“What is thus sought, what the painting is seeking, is the mutual visitation of a spectator and a painting…so that we might know how to see the invisible and bring about an anamnesis that arises before birth (or at the far end of death).” Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Visitation”.

Nancy is talking specifically about the painting by Pontormo (The Visitation), but the relationship of viewer to the art work is, I think, always one of a “mutual visitation” – an examining, an experiencing, a becoming aware. Does the object stare back?  Can it? What does it want?

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lift rise

Cloth, light, flesh and color are again under discussion in Nancy’s engagement with Pontormo (as it was with his exploration of Caravaggio; cf. my posts of March). Air and voice become the vehicles of the invisible, the hidden, the secret. The ample robes of Elizabeth and Mary float and swirl around the solid forms, the spirit incarnate, a moment frozen in mid air. Bill Viola, in his video re-interpretation of this painting, “The Greeting” of 1995, picks up the metaphor of the swirling cloth –  figures and garb moving in extreme slow motion, placing the weight of the meeting on the flutter and movement. Viola also adds a enigmatic voice to Mary, “Can you help me, I need to talk with you,” Mary whispers to Elizabeth, leaving the viewer puzzling over the message.

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reinscription in progress

This blogging project based on drawing and text, using a variety of drawing media including the inscribed, tattooed white rose petals creates a space that in turn allows for elaboration and exploration in other directions. Here is a new project I’ve recently undertaken which has arisen from the essay I’ve been working on for the past while, “The Visitation,” by Jean-Luc Nancy.

In the biblical tale of the Visitation, the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth affirmed the physical presence of the double miracle – the virgin conception and the equally miraculous pregnancy of Elizabeth, a woman already past childbearing age. From that meeting, came the iconic Christian prayer, said to have been spoken by Mary upon greeting Elizabeth – the magnificat.  The prayer speaks of love, of duty, of the handmaiden chosen and exhaulted above others: “…from henceforth  all generations shall call me blessed.” It is a beautiful, patriarchical document of belief that focuses on the power of the father and positions Mary as a vehicle of divine will.   I have chosen to explore some of these ideas –  love, the body, the concept of the feminine as creator, and have begun a project that reinscribes into the original words, a new voice, made of even older words, those of Sappho, along with my own dialogues that address my own realities of embodiment – via memories and present experiences of ageing.

This work in progress, I am producing on my studio wall – utilizing the inscribed petals as vehicles for the texts, and, as a counterpoint, I am drawing with graphite and acrylic onto the wall.

brush burn tear

Here is what Nancy says of art and memory:

“No anamnesis rises up within it, but every gesture of art strives toward its irruption, approaches to the point of brushing against it, and if necessary, to the point of burning itself and tearing itself apart.”

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The drawings of hands I’ve taken from Botticelli’s painting of  The Three Graces, and Bill Viola’s video, The Greeting. Both works are mentioned in Nancy’s essay. Viola’s video piece (1995) is a contemporary re-interpretation of Pontormo’s work: a “restaging and re-presenting,” to use Nancy’s words.  And the Botticelli, Nancy adds, influenced Pontormo’s composition of the figures.

never seen never said

There are several themes in Nancy’s essay, “The Visitation,” that capture my attention. The presence of the body, birth and pre-birth (metaphoric and physical), the gesture of sharing,  the concept of visitatio and  interpretation as awarenessand the relationship of art to memory and the immemorial. My two recent postings are my initial forays into these ideas and I will continue to look at them in the following weeks. For me, these postings with their text, sketches and the scanned-scribed petals are a kind of visual note-taking, a learning process and a space that then allows me to take the images further into different forms and media.

Just a note though –  the essay has far more to offer than the themes I have chosen;  as it is yet another scaffold for Nancy’s close exploration of Christian painting. But, what always strikes me with Nancy’s writing (despite his complexity), is his beautiful poetic style and how, his opening paragraphs are always exquisite and complex ruminations on a dominant theme.

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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.