To Look or Not to Look?

       The pieces shown in the smart museum prompted us to think about the role of art in making us simultaneously want to turn away in disgust but also captures our attention as discussed with our readings of Sontag and Augustine. Specifically, the piece by Jacque Callot, The Hangman’s Tree, both captivated our attention while also making our stomachs churn. The stark physical separation between the suspended bodies and the crowd of living was striking, and forced our eyes to focus on the center of the piece: The Hangman’s Tree. Since the image is far away, it would normally be easier to look at the tree without focusing on the violence. However, the vertical lines of the hanging bodies completely disrupt the horizontal lines of the tree branches, forcing the onlooker to look up.

       Furthermore, just as the onlookers of the piece are witnessing the atrocities of the tree, so are the onlookers in the piece. The centrality of the tree, the specific placements of areas of space, and the cyclicality of the faded audience almost make it seem as though we, the viewers of the piece, join the crowd in the picture to become witnesses to the violence. Thus, we are almost obligated to become witnesses and to look at the painting. Furthermore, the distance created by this painting occurs both in terms of physical lens (the picture being painted farther away in the scene) and the anonymity in all of the phases of the people in the painting. Paintings like The Crucifixion by Urs Graf the Elder or Christ Crowned with Thorns by Hendrick Goltzius have the faces of people are clearly drawn, which instinctually suggests an agenda by the artist, as they express the characters’ personalities and intents. However, the lack of distinguishable facial features makes The Hanging Tree seem more realistic and unbiased, almost as if it was just a photograph taken by someone who was standing in the circle of witnesses. This draws our eyes in, as we believe that the piece is telling an unbiased, factual story of the scene.

       On the other hand, the more that we look at the painting and imagine ourselves as witness in the scene, the moredisgusted we feel, pushing us to turn away. There is a tension in the air when an object is hanging. The tension is created by the stillness but then the potential movement of the bodies due to an external force like a wind. Both the idea of stillness is repulsive, but so is the idea of movement, because it is generated by an external force and cannot be suppressed. Thus, the piece almost forces us to turn away, and as we move away from the piece, we are left with a feeling of disgust.

~ Group Five (Donna and Cassidy)

One thought on “To Look or Not to Look?

  1. This composition is super interesting and also very suggestive: how the audience stands in a broken circle in the print, and the viewer completes the circle in standing before the recreation of the hangings. The artist suggests that print making is a way to bring the event to others remote, making it a more immediate experience. Noting the form of media, printmaking, also suites the idea that the viewer becomes apart of the audience—- the democratizing, widespread nature of printmaking suits the public form of witnessing in the image.

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