What it Means to See Art: The Intricacies of Duende

Hand of Fatima Bertelsen
Hand of Fatima, South of France (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

James Elkins’s essay, “Just Looking” (in The Object Stares Back,1996)  appears to be ambiguous, because the emotions associated with seeing are so complicated, as he says (p. 29). He seems also to have been influenced by Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida, 1981), Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida (among others), all highly imitated French philosophers, popular among academics in the humanities and social sciences. He utilizes a Western philosophical approach to art interpretation. In the Nature of Photographs (2007), Stephen Shore, on the other hand, does mention Japanese woodblock prints (pp. 64-65).

Consider this comment (p. 31): “Looking immediately activates desire, possession, violence, displeasure, pain, force, ambition, power, obligation, gratitude, longing … there seems to be no end to what seeing is, to how it is tangled with living and acting. But there is no such thing as just looking.” Seeing objects evokes emotion, and good photographs possess that quality, as do works of art such paintings, poetry, music, and dance.

In Letters to Felice, Franz Kafka wrote of the emotions wrought by viewing photographs, confirming Elkins’s comments about the pain of looking:

“And who took the photograph? Is it some sort of family occasion? Your father and brother appear to be in dark suits, with white ties, but the so-called brother-in-law is wearing a coloured one. Dearest, how powerful one is, face to face with a picture, and how powerless in reality! … Dearest, pictures are wonderful, pictures are indispensable, but they are torture as well.”

I would suggest that the problem in expressing what is seen in a photograph has a lot to do with limitations of the English language. There is no one word to describe what Elkins says about “objective descriptions” (p. 33), which “are permeated soaked, with our unspoken, unthought desires. … but just beneath the surface there are other forces that can’t quite be spoken … .”

We are limited by our language in describing art/photography. Other cultures, other languages have word that convey succinctly what it Elkins took 28 pages and about 14,000 words to describe. In Spanish he could have just said, “Duende,” loosely and inadequately explained as the “mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.” The literal meaning pertains to elf or demon.

Duende is a concept strongly associated with the dance style of flamenco and the music of the cante jondo (deep song, from the Gypsy/Roma culture), but I think it applies to all art, including photography. For as the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca said in “The Theory and Function of Duende” : “Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline. We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand, that it shatters styles and makes Goya, master of the greys, silvers and pinks of the finest English art, paint with his knees and fists in terrible bitumen blacks … All the arts are capable of duende … .” Lorca implies that some physicality is necessary, as with dance, but I think that the way a photographer sees/looks at/gazes upon an object can be a form of duende, as is the viewer’s physical act of looking at a photograph.

The last five sentences of Elkins’s article hover over this idea of duende, it seems to me.

“There is no such thing as a pure self, or a pure object apart from that self. This sounds unlikely, and it goes against intuition; but it is only a consequence of an idea we recognize every day when we say a person or an image is “inside” us or that we are “lost” in a scene or memory.

And so looking has force: it tears, it is sharp, it is an acid. In the end, it corrodes the object and observer until they are lost in the field of vision. I was once solid, and now I am dissolved: that is the voice of seeing.”

For further contemplation:

Other languages/cultures with single words related to duende include:

Arabic: Twahhesh (Moroccan Arabic), Ahanna (Classical Arabic)

Portuguese: Saudade, almost the same meaning, more associated with a sense of loss, but which could fit into the scheme of duende-related words

Russian: Toska – Vladimir Nabokov wrote, in reference to toska: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases, it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

Turkish: Hasret and hüzün

Thanks to Scott Alves Barton, Aylin Öney, Kitty Morse, and Laura Kelley for their input on words from other languages that approximate the meaning of duende.

© 2013 C. Bertelsen

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