Health

The Disordered Eye review – do you need good eyesight to make great art?


Even with the unavoidable flattening effect caused by seeing it through a television screen, Keith Salmon’s painting, Sunlight and Stones, Beinn a’Ghlo, strikes immediately at your eye and heart. It looks like the eternal essence of the thing – sunlight on stones, as it was, is now and shall be ever more. Moving through his other landscape paintings of the Scottish Highlands, it is as if you are moving through the hills and forests – not because they are hyper-realistic, but precisely because they are not. They capture the ineffable qualities of the place so beautifully, it is as if they wrap themselves around you and take you there.

If Salmon had been the only artist showcased in The Disordered Eye (BBC Four), he would have been enough to answer the question posed in the programme: do you need good eyesight to make great art? Salmon was diagnosed in 1989 with diabetic retinopathy and his vision deteriorated quickly after that. He is now registered as blind.

What we see in his paintings is the product of memory and channelling attention to detail – the kind that we don’t realise makes up so much of our experience when we take in what seems to be merely a breathtaking view. Salmon captures the light and shade, the sounds, the temperature, the sense of space – and it loses nothing in translation to the canvases we see him working on, face mere inches away, recreating in visual form what he and we know in our bones. Salmon reckons he is free from the prison of vision.

But, of course, Salmon was not a single example in this documentary by the disabled artist and film-maker Richard Butchins. His film took in old masters – Rembrandt, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, Degas – and new research into the various eye conditions they worked with. Did the myopia common to the Impressionists help to give us a new style of painting? Are the people who respond to and capture in oils and pastels the “distorted” world around them providing us with new ways of seeing?

Butchins interviews modern artists, including the sensory photographer Sally Booth (“I can see badly out of both eyes!”), who uses a camera as a sketchbook and the resultant photos as an aide memoire for her art. She has moved from working in pencil to ink, so she can better see her marks, and developed her style so that she does not have to remove the pen from the paper and lose track of what she is doing. Aaron McPeake became a (prize-winning) sculptor after having to leave a career as a lighting designer, and makes pieces in cast bronze that are designed to be touched and sound notes. “We’re taught to look, but not to listen,” he says.

It was an hour of little bombs being laid and set off under received wisdom, assumptions and expectations. By neuroscientists as they unpicked what we laughably call reality and laid it all out in rods, cones, blanks, predictions and leaps of synaptic faith (“There’s no physical truth to a tomato being red”). By Prof Georgina Kleege – blind since childhood – anatomising the social construction of disability and the typical framing of blindness as a universally tragic loss rather than a different way of moving through the world. And by footage of the late Sargy Mann conjuring truth and beauty before our very eyes by “daring to do things I might not do if I could see it” with tubes of paint laid out in order and recognised by their dents. “This is black – I can feel it!” He would use, says his widow, Frances, long canes running from his subject to his eyes to work out how the light must be falling and what he should do. Little bombs everywhere.

If there was a flaw in this bold and brilliant film, it was that Butchins made his direction of travel too clear, as when he told Booth that the ability to adapt to physical change does not necessarily result in worse work (“That’s my point, that’s the point of this film”). However, moments like this did not reduce the overall power of a piece that made you think anew not just about art, about disability, about what we mean by each of those slippery terms, but also about the impulse to create and the ineradicable nature of talent and human determination when it comes to expressing yourself. A deeply necessary hour.



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