Psychoanalysis. A Liberating Use of Lacan's Analysis of Western Painting

When the Picture Enters into a Relation to Desire

Essay 1987 23 Pages

Psychology - Miscellaneous













The Lacanian attack against the formal art criticism (and our standard concept of what an art output is) has two basic points of reference.

The first point is what he calls “illusion of the meta-activity of critical analysis which is based at its assumption of the possibility of the subject seeing itself seeing itself,” (the word subject-as Lacan uses it – must not be understood in the usual sense of the word, in the subjective sense – this relation in Lacan is not an “idealist relation”: “This overview, which I call the subject, is not simply a representative overview.”)[1]

The second point can be easily described by an aphorism that Lyotard[2] uses in his critique against Adorno: «The critical relation can only redouble the empty space where its discourse plunges its object, it is cloistered in this space of vacuity, it belongs to language and to representation, it can no longer think the object, the work and history, except as language.”

But the most important aspect of Lacan’s departure from the field of formal analysis is the notion of what he calls “Depth of the field.” Easier to present it with a phrase from Serres: the traditional analysis, the traditional dialectic around perception, “reflects a single theme: that of the fixed point.” The problem with that kind of approach derives from the fact that it deals with geometral vision, that is to say, with vision insofar as it is situated in space that is not in its essence visual. The place of the relation between the subject and the light is the place of the geometral point defined by geometral optics.

Lacan thinks that the relation of the subject[3] with the domain of vision, its place, is something other than the place of that geometral point. He thinks that some things are elided in the geometral relation. Lacan (see page 20 of this text), decided to leave all the geometral relations outside of his system, or more correctly he decided to distinguish between geometral and topological relations. He gave a strong emphasis to the latter because he thought that having a topological distribution, which by the way is always a form of division, he would have been able to resolve many problems created by the “double inscription” (the problem of the double inscription is, with a few words, that there may be a totally different inscription of the same signifier in consciousness and in the – topographically different unconscious).

One of the things that are elided is what Ladan calls “the depth of the field”: “something that is not simply a constructed relation, the object on which the philosopher lingers – but something that is an impression, the shimmering of a surface that is not in advance situated for me in its distance. This is something that introduces the depth of the field, with all its ambiguity and variability, which is in no way mastered by me. It is rather it that grasps me, solicits me at every moment, and makes of the landscape something other than a landscape, something other than what I have called the picture.”[4]


But what stands between the picture (“that is not in advance situated for me in its distance”) and the spectator or more correctly: where do they meet? Well, the answer is on the screen. Is that screen an existent or nonexistent object? (Like, for example, the screen on to which a film is projected). M. Safouan in a very interesting article, after an examination of Meinong’s distinction between three sorts of non-existent objects, concludes that the screen can be described by using Meinong’s doctrine of the “pure object”: Whether an objects is or is not, that does not affect what it is; (the roundness of the round square is not affected by its non-existence).

Although this particular term “the screen” was the motive for many discussions as to about what contributions can the Lacanian theory make to the analysis of the cinema (see, for example, “the Imaginary” by Jacqueline Rose or “the Imaginary signifier” by Christian Metz, all these articles end up assuming a compliance of the film with the desire of the spectator (also assumed) but the question about the nature of the screen is more or less left unanswered.

I find F. Guattari’s opinion that “the screen is the signifier through which the effects of the unconscious do not pass” to be more close to what Lacan had in mind when he was using that term. I think that the place of the screen as a “locus of mediation” as Lacan defines it is always more or less floating between the place of the picture and the place of the subject.

The condition of a meeting between the subject and the picture in the screen is that their relationship at that very moment must reveal that they are necessarily disjunct and potentially confront each other. This is the way I interpret Lacan’s proposals about the screen: “the correlative of the picture, to be situated in the same place as it is, that is to say, outside, is the point of gaze, while that which forms the mediation from one to the other, that which is between the two, is something of another nature than geometral, optical space, something that plays an exactly reverse role, which operates, not because it can be traversed, but on the contrary, because it is opaque – I mean the screen” or “screen is the locus of a potentially lucid relationship between the subject and its imaginary capitation and the simultaneous sign of the barrier between the subject and the object of desire.”[5]

Anyway, the introduction of the “screen” in Lacan’s theory is very important since now the subject can have an active intervention in the imaginary relationship (the dual relationship, the merging of the self and the other.

It is not my purpose to give here a complete analysis of the Lacanian “screen” which is a very difficult task anyway, since the screen is closely related to the Lacanian theory of the “mirror stage as formative of the function of the I.”So, I just stated a few things about the screen that will give us a better understanding of the apparatus that is involved in the Lacanian analysis of the picture.


“What is involved in artistic creation? For me, it is a question of creation as sublimation and of the value it assumes in the social field.”[6]

Somewhere in his book “The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis”, Lacan refers to the three epochs (operational planes of the artist): The sacrificial, the communal and to the one that he reluctantly describes as the modern epoch.

When the artist was operating on the sacrificial plane, he was playing with those things (images) that may arouse the desire of God. What makes the value of the icon is that the God it represents is also looking at it. It is intended to please God.

Let’s see now how Lacan describes the next two stages: “Let us go to the great hall of the Doges Palace in which are painted all kinds of battles, such as the battle of Lepanto, etc. The social function, which was already emerging at the religious level, is now becoming clear. Who comes here? “Les peoples” the audiences. And what do the audiences see in these vast compositions? They see the gaze of those persons who, when the audiences are not there deliberate in this hall. Behind the picture, it is their gaze that is there. You see, one can say that there are always lots of gazes behind. Nothing new is introduced in this respect by the epoch that Andre Marlaux distinguishes as the modern, that which comes to be dominated by what he calls, the incomparable monster, namely, the gaze of the painter, which claims to impose itself as being the only gaze. There always was a gaze behind”[7].

In the picture, “something of a gaze” is always manifested. Looking at pictures, even those most lacking in what is usually called the gaze, and which is constituted by a pair of eyes, pictures in which any representation of the human figure is absent, like a landscape by a Dutch or Flemish painter, we will see in the end “as in filigree something so specific to each of the painters that you will feel the presence of the gaze”[8].

This gaze (what determines me, at the most profound level, in the visible, is the gaze that is outside, says Lacan. This gaze is the instrument through which I am looked at, through which I am “photo-graphed”) is equivalent to the “look”, that is, to the Other

(the site of the signifier) and is also equivalent to the “law” (which in Lacan, as C. Castoriadis8 points out, sometimes seems not to be any actual law, but merely the transcendental presupposition of any law in general). This gaze has to be distinguished from the gazes of the spectator and the painter, since, the latter, are the objects on which depends the fantasy from which the subject is suspended in an essential vacillation.

The artist with the “rain of brush” the strokes, which Lacan equals with the laying down of the artist’s gaze (this laying down of the gaze can be defined as the withdrawal of the subject from his encounter with the picture, and also as the moment in which the gaze which inhabits the eye, leaves the eye and inscribes something from the subject in that picture) goes to make up “the miracle of the picture”. The artist does not only participate in the spectator’s laying down of the gaze, but with the strokes, his own gesture, which is a sovereign act, no doubt, since “it passes into something that is materialized and which, from this sovereignty, will render obsolete, excluded, inoperant, whatever coming from elsewhere, will be presented before this product”1, participates in his own descent of gaze before the “look”.

The painter’s brushstroke, his gesture, which most of the times Lacan sees at as threatening gesture (“I who speak, I identify you with the object which you yourself lack”) is something that is done in order to be arrested and suspended.

The painter’s brushstroke is something in which the movement is terminated (the painter’s threatening gesture because the painter himself is also submitted to the law of the “look”), the end, a terminal moment, (the anti-movement function of this terminal point plays a great part in that process which Lacan calls “fascinum”), but it produces behind it its own stimulus. Therefore, this terminal moment, “at the outset of any new intelligence”, will be called the moment of seeing. The moment of seeing, that forward movement, that temporal progress which he calls “thrust”, is concluded in the fascinum.


“In the classical tale of Zeuxis and Parrasios, Zeuxis has the advantage of having made grapes that attracted the birds. The stress is placed not on the fact that these grapes were in any way perfect grapes, but on the fact that even the eye of the birds was taken in by them. This is proved by the fact that his friend Parrasios triumphs over him for having painted on the wall a veil, as veil so lifelike that Zeuxis, turning towards him said: “Well, and now show us what you have painted behind it”. By this he showed that what was as issue was certainly deceiving the eye (Tromper l’oeil). A triumph of the gaze over the eye.

Jacques Lacan[9]

As we have shown in the previous chapter, Lacan distinguishes the function of the eye from the gaze. In this chapter we will elaborate in more exact terms; that with this distinction, he does not only indicate a split between gaze and vision; but more importantly, a splitting of being. As the opening of this chapter’s quotation shows, in the dialectic of the spectator’s eye and the gaze which is inscribed in the picture[10] there is no coincidence, but on the contrary, a failure to recognize. A failure to recognize that the “picture is the appearance that says it is that which gives the appearance”[11]

The point in not that the painting gives an illusory equivalence to the object, the point is that the Trompe – l’ oeil of painting pretends to be something other than what it is: in the contemplation of the picture a Dompte-Regard (taming of the gaze) is presented in the form of the Trompe l’oeil.

Let’s now examine how Lacan defines the function of the Dompte-Regard. The function of the Dompte-Regard is very closely related with the contemplation of the picture and it is from that function that the picture take its value in the social field. If a picture (a picture for Lacan is a creation of desire, but, he coordinates desire not with the object that would seem to satisfy it, but with the object that causes it) takes on commercial value, it is because “its effect has something profitable for society, for that part of society that comes under its influence. Broadly speaking, one can say that the work of art calms people, comforts them by showing them that at least some of them can live from the exploitation of their desire. But for this to satisfy them so much, there must also be that other effect, namely that their desire to contemplate finds some satisfaction in it. It elevates the mind, as one says, that is to say, it encourages renunciation. Don’t you see that there’s something here that indicates the function I called Dompte-Regard”?[12]

The function of Dompte-Regard is determinative and perilous for the subject, because in its very special temporality contains something which Lacan calls “the fascination of the picture”.

But what is exactly this fascination and how Lacan describes it? The fascination is something that challenges the spectator’s content. There is a “look” which as we have already said, “manifestly preexists”: in every picture we can see always a pair of eyes looking at us and these eyes must be fed.


[1] Lacan 1978 (see bibliography). From now on it will appear in the footnotes as ‘1978’

[2] References to: Lyotard, Serres, Deleuse, Guattari, Derrida, Kristeva, Baudrillard, and to Wilden, Rose, Prigogine (see bibliography) are done to indicate how the French (but also the American) ‘philosophical’ environment at that time dealt or accepted various Lacanian notions. These references do not indicate any affinity to the work of these authors.

[3] We warn the reader here; that ‘subject’ in the Lacanian terminology is not used as the known standard term. As we have seen a few lines above, this term must not be understood in the usual sense of the word, in the subjective sense. There are disorders in the unity of the subject. This treatise basically examines a possibility for the subject to assume his own role; that is to unite with itself; if possible

[4] ‘1978’

[5] ‘1978’

[6] ‘1978’

[7] ‘1978’

[8] ‘1978’

[9] ‘1978’

[10] One more reason for the existence of that gaze, a reason which also happens to be one of the main aspects of Lacan’s theory about the picture, is that there is a “pre-existence to the seen of a given to be seen”: The Other not only does it look, it also shows

[11] ‘1978’

[12] ‘1978’




Title: Psychoanalysis. A Liberating Use of Lacan's Analysis of Western Painting