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Fr. 449

November 30, 2013

Mirror, lamp and brushstroke have earlier proven fruitful ways of approaching Roy Lichtenstein’s oeuvre. Whereas mirror and lamp take on new roles within the aesthetic economy, rejecting representation and illumination, the brushstrokes rises above the mere status of compositional element to become a composition unto itself.

Unsurprisingly, there are still other ways of approaching Lichtenstein’s work, and another significant entryway is to be found in the landscapes of his later years.

Landscape with philosopher

“Landscape with philosopher”, 1996, emphasizes the vertical element, leading the eye ever upwards. Attention is given foremost to the terrain, trees and chosen compositional element of dots. It is, however, only with great difficulty that one comes to notice the titular philosopher, seated in the lower righthand corner of the foreground.

For this reason, it would seem that the onlooker’s attention becomes progressively focused or determined in a certain manner and that it is only at this end of this determining process that the philosopher of the title can pass into that individual’s consciousness. In other words, it is first necessary to pass through the progressive determinations of landscape, compositional elements, vertical terrain and tree before one can take note of the human figure. These prove to be so many preparatory means by which one comes to the philosopher at last, as that for which the preceding determinations have prepared the onlooker. It is not a question of specification; rather, the figure’s import is only fully grasped as the end of a process rather than its principle. Indeed,  if one heeds the precise wording of the title, something like this does seem to be confirmed, for “philosopher” is here a secondary element, “landscape” the primary.

One might wonder at this point what sense, if any at all, is to be found in attributing so pitiful a place to the human figure. Perhaps, further confirmation is to be sought in similar landscapes.

Landscape with scholar

Here again with “Landscape with scholar”, 1997, the onlooker is confronted with an image the immensity of which already proves difficult to take in. Yet, somewhere in this image, like in the one before it, there is to be found another of these almost imperceptible human figures. And, as with “Landscape with philosopher”, the path by which the viewer comes to that figure must pass first through the landscape itself: the mountains of the background, the lake of the fore,  before coming to settle on the human elements in the middleground and  lower righthand corner of the foreground. At this time, architectural details and the scholar backed by stunning yellow can at last make themselves felt.

This making-itself-felt is not, however, of the order of a person, possessed of a full range of personality traits and individual character. Rather, the figure has something of the victimized and passive about it, weighed down as it is by the immensity and primacy of its surroundings. It is only after due consideration and determination of the gaze by the other elements that the viewer’s eyes can take in the figure. Yet the viewer can take in no more than what the overwhelming landscape has offered: a rudimentary figure, more or less undefined amidst the great care lent to the depiction of the terrain, something emerging at last but for the moment without a claim to its own being, to its own kind of being. Perhaps the reason for this owes to the illusion of the latter, for there is no kind of being that this figure will ever have that is properly its own. All that which comes down to it owes to the spacing of elements around it, and only from that does there arise a figure in the first place, born as it is from the underground interactions of compositional elements.

In this way, Lichtenstein’s tiny larval subjects emerge from the depths, the results of unseen pressures responsible for the very way in which they both emerge and are perceived. In short, it is only following the work of the landscape‘s undefined immensity on both viewer and figure that the defined diminutiveness of determinate being becomes a definite possibility.

Landscape with boat

In “Landscape with boat”, 1996, as for the boat of the title, it falls to the viewer to navigate the indeterminate waters of ongoing determination, to find what new seas she may, to wash up where she may. After all, the viewer’s passage cannot help but leaver her changed.


‘As for us, new philosophers, we feel inspired by the news of the death of God as if greeting a new dawn …and although the horizon is not clear, it seems clear enough for our ships to set sails again and venture out towards new perils: the sea of knowledge is re-opening itself to new pioneers; maybe the open sea has never offered so many new promises … To fathom this mystery I voyaged across the sea: and I saw the truth naked, verily! Barefoot up to the neck’ (The Gay Science, 343) .


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