[image: Landscape by Giorgio Morandi]
While much of the world entertained itself with modernization through the horrors of war and the wonders of innovation, the early 20th century Italian painter Giorgio Morandi mastered the act of observation. His interest was the unnamable relationships found in simple form-based still life and landscape. He never left Italy, rarely even stepped foot from Bolonga, yet he was enthralled by Cezanne and Rembrandt. Similarly, rather than pilgrimage into the landscape he often used a telescope to bring the landscape to him. In this way his landscapes could be viewed as his still lifes; built and arranged.
Visually, the flattening produced by zooming in with a telescope emphasizes what our perception does naturally. We identify a distant intrigue, isolating it from its context and rephrase the scene in our head as though it were near. We project upon that which is out of reach. This intimacy has its own particular look and feel. The middle-distance is a place that is not so far as to be background and not so near as to be foreground. In its ambiguity this relative distance gives the luxury of observation without implication—the standpoint of the voyeur.
During a peculiar painting expedition in Southeast Asia (the reason for and particulars of I shall not get into for brevity) I found myself in the apartment of an expat journalist whom I’d met earlier that day. With rather reckless and casual generosity, this person suggested the use of her eleventh floor apartment for my painting purposes. The situation offered a spectacular vantage point from the center of the steamy city and I felt impelled to make use of this kindness.
The view was excessively foreign to my eyes with golden pagodas and palm trees looming over bustling and colorful bazaars. Myriad vents and windows across the cityscape were open to accommodate the brutal heat. I began painting the entirety of the view from my own open window but gradually took note of the scenes within the scene. Many of these were ensconced within the neighboring windows.
An artist in observation-mode will invariably look through eyes that intrude on boundaries. When seeing slips over to gazing or staring as the artist reads a scene, codes of property, privacy and appropriateness are voided. It might be said that the artist too, is voided momentarily—as if their body were merely an outpost for the eye.
The source of greatest intrigue for me was a wide-open living room that transitioned seamlessly into the turquoise balcony overhanging the market. My prying eye turned the room into image, my hand turned the image into painting, and then the occupants turned the painted blobs into story as they animated. A mother brought children into the room where an older woman, most likely a grandmother, hugged them and sat them down in a throne-like chair. While the mother busied herself in the background making a meal, the grandmother arranged a veritable mountain of plush toys around the seated children. When the pile was to her liking she retreated to the other side of the room and began taking their photograph.
As stories go, it was nothing extraordinary to witness, but simply the power of seeing it from afar amazed me. It was remarkably measurable—visually and dramatically within the distant rectangle. I shared the viewpoint of the Indian Ragas and Japanese woodcuts that peer down godlike into the lives of humans scuttling about unaware of how wonderful they appear.
Visually from this vantage point the world flattens and a matrix of things can be seen in a single swath. I imagine our nomadic ancestors scanning and reading a scene before them to strategize. They were looking ahead to determine whether there was opportunity or danger, perhaps a favorable looking watering hole or a suspicious looking pack of wolves. Reading the scene at a distance is in a way, looking into the future and the past. Whatever is spotted may have been the place we came from or the place to which we are headed, to which the now has receded or from which the future will come.
I became self-conscious of how I must have looked in my own rectangle if someone were to crane their head my way; a foreigner both knit into my scene and very much out of place. The magic of the middle distance impressed upon me in this existential moment as did the quote (of varied attribution), “wherever you go, there you are.”
Sometimes in order to get a better sense of our own situation we need to imagine it from afar. This can be done by paying keen attention to what we can see in the middle distance from our own point of view and experiencing an intimacy with it.