17 December, 2008

Foucault about Las Meninas

Michael Foucault was a French philosopher, historian, intellectual and a critic. He is best known for his critical studies of social institutions, most notably the human sciences. He was born on 15 October 1926 in Poitiers, France as Paul-Michael Foucault to a notable provincial family. ‘He became academically established during the 1960s, when he held a series of positions at French universities, before his election in 1969 to the ultra-prestigious Collège de France, where he was Professor of the History of Systems of Thought until his death.’(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2003) Foucault's ‘Les Mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines’ was published in 1966. It was translated into English and published under the title The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences in 1970. The Order of Things brought Foucault to prominence as an intellectual figure in France. Foucault's critique of Renaissance values in ‘Les mots et les choses’ has been very influential to cultural history.

The book opens with an extended discussion of Diego Velázquez's painting Las Meninas and its complex arrangement of sight-lines, hidden subject and appearance. Then it develops its central claim: that all periods of history have possessed certain underlying conditions of truth that constituted what was acceptable as, for example, scientific discourse. Foucault argues that these conditions of discourse have changed over time, in major and relatively sudden shifts, from one period to another.

The first chapter ‘Las Meninas’ from The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences has been dedicated to critical analysis on Diego Velazquez’s painting Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour) is a 1656 painting by Diego Velázquez, the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age.

The work's complex and enigmatic composition raises questions about reality and illusion, and creates an uncertain relationship between the viewer and the figures depicted. In the 19th century Sir Thomas Lawrence called the work "the philosophy of art".

Las Meninas shows a large room in the Madrid palace of King Philip IV of Spain, and presents several figures, most identifiable from the Spanish court, captured, in a particular moment. Some figures look out of the canvas towards the viewer, while others interact among themselves. “Rather than pursue to infinity a language inevitably inadequate to the visible fact, it would be better to say that Velazquez composed a picture; that in this picture he represented himself, in his studio or in a room of the Escurial, in the act of painting two figures whom the Infanta Margarita has come there to watch, together with an entourage of duennas, maids of honour, courtiers, and dwarfs; that we can attribute names to this group of people with great precision: tradition recognizes that here we have Dona Maria Agustina Sarmiente, over there Nieto, in the foreground Nicolaso Pertusato, an Italian jester. We could then add that the two personages serving as models to the painter are not visible, at least directly; but that we can see them in a mirror; and that they are, without any doubt, King Philip IV and his wife, Mariana.”(Focault, p 4, 5)

The young ‘Infanta Margarita’ is surrounded by her maids of honor, chaperone, bodyguard, two dwarfs and a dog. Just behind them, Velázquez portrays himself working at a large canvas. Velázquez looks outwards, beyond the pictorial space to where a viewer of the painting would stand. A mirror hangs in the background and reflects the upper bodies of the king and queen. The royal couple appears to be placed outside the picture space in a position similar to that of the viewer. A few critiques even suggested that they were being painted by the painter.
Las Meninas is a pure manifestation of critical thinking, an important trait of modern philosophy. Although, Focault is considered a post modernist critic but his work echoes modern philosophy characteristics. ‘The value of Valasquez's painting for Foucault lies in the fact that it introduces uncertainties in visual representation at a time when the image and paintings in general were looked upon as "windows onto the world." Foucault finds that Las Meninas was a very early critique of the supposed power of representation to confirm an objective order visually. This close textual analysis is an excellent introduction to the following enveloping treatise on the "order of things."’(Brent Whitmore, 1997) He finds a paradoxical relationship between reality and representation.

He constructs a triangular relationship between the painter, the mirror image, and the shadowy man in the background. These three elements are linked because they are all representations of a point of reality outside of the painting. In Foucault’s analysis, what is outside the painting gives meaning to what is inside. Therefore, the King and Queen is the centre of the scene. They "create this spectacle-as-observation" by providing the "centre around which the entire representation is ordered;" they are the "true centre of the composition" (Foucault, 1970)

As Foucault remarks, they hold a place on which "occurs an exact superimposition of the model’s gaze, the spectator’s, … and the painter’s".(Foucault, 1970) These three observe the scene depicted in the painting at different times, but from the same place in space. The three perspectives belong to the King and Queen (who are looking at this scene as they are being painted), Velazquez (the painter of the scene, presumably after the scene has occurred), and we the spectators (who are looking at the finished painting). The models are seen in the mirror; the painter is self-portrayed on the left side; the spectators are represented by the shadowy figure in the back about to enter or exit the studio.

The painting ‘Las Meninas’ is a peculiar in the sense that it is a self-aware painting. The painter paints himself, he paints his own act of painting and the object on which the painting is subjected, holds authoritative control including representation. In this painting the subjects who are invisible to the spectators hold a dominating presence than the actual figures including the painter. The canvas occupies a significant portion of the painting, taking up almost a whole vertical strip of the far left side, and cleverly hiding the corners of the room. “That is, for the spectator at present observing him he is to the right of his canvas, while the latter, the canvas, takes up the whole of the extreme left. And the canvas has its back turned to that spectator: he can see nothing of it but the reverse side, together with the huge frame on which it is stretched. “(Focault, 1970, p1)

The canvas is not looking at anything, unlike all the other characters of the painting. The model’s representation in Las Meninas, then, becomes even more complex. The canvas is a modified copy of the model (the King and Queen). Further, the representation of the model in the mirror can only be seen from our (the spectator’s) perspective, and not the model’s. In fact, the model looks into the mirror and sees nothing, while we can see the reflection of the painted model in the mirror. We know of the model’s presence through the mirror, but the unseen canvas interrupts the direct relationship between the mirror and the model.

To conclude, we can term it as Foucault’s most acclaimed critical work of its times. It examines the power of representation over reality. The language is terse and creates the perfect atmosphere where we start behaving like spectators viewing the painting. It is an excellent critical piece which beautifully examines Deigo Velasquez’s painting ‘Las Meninas’. The only point of reality reflected within the painting which is the subject on which the painter is painting, is shown to be invalid. The focus of the painting forever vacillates between multiple planes of form and meaning, all within the painting itself. Illusion and reality are confused. And in the end, we cannot say that what we see is the truth because it is only part of the illusion. Foucault has shown his mastery as a critic to describe this painting in all its form of illusion versus reality.

Velazquez Las Meninas, http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/ARTH/ARTH200/artist/las_meninas.html
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2003, http://plato.stanford.edsu/entries/foucault/
Foucault Michael, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences, Random House, 1994
Whitmore Brent, University of Minnesota, Michel Foucault. "Las Meninas." The Order of Things. New York: Random House, 1997, http://mh.cla.umn.edu/txtimbw2.html
Parimita Chakravorty

1 comment:

Dell Fa said...

Nice write up and analysis this helped me in my exam and test thanks.