While walking through the National Gallery recently, I noticed several paintings that I had first seen many years ago. They seemed strangely familiar, like places one remembers from childhood only because of some inconsequential detail.
One such painting was a 16th century portrait of a tailor by Giovanni Battista Moroni. The last time I had seen it was thirteen years ago, while visiting London on holiday. The portrait had struck me then because of the immediacy of the tailor’s mischievous expression, which seemed to suggest he had momentarily looked up from his work-table, upon hearing some witty remark. The portrait was also brighter and more colourful then; the shiny-eyed tailor wore a vivid yellow coat with dark blue trimmings. A dark purple satin fabric and sewing equipment were lying on the table.
Now though, the painting looked very different. Although the tailor’s life-like expression was still there, the mischievous look was gone and replaced by a more stern, almost challenging expression. His coat had changed colour to a grey-ish beige and the blue trimmings had disappeared. The fabric on the table had now turned black and all the sewing equipment except for a pair of scissors was gone. The image looked like a faded photocopy of a colour-saturated photograph. It was hard to reconcile the two images; it was as if there were two paintings.
During all those years the image of the other tailor had been stacked away in my memory’s archive and if someone had mentioned the work to me, that initial image is what I would have called to mind. And if someone asked about its colours I would have said bright yellow and dark purple, convinced that those were the actual colours. And in a sense, they were the actual colours of the painting during all those years in which I didn’t see the painting and couldn’t juxtapose the memory with the actual painting. If we remember something as being bright yellow, isn’t it bright yellow?
The discrepancy between the painting and my memory of it partly has to do with the fact that when the image was stored somewhere in memory’s archive it began to change on its own, influenced by all the other portraits, tailors, and paintings I had seen since then.
But perhaps it also has something to do with how we see. It is usually said that a memory is incomplete, that memory fails to register all the sensory input available. Memory is selective, but what this notion seems to assume is that there is an all-encompassing viewpoint from which we experience the world– that once we are face-to-face with something, we have it there before us in its totality and in its truth: that it is all there before us and all we have to do is look and we will instantaneously see and experience everything there is to see and experience.
But does such a comprehensive viewpoint exist? This notion doesn’t convey the gaps in perception and the connections forged during the actual process of seeing. We may be looking at a painting before us, but its colours intertwine with our own emotions, the facial expressions in portraits partly mirror our own state of mind, the figures compared with those familiar to us, the places portrayed tinged with references to places we know. A shadow in the background may be overshadowed by a patch of sun in the foreground, while the steamship on the horizon may sail away in plain sight from beneath our gaze.
It seems that when we look at something, we see it in a very particular and non-comprehensive way, selecting certain details while discarding others, making certain connections while not making others. We see and experience selectively, on the one hand overlooking and on the other acquiring connections between that which is before us and that which is within us: loosing whole narratives, forms, figures, faces, gestures, shapes, colours while fabricating others.
What memory encodes then, is this collection of connections and mis-connections. So we can’t blame memory for being incomplete if the nature of seeing is itself partial, never allowing for an all-encompassing viewpoint.
Although there is no all-encompassing viewpoint, what there is to be seen and experienced can never be exhausted. There is always more to see. But this process takes time. If we look and continue to look and continue to look and continue a while longer, things reveal themselves in ever different configurations, as if each glance opened another Chinese box onto a different reality, each one just one among an infinite array of all the possible ways of seeing and experiencing something. An array that seems to mirror, even if asymmetrically, each person’s archive of individual memories. An archive that manages to fit entire alphabets of broaches, coaches, dyes, eyes, flies, gills, hills, iotas, jotas, kitchens, lichens, mittens, nesters, oysters, posters, quotas, rotas, sailors, tailors, uranium, vanadium, by-ways, x-rays, Yen and Zen into its endless cabinets.