Friday, 26 November 2010

Ways of seeing

Painting The Family at Breakfast Pace in the studio, Bungay, 2003 photographed by his son Peter from the book Sargy Mann: Probably the Best Blind Painter in Peckham

I came across this fascinating article by Tim Adams from the Oberver newspaper last sunday (21/11/10) about the painter Sargy Mann who started to go blind when he was 36 (he's now 73 and completely blind), but has continued to paint and find new ways of seeing the world.

Even before he lost his sight, Sargy Mann was obsessed with ways of seeing. He felt that the eye was an entirely passive collector of visual stimuli, and that "seeing" was a learned activity that went on in different, discrete parts of the brain – the imaginative piecework of collating form, and colour, and light into an understandable vision of the world, one you constantly made up as you went along.

Studio at Lyndhurst Grove, painted in 1983 before he was registered blind

The day after his 68th birthday the ulcer on his cornea perforated causing the eye to collapse; it was the start of total blindness. After some days in hospital Mann returned home, sightless, and wondering what he would do with the rest of his life. He had never been much interested in sculpture, though that was a possibility. He felt his way to his studio by the river, and there the subjects that had most recently been on his mind became insistent: the light and space of Cadaques that he had been planning to paint. "Well, I thought," he recalls, "I have got a ready stretched canvas and all my paint and brushes that I had imagined giving away, so why not have a go?" It was a sunny day, so he put the canvas up on the windowsill outside his studio, carried out his painting trolley to the usual place and started to feel the canvas and imagine his subject: one of the bar scenes he had painstakingly mapped out.

"After a bit I thought: 'Well here goes,' and loaded a brush with ultramarine," he recalls. "What followed was one of the strangest sensations of my life: I 'saw' the canvas turn blue as I put the paint down. Next I put my Schminke magenta, and 'saw' it turn rose. The colour sensation didn't last, it was only there while I was putting the paint down, but it went on happening with different colours…"

Frances Going Downstairs, 2010

He didn't look back. "Once I had started painting blind, there was no stopping me. It just became the new way of doing it. It was difficult, but art had always been difficult, and having a new set of difficulties was no bad thing." It was, he thought, a bit like a deaf composer hearing orchestra parts in his head.

Frances in a Black Coat, 2010

As well as telling Mann's story, the article also looks at work being done by Professor Semir Zeki, a neuroscientist working at University College London, who is a leading authority in the science of how the mind - and particularly artists' minds - "see" or make sense of the world around them. There is also a film that Sargy's son, Peter, made about him in 2006.

A selection of Mann's pictures - both from before and after he went blind - can be found at:
Cafe Above the Sea, 2010
 "I was saying to someone at the private view," he says, "how incredibly lucky I have been. I had about 25 years' apprenticeship for going blind. It was a bugger, but I kept working out how to paint over those 25 years, and my brain kept finding new ways to see the world, if you like." Sargy Mann


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