ASSIGNMENT 3: REFLECTIONS ON FEEDBACK

On reading the dense feedback that my tutor sent me on Assignment 3 my first thought was that I am proceeding through this introductory course to Creative Arts as in a thick forest where I slowly make my way discovering new trees and unknown animals at every step: it’s an exciting if challenging journey in which there are always more questions than answers and every answer generates new questions in a continuous search. This is really stimulating.

I try to follow every thread as best as I can but I am beginning to think that after all is the journey itself that matters, that there will always be new ways or detours ahead and that a progressive increase of awareness is what I can be striving for.

In this particular feedback Dr. Belshaw points to me several directions that could be followed and explored further in this forest and I suspect that he could as easily have suggested several others.

Starting from my remark ‘… the aura is not dispersed’ I am invited to expand on the concept of ‘aura’ and to think about the critical problems that arise when the market – in this case fashion and advertising – appropriates art – in this case an absolute masterwork like Las Meninas by Velázquez.

First thing I went back to Benjamin to look for more information about his conception of aura and I found this definition:  ‘What is aura actually? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close the object may be’ (SW: 518)

These words mark the uniqueness and the extraordinariness of the object of contemplation and also the almost religious distance that separates the viewer and the object – as if the object could be never completely approached and explained, but only intuitively and not rationally absorbed and understood.  When this object is brought closer it loses its aura.  Benjamin adds elsewhere that the aura of a work of art depends on ‘its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be’ (Work of art: 3): only a piece of art that is original and authentic has an aura, when it is reproduced its aura is destroyed.

If this is so, in the poster reappropriation of Las Meninas the aura IS indeed dispersed, only a cosmetic superficial resemblance with the original has been retained, all complex cultural, historical, artistic, emotional elements of the masterpiece are lost in the translation from high art to marketable fashion. The aura of the original has been used and transformed into something of an altogether different nature: the aesthetic experience of the aura has become an efficient marketing tool to sell fashion.

This is true, but I don’t think that in this operation the aura of the original has been exhausted and destroyed by the poster. The painting is still there, in The Prado Museum, and has maintained all its aura, and even if it is surrounded by noisy or even inattentive crowds it’s still possible to perceive this aura, this beautiful distance, if only the viewer pays attention, is open to it. I would say that the painting has been lending its aura to the poster without losing it.

I think that this can happen because the painting and the poster speak different languages, are judged according to different criteria, do not have a real relation between them and we as viewers have learnt or can learn to shift between the two communicative ‘modes’, from high art to visual culture and back again, from being immersed in the aura of the painting to the commercially effective message of the poster. There is no real exchange going on, the channels remain separate: the poster borrows what it needs from the painting and invites customers to buy and the painting lives on untouched with its irreducible aura.

I also think that the case can be very different when a work of art is appropriated by another work of art, like when Picasso appropriates Velasquez’s Las Meninas in 58 paintings or Jeff Wall appropriates Manet’s Un bar aux Folies-Bergère in Picture for Women (1979), as mentioned by my tutor. Here the language is the same and the aura of the original is explored, reverberated and perhaps even enriched with new layers and viewpoints by the appropriations – the presence of a mirror in all these works is not casual and creates complex exchanges in all directions, within the works themselves,  between the appropriated and the appropriating works and between the works and the viewers.

As Dr. Belshaw correctly guessed, I was aware of Barthes concept of ‘Italianicity’ when speaking about the Spanish signification of Las Meninas for foreign consumers, at least for European consumers. The advertisement was presumably addressed to visitors in their ‘tourist mode’, to use Dr. Belshaw’s words, and could be lost for example on a Chinese audience not familiar with the Western tradition of painting and the Spanish cultural identity, and for which the connotations of the poster could be others. This is certainly another interesting area of research in Visual Communications, how connotations of the same message do change depending on several individual, social and cultural factors.

My feedback includes also the stimulating suggestion to have a closer look at the meaning of ‘meaning’. This is a difficult area to grasp thoroughly given also the linguistic intricacies of the different theories on the two sides of the Atlantic and it is a very suggestive idea to look at it in the light of the ‘heresy of paraphrase’ thesis of Cleanth Brooks, from a literary and philosophical point of view instead of a linguistic one.

At a first guess the notion that a poem cannot be explained because it is not possible to rephrase it without destroying its irreducible meaning that is inseparable from its form might be usefully extended to the visual arts: also the aura of a work of art cannot be really expressed – paraphrased – in words and can be perceived only in its whole and not in its separate elements. When we look at the parts we seem to lose track of the whole, and its ‘meaning’ evaporates. It would look as if the meaning cannot be explained, can only be ‘felt’.

Another thought: if this is so, to differentiate between signifier and signified, denotation and connotation is analytically useful but does not explain the ‘meaning’ of the sign.

 

Bibliography

Benjamin, W. (1931-1934) Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Harvard: Harvard University Press [online] At: https://bookshttps://books.google.it/books?id=7M0x5svvwyEC&pg=PA518&lpg=PA518&dq=what+is+aura+actually?+a+strange+weave+of+space&source=bl&ots=2ak13tdNZk&sig=elnfJsMYLvzb6qvbGyCtXQQi7NY&hl=it&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiK44nRuODUAhVE1hQKHYDVBLgQ6AEIJDAC#v=onepage&q=what%20is%20aura%20actually%3F%20a%20strange%20weave%20of%20space&f=false.google.com/?hl=it (Accessed 27/06/2017)

Benjamin, W. ‘The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1932) [online] At: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf (Accessed 10/04/2017)

ASSIGNMENT 4: REFLECTIVE COMMENTARY

This short introductory section on Photography has certainly been for me another voyage of discovery into the unknown as it had already happened for Visual Communications before. Like everybody else I live surrounded by photographic images of every kind and have often found certain photographs beautiful or artistic for various reasons, or some photography exhibitions particularly interesting and compelling but never before I had truly had a chance to focus my attention on photographs as objects in their own right, having their own specific unique features, or on photography as a genre.

Being exposed to a series of very different images and artists in a structured way has greatly raised my level of awareness both when I look at a photograph and when I take one. I know that my knowledges are still really limited but a process has started. Also reading for the first time books on photography has been important, especially Shore’s The Nature of Photographs (2010) and Edward’s Photography: A Very Short Introduction (2006) because both of them have in different ways prompted my curiosity and answered some first questions on this medium that may seem deceptively easy and approachable but also elusive and difficult to define.

I have been particularly attracted by the narrative use of photography that some artists make, by the capacity to tell stories with photographs that could not perhaps be told as effectively and poignantly in other media, like for instance by Robert Frank’s photographic diary The Americans or by Alec Soth’s poetic series Sleeping by the Mississippi, or by the skillful juxtaposition of industrial sites and daily life made by Mitch Epstein with his ongoing project American Power. I had never really thought about the possibility of successfully narrating stories through a sequence of still images, instead of choosing perhaps more obviously moving images to do so or a fiction, or that the choice of the photographic medium produces a totally different impact.

Another feature of photography that has strongly interested me is its very intimate and unavoidable relationship with time and as I said in the exercise about family photos (Project 2 – It’s about time) especially the double nature of photographs: they frieze moments of the past making them present and preventing them to fade into oblivion and so act in this regard as ‘memento vitae’ but they are also intrinsically sad because of course they make us remember that that past is lost forever, that our present will change too and vanish and so act also as ‘memento mori’ like a vanitas painting.

A last short note: as I was writing my essay on David Hockney’s ‘joiners’ I happened to think how this artist, who has repeatedly criticized photography for what he sees as its limitations – its special capacity to capture that ‘tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject’ (Benjamin: 510) – has dismissed the very elements of photography that other artists have chosen instead to give voice to their artistic visions.

(500 words)

 

Benjamin, W. (1931-1934) Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Harvard: Harvard University Press [online] At: https://books.google.com/?hl=it (Accessed 27/06/2017)

 

 

 

 

 

 

ASSIGNMENT 4: DAVID HOCKNEY’S ‘PHOTOGRAPHIC DRAWINGS’ AND THEIR RELATIONSHIP WITH PHOTOGRAPHY

‘There are thousands of perspectives – not just one – everywhere you look. Perspective doesn’t exist in nature. It is just a convention’, says David Hockney in a recent conversation with Lita Barrie (Barrie, 2015) speaking about his latest ‘photographic drawings’ exhibited in Los Angeles at the L.A. Louver Gallery in 2015.

They consist in digital collages of hundreds of photographs arranged in compositions that show every detail in close-up views, from multiple vantage points, in ever-shifting perspectives and taken at different moments of time, and though for these works he has been using new digital tools – an iPad and Photoshop, the artistic vision and concerns behind them are along the same line of his early experiments with the ‘joiners’ which were made up of hundreds of at first Polaroid and later 35mm prints back in the Eighties, like My mother, Bolton Abbey (1982) and Pearl Blossom Highway 2 (1986) (Wikipedia, 2016).

As Hockney charmingly recounts in his autobiography That’s the Way I See it (Hockney, 1993), in 1981 he had rather casually started to play with the Polaroid camera and was soon exploring its creative potential in a rich series of photocollages. He explains how his deep involvement with photography at that stage was strongly associated with his long-held interest in Picasso’s explorations of multiple points of view in his Cubist paintings and revolved around the concept of perspective and the nature of realism in art.

Hockney had long felt dissatisfied with ‘naturalism and the depiction of naturalistic fixed-point perspective space’ and on carefully studying Picasso’s works he had in time come ‘to realize fully that, contrary to what some people may think, there is no actual distortion in Picasso … that Picasso’s way was far more real than anything else’, and not only far more real, but also ‘far more vivid’. And this is so because in looking at Picasso’s Cubist paintings the viewer feels to be ‘inside the picture’ since he or she can see ‘the back and the front at the same time’ and ‘slowly [the picture] then begins to look more and more real. In fact it is naturalism [based on the single-point perspective] that begins to look less and less real’  (Hockney, 1993: 101-2), and so unsatisfactorily limited.

From reading his autobiography it seems that Hockney’s engagement with the problems of realism in art and his dedication to create works that are truer than ‘reality’ as it is commonly understood have actually been at the very heart of his painting practice for decades now and that his use of photographs has been mostly instrumental to his painting, rather than born out of an authentic interest in photography as a self-sufficient, autonomous medium.

To the contrary, Hockney’s photocollages have their artistic roots in his wish to overcome what he considers ‘the limitations of photography’, seen by him as the ultimate product of the Renaissance invention of the single vanishing point perspective theories and consequently as ‘the end of something old, not the beginning of something new’ (Hockney, 1993: 124-5). According to this view, rather than being a faithful reproduction of life, a photograph, exactly as Western pictures based on single-point perspective, is a conventional construction and not a natural category (Edwards, 2006:91), and so basically an abstraction of reality.

In this regard it may be enlightening to read Hockney’s words about the last of his photocollages Pearl Blossom Highway 2 (1986) that he considers ‘as a panoramic assault on Renaissance one-point perspective’ (Hockney, 1993:112).

In this like in other photocollages he wants to go beyond the frozen moment as fixed by the single photographic image and through the assemblage of hundreds of photographs taken at different times and from changing vantage points to create works that reproduce reality in a way that seems to him much closer to the human natural vision, which is binocular and not monocular as the ‘mechanical eye’ of the camera: ‘take one step and something hidden comes into view; take another and an object in the front now presses up against one in the distance’ (Shore, 2007:48).

In so doing Hockney brings the viewer inside the picture, in a way that elaborates on Picasso’s Cubist vision, makes the viewer’s eyes move along it, slowly and sequentially absorb its many elements, one by one, as the eyes naturally focus on and off the different details of the picture, almost as if the viewer were physically walking or driving along the road represented in the picture. Speaking about Pearl Blossom Highway 2 in a video, Hockey interestingly says: ‘You’re looking down on the road, you’re looking up, you’re looking every direction … You are actually, literally close to something. You’re moving around in it’ (Khan Academy).

The effect the artist is after is an enhanced and sharper sense of reality, a reality that is truer than that offered by photography, with a touchable, immersive character that assimilates and develops the Cubist lesson. Besides being exercises in the exploration of the deep nature of place, Hockney’s photocollages can also be viewed as explorations of how a place changes in time since they are made up of hundreds of images taken in different days, and so they create together very complex narratives as the artist himself notices: ‘I was using narrative for the first time, using a new dimension of time’ (Hockney, 1993:97).

There is a certain implicit irony in the fact that a photocollage like Pearl Blossom Highway 2, developed out of the artist’s dissatisfaction with the very distinctive features of photography as a medium – the capacity to freeze an instant in time and to obtain a ‘slice through the world’ among others (Shore, 2007:64) – makes since 1997 part of the photography collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum (Getty Museum).

To Hockney what matters is painting, not photography, which to him is a tool among others to give voice to his vision of reality: he has repeatedly insisted that his photocollages are drawings, not photographs, which he thinks can show only artificial fractions of reality – single moments, single frames – while he is interested in complexity, in the innumerable changing positions in time and space that the human eye and brain can perceive (Gayford, 2011; Cashdan, 2010) in search of a deeper, vibrating human presence within the pictures.
(1017 words)

 

Bibliography:

 

Barrie, Lita (2015) ‘David Hockney Interview: Review of Painting and Photography at L. A. Louver’ In: http://www.huffingtonpost [online] At: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lita-barrie/david-hockney-painting-an_b_7853808.html (Accessed 6/06/2017)

Wikipedia. (2016). Article ‘David Hockney’. [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hockney (Accessed 6/06/2016)

Hockney, David (1993) That’s the Way I See It. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Edwards, Steve (2006) Photography: A Very Short Introduction. [Kindle edition] From: Amazon.it (Accessed 06/06/2017)

Shore, Stephen (2007) The Nature of Photographs. London, New York: Phaidon Press Ltd. Phaidon Press Inc.

Khan Academy. (n.d.). ‘David Hockney’s “Pearblossom Hwy”’. [online] In: http://www.khanacademy.org At: https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/getty-museum/getty-photographs-films/getty-photographs-photographers/v/david-hockney-pearblossom-hwy (Accessed 6/06/2017)

The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. (n.d.). ‘Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2’ [online] At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/105374/david-hockney-pearblossom-hwy-11-18th-april-1986-2-british-april-11-18-1986/ (Accessed 06/06/2017)

Gayford, Martin (2011) ‘The Many Layers of David Hockney’ In: The Telegraph 23.09.2011 [online] At: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/8782275/The-many-layers-of-David-Hockney.html (Accessed 06/06/2017)

Cashdan, Marina (2010) ‘Into the Woods’ In: Blouinartinfo 31.03.2010 [online] At: http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/276547/into-the-woods (Accessed 06/06/2017)

 

 

Assignment 4 – Preliminary research

Assignment 4 asks to look at some of the ways in which artists have integrated photography into their practice, makes six suggestions at possible options in this respect and invites to choose one and write a short essay on the relationship between the artworks, their artistic message and the use of photography within the art process, with particular regard to the main themes of time and place. Having done a preliminary research online, I shall be focusing my essay on David Hockney‘s photocollages such as Pearl Blossom Highway 2 (1986) and My Mother, Bolton Abbey (1982).

Suggested topics (Creative Arts Today, page 177)
  • Photography combined with text to produce combined narratives, such as those by Duane Michals (1932),  an American photographer who is known for using sequences of photographs that often incorporate texts, as in his book Sequences (1970) in which text was handwritten beside the images to enrich and integrate photographic information (Wikipedia, Duane Michals)

I think photographs should be provocative and not tell you what you already know. It takes no great powers or magic to reproduce somebody’s face in a photograph. The magic is in seeing people in new ways.

—Duane Michals (www.lensculture.com)

The sequences make use of a cinematic frame-by-frame format. The texts do not so much explain what we see in the photographs, as they add ‘another dimension to the images’ meaning and give voice to Michals’s singular musings, which are poetic, tragic, and humorous, often all at once.’ (DCMoore Gallery)

 

  • Accumulating photographs together as a way of producing a hybrid between film and still. La Jetée, a 1962 French science fiction short film by Chris Marker, is constructed almost entirely from still photographs and tells the story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel. The 1995 science-fiction film 12 Monkeys was inspired by and borrows several concepts directly from La Jetée.

 

A prisoner in the aftermath of World War III in post-apocalyptic Paris is obsessed by a memory from his pre-war childhood of a woman he had seen on the observation platform (“the jetty”) at Orly airport, hence the title. (Wikipedia, La Jetée)

 

  • Andy Warhol‘s screen prints generated from photographs

The screenprinting process – an evolution from simple stenciling – and how it was successfully and efficiently used by Andy Warhol to make serial art is well explained on this page by revolverwarholgallery.com.

 

This act of undermining any translation or evidence of the artist’s hand in favor of a mass-produced, machine-like look appealed to Warhol. Once he discovered the process and implications of working with silk screens, the content of Warhol’s output as a painter became inextricably linked to the process by which he created his art. (Sotheby, 2013).

 

  • Andy Goldsworthy‘s ephemeral sculptures which had been already briefly touched upon in Project 2.

Andy Goldsworthy (1956) is a British sculptor, photographer and environmentalist producing site-specific sculpture and land art situated in natural and urban settings. He lives and works in Scotland. (Wikipedia, Andy Godsworthy)

He keeps an artist website: http://www.goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk/ and within it a section dedicated to his photography: http://www.goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk/photography/ in which he explains why and how he uses photographs.

Here is a video about Goldsworthy’s work:

There are several books on Goldsworthy’s work, one of the latest is: Andy Goldsworthy – Ephemeral Works 2004-2014, Abrams, New York

Book cover by Abrams, New York

  • The political collages of Peter Kennard, for example Santa’s Ghetto (2006), Union Mask (1981), Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1980).

 

‘That sense of ripping into an image, unveiling a surface, going through that surface into an unrevealed truth, is at the core of photomontage …The photojournalist goes out and takes the pictures; I sit in a room with the tools of my trade and try to pummel these pictures into revealing invisible connections, disconnecting them from direct representation into statement and argument … The point of my work is to use easily recognisable iconic images, but to render them unacceptable … After breaking them, to show new possibilities emerging in the cracks and splintered fragments of the old reality.’

from Peter Kennard’s website

 

With a career spanning almost 50 years, Peter Kennard is without doubt Britain’s most important political artist and its leading practitioner of photomontage. His adoption of the medium in the late 1960s restored an association with radical politics, and drew inspiration from the anti-Nazi montages of John Heartfield in the 1930s.

Kerley, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

  • On Duane Michals:

Wikipedia(2016). ‘Article Duane Michals’ [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duane_Michals (Accessed 5/06/2017)

Lensculture.com (2015) ‘Book Review/Storyteller: The Photographs of Duane Michals’ [online] At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/duane-michals-storyteller-the-photographs-of-duane-michals-2 (Accessed 5/06/2017)

Dcmooregallery.com. (2016), ‘Duane Michals – Artists – DC Moore Gallery’ [online] At:  http://www.dcmooregallery.com/artists/duane-michals/series/sequences (Accessed 5/06/2017)

 

  •  On La Jetée by Chris Marker:

Wikipedia (2016). Article La Jetée. [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Jet%C3%A9e (Accessed 5/06/2017)

Vimeo (2016) https://vimeo.com/191131906 (Accessed 5/06/2017)

Chris Marker.org (2016). ‘Chris Marker – Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory.’ [online] At: http://chrismarker.org/ (Accessed 5/06/2017)

 

  • On Andy Warhol‘s screen prints:

http://www.revolverwarholgallery (2016) ‘Andy Warhol Screenprints – The process and History’ [online] At: http://revolverwarholgallery.com/warhol-originals-andy-warhol-collection/ (Accessed 5/06/2017)

Youtube (2011) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzrPmfaYcMM (Accessed 5/06/2017)

http://www.sothebys.com (2013) ‘Andy Warhol and His Process’ [online] At: http://www.sothebys.com/en/news-video/blogs/all-blogs/21-days-of-andy-warhol/2013/11/andy-warhol-and-his-process.html (Accessed 5/06/2017)

 

  • On Andy Goldsworthy‘s ephemeral sculptures:

Wikipedia (2017) article on Andy Goldsworthy [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Goldsworthy (Accessed 19/05/2017)

Andy Goldsworthy’s website: http://www.goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk/ (Accessed 19/05/2017)

Youtube (2015) Video on Andy Goldsworthy by xstuporman [online] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zz14M_pbzdU (Accessed 19/05/2017)

Abrams, New York: http://www.abramsbooks.com/product/andy-goldsworthy-ephemeral-works_9781419717796/ (Accessed 19/05/2017)

 

  • On Peter Kennard‘s political collages:

Peter Kennard’s website at: http://www.peterkennard.com/main/home_set.htm (Accessed 19/05/2017)

Slocombe, R. (2015) ‘Protest and survive: why Peter Kennard is political dynamite’ In http://www.theguardian.com 1.05.2015 [online] At:  https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/01/blair-selfie-peter-kennard-political-dynamite (Accessed 19/05/2017)

Kerley, P. (2015) ‘Peter Kennard: A very unofficial war artist’ In: BBC News Magazine 14.05.2015 [online] At: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32706845 (Accessed 19/05/2017)

 

 

 

 

Assignment 3 – Reflective Commentary

Visual communications being a totally new area of study for me, I must say that at the onset I was not even sure of what exactly they dealt with and Part 3 has so been first and foremost a voyage of discovery into culturally foreign territories. As I progressed through the course it became apparent that these territories are indeed very close and often hastily taken for granted and that if we spend great part of our days in receiving and exchanging visual messages it really matters if not becoming specialists of this area at least try to understand what kind of messages we are talking about, how they are made and which meanings they convey.

Perhaps more importantly I realised that visual communications do not stand by themselves but have their roots in and are nurtured by the visual culture they have in common with the arts, literature and other cultural expressions at large, and reflect it back in a two-way exchange and influence. The ground is the same, the themes of time and space run through them as connecting threads and concern them all. More, I am becoming aware that the separation into different areas – contemporary arts, writing, photography and so on – is mainly functional and fulfills the need for a structured approach that allows us to come to terms with the complexity of human creativity and research it in manageable bites. And whenever I concentrate my efforts on a single topic or exercise I keep telling me that it is difficult but necessary to not lose track of this shared ground.

What perhaps most interested me was to start investigating the semiotic approach and exploring the concepts of signifier and signified and denotation and connotation as helpful tools to analyse the cultural ‘broth’ we live in. I find this line of thought very stimulating also in connection with the other parts of the Creative Arts Today course.

I did not find Part 3 easy because for all the exercises proposed the scope of research was very large and the possibility of getting lost in a never-ending chain of cross-references a very real menace: for me it is always difficult to know where to stop and as I said at some point in my blog I inevitably get the frustrating feeling that I am just dipping my little finger in the ocean and never have the time to take a good swim. But I think this too is part of the learning process.

I particularly enjoyed working on the collage exercise in connection with the recontextualisation of images and the research on photomontage artists, especially the intriguing narrative and the skillful composition of Martha Rosler’s visual stories (Project 2: Combining visual elements). It was a challenging exercise and though I was less than satisfied with my literal and amateurish work at least I had a chance to get my hands dirty and experience how difficult it is to produce structured meaning.

Another exercise that will stay with me was that on the semiotic analysis of posters (also in Project 2): I had never before examined so closely a film poster (Kill Bill in my case) and a DVD cover (Downton Abbey series) and have learnt how much these apparently simple images can tell. But I found very interesting also the exercise on the semiotic analysis of the apple through time (Project 3: Reading visual communications) and that on Knitting Patterns (Project 4: Time and place).

(571 words)

 

Assignment 3 – ‘Las Meninas’ (1656) by Diego Velázquez and its re-appropriation by El Corte Inglés poster (2009)

In 2009 El Corte Inglés, the biggest European department store chain based in Spain, reused Las Meninas, a masterful and seminal 1656 painting by Diego Velázquez, as an advertising poster within a commercial campaign directed by Jose Maria Cañas Maeso with Paco Navarro as fashion photographer. I am going to do a short semiotic analysis of both the original and the re-appropriated image, compare them and try to show the shift in meaning produced by the change of elements and context. In so doing I shall limit myself to consider Las Meninas only in relation to the poster, without any pretense to an exhaustive exploration of the visual and cultural complexities of this absolute masterpiece.

Fig. 1 Las Meninas (1656) by D. Velasquez

REVISTAS MENINAS

Fig. 2 Advertising poster (2009) of El Corte Inglés

Las Meninas is a painting depicting the making of a painting. In a large and scarcely lit room, with the walls hung with framed works, Velázquez himself stands on the left in front of a big canvas, holding a brush and a palette and looking ahead towards where we, the viewers, stand. Moving to the right we see the delightful Infanta Margaret Theresa surrounded by her maids of honour, two dwarfs, a nun, a priest and a dog. On the end wall a mirror reflects the blurred images of Queen Mariana and King Philip IV of Spain, who are supposedly posing for a double portrait but stand outside the painting space (Palomino, 1724). Beside the mirror a chamberlain’s silhouette is back-lit in the doorway which is the vanishing point of the picture .

The artwork was produced for the private contemplation and pleasure of the monarchs and remained in the Alcazar Palace in Madrid as part of the royal collection until 1819 when it entered the Museo del Prado and became known as one of the most celebrated European paintings of all times (Konstantinidis, 2012).

On a careful examination, one becomes aware of a very complex play of gazes among the figures within the painting and outside it, as analysed in depth by Foucault (Foucault, 1966). The painter himself and most of the characters look outwards, beyond the picture space and towards the royal couple being portrayed and standing approximately where we, the beholders, are while watching the painting: the mirror at the back reflects the Queen and King and could theoretically reflect our image too. We observe the painter and the people in the painting, and are observed by them in return.

The fact that we look at the scene from the same position of the royal couple, that for a moment we are in their shoes, establishes a strong and contradictory relationship of participation and exclusion between the characters represented and us, the beholders. What we are watching is an intimate and private moment of the royal family life, which was exclusively meant for the royal gaze, not for us and certainly not for the crowds noisily assembling today in front of the painting in the Museo del Prado. Moreover we are only allowed to see the back of the canvas on which Velázquez is working and must limit ourselves to imagine the subject from a blurred reflection in the mirror, as if we were not admitted to a direct vision of the royals. So we see the scene as the sovereigns see it, briefly enjoying their royal point of view, but we are also intruders who may only have a glimpse of their indistinct features.

If I now turn my attention to the re-appropriated image of El Corte Inglés I see that many elements of the original have been maintained: the composition is fundamentally the same and so is the number of figures represented, their positions in space and postures are very similar, dog included, the colour scheme is slightly simplified with an intensification of tonal contrast, the sources of light have not been significantly altered.

On a closer look though the new image shows also substantial changes and substitutions: the middle-aged and self-conscious artist, intensively perusing the monarchs he is portraying, has been substituted for a young and canonically handsome photographer who passively holds a camera which he is not using, posing instead as a male model to be watched; the Infanta and her maids of honour are likewise transformed into fashion models; and models have become also the religious figures and the dwarfs, quite obviously eliminated as deemed unsuitable and even disturbing elements in a contemporary commercial context; the mirror at the back now reflects the images of two well-dressed people who seem to be observing the fashion shooting in the studio; the canvas, a meaning-charged feature in the original, is now a photographic umbrella, and the paintings on the walls are turned into empty frames.

REVISTAS MENINAS

A fashion model (Fig. 2 detail)

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Infanta Margaret Theresa (Fig. 1 detail)

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The Queen and King (Fig. 1 detail)

REVISTAS MENINAS

A well-dressed couple (Fig. 2 detail)

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Self-portrait of Diego Velasquez (Fig. 1 detail)

REVISTAS MENINAS

The fashion photographer (Fig. 2 detail)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The re-appropriated image of El Corte Inglés, while paying a seemingly close tribute to many aspects of Las Meninas, also makes major changes to it, deliberately recasts its time and place frame from the XVII to the XXI century and from the Spanish royal castle to a photographic studio, and as a result it gives life to a new visual product that may perhaps look somewhat flat and unnaturally staged but that is well fit for its commercial purpose and context. In the process the exquisite richness and complexities of the original get intentionally lost since they are not functional to the task at hand, and only those elements that are useful to the intended persuasive message are retained while the others are dismissed as irrelevant or distracting. The original meaning and significance are emptied and replaced by new ones.

But the aura of the original is not dispersed: through the cleverly focused reuse of this iconic and internationally recognized painting the advertising poster candidly appropriates the cultural prestige and high artistic quality of Las Meninas and powerfully transfers these values to the department store El Corte Inglés and to the products it sells, as clearly stated by the caption ‘welcome where the fashion is art – bienvenido donde la moda es arte’. Interestingly English appears first and in big letters, showing that the message is specially aimed at tourists visiting Madrid and the Museo del Prado where Las Meninas constitutes a main attraction.

The department store itself becomes in this way identified with a museum of high fashion, and fashion itself with art, as characteristically Spanish as Las Meninas, with its associated implication of excellence and splendid tradition, and the beholders now turned prospective consumers can rest assured that by making their purchases at El Corte Inglés they are not only buying the best quality, but also that in so doing they personally acquire distinction and become part of an aesthetically and culturally savvy élite.

(1094 words)

List of illustrations

Figure 1. Las Meninas (1656) by Diego Velázquez [oil painting] At: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/V/velasquez/meninas.jpg.htlm (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Figure 2. Advertising poster (2009) of El Corte Inglés [poster] At: http://paconavarrophoto.com/category/advertisings/ (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Bibliography

Palomino, A. (1724) Vite degli eminenti pittori e scultori spagnoli. [online] At: http://www.marcomancin.com/art/documenti/Antonio_Palomino_Vite-degli-eminenti-artisti-Spagnoli_trad-Marco-Mancin.pdf (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Konstantinidis, G. (2012) ‘Diego Velázquez – Las Meninas’ [online] At: http://www.velazquezlasmeninas.com/velazquez-las-meninas-analysis-and-interpretation-posters-prints.html (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Foucault, M. (1966) ‘Las Meninas’ in The Order of Things : an Archaeology of  the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon Books [online] At: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BysebiKtvtnWZGYzZjk0MzQtMDgzYi00YTFkLTk5NTYtYzE5NmNmYzBiNjU2/edit (Accessed 17/03/2017)

The Khan Academy, ‘Las Meninas’. At: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/early-europe-and-colonial-americas/reformation-counter-reformation/v/vel-zquez-las-meninas-c-1656 (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Assignment 2 – Reflections on feedback

 

I must say that my tutor’s feedback on Assignment 2 has been a real eye-opener as to the need to follow and track down alternative or new directions and developments when tackling an analysis, and in Dr. Belshaw’s words ‘to look for interesting problems or contradictions and push them as far as they will go.’ Not easy to do but a pointer to a method of working.

As a telling example of how this could be done, or at least this is my interpretation, the feedback offers me a rich chain of ideas to develop, sort of offspring born from my analysis in a kind of ping-pong game that could continue in several ways and modes. These are ideas that were perhaps implicit in my analysis but not fully explored.

Idea one: white noise as masking ambient sounds in the same way that possessions mask mortality.

Idea two, following from idea one: if possessions mask mortality the story itself can be viewed as a memento mori or vanitas.

Idea three, chained to idea two: the story as memento mori makes us think of the Dutch still life which analogously ‘represents possessions as a kind of inventory on display’.

Idea four, back to DeLillo’s text: the ‘meticulous attention to detail’ of the Dutch still life brings us back to DeLillo’s precisely descriptive and visual writing and to his well-honed ability to express content through form.

Idea five, developed intuition : DeLillo’s precious language can be considered as belonging to the white noise of possessions, so again as something protecting us from the fear of death.

Idea six, how to improve the analysis: the sounds of words could have been dealt with in my analysis ‘along with the discussion of subject matter’ to bring them in closer connection with content. A very good suggestion, I shall try to improve my text by taking this into account into my final review.

Idea seven, further development: to extend the research Dr. Belshaw has suggested me to read Thomas Hardy’s poem In Wind and Rain as a poetic equivalent of White Noise. I have read the poem which I did not know – I studied in Italy, and I see a lot of connections with later parts of DeLillo’s book and his beautiful family dialogues. Another track to follow.

In his feedback on my reflective commentary Dr. Belshaw cites an essay by Wolfgang Kemp as a useful read to extend my grasp of the role of the reader (or the viewer) and draw parallels between the verbal and the visual. It is a dense essay on reception aesthetics – pivoting around the concept of the implicit beholder and how the work structures itself in order to be approached and there are several points that deserve close attention. For the time being I focused on the chapter of the ‘Forms of Address’ which helped me during my semiotic analysis of Las Meninas (Assignment 3).

 

Bibliography

Hardy, Thomas During Wind and Rain’ in The Longman Anthology of Poetry. (Pearson, 2006)  At: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/52314 (Accessed 27/03/2017)

Kemp, Wolfang (1998) ‘The Work of Art and Its Beholder The Methodology of the Aesthetic of Reception’ in Cheetham, Mark A. (ed.): The subjects of art history : historical objects in contemporary perspectives, Cambridge 1998, pages 180-196 [online] At: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/artdok/1916/1/Kemp_The_work_of_art_and_its_beholder_1998.pdf (Accessed 27/03/2017)