Daniel Arasse (1944-2003) was a celebrated art historian and a leading Renaissance specialist. Through his erudition and intellect, he taught and influenced a whole generation of students and research fellows. But his unpretentious approach, his communicative passion and his desire to be accessible to as many interested people as possible also brought him a large readership. It is therefore time to translate into English one of his major works, We see nothing, first published in France in 2000.
"You know what it´s like: you reflect over and over again, you get nowhere and then, suddenly, there it is. You see what was right in front of your eyes, what you hadn´t yet seen even though all the evidence pointed to it."
This remark by Arasse in the second study of We see nothing (“Snail´s Gaze” which refers to the annunciation of Francesco del Cossa) is marvelously revealing of his method and critical style.
For Daniel Arasse the greatest peril facing the art historian is to be blinded by his erudition. What´s important is not to let knowledge impede sight, not to let it be a pretentious screen between observer and painting, but rather to let it enrich vision. The golden rule therefore consists of looking at things afresh, forgetting all that one knows, observing almost naïvely although rigorously what emerges from the canvas.
This first stage in the investigation produces a series of questions, enigmas, that one must then try to resolve, by examining the culture of the period, perusing antique books, questioning historians and specialists. Certain paths then open up. From there one can return to the painting, which one must study again with renewed attention, with surprise, as if for the first time, as if all were peculiar, unsettling. Little by little the patient coming and going between seeing and knowing allows the author to put forward an interpretation, or, more precisely, they are permitted to illuminate this painting for us, to direct our gaze.
To conduct this investigation, Daniel Arasse rejects all form of academic discourse, and turns instead to the cunning tricks more usually employed by an author of detective novels. He uses almost spoken style and he often invents an interlocutor who puts forward objections and whom he must win over. To sum up, the art criticism he offers us is a truly joyful feat of knowledge. It invites us to reenter museums with a fresh pair of eyes, unjaded, and to follow inspector Arasse´s clues in our favourite paintings to a mystery that we will take great pleasure in solving.