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This article is taken from PN Review 113, Volume 23 Number 3, January - February 1997.

Making Secret Visions Visible Marina Warner


The Outer - from the Inner
Derives its Magnitude…

The Inner - paints the Outer -
The Brush without the Hand -
Its Picture publishes - precise -
As is the inner Brand…

The Star's Whole Secret - in the Lake -
Eyes were not meant to know.1
Emily Dickinson, c. 1862


The flow of images these days, swollen by new technologies, brings us a flood of messages about material phenomena, from the structure of a strand of DNA to the beautiful blowing plumes of uncreated stars caught by the Hubble telescope. Optics have never had a longer, deeper reach; optical innovations profoundly influence art and representation, as they have done since the earliest camera obscura or magic lantern. But the ways such images are structured, in form, colour and composition, as well as the ways they are received and understood - as sublime, as pathetic, as rich, as meaningless, as inspirational or ironic - reveal deep connections to iconologies that precede the disclosures and revelations of these scientific breakthroughs.

The language of vision has a syntax, grammar, vocabulary, a history and a changing development over time. Its intelligibility depends partly on handed-down expressions, on habitual ways of envisioning, on codes known assembled and disassembled in cognitive patterns that have been learned and passed on; but in its frequent unintelligibility, also, in its approximations, blur and fumbling, it still grasps at ...


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