Michel Foucault, “The Order of Things”

1966

CHAPTER 1: LAS MENINAS

The painter “has no doubt just appeared, at this very instant, before the eyes of the spectator, emerging from what is virtually a sort of vast cage projected backwards by the surface he is painting… halfway betweent he visible and the invisible: emerging from that canvas beyond our view, he moves into our gaze; but when, in a moment, he makes a step to the right, removing himself from our gaze, he will be standing exactly in front of the canvas he is painting… As though the painter could not at the same time be seen on the picture where he is presented and also see that upon which he is representing something. He rules at the threshold of those two incompatible visibilities” 3.

This is “a matter of pure reciprocity: we are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us” 4. Here, “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” 5. The spectator’s position is made “privileged and inescapable” by the painter’s eyes, which “project it upon the inaccessible surface of the canvas within the picture. He sees his invisibility made visible to the painter and transposed into an image forever invisible to himself” 5. The swath of light that bathes the right side of the picture “frees a whole flow of daylight which serves as the common locus of the representation” 6.

“Just as we are about to apprehend ourselves, transcribed by his hand as though in a mirror, we find that we can in fact apprehend nothing of that mirror but its lustreless back. The other side of a psyche” 6. The back wall is hung with paintings and a mirror which “is reflecting nothing… it is not the visible it reflects [as the Dutch painting would]… Here, the mirror is “saying nothing that has already been said before… its motionless gaze extends out in front of the picture… straight through the whole field of the representation… and restores visibility to that which resides outside all view” 8. “What it is reflecting is that which all the figures within the painting are looking at so fixedly… what the spectator would be able to see if the painting extended further forward… The mirror provides a metathesis of visibility that affects both the space represented in the picture and its nature as representation; it allows us to see, in the centre of the canvas, what in the painting is of necessity doubly invisible” 8. “The image should stand out from the frame” 8.

“The two personages serving as models to the painter are not visible, at least directly; but… we can see them in a mirror… they are, without any doubt, King Philip IV and his wife, Mariana” 9. Neither language nor the visible “can be reduced to the other’s terms: it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say. And it is in vain that we attempt to show, by the use of images, metaphors, or similes, what we are saying; the space  where they achieve their splendour is not that deployed by our eyes but that defined by the sequential elements of syntax” 9.

“But if one wishes to keep the relation of language to vision open, if one wishes to treat their incompatibility as a starting-point for speech instead of as an obstacle to be avoided, so as to stay as close as possible to both… we must… pretend not to know who is to be reflected in the depths of that mirror, and interrogate that reflection in its own terms” 9-10.

“The window operates by the continuous movement of an effusion which, flowing from right to left, unites the attentive figures, the painter, and the canvas, with the spectacle they are observing; whereas the mirror… by means of a violent, instantaneous movement, a movement of pure surprise, leaps out from the picture in order to reach that which is observed yet invisible in front of it, and then, at the far end of its fictitious depth, to render it visible yet indifferent to every gaze” 10.

“The mirror, by making visible, beyond even the walls of the studio itself, what is happening in front of the picture, creates, in its sagittal dimension, an oscillation betweent he interior and the exterior” 11.

The painting induces “a spiral gaze” through aesthetic representation. The little Infanta is “the principal theme of the composition… the very object of this painting” 12. All the other figures are arranged around her in pairs. “In depth, it is the princess who is superimposed on the mirror; vertically, it is the reflection that is superimposed on the face… they are very close to one another” and both face the same point “which is completely inaccessible because it is exterior to the picture, yet is prescribed by all the lines of its composition” 13.

“The entire picture is looking out at a scene for which it is itself a scene. A condition of pure reciprocity manifested by the observing and observed mirror, the two stages of which are uncoupled at the two lower corners of the picture…[the two sovereigns] create this spectacle-as-observation” 14.

They are the most ignored and yet most central to the painting because of its composition.

“There occurs an exact superimposition of the model’s gaze as it is being painted, of the spectator’s as he contemplates the painting, and of the painter’s as he is composing his picture… the one in front of us. These three ‘observing’ functions come together in a point exterior to the picture… an ideal point in relation to what is represented, but a perfectly real one too, since it is also the starting-point that makes the representation possible… that reality is projected within the picture – projected and diffracted in three forms which correspond to the three functions of that ideal and real point” 15.

The reflection of the sovereigns “restores, as if by magic, what is lacking in every gaze… perhaps this generosity on the part of the mirror is feigned; perhaps it is hiding as much and even more than it reveals,” for the mirror ought to show us Velazquez and even ourselves 15.

“For the function of that reflection is to draw into the interior of the picture what is intimately foreign to it… But because they are present within the picture, to the right and to the left, the artist and the visitor [man on the back stairs] cannot be given a place in the mirror: just as the king appears in the depths of the looking-glass precisely because he does not belong to the picture” 15.

“The profound invisibility of what one sees is inseparable from the invisibility of the person seeing – despite all mirrors, reflections, imitations, and portraits… [it is] the representation, as it were, of Classical representation… representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form” 16.

 

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