An old Chinese legend tells of the painter Wu Daozi (680-c760), who learned to paint so vividly that he was finally able to step inside his work and vanish into the landscape. Magical though it sounds, this legend iterates the common intuition that artworks are more like portals than ordinary objects: they can transport us into other worlds. When I look at Pieter Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow (1565), I feel like I was there in the frost-bitten village, rather than the galleries of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Sometimes, artworks have such a magnetic pull that we forget the actual world around us and lose our sense of time and place, of other people – and sometimes even of ourselves. The French art critic Denis Diderot (1713-84)called such immersive experiences ‘art at its most magical’. Once a painting by Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-89) pulled Diderot inside a pastoral river scene so completely and enjoyably that he compared the experience to a divine mode of existence:
Where am I at this moment? What is all this surrounding me? I don’t know, I can’t say. What’s lacking? Nothing. What do I want? Nothing.