Good old days…

While I was looking for a document in my old CDs, I have come across with some papers I had written in December’98, for a fine arts course (FA311) I was taking from Nancy Atakan in Bosphorus University. It has been ages that I had even forgotten their existence. As a term paper to Ms Atakan, I recall using an essay; “Mechanisms of Meaning: Iconography and Semiology” from Donald Preziosi’s The Art of Art History, A Critical Anthology; as a framework to analyze and compare paintings by Velasquez and Goya. Now I remember this paper was the reason of my  interest and admire especially for Goya. I would like to share some of these papers I had written in 90s (first of which will be the term paper for Ms Atakan’s lecture) in order not to loose them once again, and to see if I had some progress in the past 12 years, hope I did:)

Mechanisims of Meaning: Iconography and Semiology in Interpreting Works of Velazquez and Goya

by Ebru Surek

An image is not intended solely for perception and contemplation. It requires and demands a real effort of reading, even interpretation. Iconography attempts essentially to state what the images represent and assumes every image has a hidden and symbolic meaning. In Panofsky’s view, iconography deals solely with images that were meant to signify something different from what they offered to view, without distinguishing between the different types of images. Semiotics on the contrary has an intention on bringing to light the mainsprings of the signifying process, of which the work of art is, at the same time, the locus and the possible outcome. It focuses on the production of meaning.
Examining the social factors that frame the signs is crucial to analyze simultaneously the past and our own interaction with them, an interaction otherwise in danger of passing unnoticed. In this paper, we are going to analyze the works of Velazquez and Goya to understand their intentions in paintings ‘Las Meninas’ and ‘El Sueno de la Razon Produce Monstruos.’

Looking at ‘Las Meninas (The Maids in-waiting), we recognize Velazquez as a master of a brilliant optical realism that seldom has been approached by others. As first painter to the king and as a chief steward of the palace, Velazquez was conscious not only of the importance of his court office but of the honor of dignity belonging to his profession as painter. In this painting he appears to bring the roles together, asserting their equivalent value. A number of pictures from 17th century show painters with their royal patrons. In the painting he wears the red cross of the order on the couple, painted there, legend tells us, by the king himself. The truth is that the artist painted it. In his mind, Las Meninas might have embodied the idea of the great king visiting his artist’s studio. The figures in the painting all acknowledge the royal presence.
The painter represents himself in his studio before a large canvas on which he may be painting this very picture or perhaps the portraits of the king and the queen, whose reflections appear in the mirror on the far wall. The little girl, Margarita, appears in the foreground with her two maids in waiting, her favorite dwarfs and a big dog. In the middle ground there are a nanny and a male escort; in the background a gentleman is framed in a brightly lit open doorway. The painting is constructed to make us look at that person. On the wall above the doorway and mirror, two faintly recognizable pictures represent the immortal gods as the source of art. Our first impression of Las Meninas is of an informal family group casually arranged and miraculously lifelike. One could think of it as a genre painting rather than as a group portrait.
Placed among the royal family in equal dignity, Velazquez is face to face with his sovereign. The art of painting, in the person of the painter, is elevated to the highest status. He sought ennoblement not for himself but for his art. Although he intends an optical report of the event, he also seems to intend a pictorial summary of various kinds of images and degrees of ‘reality’. This work, with its contrasts of mirrored spaces, pictures spaces and pictures within pictures. The painting itself appears to have been using traces from a large mirror reflecting the whole scene, which would mean the artist has not pointed the princess and her suit, but himself in the process of painting them. He achieved this illusion by the help of intermediate values of gray to come between two extremes. He thinks of light and tone as the whole substance of painting.
Francisco de Goya also became a portrait painter to the Spanish aristocracy. After a serious illness in 1792 left him permanently deaf and isolated from others, he increasingly occupied with the fantasies and inventions of his imagination and with critical and satirical observations of mankind.
‘El Sueno de la Razon Produce Monstruos’ is one of them. A Spanish writer called F. de Quevedo y Villegas inspired him. The main notion of the painting was that the difference between man and monster is a very thin line and too close to each other that they can be mixed sometimes very easily. In the first sketch of the painting, the artist is sleeping in his drawing table surrounded by a face of donkey as a symbol of illiteracy and ignorance, a dog’s face with its tongue out of its mouth as a symbol of greediness and some bats as symbols of hypocrisy and ignorance. Bats in that time of Spanish literature were symbols of dark people escaping from the light of justice. Near the feet of the sleeping artist lies a lynx with a power of vision in dark very strong eyes symbolizing the smart people in Spain in 18th century with a deep understanding power who can foresee future easily. The lynx will help Goya in the exploration of the dark.
In the original picture, there are the sleeping artist, the lynx, the owls and the bats, one of which is bigger than the others and flying above the artist. The others are flying in the background. In the Middle Ages and the Christian iconography, the bat represents a form of devil and the owl represents a creature of darkness that cannot endure light. In this respect, the owl was symbolizing the people who did not follow the Jesus Christ. In 18th Century they mostly symbolized illiteracy, irrationality, the dark face of the reason, etc.
In the picture the owl is giving a pencil with no ends to the artist. The light is disappearing and giving a way to the dark. The lynx ‘s face is towards the artist but a cat, known as the Prince of Darkness, is looking around from the back of the artist. There are four owls surrounding the cat and three of them are looking directly at the eyes of the people looking at them. The fourth one is insisting on giving a piece of chalk to the artist with the aim of being pictured. But Goya will not take it. These owls are not the sacred birds of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, but the creatures belonging to the bad fortunetellers, trying to see the future with the help of these birds.
Goya named the painting ‘El Sueno de la Razon Produce Monstruos’ and wrote it in the left corner saying, without rationality, imagination produces monsters, if it is completed with rationality, then it is the source of art and its miracles.

 

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