserve a memory, and whenever it is set to work in a monument, it does not belong to the memorializing aspect of the work.”

I must admit that this statement confounded me initially. I thought of all the  monuments made to honour the memory of some important prince,  general or king, and the war memorials that mark the memory of the fallen, and the tombs, statues, etc. created by great artists.  These structures make up a large part of our cultural histories and they are included in art history books. Are they not art?  But Nancy also adds that if we needed proof of his claim, we need only observe that “there are monuments without art, whereas there is no work of art that is as such a monument.”  Ha!  So,then we are meant to ask,  how is this or is not art, and further, wherein lays “art? Nancy never asks easy questions.


I’ve started looking closely at another essay by Jean-Luc Nancy (from The Ground of the Image). Entitled “The Visitation,” the essay is based on a mannerist painting by Jacopo Pontormo (1528-29) which depicts the Biblical tale of a meeting between Mary, the mother of Christ and Elizabeth her cousin. A visitation – and encounter of family and friendship between two women, and a sharing (in this case of a religious miracle).

Nancy states that the term visitation in its Latin religious form means more than  a physical encounter, rather it is a space of experience, of learning and awareness. Therefore, I want to begin the work on this new essay with two recent sharings of my own, visitations (in studio) with my friends, Elizabeth MacKenzie, Cyndy Chwelos and Nina Chwelos. For me, the ability to discuss my work is a crucial part of the art-making process.  The studio-visit experience is always informative, thought provoking and productive, even when hard questions are asked.  I see constructive criticism as a generous act because it requires the person viewing the art work to give not only of their time and attention but also of their knowledge, their experience and their aesthetic sensibilities. And when someone gives of themselves to such a degree, their responses require attention and serious consideration in return.  Honesty is often not easy, but crucial for growth. So, in gratitude for their time and willingness to share, for their constant support and friendship in life and in art-making, I thank you, Elizabeth, Cyndy and Nina.


For the past month, this essay of Nancy’s has been occupying my thoughts. His concept of the “threshold”, the intimate relationship of viewer to a work of art – a looking at death – at painting and the painting of death, and no less than a beautiful, close, poetic reading of Caravaggio – that is what I see in Nancy’s essay. There is more of course, to Nancy’s complex writing on art, I am painfully aware.  Understanding is always partial and fragmented. But the pleasure and engagement of art is not a bounded, enclosed space, but open to return, to re-encounter, to new interpretations.

Some of Nancy’s final words form the basis of my response. The “open,” says Nancy, has no access, for the open is always already access.

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come in and see

“Here, come in and see. To see the dead in this world, to see their bodies in this place, without painting life in the colors of death. That would be to paint without religion, to paint with the colors of painting.” (Jean-Luc Nancy)

These enigmatic words intrigue me, “to paint with the colors of painting.”  And what does it mean to paint with the colors of religion? Merely pious illustration and commemoration? No pious dogma with Caravaggio, says Nancy; there, “There is neither resurrection nor assumption. There is more and less than a negotiation or a philosophy of death.”  Painting death with and as painting. Negotiation.


“…flesh tints [carnations]… and fabrics [étouffes]…that is this whole painting in two words…” (Jean-Luc Nancy)

This is the fourth of the text-themes I’ve chosen from Nancy’s essay.  I introduced the figure form early on in these postings, since Nancy invites us, the viewer, to physically engage and explore this relationship of viewer to viewed.  A fifth element – that of color – spans the four series of drawings from water to light to cloth to flesh, but I mention its presence only now.  Of interest –  towards the final pages of the essay, Nancy talks about the  reversible salutation: “Ave, Eva” (the reference to Eve, to life, to…) but adds that “Ave”, is still further reversible because in everyday usage, it meant “Hello”,  and when engraved upon a tombstone, it meant “Farewell.”

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I’ve pulled four more word-idea-themes from Nancy’s discussion of the Caravaggio image. They are water, light, cloth and flesh.  Here is the first of the four.  Nancy states, “Water is perhaps the secret element or prism of this scene bathed in tears. The water or oil of the painting… washes, streams, spreads…”

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“…pinioned…mortised…weighted down…” A few words plucked from the subsequent paragraph of Nancy’s essay wherein  he describes the space in Caravaggio’s painting –  heavy and sombre, the imprisonment of grief, the immobility of death. Yet this is death beautifully written –  in Nancy’s poetic mix of philosophy and prose.

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I have taken Nancy’s words out of their context – for no other reason than their beauty – and placed them into a sequence on their own. In the original,  Nancy discusses  the viewer’s place and relationship to the death represented there in Caravaggio’s painting, (“The Death of the Virgin”) but to me, the words may speak of any death.

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