Category: Absence

In ordinary life, virtually all objects we encounter are occluded. For example, I am in a cafe now and not a single chair I am observing is in full view. Moreover, a lot of large objects are cut off by my visual field. None of this, however, is particularly attention-grabbing. In art, occlusion and what is outside the field of view is confrontational, loaded with meaning. Sometimes, abrupt cut offs direct our eyes to what is in the field of view – what is truly salient. Sometimes, they offer an analysis of what is not seen, endorsing the invisible.

This picture does both. Much of Roy DeCarava’s work was driven by his sense of injustice that the black Americans “should go through life unseen.” However, his way of making them seen was not relying on references to stigma or trauma. He wanted to show “a life force that each of us has, a will to live and a will to be here.” Paradoxically, by letting the edge of the frame cut off human parts (bodies, heads) in this picture, DeCarava made that life force and humanity most visible.

PS The empirical prediction here is that most people will report seeing absence of the baby’s head and not absence of the body of the person who is holding the baby.

Bill and Son

Dumbledore’s absence seen through the eyes of Harry Potter. I’ve been thinking about the difference between remembering and experiencing an absence. Harry is not merely remembering – that much is clear from the context of the movie. In film, remembrance is typically conveyed through the imagery of the things remembered. When depicting an absence, we are often shown abandoned objects – empty rooms, chairs, beds, even landscape. Here, Dumbledore’s absence is poignant because we see traces of his presence: his eye glasses, an opened book, a mug. They cause Harry to remember Dumbledore more vividly and as a result invoke an acute sense of his absence.

Interrupted presence

Paul Gauguin sans pants. Picture was taken by a Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha when he shared a studio with Gauguin in Paris in 1895. This photo illustrates the idea that drastic violations of expectations tend to produce more vivid experiences of absence than more subtle incongruences. What makes violation of expectation drastic? Context often plays a role. If you are at the beach, you won’t be experiencing ubiquitous absence of pants on people. You would just be seeing bare legs. And if your family members like to walk around inside the house not fully dressed, it’s unlikely that you’ll notice absence of pants on them since you are used to them looking this way. In this photo, Gauguin’s solemn expression, his place at the musical instrument, and a suit jacket make lack of pants conspicuous. All this ensures that our expectations are violated. It also shows that violations of expectations, and hence, absences can be comical.

Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939). Paul Gauguin. Playing the Harmonium in Mucha’s Studio, c.1895.