Some further notes on Myth Today followed by a deconstructed image:
“It is this constant hide and seek between meaning and the form that defines myth” (Barthes, 1973;)
The words, “More’s the pity for us mortals who hanker after meaning and will read it in at a throw” from my previous feedback has stayed with me. The notion rankles with me for two reasons: we all go the same way in the end, every one of us, so all of us are ordinary mortals, despite the very human desire to elevate some and denigrate others. And secondly, to endeavour to make meaning is a human function evolved over many, many thousands of years. We are eusocial beings with an evolutionary adaptive purpose and “desire to share mental states and inner feelings” (Hrdy, 2009;38) and have developed a complex means of doing so which far surpasses other apes. So, I suppose what I’m wondering still is, are those appropriation artists I have discussed in A2 trying to nullify meaning? Presenting the world with objects that aim to confuse and short circuit the drive to make sense and interpret form, as I see clearly in Dada. Nonsensical poems written in made up language seems an obvious example. I can recognise in Jenny Holzer’s Redacted series that the whole question of meaning and form is explored but I find it harder to make sense of this in Charlesworth’s or Prince’s work. Aside from that, I find the notion of relinquishing ‘meaning’ as meaningful and valid upsetting and challenging for any number of reasons.
“history drains out of the form ..()… will be wholly absorbed by concept. (The concept) is determined, it is at once historical and intentional; it is the motivation which drives the myth to be uttered. Grammatical exemplarity, French impartiality, are the drives behind the myth.” (referencing the Paris Match photograph Barthes deconstructs in Myth Today) and “Through the concept it is a whole new history which is implanted in the myth.” Perhaps my interpretation of Barthes’ words is askew, but perhaps such a mindset reinforces a lack of responsibility, and potentially prevents a society from feeling able to make changes, or at the very least begin to question dominant myths. I do realise this is difficult territory as of course history is abundant with swathes of peoples being at the mercy of greater or lesser powerful rulers who have obliterated those they seek to rule. but it is also abundant with challengers to those rulers. It feels like Barthes is suggesting the myth is impossible to see beyond.
Barthes goes not to say, “Truth to tell, what is invested in the concept is less reality than a certain knowledge of reality; in passing from the meaning to the form, the image loses some knowledge; the better to receive the knowledge in the concept….” Again, I question this. Who is the arbitrator of the actual reality? Reality and ideas about what is right and what is wrong, for instance, change and evolve constantly. So who is the ultimate arbitrator of truth and actual reality. Nobody. Unless you believe in some form of God.
And so to the final part of the project; annotate an artwork with the following in mind:
“The meaning is always there to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning. And there never is any contradiction, conflict, or split between the meaning and the form: they are never at the same place. In the same way, if I am in a car and I look at the scenery through the window, I can at will focus on the scenery or on the window-pane. At one moment I grasp the presence of the glass and the distance of the landscape; at another, on the contrary, the transparency of the glass and the depth of the landscape; but the result of this alternation is constant: the glass is at once present and empty to me, and the landscape unreal and full. The same thing occurs in the mythical signifier: its form is empty but present, its meaning absent but full. To wonder at this contradiction I must voluntarily interrupt this turnstile of form and meaning, I must focus on each separately, and apply to myth a static method of deciphering, in short, I must go against its own dynamics: to sum up, I must pass from the state of reader to that of mythologist.” (This above is extremely difficult to decipher but I think I am helped by the following lines.) “And it is again this duplicity of the signifier which determines the characters of the signification. We now know that myth is a type of speech defined by its intention (I am a grammatical example) much more than by its literal sense (my name is lion)”. Below is another french image also related to France. Here there are social and historical myths some of which I suspect lead into some of what Barthes is talking about although I can’t quite figure that out yet.
The picture shows a family, the wife of a rich and influential publisher who was painted by Renoir, dated 1878. It has a long working title, “Madame Georges Charpentier (Marguérite-Louise Lemonnier, 1848–1904) and Her Children, Georgette-Berthe (1872–1945) and Paul-Émile-Charles (1875–1895)” and the subject used her influence, according The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art‘s website, to ensure the painting was included in the 1879 Paris Salon, an annual exhibition. I find the painting interesting for two reasons. Firstly it is a family portrait without the father, and a relaxed informal one at that. It is like a captured photograph that would defy all the formal posing and staring into the camera that I have always assumed was the norm during that era (although my assumptions are constantly being challenged as I look at more and more historical art). I have noticed that many paintings from that era use that informal style, fragments from time, a moment captured. It’s interesting to think that painting did what photography could so easily do but didn’t usually until later.
Before I discuss the other main thing that captured my attention, I should reference the Japanese influenced decor, as the site states, “In the Japanese-style sitting room of her Parisian townhouse…”. There was, according to Wikipedia, a strong political and trade connection between Japan and France during the 19th century. Japanese art had a huge influence on the work of the impressionists and in notably as seen here the “freedom in placing the subject off-centre” (Wikipedia), which came as a surprise to me, as it implies that Western artists previously placed subjects in the middle of the frame. I didn’t realise that and find it hard to believe as it goes against things I have long held to be true and leaned at school. Whatever else, the composition in this picture places the focal point, the boy, just off centre and he is framed by his mother and older sister. He looks like a little girl but he isn’t, and his physical language suggests he is the lead in this image. I can’t work out his expression. Is his look adoring or a little scathing. At first I think it’s loving and he looks up to the girl. But then I look again and it seems the opposite. Its hard to tell but perhaps that’s just the style of painting and not intentional. The mother’s expression is perhaps a little vacant, and almost submissive to the child, as if she is there only to protect and serve the child. I can’t tell whether she is looking out of the frame or at the daughter. In a way it looks as if the mother and the boy who looks so much like a girl are ganged up against the daughter whose body language is slightly defensive, clinging to the dog and looking away from them. But then I look again and it might just be that because I can’t recognise the boy as a boy my mind finds it hard to recognise the gesture which is something I don’t usually struggle with.
At first, aside from the interesting cultural practise of dressing the boy in the same style and way as the girl, I thought this painting was not much more than an example of a vanity project whereby a rich woman and her children were able to have themselves painted and flattered by a highly esteemed artist. The room is painted to look sumptuous and indicates wealth, style and class. It shows a family who have access to high quality decor that is expansive and supposedly broad minded, as in knowledgable and welcoming of other cultures, or westernised traces (however, history shows the French to be otherwise elsewhere in the world). But the more I look at it the more it seems like some sort of comment, intentional or otherwise, on the relations between the sexes in families. The boy and girl look identical. But they are not. One will grow up to have, as far as is possible, a significant amount of agency over his life. (Does anyone have that much agency, one wonders, but perhaps comparatively speaking.) He is male, the son of rich and connected people, and protected by his mother. The other is female and will grow up with very different expectations and despite being older than the boy, already looks like she is lower in stature and afforded a different level of maternal protection and pride to her brother. I don’t think I can say what Renior was expressing here with any certainty. Did he mean what I see or is that simply my own reading? It’s so hard to know. Feminism was not even remotely on any one’s agenda although I am sure women must have felt frustrated which is what led them to insist on some level of emancipation a few decades later. There is myth relating to the way in which children are presented here, one that does not tally with the myths we relate to our own children with today. The blurring of sexuality in the early years is still extremely strong here, as I suspect it was for a while. But for me, a child born in the 70s and who had three boys in the 2000s I found it extremely surprising to learn that this child in the centre was a boy and not a girl. Such a blurring is incredibly strange to my own eyes. No matter how long I look the picture I find it hard to see a boy rather than a girl. The separation of the sexes and sexuality in children is something that I think we in Western modern times have very hard time with. And the confusion for children over what is acceptable to feel or not feel seems to cause all sorts of problems, for everyone, especially when the child feels they don’t fit into the gender binaries that have been considered the ‘norm’ for so long. Nowadays there is a fast emerging awareness and that gender and sexuality don’t always conform so simply. But it seems very strange to me that differences were entirely, dress and hair-wise at any rate, ironed out for you children in France int the late 19th century.
This is a painting of rich people for rich people to look at. That some should be rich and live in such comfort while so many others don’t was and still is considered perfectly acceptable and desirable by those living as such. It is a myth that still prevails and I am not sure if this painting questions it or accepts and perpetuates it. I think suspect the latter. The painting though is also oddly one of two different genders as children and suggests that they are both the same when patently history tells us that this is not true. The painting’s form through is ambiguous about this. It is difficult to read the expressions and I can really only use guess work and imagination to grab at meaning which makes sense to me, much of which I suppose is relative and subjective.
For me about this painting is the fact that the boy looks to my eye like a little girl in every way and so my mind cannot settle on any meaning because I know it’s a boy. I think it confuses meaning although I can’t say if the artist meant for that to happen since it was the fashion at the time and would not have seemed odd. (I think).
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/07.122/ (Accessed 26th July 2016)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/France–Japan_relations_(19th_century)#Japanese_influences_on_France (Accessed 26th July 2016)
http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Barthes-Mythologies-MythToday.pdf (Accessed 19th July 2016)