Awoken from a dream, a question imposes itself on me: what is the colour of psychoanalysis? It echoes childhood memories where lively, vibrant colours marked my mother’s desire as she covered me with them. Once, she found such a colourful material with which she had a dress cut out for herself and a shirt for her son. These colours became bespoke garments that clothed her desire, spurring me to discover mine in analysis that started with a dream. Is there, beyond the colours of desire, one that cannot be seen because it cannot be said? What does Titian, of whom I thought when confronted with the question, tell us about the experience of colour?
Lacan showed us how to look at the painting in a new way. Starting with Merleau-Ponty, he first made a scission between the eye and the gaze to invite us to approach a painting from the perspective of being looked at by it. It is not that I, the ego of the subject, look at the painting as an object to seek in it a beautiful complement to the ego. Beyond that prejudice, that has nevertheless dominated in the form of realism, a reversal of the supposed idealism, the field of visual arts through the ages, another perspective unfolds. To get to the gist of the matter, the painting looks at us or, what interests me here, Titian’s blue looks at us.
To explore the history of the colour blue from the frescoes in the palace of Knossos, Buddhist sacred paintings to Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel ceiling covered in Lapis Lazuli would not take us far. Let’s start therefore with our fascination with the blue of Titian and with the way in which he reinvented it. The split between the eye and the gaze occurs where within the painting a stain, a blob can be located that opens access to the painting through the back door, so to speak, from the other, reverse side, for which anamorphosis served as a topological tool. Let’s say that Lacan deploys here a deus ex machinato bring out that effect. This device was always used to facilitate a denouementin the Greek tragedy and to let the hero exit the stage. But it can also be used to enter it. The stain fulfils this purpose by providing the viewer with a point of entry, a hole through which the gaze of the painter looks at us: “the world is all-seeing […], it does not provoke our gaze. When it begins to provoke it, the feeling of strangeness begins too.”
In the recent Titian exhibition at the National Gallery, sandwiched between two periods of pandemic lockdown, “Diana and Acteon” stood out in the poesia series. Titian’s skewed reference to the myth, mentioned by Lacan, contributed to it. In it, Diana was seen naked during her bath at a fount and responded to Acteon’s provocation by splashing him with water and saying, according to Ovid: “go and say what you have seen if you can.” He was turned into a stag, ravaged by his own hounds, the hunter become the hunted down. Titian presents Diana as surrounded by nymphs in front of whom she clearly behaves herself and the castration effect is suspended except for the reminder of the stag’s skull. Acteon who brings it all upon himself, ignorant of Orpheus’ voracious look, appears as dropped in the middle of the group of women with each one showing a different interest in the encounter. He lands there and immediately stretches out his left hand towards the blue, interspersed with clouds and translucent between the trees to the right. Whether it’s an attempt to hold off what’s coming to him or him pulling the red curtain so as to reveal what only he can see seems secondary to the fact that it is his relation to the blue that stands out. The nymph next to him accentuates it with her garment.
Titian’s blue looks at us. It also looks at Acteon. That’s part of Titian’s novelty. Diana, who can be found seated far to the right, is only noticeable on account of wearing a little diadem and being attended by two nymphs. The whole scene and the way the figures and Acteon’s gesture appear to be situated around the blue, forming a little curve evoked in the crescent-shaped jewel worn by Diana.
What attracts us to the blue of Titian is that it has a special place in his work even before the poesia cycle, as in the “Pesaro Madonna” where it’s not her figure per se but the blue that takes the centre stage. In “Bacchus and Ariadne” Ariadne makes a hand gesture similar to Acteon’s. This time with the right hand, she seems to hold off the excess of the blue that pours over half of the canvass. She does so while wearing the ultramarine tunic, so that the symbolic function can allow the gaze to vacillate between the one and the other, the covering and the limitless. In “Diana and Callisto”, painted at the same time as “Diana and Acteon”, we can see Diana’s hand with the blue behind, not in a direct relation to it but in a light gesture that flows along the swathe of blue, also worn by the hunter on the right. Does this handling of the blue touch on Callisto’s pregnancy Diana points to in the way that is not at all condemnatory unlike in the myth? This is an approach Hale takes by making Acteon and Callisto join hands, none of them is guilty of committing a crime yet both are touched by shame. There is then “Venus and Adonis” and later the “Rape of Europa” where the blue is not just a background, a signifier among others, but a mark of the function of what both does and does not belong to the painting. Before we recognise this function, Titian, according to Buanarotti and Dolce, is all about colouring and colours of the living whose “flesh palpitates.” It’s all about colours until we realise that the blue is not all about colour. What emerges here is a beyond of desire that sends everyone to their true colours that can be found in analysis whose direction is distinct from the one taken by the scientifico-religious methods of which the Church was then a part when it controlled the use, the production and the price of the blue pigment or the universal claims of its religious meaning.
Titian’s reminder that the blue is a representation only up to a point, allows us to make a second step from the Lacanian stain to the void. We can say that the cadenza of passing from one patch of blue to another in Titian’s treatment of the colour, touches on the repetition of the real as part of the subject. Are we dealing here with a symptomatic compulsion to bring back to the painting some part of the real that slips away or does Titian guide us towards the new beyond repetition? On this Lacan was decisive: “repetition demands the new. It is turned towards the ludic, which finds its dimension in this new.”We can say that Titian’s blue is ludic. Its function could be considered as correlative to the allusive unconscious, between transference and the real, which is where Lacan placed repetition. Repetition gradually produces a distance that leads to what Lacan calls “alienation of its meaning.” The colour can lose its meaning in the distance from the canons of tradition to which the classical reading of myths succumbs. Titian not only reinterprets Ovid and Apuleius but produces a colour that has captivated viewers because it points beyond its representational value. This is played out for us on a canvass where within the distance between the signifier and meaning, we are struck by proximity of the little a, that in the field of the desire of the Other emerges as gaze.
Blue is the colour Nietzsche called “inhuman.” Nothing in the body sustains it. It’s a colour that, except for the “blue-eyed beast” he anticipated, fails to inhabit the body or to be “dhommesticated”, to use Lacan’s pun. Instead of being smitten by the divine rage, Titian makes Acteon survive the effects of shameless curiosity in an encounter that is far from a bucolic idyll. His figure, banal in a way, owes its presence to what is left for him, the real in the face of which he emerges as subject. The banality of phallic hunger would leave us with the blue as a variation, or varieté, of the feminine jouissancethat is also the site of the trauma where an encounter with it can mark man’s experience. Lacan made a connection between the two. Where he locates the stain as the site of the gaze looking at the viewer, he also poses a question: “why is the primal scene so traumatic. Why is it always too early or too late?”Why does an excess make the obsessional, while an insufficiency creates the hysteric who is introduced to the feminine jouissancethat arises in relation to the void?
Titian found no other colour with which to allude to the void. Neither the white nor red nor black that dominated his early paintings would do. Especially black, it is never black enough but tinged with drops of light trapped within it as in the black hole that, as M.-H. Brousse remarked, nothing leaves once entered. When the subject is trapped by the fascination of the gaze looking at him, nothing leaves his mouth and speechlessness becomes for the speaking being a mode of tacit adoration of the Other. Eric Laurent spoke of how to deflect these imperatives of the jouissanceof “making oneself seen, being shitted, making oneself heard, being swallowed.”In short, the question is how to disrupt the hypnotic adoration of the Other, how “to stop being paralysed under his gaze by the effort of making oneself being seen.” Fascinum, opposed in the analytic experience by the couch, consists in seeing and being seen overlapping, caught up in flagranti in the imperative of jouissance.
Titian took us further. He points to the dimension of the void. In effect we can say that Titian’s blue is not a colour. The azurite sky that dominated his childhood landscape made an impact. Under it he covered various figures with it. To say that blue is not a colour and that it both does and does not belong to the painting reminds us of Ariadne’s and Acteon’s hands. Blue is not a colour but a name of infinity. As one of the names of the real infinite (Lacan also spoke of the imaginary infinity), blue awakens the subject to the ineffable around and beyond which the colours of the Other’s desire are written. Painting is a writing where the signifier is raised to the letter as unspeakable. Beyond the fascinumof the eye emerges the solitary blue Titian invented to capture the void.
J. Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Seminar XI, trans. A. Sheridan, Penguin, 1979, p. 75,
S. Hale, Titian, His Life and the Golden Age of Venice, Harper Press, 2012, p. 581,
S. Zuffi, Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, 24 ORE Cultura, 2012, p. 16,
J. Lacan, op.cit.,p. 61,
É. Laurent, Le temp de se faire à l’être in La Cause freudienne,No. 26, Paris, 1994, p. 42.