Could you tell me about the eye operation you had when you were a little boy?
Well, I don’t know if it has a direct relationship to my art, but when I was little, the way my mother tells it, I had very beautiful blond hair, and so she liked to put them on top of my head as a sort of a little chignon and put a ribbon on it. Sometimes it was a pink ribbon, sometimes it was a blue ribbon, and the end of the ribbon fell more or less on my nose. And of course, I must have been color conscious, so I was always looking at those ribbons, and because they were on my nose, I got terribly cross-eyed. And one of my eyeballs actually was entirely in, or nearly entirely in, the iris, so I really saw with one eye and a quarter more or less, and I never could focus both eyes on the same thing. So when I was seven years old, the eye that was the worst, the doctors cut the optical nerve, I understand, straightened the eye, and in some way knotted the nerve again so that the eye was straight. So from then on, I could see with both eyes. But I don’t think that I’ve ever been able to focus both eyes on the same thing anyhow because they are both very different in their vision. In the old stereoscopic slides, for example, which is a good test; my grandfather had those stereoscopic slides, and people explained to me that as you see both pictures—there are twin pictures taken from slightly different points of view—you have a sense of depth. Well, I never could see both pictures together. I would look at one, look at the other, and make a sort of mental computation so I could tell grandfather that I saw that sense of depth and stereoscopic vision was wonderful. But I never actually experienced it, and I think in a way, now that you mention that eye operation, I have gone through life lacking that sort of natural triangulation that people have in their eyes if their eyes are entirely normal, and what I have seen are really like stereoscopic twin photographs that are naturally flat, and it’s only with an intellectual approach that I can get a sense of depth. This is very good, of course, for painting because painting is really putting that three-dimensional stuff on a flat surface, and I may have been helped there by having bad eyes, so to speak. I think it’s a case with quite a number of painters—Matisse was refused for his military service because of his bad eyes.
There’s an interesting technique you use in some of your paintings, and that is to create depth solely with the roundness of the forms. You have an almost hieratic background, and then it’s the forms of the people in the painting that gouge into the depth and show you that there is depth there. Do you think this is your way of creating depth intellectually?
Well, it’s, of course, the problem, which is an essential problem, that of three-dimensional and two-dimensional in painting—has been not only solved by Masters in past centuries, but they have mentioned it in words also. And it is Goya that compared what the painter does—I think it was the two sides of a spoon, that is, the back of the spoon bulges and the front of the spoon, if you want to call it that, is concave. Concave and convex is about all that an artist can do in his suggestion of depth. That is, things, if you want to compare them with sculpture, would be more like bas-relief, but that is also true of bas-relief, for example, the Parthenon friezes. If you see one-half of volume on which you have enough naturalistic reference, let’s say like the human body, you automatically imagine the other half, in which case your imagination takes the person represented as in the round, and it is that unseen half, like the dark side of the moon, if you want, which we see exists, that suggests space because to exist it needs a space, a sort of a niche of space. So in those things that you refer to in which the sense of depth and so on is rather shallow, what we have, at least as our intellectual comprehension, is a figure in the round existing in a niche of space. Of course, when the things are bigger, like those hundred-feet long murals and so on, with such a definite point of view in the middle of an architecture, then there is nothing wrong in helping oneself to the linear solutions of Italian perspective and making a sort of cloison, so to speak, of spaces within a larger space. And then in each one of those spaces signified by geometry, signified by the running diagonal lines that represent Italian perspective depth, you can come back to the painterly solution—which in a way is really more painterly than geometry—of the bulging and hollowing by illusion which is what Goya was talking about.
Are there any other ways that you think that this particular eye problem has influenced your art?
Well, that’s the essential problem and a very important one: that naturally I see with each eye a certain flatness unless I correct it mentally. There’s something else, though, but I don’t want people to think I’m a complete wreck physically, visually, and that is that the sense of color is very different with each one of my eyes. I can, of course, compare what I see with one eye, what I see with the other one, but there is a tremendous difference of intensity of color. One eye tends, well, to put it in easy terms, to pure color, and the other eye tends to grays. Now I understand, I don’t really believe it, but people who have studied the eyes, for example, of dogs and cats and fish say that they have no sense of color, and maybe one of my eyes is closer to a dog’s eye. And I don’t know what the other one is: it’s extremely keen on defining color in terms of strength. So this at least suggests to me the difference between nature as is—there must be a nature as is—and nature as we perceive it, and I know that the painter deals in illusion.
Is the eye that perceives less color the one that they operated on?
Yah, now that you mention it, that’s what it is. Probably straightening it weakened something or other in it, but again there I am rather grateful because not only it hasn’t been a hindrance in painting, but it has been an asset to be able to distinguish between nature and nature as we apprehend it by sight.
Have there been changes in your eyes over the years that you’ve noticed?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. I was at the oculist’s maybe two months ago, and the guy was very eager to try a new machine, a very expensive one obviously, by which he can pressurize your eyeballs and then see the elasticity. It seems that that shows the, I would say, the age of your eyeball, and he promised me that my eyeballs were absolutely elastic and youthful. And besides that elasticity of the eyeballs, I haven’t seen anything in my eyes or through my eyes that is different from what I saw when I was young. There is, however, a sense of synthesis perhaps that comes as one grows older, coupled with a lack of quick curiosity about things seen. That is, I have seen many more things and many more times than when I did when I was very young, so the analysis, if you want, is weakened and the synthesis is strengthened. And I suppose that is what shows in some of my later pictures that are somewhat different from my younger pictures and show a different approach. It’s not a physical approach through the eye. It’s really a mental approach.
A number of important artists and writers have had to go through eye operations. I’m thinking especially of Joyce, James Joyce, and apparently eye operations are extremely difficult emotionally. I don’t know why, but all through these people speak about it as a most difficult operation to have emotionally. Did you have a very strong reaction to it?
Well, not at all. No, I was too small. I must have been seven years old. The only difference is that the ladies who visited my mama could look at me in the face, which before they couldn’t because of that terribly cross-eyed quality; they couldn’t look at me and exclaim, “What a pretty baby,” because I must have been a sort of a little monster through that extreme cross-eyedness. And after the operation, the ladies’ attitude changed, and they would not only look at me and say, “What a pretty child,” but they would squash me to their bosoms. Now it was a time when bosoms were enormous, and I really remember very strongly that elasticity of the ladies at the top and the corseting of iron, I think it was, at the bottom. It annoyed me very much, and not only they squashed me, but they kissed me. So I decided I must have been more appetizing after the operation than before. But there was nothing very traumatic about it.