Thursday, 16 August 2018

Michel Foucault’s Analysis of Las Meninas

Las Meninas by Velázquez
Michel Foucault begins his book The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences with the chapter, “Las Meninas,” which is an analysis of Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas. Foucault notes that the painting’s complex and enigmatic compositional structure presents an uncertain relationship between the viewer and the figures depicted. Here’s an excerpt:
[W]e are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us. A mere confrontation, eyes catching one another’s glance, direct looks superimposing themselves upon one another as they cross. And yet this slender line of reciprocal visibility embraces a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints. The painter is turning his eyes towards us only in so far as we happen to occupy the same position as his subject. We, the spectators, are an additional factor. Though greeted by that gaze, we are also dismissed by it, replaced by that which was always there before we were: the model itself. But, inversely, the painter’s gaze, addressed to the void confronting him outside the picture, accepts as many models as there are spectators; in this precise but neutral place, the observer and the observed take part in a ceaseless exchange. No gaze is stable, or rather, in the neutral furrow of the gaze piercing at a right angle through the canvas, subject and object, the spectator and the model, reverse their roles to infinity. And here the great canvas with its back to us on the extreme left of the picture exercises its second function: stubbornly invisible, it prevents the relation of these gazes from ever being discoverable or definitely established. The opaque fixity that it establishes on one side renders forever unstable the play of metamorphoses established in the centre between spectator and model. Because we can see only that reverse side, we do not know who we are, or what we are doing. Seen or seeing? The painter is observing a place which, from moment to moment, never ceases to change its content, its form, its face, its identity. But the attentive immobility of his eyes refers us back to another direction which they have often followed already, and which soon, there can be no doubt, they will take again: that of the motionless canvas upon which is being traced, has already been traced perhaps, for a long time and forever, a portrait that will never again be erased. So that the painter’s sovereign gaze commands a virtual triangle whose outline defines this picture of a picture: at the top – the only visible corner – the painter’s eyes; at one of the base angles, the invisible place occupied by the model; at the other base angle, the figure probably sketched out on the invisible surface of the canvas. 
The painter is not the only element that is inside the painting but represents a point of reality outside the painting; there are also the two elements, the mirror image (containing the reflections of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana Teresa) and the shadowy man in the background.  All three elements are part of the painting, even though they represent a point of realty that exists outside the painting. Therefore what lies outside the painting is meant to provide a meaning to what exists inside it.

Foucault says that the relatively detached and abstractive standpoint that the painting displays is illustrative of basic principles that define the intellectual temperament of the Classical period, by which he means the seventeenth and eighteenth century. He writes:
Perhaps there exists, in this painting by Velàzquez, the representation as it were, of Classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens up to us. And, indeed, representation undertakes to represent itself here in all its elements, with its images, the eyes to which it is offered, the faces it makes visible, the gestures that call it into being. But there, in the midst of this dispersion which it is simultaneously grouping together and spreading out before us, indicated compellingly from every side, is an essential void: the necessary disappearance of that which is its foundation – of the person it resembles and the person in whose eyes it is only a resemblance. This very subject – which is the same – has been elided. And representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form.
Such an impression is created because the painting contains the twice-removed reflections of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana Teresa, who are the implied observers of the painting, and the implied subjects of the painting. They are the subject of the painting by Velàzquez, but their representation in the painting is vague; they appear in a distant mirror, while their bloodline, in the person of their five-year-old daughter Infanta Margaret Theresa, is at the center of the painting along with an entourage of duennas, maids of honor, courtiers, and dwarfs.

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