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The Art of Vision

Introduction by Saul Levine
Screening on Film
Directed by Stan Brakhage.
US, 1961-1965, 16mm, color, silent, 270 min.
Print source: Academy Film Archive

Shown in a new print, this monumental work, regarded as one of Stan Brakhage’s greatest films, contains within it the same materials he used to construct the better-known Dog Star Man. It depicts the filmmaker as woodsman, scaling a snow-covered mountain, along with associative images of his wife and child; here the stuff of home movies attains a cosmological status by way of its experimental approach. The Art of Vision employs nearly all the poetic techniques Brakhage had mastered by this point—including saccadic camera movement, radically variable focus, lens distortion, image inversion, painting on film, emulsion scratching, and more—yielding an anthology of perception's myriad forms.

The Art of Vision is the higher coefficient of what seemed, in the early 1960s, to be Stan Brakhage's extraordinarily ambitious film project, Dog Star Man. Between 1961 and 1965, he furiously produced his first serial work, an epic film in five sections: Prelude (1961), Part One (1962), Part Two (1963), Part Three (1964), and Part Four (1964). All but Part One were articulated with layers of densely edited superimpositions. During the same years he wrote his groundbreaking, polemical book of film theory, Metaphors on Vision. As he was completing the book, the idea struck him that he should also exhibit a version of Dog Star Man in which all the layers of superimposition would be shown separately, and all the possible permutations of layering for each of the parts as well. In homage to J.S. Bach's Art of the Fugue, he called the expanded version The Art of Vision.” – P. Adams Sitney

“Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'Green'? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the 'beginning was the word.'

To see is to retain—to behold. Elimination of all fear is in sight—which must be aimed for. Once vision may have been given—that which seems inherent in the infant’s eye, an eye which reflects the loss of innocence more eloquently than any other human feature, an eye which soon learns to classify sights, an eye which mirrors the movement of the individual toward death by its increasing inability to see.

But one can never go back, not even in imagination. After the loss of innocence, only the ultimate of knowledge can balance the wobbling pivot. Yet I suggest that there is a pursuit of knowledge foreign to language and founded upon visual communication, demanding a development of the optical mind, and dependent upon perception in the original and deepest sense of the word.” – Stan Brakhage, from Metaphors on Vision

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