Friday, January 19, 2007

Postmodern Baroque

But Josh, what if Las Meninas does not situate us "impossibly in the mirror"?

All the people in the painting are standing in front of a mirror. The painting is the image as seen by Velazquez. (The Infanta's face is the dead give-away for me, as is her maid on the right, who is enviously comparing herself to the royal child.) The mirror is at a slight off angle to the floor and wall, which accounts for the vanishing point not being in the middle of Velazquez's head (for people who need to know that). The King and Queen are hidden behind (i.e., standing in front of) the canvas (with their backs turned to it) right beside Velazquez. The fact that the canvas depicted in the painting is the same height as the canvas we are looking at is also an obvious clue that this is how the painting should be read.

See also "Borges, the Prado, and I".


Jasper Bernes said...


That strikes me as a plausible reading--was that Searle's argument about the mirror? I'm forgetting now as it's been a while since I looked at these essays (well, actually, last year but I can't remember all the same). I remember not buying this particular reading because of the light on the king and queen; and thinking that it would be hard to imagine them so lit if they were in the dark left of the painting.

But I don't think it really matters much for Foucault's argument anyway. I shouldn't have made recourse to the old saw of "what everyone thinks"--and I don't need to: the king and queen are one of the centers (whether geometrical or not) of the painting, along with the porter at right and the painter himself. Foucault's making a point about the diffusion of sovereign power throughout the regime of scientific knowledge and representation, backgrounding the sovereigns and foregrounding the painter, and I still think that claim works regardless of where they really are. Even if Foucault overstates his claims about the perspective.

Also, do you find this a particularly baroque painting? Somehow it seems much more Rennaissance in its composition, none of the twisting contraposto of Carvaggio or the spiral layout of the scene as in Rubens. It's not a very dense tableau, and aside from those gorgeous dresses, not alot of the crowded, pleated curtains and fabrics I usually associate with the baroque. Somehow I never thought Foucault was making a point about the baroque age itself, rather a point about the science of perspective, and the imbrication of knowledge and power. But I'm no expert on the baroque. Maybe it's somewhat close to Benjamin's baroque, I don't know. The baroque didn't have a monopoly on games with mirrors. In fact, mirrors figured in the invention of perspective, as Damisch points out in the origin of perspective. Perhaps that's a clearer articulation of my thoughts.


Thomas Basbøll said...

I had a hard time following Damisch's overall argument, but the point of about the mirror I agree with. Searle is basically in agreement with Foucault, not about sovereignty (he does say anything about that) but perspective. Both Searle and Foucault say that the painting is a representational paradox, Foucault generalizes this to mean that the painting shows that the subject of classical representation doesn't have a leg to stand on. I agree that Foucault's point about power might still be read out of the painting. But I thought it was essential to Foucault's thesis that this shows how the classical model of representation is in trouble. It's that second part of the argument that I don't think Las Meninas can be used to make. The painting can be read as a perfectly stable reflexive representation (i.e., a picture of a picture), i.e., a reflection (as in a mirror.)

Velazquez is baroque precisely because of the meticulous way in which this illusion has been arranged and cued: its elaborate game with light and mirrors. The "postmodern baroque", as I understand it, is precisely the folding and repetition of classical (modern) representations. Kafka and Borges are sometimes read in this way: realism multiplied and folded until it undermines itself. I'm not convinced that's the best reading. It seems to depend (as Foucault also seems to depend) on the somewhat silly idea that a mirror, simply by existing, consitutes a paradox.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Searle doesN'T say anything about sovereigny. sorry.

Jasper Bernes said...

OK, I understand now. That makes a good deal of sense, even if I still feel that the painting does try to represent as much as is possible given the constrains of its form, and also that, the attempt to disclose its foundations and origins was with perspective from the very beginning. But you make a good point.

Somehow, my notion of a visual and verbal Baroque has much more to do with an emphasis on materiality, on substance, sculptural and voluptuous, as opposed to spatiality and structure. Rubens' baroque vs. Bach, I suppose. Or Milton's involuting, thickened diction and syntax. I sort of expect it to require high passion, and there's something wonderfully cool about the Velazquez (as with Bach, no doubt). So maybe we're talking about two different traditions, or maybe there's a similarity between the two?

Thomas Basbøll said...

That's an interesting prospect. What's the difference between the Rubens-Milton and Bach-Velazquez versions of the baroque? A hypothesis: the "postmodern" baroque is the former, and is also the one that resulted in romanticism (?). Also, I imagine there would the Cervantan/Quixotic baroque and the Shakesperean/Hamletian baroque: here, again, the former provides the ethos of postmodernism.

These are some pretty wild stabs, but the material is ineresting enough to make testing this hypothesis look fun.

Josh said...

It doesn't make sense to me that all of the people we see are looking into a mirror. It's the wrong sort of artifice: the image of the king and queen become a kind of redundant supplement to the Infanta and her attendants if Velazquez is "staging" his subject (the subject being painted by the Velazquez we can see) to that degree. Whether or not you agree with Foucault's interpretation of the painting as critique of representation, I feel turning the picture plane (which is also the plane occupied by the viewer) into a mirror decenters the role of the sovereign without actually critiquing it or (and this I feel is really the point of the painting) demonstrating the necessary supplement to representation that sovereignty provides.

As for the question of "cool" versus "hot" baroque, I'll have to think about that some more. But I do think that both Caravaggio and Bach share an interest in complex surfaces, and that they both demonstrated a new interest in elaborated forms that wrought subtle but dramatic changes in their (often sacred) content. In Caravaggio's case the saints he depicts have a new, fleshly being, with the faces of street people (and, not infrequently, Caravaggio himself). And as I suggested in my notes, Bach's intricate layers of musical patterning seem somehow in excess of their often sacred content, transforming the listener's relation to that content in unstraightforward ways.

The difference is made up largely of a hole in my knowledge: I have some awareness of the mannerist painting that Caravaggio was attempting to attack and supersede with his own, but I don't know very much about Bach's relation to the musical tradition he found himself in. We don't generally think of Bach as an iconoclast, I don't think. And yet I do think of his sacred music in particular as being somehow "unstuck" from its content in a different

Thomas Basbøll said...

It occurs to me that the idea that this painting is about sovereignty is Foucault's contribution. (Isn't that right?) Snyder (I think, or was is Cohen) said that the painting is a Mirror of the Prince(ss). I.e., it is not a portrait of the King and Queen but of their child. And is intended to teach the child something about her power.

The painting is about 10 feet tall (3.18 m), which means that if you stand beside it and look at it in a mirror you will be integrated properly in the scene (life-sized). (I've added a link to a previous post that suggests the Prado once had it set up like this and the Borges saw it that way.) Now, suppose you stand beside the dwarf kicking the dog just at the edge of the canvas, with the canvas resting on the floor. You look at the mirror image of the painting and realize that the king and queen are standing behind you, just to the right of Velazquez (the canvass blocks your view).

You whip your head around. But instead of seeing a three dimensional room (with an available line of sight to the king and queen) you run smack into a flat canvass. A painting hanging on a wall.

Maybe that captures something of the effect Foucault was after, though by entirely different means.

Thomas Basbøll said...

By the way, I believe that Glenn Gould's recording of Bach's prelude and fugue no. 13 in F-sharp major in Book One of the Well-tempered Clavier is the Las Meninas of music.

The performance last almost exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds, which I sometimes think means something. (It means that you can use your volume control to pass back and forth between two signature pieces of music, for example.)

Thomas Basbøll said...

PS: The place I just suggested we stand could be occupied by the king and queen. I just experimented with this in the bathroom: the two mirrors can be arranged so that their image would, in theory, appear both in the big mirror in front of them and in the mirror at the back of the painted room. I haven't done the math yet but I think that this arrangement would also put the vanishing point (as seen after the shifting by the mirror) in the right place.

We are now back to something that looks a great deal more like Foucault's reading. (Though, again, Foucault seemed to miss the second mirror. Maybe I just haven't read him charitably enough.)

J.A. Cuddon defines "baroco" as: "any form of grotesque pedantry". Fair comment on my approach to this, I think.

Josh said...

I meant to delete that last paragraph of my comment, which is why it's unfinished.

Your case for the second mirror seems pretty strong, and I'm fascinated by the idea of being able to look at it next to your own mirror. Do we have any idea as to whether the painting was ever viewed that way, or intended to be so viewed?

Gould's performances of Bach are crucial to my evolving sense of the postmodern baroque as that which involves the folding or unfolding of subjectivity. For me it's the humming he does while playing, forcing consciousness (or more probably, requiring us to tune out the sound) of Gould's particular breath and body into the context of music that seems mathematical and abstract.

Thomas Basbøll said...

In re how the painting has been/was meant to be viewed: the closests I've come is this post.

While I do think that Gould's music has a distinct and interesting subject(ivity), I don't think it has anything to do with his humming. I take his word for it. His "breath" is to be found in the phrase as he plays it, not by listening to the noises in the studio.

If there is a "modern baroque" then I would think Gould is a central figure.

You get me thinking...there is always a "romanticization" (sp?) of art -- even very classical art -- in culture. The myths surrounding Gould are of this kind: his suffering, his genius, etc. I'm reading Ton de Leeuw's book about 20th Century Music these days and he makes a similar point: our ideas about music are dominated by an image of the "expressive" artist that belongs in the 18th and 19th centuries. Reading him, I am struck by how easily we can replace "music" with "poetry" and "philosophy" (literature) and get the exact same results.