Posted by: lederniermot7 | November 14, 2018

Seeking Perspective

Something I am always struck by is the affect of art to depict subjects other than the obvious subject at hand. In considering Joan Jonas’ work, for one, her direct use of mirrors helps display this sense of othering, presenting skewed versions of reality which make us as her audience consider the veracity of that reality and our experiences within it. In a similar way, painted portraiture evokes that disruption of space and of truth-comprehension through its representations of individuals, of fantasy-lands, landscapes, and even stories taken as myth and fiction, given shape and a reality all their own through their rendering.

The 1600’s “Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of Pharoah’s Butler and Baker” held in the Mount Holyoke College art museum is one example of story turned truth.

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Through Volmarijn’s work, the well-known bible story is given a new form, one in which we can easily imagine the three figures interacting as they are supposed to have done. The realism of the oil and the recognizability of the scene to general audiences makes it out to be something more than a fictional imagining – we believe it, and at some fundamental level, we are expected to believe it. The closeness of the figures and the light from the candle working to illuminate them together urge us to find some truth in their depiction, much as the story of Joseph itself asks the Butler and the Baker to believe his explanations of their dreams. In this we find a kind of two-way interpretive street, one side relying on our perception of the work as a rendering of truth, the other conveying the perception of truth by the subjects therein – their belief in Joseph’s tellings influential on our own belief in their situation as here captured. This strikes us as a sort of mirroring as our opinion of the story told by Volmarijn becomes tainted by the knowledge of the painting itself; we are able to see both our own comprehension and that of the subjects while imposing our distanced selves from the scene at hand. We are a part of it in that we are invited to sit at the table beside them, to take a place within the action of the image, however we are simultaneously excluded from the scene at large in our limited view by the candlelight. While we can see the chains hidden behind them, we are blind to the room on the whole, that in itself allowing us to imagine what that space must be; we are directed then to invent the reality of the image just as the image itself has been inventing reality for us.

Jonas’ work, then, and its use of literal mirroring to create (and displace) reality functions in the repetition and alteration of images to transform them out of their familiarity into the realm of fiction. Mirror Improvisation (2005) for one presents us with an actual backward-view of the world and forcing us to figure not only our understanding of her art but quite literally where we stand in relation to it. At the same time, however, Jonas allows us to see the purveyor of her images: the camera tripod, in view though known to be located behind us. The misconstruction of perspective in the film forces us to grapple not only with any sense of grounding we expect (of course while the camera angle shifts and the mirrors are adjusted), but with a self-awareness the lack thereof demands; we become self-conscious while watching as we become aware of our position, separated from the action of the work not only as audience, but physically turned away from it, witness only through the mediation of the camera and its image in the glass.

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Mount Holyoke Art Museum. Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of Pharoah’s Butler and Baker. 1631-37. Web. Date Accessed: 14 Nov. 2018. https://artmuseum.mtholyoke.edu/object/joseph-interpreting-dreams-pharaohs-butler-and-baker


Responses

  1. I too saw the painting of Joseph interpreting dreams during our class visit to the museum, and in a way it was comforting to understand the context of the subject – one of very few Bible stories that I actually know (thanks Andrew Lloyd Webber). What struck me, though, was that I did not recognize the story of the painting until after reading the painting’s title. There is very little evidence in the painting itself that would inform a viewer of the story of its subjects. It does not contextualize itself.
    This made me think of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the viewer/narrator repeatedly asks the urn to tell its story. The urn is of course inanimate, and can only communicate the images that have been designed on its surface. These images are static, unmoving, and the narratives they represent will never progress. For example:
    “Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
    Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
    And, happy melodist, unwearied,
    For ever piping songs for ever new”.
    These characters are in stasis, forever telling a story that the viewer can never know because of the decontextualization of the urn itself. The only reason we know and understand the narrative of the Joseph painting is because of the external information that contextualizes it. The painting mirrors us in that we are both not a part of the painting itself and not a part of the story it portrays. Volmarijn complicates this relationship by contextualizing the painting as a story with which many people are familiar, even from childhood. Viewing the painting with this new information creates the sensation that we are included in the painting’s subject, and yet we are forever separated from the scene itself.

    (If you’re interested: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44477/ode-on-a-grecian-urn)

  2. I think this is really interesting, especially when considering literary representations of portraiture. For example, in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Dorian Gray’s portrait represents the “truth” because it portrays the effects of time and immorality on Dorian’s appearance, whereas Dorian remains young and beautiful. Your point about Joan Jonas’ mirroring as creating and displacing reality is also fascinating in the context of Dorian’s portrait, as the portrait serves as a “mirror” for Dorian’s soul, who he really is. I think it would be really intriguing to further explore Jonas’ work in the context of portraiture.


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