Archive for the 'Weekly Tasks' Category

Foucault’s reading of Velazquez’s ‘Las Meninas’



Las Meninas

Diego Velazquez, 1656

Oil on canvas, 318cm x 276cm (125.2in x 108.7in)

Museo del Prado, Madrid

I feel Foucault’s main point in this text is the idea of gaze within and beyond the picture, and it is this gaze which I will discuss. Whether it is the artist, who first appears to look at us as though we were the models; or the maids’ somewhat intense looks at their young mistress.

The frequency at which gazes are shot about the image and outwards towards the viewer is astounding. The gaze, however, always returns to the place in which we, observing the painting, are standing. But we are and yet are not the observed, due to the fact that the intricacies of this painting are held on the back wall within the mirror and its misty figures. Where the view feels he or she would be reflected we instead are shown the apparition of the king and queen of Spain. It is they, not we, who are being represented on the canvas which back takes up the left hand of Las Meninas. And so the royal figures gaze upon the same scene as we do, yet also they gaze back at themselves, and equally, at us.

It is this reciprocity of the gaze which draws us in:

‘the painter’s gaze, addressed to the void confronting him outside the picture, accepts as many models as there are spectators; in this precise but neutral space, the observer and the observed take part in a ceaseless exchange’ (pp.4-5)

Are we seeing or are we being seen?

In my next post I will take a look at another interpretation of this painting and consider some  of Velazquez’s other works involving the royal family.

Artist’s portraits of the 1950-70s

For this study, I’ve decided to make simple lists to summarise the ideas that are brought up in relation to these photographs of artists.  Obviously,I’m taking a slightly feminist view, so my thoughts often came back to gender roles,especially as ‘gender’ has been the over-arching theme of this week’s readings (notes/thoughts on those to follow).


Click on the artist’s name to visit their site or their biography. All portraits are the work of Hans Namuth (1915-1990)


Ad Reinhardt with his family (1958 )

ad reinhardt– authority


-traditional roles (father, husband, bread-winner)


tingurly and saint phalie

Jean Tinguely and Nicky de Saint-Phalle

New York City, 1962

-Gaze(who/what is the focus on? who are we supposed to be looking at?)

-Female form (of sculpture)

-Gender roles (He’ll smoke and work, she’ll sit there, bored but pretty)


Elaine de Kooning and Willem de Kooning

East Hampton, New York      1953

-Again, ideas of focus and importance, though here it made more obvious that Willem de Kooning is the focus of the photograph due to his prominence in the foreground.

-However, it is the woman this time caught smoking, which seems somewhat unusual, though it may be considered elegant in certain cases,and rendered masculine in others (“women on fire eating meat!”, as certain male friends of mine insist on saying rather rowdily every so often)


Helen Frankenthaler

West Islip, New York    1964

-here the scene shows Frankenthaler being taught by a man (presumably another artist)

-could be seen to hint at women’s lack of skill, but equally it is just a picture of her learning something new, or of a piece she worked on with another (it’s all too easy for us to read into things- we cannot tell whether the scene is staged or not, for example).

barnettnewmanBarnett Newman

-Again,smoking (perhaps I’m a little more aware of this as someone living in the age of the ban (how would they cope?)), but this stereotype plays further- alone, male- were the decor different, it could almost be a bar.

-There is a sense of self assurance as the artists sits, back to the canvases, almost as if he were not phased by them (though he may yet be unaware of how important these pieces would become/were made to become (more on that in week 2))


In general I feel these photos show a tendancy for women to be quite literally pictured as being a different kind of/of a lower class of artist in comparison to their male contemporaries. We see this through the subtle positioning of women in the image compared to the men (often behind, in the background), and the overall feelof the image- for example,whilst Newman seems clever, independent and confident due to his aloof position away from the camera- women in images are often not portrayed so powerfully.

Louise Nevelson (1900-1988 )

(Russian born, emigrated 1905 to Rockland, Maine)


Portrait of Nevelson by Ugo Mulasc (1965)

It is encouraging to see pictures like this portrait of Nevelson producing works, in the action of creation, as from a certain perspective that would be viewed as a typically masculine trait.

Between 1929/30 Nevelson studied at the American Art Students League. In 1931 she visited Europe and was inspired by African art and Boccioni, Brancusi and Picasso. A year later she studied under Hans Hofmann, and then in 1933 had her first solo exhibition in New York. Her paintings and sculptures showed in galleries all over the world, including in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1962.

Nevelson escaped small town life through a marriage that she soon found constraining, spliting from her husband in 1931. It seems she was only too aware on the restraints placed on her as a creator, not just because of her sex, but because of her class too- “I soon recognized that within their circle you could know Beethoven, but God forbid if you were Beethoven. You were not allowed to be a creator, you were just supposed to be an audience. They thought they were terribly refined.”*

She is also the first of our featured artists to be well known for sculpture, not just 2-D work. Poetically described ‘Her sculptures included wood assemblages typically painted in either jet black or, later, in white and gold as well, ranged in size from the small and personal to the large and monumental, inviting viewers to observe a world into which they could not go but in which they often feared they had already been placed.’* Like many women artists, Nevelson had a long career and achieved, if not fame, success. In 2000, the United States Post Office issued five limited edition postal stamps in recognition of Nevelson’s contribution to art.


Sources- *, Art of the 20th Century (Taschen, 2000, p.778), (“an organisation to educate the public on the life and work of the American artist Louise Nevelson”),

Lee Krasner (1908-1984)

lee krasner 1949Lee Krasner with Stop and Go, c. 1949. Photographer unknown.
The Pollock- Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Krasner first studied at Washington Irving High School (the only public institution to offer art training to women at the time in NYC), she then trained at the Women’s Art School of Cooper Union and, in her early 20s, at the National Academy of Design. Like many of the Abstract Expressionists, Krasner studied under Hans Hofmann in the Federal Art Project. It was here that she was exposed to the works of the Cubists. Her work uses geometric elements combined with more muted colours than some of her contemporaries, gestural brushstrokes and floral motifs.

Krasner met Pollock in 1942, and in 1945 they were married. Like other female artists at this time, Krasner was excluded from the canon in favour of her male contemporaries, and her connection to Pollock only added to this:

‘For Krasner, the oeuvre of her husband… long stood in the way of a serious evaluation of her own work’*

This can be witnessed, for example, as she sits at sidelines in the famous film of Pollock (1951), with a “token (in)visibility”**, an anti-thesis of the image of the artist (Pollock) as “modern, as American, as masculine”** But Krasner produced and carried onto to produce great works of art, long after her husband’s death.

Like many artists producing work at that time who are women, Krasner’s work only really began to see recognition even remotely on the scale of Pollock and Rothko after her death, in exhibitions such as the major American retrospective (curated by Robert Hobbs) in 1999-2000.

Sources- Women Artists in the 20th and 21st Centuries ed. Uta Grosenick (Taschen, 2003, p.108), Griselda Pollock Cockfights and other Parades, Oxford Art Journal 2003 26:2 14,,

Helen Frankenthaler (1928- )

From 1945 to 1950 studied at Bennington College, Vermont, at the Art Students League and with Hans Hoffman in New York (his biography in the same book* fails to mention this)
After this period she went on to develop her own style of “staining” painting- ‘Frankenthaler became the first American painter after Jackson Pollock to see the implications of the color staining of raw canvas to create an integration of color and ground in which foreground and background cease to exist’** This was an influence on later artists such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Her painting “Mountains and the Sea” (1952) is considered to be one of the most important pieces of colour field painting.

Portrait from series by Ernest Haas 

Frankenthaler married Robert Motherwell (fact not mentioned in his biography on the same text*, and subsequently in my own piece on Motherwell (week 1c)) in 1958. This coupled with the Pollock/Krasner relationship surely prompts us to wonder about the MUTUAL source of inspiration each artist found inone another, and how it is that the women will always be more in danger to playing the minor role in such circumstances. In the same year she taught at several universities, including Princeton and Yale.

She has had a long career, well over 50 years, yet still remains relatively unknown compared to her male expressionist contemporaries. As well as painting Frankenthaler has produced work in other mediums, most notably print making.

Sources- *Art of the 20th Century (Part 1: Painting, Taschen, 2000, p.723), **,, (image)

Robert Motherwell(1915-1991)


Motherwell was both a critic and painter and is seen by some as the voice of the Abstract Expressionists: “Without his tireless devotion to communication (in addition to his prolific painting), well-known abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko, who was extremely shy and rarely left his studio, might not have made it into the public eye.”* He studied philosophy, art history, aesthetics and archaeology at various American universities. In the writings of Motherwell, as well as in his life, we see the rebirth of a kind of Renaissance man, a well rounded, intelligent and articulate artist- “Every intelligent painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head. It is the real subject, of which everything he paints is both an homage and a critique, and everything he says is a gloss.” ** [Note again the way language betrays a male-biased society]

Motherwell wrote: “It may be that the deep necessity of art is the examination of self-deception.”*** I feel this chimes with what I was discussing in the studies of Rothko and Pollock, the element of self in painting. In a broader way, does this mean that our standard knowledge of abstract expressionism is an exploration of the male self or psyche?

Sources: *, **, *** . Image:

Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

(Lithuanian, Markus Rothkowitz)

Studied at Yale in the early 1920s, then from 1924-1929 at the Art Student’s League (NY). Founded the Expressionist group with Adolf Gottlieb the Tenth (1935). He is probably the most well known colour field painters. Like Pollock he too fitted well into the established canon of troubled (male) genius, committing suicide in 1970. [I do not wish to disparage Rothko’s death, but to point out the way in which it is used to define him as an artist] It may well be only respectively that we come to view Rothko’s expanses of colour as somewhat dark and troubled. We must be aware of how our knowledge of the artist’s life shares how we view their work.

“I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame. Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance”*

Despite my better judgment, I can’t help but see a sense of self in these words, a feeling that Rothko uses his work, the very act of painting, as an escape, but also as an echo of (his) life.

Sources- Art of the 20th Century (Part 1: Painting, 2000, Taschen, p.798, *p. 293),

And don’t worry, I am getting round to the women who are  artists too, I’m saving them up as a treat (plus it’s harder to gather information on them as they are less famous/acknowledged)

Jackson Pollock (1912-56)

Pollock embodies a place in modern art history quite unlike any other. A male artist who fitted (or was made to fit) the troubled artistic genius type, to a ‘T’, in the era that could well be described when the world saw America take off as the capital of the art world. Pollock stood at the forefront- was the figurehead, if you like, of the abstract expressionist movement. Although he was arguably the most famous protagonist of the movement, even today people find it hard to class his work as art (“its just dripping paint” …especially when it sells for so much).

He studied at the Manual Arts school (LA) from1925-1929, after which he went onto study under Benton at the Art Students League (NY). His famous drip painting technique did not develop until 1946, a year after marrying fellow artist Lee Krasner. His earlier work drew influences from “primitive” works, especially Indian art. Gombrich considers Pollock as the artist who “most of all” aroused our interest in the process of painting.

“Every good painter paints what he is”*

Under the light of this study I feel I am somewhat hinting that Pollock was anti-feminist, but what I mean to point out here is the assumptions that are unconsciously at work here- a) that painters are men and b)that art is autobiographical. It could therefore been seen as a comment that supposes good artwork to be about the male self- it perpetuates the myth of the great male artist.

Pollock by NamuthPicture of artist by Hans Namuth (1915-1990)

The film from which this image comes from, from certain feminist perspectives was seen as “the attempt to install the image of the artist as modern, as American, as masculine”**

Sources- Taschen’s Art of the 20th Century, (Part 1: Painting, p.788/9, 2000), *, E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (p.602, 6th edition, 2002, Phaidon),, **Griselda Pollock Cockfights and Other Parades, Oxford Art Journal (2003 26:2, p.141)

To try out Pollock’s technique in a clean environment: (I wonder what the man himself would make of it…)

Weekly Tasks

As part of the course I am taking (upon which this blog is based), we are set weekly tasks for a portfolio. This is a copy of the list which can be used as a way of navigating through my posts.

Weekly Tasks

Week 1:

a) Research a basic biography of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell

b) analyse five of the sheet of photographs you were given taken during the 1950s of American artists. How is gender inscribed into the manner in which these artists are represented at work or in formal poses?

Week 2.

Using Foucault’s text as a guide, write your own analysis of the painting Las Meninas by Velasquez, using this exercise in description to develop your own close reading skills and your language for analysis of a painting. Please seek out another interpretation of the painting in a survey art history book. Please also seek out portraits by Velasquez of members of the Spanish Royal Family and analyse the codes for the presentation of royal masculinities and feminities with regard to age and social role.

Week 3

Who was Anicia Juliana? How can her portrait from the Vienna Dioscurides be udnerstood as an embodiment of dynastic ideology?

Week 4

Do a visual analysis of Fig. 1 in the Caviness article. What elements of the image are conventions and what elements are innovative in terms of style or iconography or composition? How does it work to capture the idea of the visionary?

Week 5

Make detailed notes on the readings. Which is each author’s argument for the power of the fragmented or grotesque female body? Do they see any problems or area of ambivalnce?


Week 7

Week 8

Provide visual analyses of the various orders of space in four paintings from the moment of Parisian modernism (1860-1890) in order to explore the precise way in which new modes of painting and composing pictures negotiate the city, its modern spaces and the differences of gender and sexuality enacted in those spaces. How does modernist form relate to modern class, gender, race and sexual relations?

Week 9

In 2007 there were a range of exhibitions on the historical moment when art changed feminism and feminism intervened in art. Research catalogues, websites and reviews of these shows:



Gender Battles

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Venice Biennale 2005 (see website)

Documenta 12 2007 (see website)

How does each exhibition explain its project and explain the history of feminism in art. What works are shown in several exhibitions? Who appear to be the key artists? What are the categories? How were Venice 2005 and Documenta 12 reviewed and why?

Reference: Parker and Pollock Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1987 with Broude and Garrard The Power of Feminist Art