Reproduction and Aura

I wanted to write a new blog post but was suffering from a lack of inspiration and was having a hard time finding something worthy of your attention. Giving up, I took out my phone for some more procrastination when it hit me: my screen saver! Let me explain. My screen saver consists of an image of one of Czech artist Alphonse Mucha’s paintings: L’été (1896). Not only do I love the image in itself and its style, its bold outlines taking nothing away from the lightness of the colours, but it also reminded me of a quote from Walter Benjamin’s book The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1937):

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be…”

Alphonse (Alfons) Mucha, L’Été, 1896

Ever wondered why people continue going to art galleries and museums? They can just look at a picture of a painting to see it, can’t they? Of course, I would be the first to disagree with such a statement; it is definitely very different to see a work of art in person than on a picture. But think about it. I’ve heard some museums are thinking of uploading super HD quality images of their paintings on the Internet (and there surely already are some to be found) so the argument of “but look at this Monet! You could never see all the details of the brush strokes with just a simple picture of it!” is irrelevant. No, the main reason why it is really different is because of its aura, the fact that this is the real one. I’m not criticising, I, for one, find it fascinating to think about how the artist actually handled it and that he was looking at the very same picture, wondering whether he should add something to it or not… But still.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St. Ann, 1508

 Have you ever been to the Louvre? If so, I’m curious to know if you actually got to see Mona Lisa properly when you got to where it was hanging? I can personally say I hardly did see it because of the number of people standing in front of it. Comparatively, The Virgin and Child with St. Ann (1508), also exposed at the Louvre, doesn’t seem to spike the interest of that many people…

We don’t really go to the museum to see the painting but to see THE painting.

Reading images: Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia

A few weeks ago I went to see the rerelease of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (the uncut version). It was followed by the screening of Room 237, a documentary that examines different theories and ideas concerning possible “hidden messages” that Kubrick had stuffed the film with. Although a couple of the ideas suggested seemed to be a little over the top, I quite enjoyed it. It made me realise how many “levels of reading” could be given in any work of art. What I mean by “levels of reading” is that depending on the artist’s skill, the viewer’s knowledge of the artist, his education, his capacity to analyse, his social class, etc. the work of art can be put through different “filters”, read it in a different way.

 

Abrecht Dürer, Melencolia, 1514

I mentioned The Shining here as an example but there are countless others. One image that is mysterious and filled with symbols (and is therefore very prone to people interpreting it) is Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia (1514). I’ve been intrigued by this print ever since I discovered it and it so happens that it was mentioned in a lecture I was given about reading images. In this lecture we were told about Erwin Panofsky’s analysis of it. How he considered it to be a representation of the artist himself, or rather a spiritual portrait of himself. The geometrical shapes, compass, scale, hourglass and, of course, the famous magic square being symbols of mathematical knowledge.

[As silly as it may seem, I have to make a small paragraph to stress how amazing I think this particular magic square is. As well as, like “usual” magic squares, having the lines, columns and diagonals adding up to the same number (34 in this case), the corners, the quadrants, the four numbers in the centre and the diamonds (3,11,15,5; 2,8,14,10; 3,7,15,9; 2,12,14,6) also add up! (note that 16,5,12,1; 9,4,13,8; 16,3,14,1; 4,15,2,13 also do). All of this and Dürer was also able to add 1514, the year when it was created, at the bottom of it.]

Other interpretations of it include notably the idea of it being an apocalyptic allegory (scale for judgment, hourglass for time, etc.) and the possibility of it being the representation of the frustrations and satisfaction of intellectual activities (the purse is empty, geometry and mathematics –represented by the solid shapes– are unresolved problems but the hourglass reminds us time is limited and is running out). In my lecture, I was also told that some have argued one could not possibly claim to know and understand the motivations and goals of the artist when he created his work. It was also argued that any modern interpretation is bound to be an anachronism.

In my opinion however, that is not necessarily relevant. I agree we can’t claim to know what he was thinking but does it really matter? The elements to allow different interpretations are there, whether the artist has thought of them or not. I think any good artist should give one key of interpretation leaving it to the viewer to find his own.

Roy Lichtenstein vs Walter Benjamin

“To an even greater degree, the work of art reproduced becomes a work of art designed for reproducibility” Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1937

To illustrate this quote, imagine the difference in the production of furniture for example. Until the early 20th century every piece of furniture was a unique piece of work, carefully put together and decorated by craftsmen. On the contrary, take any furniture catalogue. All of the items displayed are mass produced objects and are therefore designed in consequence. They are thought up to be easily reproduced on a big scale. We live in a society of mass production. But more importantly we live in a society of mass consummation. Nothing new. Artists of the Pop Art movement already picked up on that in the 1950s and 60s. Their art was a criticism of this.

In that movement, I personally particularly like Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-like paintings. What he did there was take the visual attributes of comic strip panels and enlarge them. Basically doing the exact opposite of what the mass consummation society was doing: by copying the comic-book panels in a large scale, he was paradoxically giving it back its uniqueness. Indeed, ironically, the very mechanical, industrial process of Ben-Day dots has been carefully imitated and hand-drawn on to the canvas. The industrial mass has come back to a unique handcrafted piece of work.

Roy Lichtenstein, Drowning Girl, 1963

Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam, 1963

Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car, 1964

Roy Lichtenstein, Ohhh… Alright…, 1964

Manet’s Olympia

I can remember when I first saw Manet’s Olympia and was told it had created a scandal. I had found it quite amusing that this one in particular should have, at the time it was painted, caused so much indignation when so many other paintings depicted women in –what I thought at the time– a very similar way.

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

I find it relevant before looking at the painting itself, to put some ideas across. In his book Ways of Seeing (1972), John Berger talks about the difference between men and women (not so much as it is, but as it was conventionally seen).

“To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of the ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But it has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. […] From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituents yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because of how she appears to others, and ultimately […] to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life”. I can’t help thinking of the Marquise de Merteuil in the book Les Liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos (1782) and what happens to her when she “forgets” that.

Berger continues: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of a woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight”.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814

This idea of “sight” brings us to the difference between the naked and the nude. John Berger uses the example of the naked portrait of one of Charles the Second’s mistresses and how it is a sign of her submission to the King. On the contrary, take La Vérité sortant du puits by Edouard Debat-Ponsan (1898) that I mentioned in my post “Félix Vallotton analysis” or Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque (1814) for example. Although they depict bare women, they are different. “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself.” That is, as an object of vision. The women here are representations of an idea. They are sights.

Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538

This finally leads us to Olympia. The controversy wasn’t caused by the fact of it being the painting of a nude, but rather by the fact it was a provocation, a mimicry of a nude. It was deemed indecent and vulgar because it was quite clear to people at the time that this was the painting of a contemporary. Olympia isn’t just a sight. She is a prostitute – the cat, notably a symbol of lust, has replaced the dog, symbol of fidelity, like in Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) by which Manet was inspired. Furthermore, she isn’t submissive at all. Her hand tightly covers her genitalia not so much because of a sense of modesty but to assert her independence. Independent also she is from her admirer whose bouquet she hardly acknowledges. And look at how she gazes almost with disdain to the viewer, putting him (almost all the viewers at that time would have been men) in the shoes of her next client. In other words, she does not represent an ideal but a perhaps harsh, unpleasant reality.

“I render the things that I see as simply as possible. So, Olympia, what could be more naïve? There’s harshness I am told. It was there, I saw it. I painted what I saw”

Magritte

In my last post (“Representation”), I talked about the link between the sign and the signifier. What I hope to have achieved with it was to show the intricate relationship between the image and reality. I quickly mentioned Magritte and how this was one of the topics present in his work. I’d now like to look a little deeper into some of his paintings.

La Trahison des images (The Treachery of Images), 1928-29, is another famous example of this idea. It depicts a pipe on a pale background accompanied by the seemingly contradictory caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (This is not a pipe).

René Magritte, La Trahison des images, 1928-29

What this is telling us is indeed that: no, this isn’t a pipe. This is the image of a pipe. A representation of reality, an idea. The representation cannot be equal to reality because it is an interpretation of it. We are never totally objective and can never show reality in its totality.

That is what cubism is based on. Seeing an object for what it is not what it seems. To illustrate this, imagine you are holding a cube in you hand. You can only three faces of it at the one time but you know there are more. How do you know that? With time and experience, by turning it around in your hand. This is exactly how Cubism works with painting.

Back to Magritte. I want to talk about another one of his paintings that has to do with subjectivity. La Reproduction interdite (Not to be Reproduced), 1937, is a painting where a man, his back turned to us, is seen facing a mirror. But instead of seeing the reflection of his face, the viewer can only see his back again.

René Magritte, La Reproduction interdite, 1937

This can be seen as Magritte saying that painting shouldn’t be considered as an art of the reproduction of reality, or as a mirror of reality. Personally, I like to see in it like a statement on the analysis of oneself. We’ve seen that everything is subjective, however I think it is even more difficult to be objective about ourselves. I see in this painting an affirmation that one can never see oneself in one’s entirety. Who we are, who we appear to be and who we think we are are three different things.

Representation

“The relationship between the sign and the signifier is arbitrary…”

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

 

Ferdinand de Saussure was one of the founders of modern linguistics and semiotics. In his theory, he analysed every sign by separating the signifier on one hand and the signified on the other. The sign is the union of the signifier and the signified. For example: for the sign “TREE”, the signifier is the letters T-R-E-E and the signified, the concept of the tree.

Although Ferdinand de Saussure was talking about literature, visual expression being a language to its own, this is also applicable. The signifier in that case is the image attached to the sign “TREE”. What Saussure is saying is that this image is attributed to the sign. When I say “TREE”, what do you see? An Oak? An Elm? A Willow? Everybody attributes it differently. There is no intrinsic link between the sign and the signifier (or the signified). It is more of a convention. A convention shared with people of our culture. Indeed, these conventions can change from one culture to another. Take the cat for example. In ancient Egypt, cats were revered and at their death were even offered the same ritual as humans. On the contrary, in the Middle Ages, cats were perceived as evil and killed.

Signs, things, don’t posses a meaning. It is man who gives it. Also, because no meaning is “fixed” to attribute it is to evaluate the sign comparatively to other signs. “What signifies is not RED or the essence of red-ness, but the difference between RED and GREEN.” (Stuart Hall, Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practises, 1997)

An artist who worked on this topic was René Magritte. His La Clé des songes (1930) is a prime example of his reflexions on representation, of the relationship between the image and the meaning.

René Magritte, La Clé des songes, 1930

 

Storytelling

“Evidence strongly suggests that humans in all cultures come to cast their own identity in some sort of narrative form. We are inveterate storytellers.” Owen Flanagan, Consciousness Reconsidered, 1993

Storytelling is not all about making up interesting stories for the sole purpose of entertaining people. In oral traditions, through myths and legends, stories were a sort of storage mechanism for cultural information. They offered a kind of code of conduct and morality, and instructed people about their history or religion. Take ancient Greek mythology for example. They helped people forge their identity within a group of the same culture.

This is still true nowadays even though the stories are of a different kind. History as we know it is a story: what we see in history books, for example, is a selection of events that took place. One can’t tell history, one can only tell one’s version of it. To illustrate this, imagine if the Allies had lost WW2. How different would the history books be?

History, despite being factual, is a story that acts like the myths and legends of any oral civilisation. The (hi)story of a country gives its inhabitants something to relate to. Personally I am half Scottish and half Swiss. I belong to both and feel like the history of my family must lie deep within the history of these two countries. I could imagine my ancestors fighting the English “Braveheart-style” or heroically defending the Confederation against the Austrian invaders. Chances are however that my ancestors weren’t taking any part in it or that they could even have been fighting for “the enemy”. People need to feel like they belong somewhere, where is not important.

Stories are present deep in each individual. People tell stories all the time. I’m not only talking about the “You’ll never guess who I saw the other day!” everyday kind of story. People, if you ask them who they are, will maybe tell you their name or where they were born or if they’re married and so on. The fact is they have to make a choice of what to tell, they have to “edit”. Obviously they cannot tell you who they ARE because for that, they would have to tell you about every detail of their entire existence. Therefore when people are “telling you who they are”, what they are really doing is unconsciously telling you a story of who they are (one that they have themselves created), of how they see themselves and of how they want to be seen.

We are the narrators of our own existence.

On this subject, I recommend Nancy Huston’s book “L’espèce fabulatrice” found in English under the title of “The Tale-Tellers: A Short Study of Humankind”.