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’m going to briefly expand on this in the final review of my essay.

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)

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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)

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

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

 

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.

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.

 

Fig. 3. Comparison between details of Fig. 1 and 2

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, or better it is dispersed only in the poster while it gloriously lives on in the painting and this is so, I venture, because the two modes, that of high art and of visual culture, remain separate, and the concept of aura simply has no sense for the latter (Benjamin): the poster appropriates the cultural prestige and the iconic and internationally recognized qualities of Las Meninas and candidly transfers them to the department store and to its products, as 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.

The department store becomes identified with a museum of high fashion – and fashion with art – as characteristically Spanish as Las Meninas, with its associated implication of excellence and splendid tradition, and the beholders/customers 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.

(1110 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/the-art-of-fashion-el-corte-ingles (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Figure 3. Comparison between details of Fig. 1 and 2

 

Bibliography

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)
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)

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)

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)

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)

Re-appropriating images: in preparation for assignment 3

Assignment 3 requires to look for an example of re-appropriation within visual communication:  I am to choose an original image, do a semiotic analysis and research the original context of the image, reflect on the chosen re-appropriated image and make a comparison between the two images.

Before starting to work on my assignment it seems useful to explore the concept of appropriation at large.

Appropriation in art and visual communication

I start from the definition of appropriation in the Tate Guide to Modern Art Terms, since though very condensed it touches upon all the main points:

‘taking over, into a work of art, of a real object or even an existing work of art’

‘can be tracked back to the Cubist constructions and collages of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque made from 1912 onwards’

‘appropriation was developed much further in the readymades created by the French Dada artist Marcel Duchamp from 1913.’

‘Surrealism also made extensive use of appropriation in collages and objects’

‘In the late 1950s appropriated images and objects appear extensively in the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and in Pop art.’

‘However, the term seems to have come into use specifically in relation to certain American artists in the 1980s, notably Sherrie Levine and the artists of the Neo-Geo group, particularly Jeff Koons.’

‘Appropriation art raises questions or originality, authenticity and authorship, and belongs to the long modernist tradition of art that questions the nature or definition of art itself.’

‘Appropriation artists were influenced by the 1936 essay by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, and received contemporary support from the American critic Rosalind Krauss in her 1985 book The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths.’

Following a precious suggestion by my tutor, Dr. Michael Belshaw, I have also accessed a seminal essay on allegory and appropriation in the light of Postmodernism by Craig Owens, The Allegorical Impulse.

I have then found some interesting articles online.

I also bought a book which I hope I shall have to time to read one day …for the series so many books so little time (Evans, 2009)

Last but not least I have discovered the videos of three lectures by the University of California, Berkeley, on  ‘Appropriation, Recontextualization, Integration’

 

 

Bibliography

Benjamin, W. (1969) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ In: Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, from the 1935 essay [online] At: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf (Accessed 2/03/2017)

Evans, D. (ed.) (2009) AppropriationDocuments of Contemporary Art. Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press

Gemmell, G.-Y. (2012) ‘Appropriation Art (Or How to Steal Like an Artist)’ [online] At: www.artspace.com/magazine/art_101/art_market/art_101_appropriation_art-5550 (Accessed 24/02/2017)

Owens, C. (1980) ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism.’ In: The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. New York: Oxford Press, 1998 [online] At: https://doubleoperative.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/owens-craig_the-allegorical-impulse_-toward-a-theory-of-postmodernism.pdf (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Rowe, H. A. (2011) ‘Appropriation in Contemporary Art’ [online] At: www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/546/appropriation-in-contemporary-art (Accessed 24/02/2017)

Sabatiuk, L. (2015) ‘Appropriation Art: The Meaning Is in the Media’ In: Media Theory § Meaning Systems (CCTP-748) [online] At: https://blogs.commons.georgetown.edu/cctp-748-spring2015/2015/05/05/appropriation-art-the-meaning-is-in-the-media/ (Accessed 28/02/2017)

Video 1.  UC Berkeley (2013) ‘Practice of Art 8 – Lecture 6: Appropriation, Recontextualization, Integration’ in Introduction to Visual Thinking 
At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHEjh5usi7A (Accessed 2/03/2017)

Video 2 UC Berkeley (2013) ‘Practice of Art 8 – Lecture 7: Appropriation, Recontextualization, Integration’ in Introduction to Visual Thinking
At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxcTfnI3Luk (Accessed 2/03/2017)

Video 3 UC Berkeley (2014)’ Practice of Art 8 – 2014-10-13: Appropriation–Recontextualization – Integration’ in Introduction to Visual Thinking
At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-sa-scyMRzY (Accessed 2/03/2017)

Wilson, S. and Lack, J. (2008) The Tate Guide to Modern Art Terms. London: Tate Publishing