Sargy Mann: How a blind painter sees

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Sargy Mann in his studioImage source, Peter Mann

In the last weeks of his life, the artist Sargy Mann began writing about his extraordinary career as a blind painter. The last 10 years of his life, after his eyesight had failed completely, were paradoxically his most successful - his final exhibition opened in London this week, two months after his death. Here he reflects on the nature of perception and the visual experiences that continue after the loss of sight.

In 1973, when I was only 35, I had cataract extractions in both eyes. They were, as I had hoped, the orange-brown kind that Monet had had in late life, and for a week or so after the operations I experienced colour - particularly cool blues, greens, violets and magentas - with revelatory intensity. The only comparable experience was the one occasion when I had taken LSD in 1966. Very soon my brain readjusted, but the memory stayed with me as a sort of talisman.

From my student days I had read quite a lot about visual perception. And then, when I started to have trouble with my own sight, I became more interested in the anatomy of the eye and relevant parts of the brain and quizzed the ophthalmologists at every opportunity.

Image source, Peter Mann

In October 1979 a retinal detachment rendered me quite blind in my right eye and then, shortly afterwards, the retina in my left eye detached. Throughout the 1980s I had numerous operations in my seeing left eye, always leaving me with less sight, worse sight, but - and this was what interested me - changed sight, so that after each convalescence, I had to learn again to see the world and to try to paint it. After one operation, I can't remember why, they cut away a lot of my iris and it no longer closed down for bright light and opened up for weak light as the normal human eye has evolved to do. To begin with I had to paint wearing dark glasses in very low levels of light, but I didn't like the glasses, which seemed to mess up colour, and in time my reluctant brain learned to do what my iris had originally done. That is to say, it learned to adjust for different levels of ambient light.

In 1987, I had my first one-man show with my current dealer, Christopher Burness. It was a big success and for the first time we had a little spare money, enough to go abroad. I had always preferred painting in bright light, and from then until my total blindness in 2005 we went often to Italy and France, and I went to Portugal and southern India with my sister. In India and Portugal, and on some occasions in Italy, I had to spend the first day in a darkened room in a sort of fever, while my brain adjusted to the much brighter level of ambient light outside. Then on the second day I went out and discovered an astonishingly different and beautiful world of new bright light.

Image source, Cadogan Gallery
Image caption,
Figures by a river
Image source, Cadogan Gallery
Image caption,
Street cafe

In 1989, the eye hospital registered me blind, not partially sighted, but blind. They said that in their experience people with as little sight as I had behaved as if they were totally blind. I discovered from the consultants that the average person can lose almost half their field of vision without noticing, it's only when the few degrees of central vision begin to detach that they are aware of it. I, on the other hand, on two or more occasions, went into the hospital announcing that I had located a tiny hole or tear in the extreme periphery of my retina. They, however, failed to detect this with their instruments and sent me home, only to acknowledge, when I went back a day or two later, that I had been right all along.

In May 1990 we moved from London to Suffolk and I almost entirely gave up oil painting from direct observation. I simply couldn't see and understand enough. Instead I painted, often on large 6ft-wide canvases, from short-term memory and tape recordings that I had made while looking at my subject, and asking questions of whoever might be around at the time. Moorfields eye hospital had given me a tiny x8 magnifying monocular so that I could read bus numbers and stuff like that. Standing at my station point - where I was seeing my subject from - using this x8 telescope, I would explore my subject in two quite different ways. I would make rhythmical passes through its space - near to far, low to high, high left to low right etc - while recording what I thought I was understanding of the space of the subject on a dictaphone. And then from time to time I would focus hard on some place in the subject, trying to intensify its reality in my experience.

Image source, Peter Mann

Listening to my recording, brush in hand, in front of the painting, these two ways of looking resulted in very different marks on the painting. The static, focused looking started to build up a formal colour structure whereas the rapid, spatial explorations resulted in a network of lines made with pencil or graphite, whose grey colour interfered hardly at all with the coloured structure of the painting.

I never looked at the painting through the telescope, except from a considerable distance, trying to get a slightly better sense of the whole. Then with The Road to Emmaus, a large imaginary composition based on an Italian landscape I knew well, I needed to adjust the skyline near the centre of the painting but kept on getting it in the wrong place. In desperation, I re-mixed the colour looking at the palette through the telescope, focused on the relevant place in the painting through the telescope - I knew exactly what I wanted to do - and put in the few missing marks. But then, fatally, I couldn't resist looking at other parts of the painting through the telescope from close up. It looked extraordinary and I wanted to re-paint the whole picture. I didn't, but soon, in the next picture, I was mixing up these two different ways of perceiving. And in the next one after that - a large painting of the sluice on the river Waveney - I worked only through the telescope.

Image source, Peter Mann

I hated it, as it killed the rhythmical drawing that was my preferred response to the space of my subject, but I couldn't help myself. So I had to invent a new way of drawing, or to be more precise, resuscitate an old way - the sort of measured drawing I had learned as a student. By recording measurements in the subject, I marked references and positions on the canvas with oil pastel. It was quite literally a pain in the neck as to get the incoming light through the telescope focused on the peripheral vision that was still functioning fairly well I had to tip my head back. Most of the time I wasn't painting, I was massaging the back of my neck.

When I went abroad I made gouaches directly from nature. One year, when I returned, the beautiful English summer seemed curiously dark and un-coloured after the Tuscan light and I wondered what would happen if I tried to make medium-sized oils of the subjects I had painted in Italy. To my surprise and delight it went very well; I painted them all and had a successful exhibition. So on my next trip abroad, which was to Portugal with my sister, I knew what I wanted to do - collect subjects for painting large oils back in Suffolk. I made gouaches and tape recordings and I got my sister to make photomontages of any subject that I thought might make the cut.

Media caption,

Artist Sargy Mann has been registered blind for 25 years

I had occasionally used photomontages before. I would get someone to take photos of my subject, from my station point (this might involve as many as 35 exposures), and then do their best to stick them together, making a single consistent or relatively consistent image. Using my x8 magnifying monocular I would refer to this image for information back in my studio. My sister and I carried around a plastic palette-like bottle carrier for her to stand on so that she would be taking the photographs from the right height. She cleaned and re-laid my palette for me and turned out to be the perfect painter's assistant, also recce-ing for new subjects while I was painting. Until my total blindness, in 2005, this was essentially how I painted.

In 2002, I had become so blind that we risked a corneal transplant operation, taking the healthy cornea from my blind right eye and stitching it on to my left, and using a donor cornea in my right eye. It went well and was the first time for 30 years that my sight had improved rather than worsened. The improvement didn't last long though, as the cornea began to cloud and ulcerate. In May 2005, hardly seeing at all, I went with my son Peter to Cadaques, a fishing town above the Mediterranean in northern Spain. It was my perfect subject, dark blue Mediterranean sea, orange tiled roofs, man-made surfaces painted blinding white and the whole bathed in intense sunlight. Perfect - but I could hardly see a thing.

Image source, Peter Mann

We returned to Suffolk at the end of May for my birthday, with about a dozen possible subjects. It was a perfect sunny day with the whole family present, but the next morning I woke with a pain in my left eye and when I asked my wife to look, she said: "Oh my God, it's bleeding!" An ulcer had perforated and my eye had, in effect, exploded. It was what I had tried to prepare myself for - total blindness, and therefore, I had always assumed, the end of painting.

A few days later when I was mooching round my studio, wondering what I would do with the rest of my life - some sort of sculpture I assumed, though I had never had much feeling for it - my brain again flooded with all the wonderful Cadaques subjects and I thought, "Well, I wonder, what's to lose?"

I took a canvas, a plastic chair and my painting trolley out into the sunny garden, chose from my memory one of the subjects, felt the canvas, imagining as intensely as I could, and thought: "Here goes." I put ultramarine on a brush and started painting the top right hand corner of the canvas and I saw it go blue. It wasn't a memory it was a percept, though not one such as you would have. But, as I reflected later on, "Why not?" My dreams, even though I am totally blind, are perceptually immaculate.

I painted for about an hour and then asked my daughter, who was passing, "What do you think, darling?"

"Dad, that's amazing! It's beautiful."

"But, can you see what it is?"

"Well, yes I think so. It looks like a little table, bottom left, with Peter sitting on the other side of it in front of a large window, with sky, distant hills and dark blue sea. And then on the right, an open doorway with low sun flooding towards you, reflecting off the sea."

It was a perfect description of my subject. So perhaps there was painting after total blindness, after all.

Over the next 18 months, I painted all the recorded subjects, and some more purely from memory. The result was a sell-out exhibition and praise from some of the painters I most respected. The problem then became: "What next?" Dreams were no good as I couldn't remember them for more than a few seconds. Memories of the distant past were too imprecise, and I didn't want to paint second or third versions of subjects I had already painted. In the end, I asked my wife, Frances, to sit in the armchair in my studio and I knelt on the floor so near to her that I could touch almost all of her and began making an imaginary drawing.

Image source, Peter Mann

It turned out to be much more like it had been, when I could see, than I could possibly have imagined, and I began to mark the salient points of this drawing on my canvas, with little blobs of Blu-Tack, as I had done in the last and largest of the Cadaques paintings. It seemed as if my brain was taking tactile information about relative positions in space, and using it in essentially the same way as I had previously used visual information, in order to build up a coherent understanding from the position of my eyes. As I was not receiving any visual information about colour or light, I simply painted things the colour I knew them to be.

In one of these armchair paintings, the fourth, I realised that I wanted everything to be more symmetrical, so I moved, so that I was kneeling at the centre of the armchair, which would therefore make a symmetrical shape in the canvas, within which I could find the drawing for the figure. The other thing that happened in this fourth painting was that I thought, "I don't want to paint that armchair that dark brown, which I never really liked anyway. I'll do what I did two or three years ago. I'll put a white dust sheet over it." Then, as I was getting a dust sheet out of the cupboard, I thought, "You silly bugger, you won't be able to see the dust sheet anyway. You can paint the chair any colour you like." This was an absolute breakthrough and from then on I chose my colours much more intuitively and with a much more overtly decorative attitude towards the painting.

Image source, Cadogan Contemporary
Image caption,
Frances in the corner chair
Image source, Cadogan Contemporary
Image caption,
Frances in hammock by the river No.2

After about 18 months of painting these pictures, I had another exhibition, which also went well. I was a little worried about repeating myself so I started a large painting, about 4ft by 6ft 6ins, with an imaginary perceptual light and space loosely based on Cadaques. I set up a small round table and some chairs in my studio and got Frances to pose, virtually at touching distance, for the near figures, and my son Michael to pose for a waiter. By this time I had arrived at a sophisticated system of measuring using long straight sticks as stand-ins for rays of light - they reached out from the bridge of my nose to important positions that I could not actually touch. Another starting point for this painting was wondering whether I could make the dress of the standing girl on the left neat cadmium yellow and still have her looking as if she was in shadow, against Mediterranean sun beyond. Working out the three-dimensional into two-dimensional geometry of the imagined space and directional sunlight was very challenging and stimulating and called on mathematical parts of my brain that had remained pretty dormant since the late 50s.

Image source, Cadogan Contemporary
Image caption,
Two bathers

At about this time, my painter friend Terry Raybould and I analysed a favourite painting by Bonnard - it is in a museum in Brussels, and is the one where Marthe, his wife, is standing naked in their little bedroom/living room in Montmartre, with her bum sticking out in an amazing way. We decided that Bonnard was standing with his eye level a little above the top of her head, and certainly no further than 4ft away from her. But Marthe is drawn on the canvas with no vertical foreshortening whatsoever. "Well," I thought, "if Bonnard can paint a standing figure from very close-to without vertical foreshortening in the drawing, perhaps I can as well." And in practically every painting I have made since, some such figure at touching distance and life size, often reaching from the top of the canvas to the bottom, has acted as a sort of reference module to which other positions in the subject are related.

I cut down a large cardboard cylinder, which my primed canvas came on, to Frances's height and marked key vertical positions down it - chin, shoulders, bust, waist, crotch, and knees - with blobs of Blu-Tack, so that it could stand in for Frances when she was not available. My life had not been marked by experiences of groups of nude figures, but figures in swimsuits was another matter. It had the added advantage that you could choose any colour you wanted for the swim suits.

Reasonably enough, people always want to know how I arrive at the colour in my paintings when I can't see at all. It is worth mentioning here that most people, I think, dream in full and perfect colour. I certainly do, and when one is asleep one is perceptually blind, so the brain can do it - though God knows how. I can imagine colour and colour combinations pretty well and I wonder, is it so very different from a composer or arranger of music working on manuscript paper, thinking "I would like the theme in flute and clarinet, against strings and French horns"? In the paintings I have made since losing all my sight, which is to say the last 10 years, I cover the whole canvas from my imaginings, and my knowledge of my pigments and how they look in different combinations. As the painting proceeds, and as a result of much discussion, Frances begins to mix up colours for me, and both the colour and the drawing change and develop, often very dramatically.

Of course, I would never have chosen to become a blind painter but I have been thrilled to discover that I can make paintings without sight, and that this activity is far more like a continuation of my painting experience than I could possibly have imagined.

Image source, Peter Mann

Sargy Mann: Final Paintings is showing at the Cadogan Contemporary gallery until 4 July. This is an abbreviated version of the essay the artist wrote for the catalogue. The full version can be read on the gallery's website.

One of Mann's children, the photographer Peter Mann, filmed his father discussing ideas about art that he would have included in a TED talk, if he had not died two weeks too soon. That video can be seen here.

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