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)