December 2, 2007

Portrait of Giovanni and his wife.


In the first chapter of the Virilio piece, he briefly explains the evolution of art starting from the cave painting through to the impressionist era. During his explanation he remarked that during the middle ages art saw "the background come to the surface" (page14-15). He later stated that in these works there is no blurred background and that all is important. Virilio used the example of holy pictures to make his point. Upon reading that section, the painting "Portrait of Giovanni and his wife" by Jan Van Eyck came to my mind. The painting (pictured right) is on display in the National Gallery in London in the wing devoted to Dutch artists. While it is a rather small piece, it is a rather famous painting because as Virilio said, there is no background. In this piece everything is important, the mirror displays a painting within a painting and the significance of the bed and dog both contribute to our interpretation of what is happening between husband and wife. My question is what if it were a photograph taken of this couple instead of a painting? Would we still receive the messages that the artist wanted to communicate to us? And are there really any photograph that like this painting do not have a background, where everything is important? I think this supports some of Virilio's arguments about photography. yes?

2 comments:

Dan said...

I would argue that there definitely are some pictures that don't have a background, per se, but that every element is important. In probably the most basic example, how about the numerous pictures by Ansel Adams. In his works, every element comes into play as there is no central focus within the image.

Likewise, I can't help but feel that any staged photo also embodies this idea. How about when we all had to get our senior pictures taken in high school. I don't know about you guys up here, but I had to pose in about 15 different settings with numerous props, each of which added a different style and tone to my already highly photogenic body...right...

That is my take on it...

Through A Retina Darkly said...

It is interesting that I can focus on these words, but not at the same time on the other design elements on this page. Or I can focus on my computer's screen, but when I do I am unable to read what appears to be displayed on its surface.

Painting is rare, in that it constitutes a representational practice that can render every element within its frame into simultaneous and equal focal clarity. Still, when I look at it, I can't see the brush strokes for the canvas, I can't see the dog for the couple, I can't see the man for the woman, their hands for their faces - the forest for the trees.

Viewing a painting thus becomes an experience in time, a function of time, the time it takes to satisfy myself that I have regarded all that is there which is worth regard. I've never seen a photograph, no matter how touchingly personal, how unbelievable or spectacular its subject, that could sustain the time of painting. A photo's subject matter can be taken in at a glance - it is what the medium is for, it is part of its "program," as Flusser puts it. You may glance again and again and again - like Menacham did with the photo of his mother. This too is part of its program. But it is meant to be taken in in an instant.