The Picture Within the Picture

A Talk

I think there are serious drawbacks to terms like modernism and post-modernism.  They seem too large to do much good.  They’re generalisations; and they concern time rather than some way of making art.  Modernism is like saying ‘nowism’.  Post-modernism is like saying ‘after-nowism’.  Since we can’t help but live any sooner or later than ‘now’, the first term must embrace everything that has ever been done – after all, what has been done can only ever have ever been done in the “present” of its time, while the second term seems a nonsense.  On the other hand, I can make something of the word cubism in an art-making context because it refers to a specific way of visualising objects, and I understand what is designated by impressionism.  But, for me, terms like modernism and post-modernism are really more concerned with temporal chapters in the evolution of culture, and I think that’s something I’ve been kicking against.

For instance I’ve noticed how most of the modern artists who survived into the eighties were immediately appropriated by post-modernist theoreticians and called post-modern artists.  This went for the poets as well.  John Ashbery has been called a great modern poet as well as a great post-modern poet.  A friend of mine was telling me that Lyotard identified modernism as more or less ending by the 1920s, whereas certainly in my experience modernism was still going into the seventies.

So I find these terms problematic and instead I’ve been interested in identifying the various currents in art as if they were several rivers running through creativity from age to age.  One of these rivers might be termed the Grotesque, another might be Formalism, another Grandeur.  For a very long time indeed there seem to have been some artists preoccupied with each of these concerns.   Another river might be what I call Immoralism.   Artists tend to find themselves immersing themselves in one of these rivers in particular because it’s the river that appeals to something in their character, though some like to bathe in more than one river.  This is an antidote to thinking that one must do grotesque art because it has now become the fashion for all of us to do it or for all of us to do formalist art now that it’s trendy to do so – for thats a temptation that comes about when we see art in terms of a series of chronological ensuings.   I’m not sure that’s really what’s going on.  An artist called Michael Druks once suggested to me that what you’ve actually got is a tree with various branches coming up and if you cut horizontally across the tree at any one time you find that all these branches are going on growing and developing simultaneously.

OK, so another thing I’m interested in is talking about these rivers in a way that embraces more than one form and therefore bringing in literature as well as painting and in some cases film and in some cases music because I think quite often these tendencies among artists are found in different media.

So when we start thinking about the picture within the picture perhaps we might begin by looking at some of the literary equivalents to pictures within pictures, because if we were to think about it in literary terms we could be talking about books within books, or stories within stories, and I suppose one of the most commonly known stories within stories is Alice in Wonderland.   Alice through the Looking Glass too.  In both books, Alice begins in some sort of quotes reality.  In the first book, we find her lying down beside her nurse, and then she goes off to explore and falls down a rabbit hole into some other space – into another world in other words – out of this book which is the reality of a Victorian girl into the book of the dodo, the place of the walrus and the carpenter and the caterpillar smoking his hookah.  We find the same thing in the second part of her adventures when she goes through the mirror following the kitten into the garden and onto the strange chess-board which is Looking Glass Land.

Another set of books which have this tendency of taking you through the threshold are the Narnia stories. You remember The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Here your first entry into Narnia is through the wardrobe and you begin pushing through fur coats and then gradually the fur coats turn into conifers and then suddenly you come out into a wonderful wood of wolves and witches.  And so the story within the story begins.  There is in contemporary literature – and particularly in children’s literature – quite an interest in what you might call novels with doors which lead into other worlds.

One of the great exponents of this was Raymond Roussel, a tremendous dandy and a precursor of surrealism whose books are almost like Egyptian tombs.  Each is contained in a sort of pyramid of writing and you open the lock of some intricate door in it to go into an environment of contraptions and contrivances.  These contrivances occur one after another.  Bear in mind also that the notion of a thing contained inside a thing is a key aspect of the culture of ancient Egypt – consider how, within its stone coffin, the mummy-case contains the figure which it purports to replicate.  M. L. d’Otrange Mastai traces the history of pictorial illusion back to the painted sarcophagi of Egypt in her comprehensive study, Illusion in Art.

I should also mention Steppenwulf by Herman Hesse – where again different layers are revealed – like an onion shedding its skin.  Steppenwulf is about a person who is terribly worried about his split personality and then as he pursues his anxiety about being split, he meets various other personalities.  One of them is Mozart, who laughs at him and says, My dear I’ve got at least twelve personalities and really everybody should have at least fourteen or fifteen personalities if not a hundred. And so again this idea of different realities – in this case of realities in the self – is brought up.

These are all twentieth century references. But where did it begin – this tendency to look at fictions which lead into other fictions, or pictures which lead into other pictures?  I want to trace it very rapidly through history, starting with the Romans, though, as I’ve already shown, it goes back at least to the Egyptians.

One of the first things to say about pictures within pictures is that we find them in nature.  We see ourselves reflected in each other’s eyes, and a landscape can be reflected in water.  We notice this in the Narcissus myth, where Narcissus falls in love with his reflection, and obviously the Romans were very much aware of it.

At Hadrian’s villa, in Tuscany, there is a pond which has been contrived so that the reflections of the arches surrounding it get reflected and duplicated in the water.  These arches are vestigial doorways – they don’t go anywhere, except where we already are.  Reflection is evident to us without us having to do very much to the world, and this was something that was clear to the Romans.  However there is a difference.  There is an unreality about that world we see in the water.  Narcissus, after all, drowned in his reflection.  And there is an uncanniness about figures carved in stone; life-like without being alive. Hadrian’s pond is encircled by stone heroes.  They stand in the surrounding arches.  Something that should be remembered about heroes is that they are always dead.  In Greek, the word for heroes is the same as the word for the dead.

Roman houses didn’t have many windows.  If you walked down the average street in ancient Rome, you wouldn’t see windows on the street.  You would see the secure front door of each villa set into a very tall wall.  They were even more anxious about burglars than we are.  And so you would see nothing else.  The house tended to open up into its courtyard in much the same way as Arabic houses do now if you are in Tangier.  And then inside their houses the dining room might have no windows at all.  We can understand how they then wished to create a sense of an outside by employing trompe l’oeil, that is by making illusory windows – after all a window is the most natural of all pictures within pictures.  Look at the decoration of any Roman villa and you will see operating two fundamental ploys that artists like to use – paintings painted on painted walls and the illusion of windows painted on those walls as well.

When one thinks of modern American artists such as James Rosenquist and David Salle one can see that what they’re doing is not so much new as a re-invention of what is as old as the villas of the Romans.  This is not to denigrate their work.   It’s simply that they use pictures as quotations in their paintings, and this is a time-honoured practice.  It’s intriguing to look through these fake windows on a villa’s interior wall because what we’re looking through to is fantastic!  I mean if that sumptuous view is outside your house you must be “a Maecenas” – a contemporary of Augustus, and one of the greatest millionaires of all time.  Out there, through that illusory opening, you’ve got this incredible set of porticos and unsupported stairs.  It’s an architecture that could never hold itself up.  So inside the idea that this is an illusion is a knowingness.  The illusion is being alluded to – it’s illusory architecture in itself.  When we see a painted Roman window we can tell that it’s not just a fictitious window – it’s knowingly so.  Inside its frame we get other frames, other windows opening out, which again lead the eye on, into some make-believe open air.  But these fantastic spaces are usually unpeopled.  Even depictions of statues are rare.  It’s uncanny.  There is something ghostly or deathly about these spaces.  If you like they are similar to those towns we could destroy with that new sort of bomb intended to destroy the people while leaving the architecture standing.  These deserted, grandiose urban landscapes refer to some land of the dead.  As soon as one starts dealing with illusion one knows obviously that one is not dealing with the real world. You cannot walk into that wall or through it.  There is a wall there.  It’s actually a wall.

And therefore it is a view into the beyond, and to some extent one is looking out at this illusory land and because illusory it is that land of the dead.  But it’s piquant.  It’s piquant to sit in that room.  Let us suppose it is a dining-room.  You’re eating masses of food, and as you eat that food, you’re looking out at the vanity of your human wishes, you’re looking out at mortality.  It gives tremendous flavour to an apple to think about the transitoriness of life.  This is acme of Epicureanism.

One of the great emblems of this comes from Pompeii – from the House of the Mysteries – you probably know the more famous frieze of the Dominatrix wielding the whip and you know there are countless enigmas concerning that mural.  But in that same house there is a painted illusion of a door.  And this has tremendous transcendental, metaphysical and even masonic significance.  I know of a masonic temple in Cardiff.  The front of it has a stone door.  It’s just a carving of a door.  You can’t get through it.  And so this symbol – I’m not very well versed in masonic iconography – but I guess there may be some definite theme connected with the idea of the illusory door, the door which seems to be there but is not there.  It’s a theme that we find running through Mithraic thinking in the Roman period, and we might expect it to persist among mysterious alchemical and secret societies in the Renaissance and among the Illuminati in revolutionary France.  And again if you like perhaps you could look at it as a sign of scepticism: here we are being promised eternal life, being promised a door into the beyond, but when you try the door you find that it’s a wall.

So one of the well-springs of the idea of the picture within the picture is this idea of doors and windows painted on walls.  But the Romans were exceedingly artful, so in certain frescos – for instance in a wall painting created in the cubiculum of the villa at Boscoreale – we get a double play.   This cubiculum, or room, is no longer at Boscoreale – it’s been moved lock, stock and barrel and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where it has been reconstructed.  But it’s here that we get a painting of a window onto an illusory garden, and next to it we get a real window looking out, originally, into the courtyard.  What we’ve got is a contest between the two forces, the real and the illusory, and so a sense of games with illusion comes in:  real window, illusion of window – and then there are often illusory pillars holding up the illusory building you should be leaning out of in order to peer into the illusory garden.

In Norman Bryson’s Looking at the Overlooked, our attention is drawn to a typical motif in these wall paintings.  It’s a motif which can also be seen as the start of still-life: the depiction of bowls of fruit in front of illusory windows.  These bowls of fruit or natural dairy products are called Xenias.  They perform the pictorial job of pushing back what lies behind them, increasing the overall depth of the image.  The Xenias may be fruit or bread or whatever, but on the whole they are raw objects rather than items which are cooked or bread which has been baked.  Xenia means a gift to the guest.  And often, in rather affluent houses, you wouldn’t just give your guest a bedroom, you’d give him a whole dining-room of his own.  One felt that it might be a trifle condescending to ask a guest to come and actually dine with you – as if he hadn’t got any food of his own, you know – embarrassing – so what you’d do is supply not only a bedroom but a dining-room, and then into the dining-room you would put some very natural things like figs and olives, things that the guest could have plucked from the tree himself – utterly natural – didn’t require any cooking – so that the guest would feel that he was just there living near the host in a state of nature, able to eat those natural fruits of the earth that required no contrivance.

Bryson draws our attention to a book called the Imagines by Philostratus, which is a book of prose descriptions, written in the third century AD.  Philostratus describes the paintings in an enormous art-gallery somewhere in Naples.  The art gallery doesn’t exist.  We don’t even know if it ever existed except as an idea for a book.  Philostratus goes into detail about a hundred paintings, none of which have survived or may have even existed.  Of these there are two of them which are interesting, according to Bryson, not only from the point of view of the picture within the picture but also when one considers the notions surrounding Levi-Strauss’s terms, ‘the raw and the cooked’.

The first Xenia to which Bryson refers begins “it is a good thing to gather figs and also not to pass over in silence the figs in this picture, purple figs dripping with juices.”  Now that Xenia has only very natural things in a natural state.  It has figs, chestnuts grapes – just the things that would be seen in the classical Xenia you offered to your guest so that he like you could partake of the fruits of nature.  Even the basket has been twisted out of the growing vine.  The description ends: “on another leaf there are bowls of milk not merely white but gleaming for cream floating upon it makes it seem to gleam” – again something very simply pulled from the udders of the cow.

In the second Xenia there’s a hare in a cage, and several other hares hanging up being drained of blood so that they can be cooked, and there’s bread which has been seasoned with fennel and parsley, and also with poppy seed. There are some plump geese ready to be put into the oven, and there’s also a compote called a palathè  which was a sort of sweetmeat.  In other words the second Xenia is totally different – it’s entirely made of things which are going to be roasted, boiled or cooked.  Its bread has already been kneaded and baked.  One meal is an absolutely simple meal – just things plucked from the tree – the other is a contrived meal, a meal which has to be prepared.  And the second meal is much more ostentatious than the first.  It’s nouveau riche.  It proclaims the affluence of the host and his vanity – that he has this marvellous palathè which is the best you’ll get anywhere.  So there’s already a very big difference in the type of subjects offered in these still-lives.

Still-life is one of the great tests for trompe l’oeil.  Can you make an apple or a pear look as if the viewer could sink his teeth into it?  Your grapes should fool the birds who should dive into the wall they are painted on.  Trompe l’oeil is a mistake of the eye.  It’s intended to mislead us.  Its subjects are often in disarray, arranged in some higgledy-piggledy fashion, carelessly, it seems, as if we had just come across this mess on a table – the detritus of an abandoned meal.  In many cases, we would be justified in supposing that there was no composition at all.  As Lacan points out, when we see there is always more than meets the eye.  There is always more in our eye than our eye can edit and compose in a painting.  But the art of showing off the skill of making things look alive often settles for an insouciant arrangement to bring out the feeling that it’s just like real life.  The viewer has to do the editing, to decide what’s there and choose with his eye.  Now I think that history of still-life is bound up very closely with that of the picture within the picture.  Already in the Boscoreale cubiculum, there is a Xenia balanced on top of a golden chest and the chest has a picture of a city on it.

This painted Xenia stands on a painted chest in between the actual window looking into the real courtyard of the villa and the illusory window painted on the same wall.  As usual the illusory window shows an absent world, a world devoid of the living, whereas the Xenia purports to be placed on an object in the room itself, a room filled with living viewers.  But the Xenia is as much an illusion as the painted window, as is the object it stands on.  So equally this beautiful bowl of fruit which is being offered is actually a gift from that absent world.   It is an illusion itself, and is therefore inedible, not of your living world.

Back to Philostratus.  His idea of creating a fictitious museum resonates in Locus Solus, a novel by Roussel which also describes a fictitious museum, where artists create kinetic contraptions with thousands of human teeth from the mouths of executed tribesmen.  Each art-object is the outcome of some extravagant tale dictated by Roussel’s method – which was to choose one sentence and then find a sentence which rhymed with the first in its entirety, and then, having hit upon this pair of rhyming sentences, to write a seamless narrative which began with the first sentence and ended with the last.  The resulting work is a cornucopia of stories – where one story often dovetails into the next: stories within stories.  Aside from the method, the conception of a described museum comes up in the third century AD and re-emerges in the period preceding surrealism.

We’ll move on to the late sixteenth century.  If we see raw food on a table it has one meaning.  As soon as its image gets transferred onto a flat surface its meaning changes.  Irony is introduced.  It is true that painting is almost always an emblem of affluence, for unless it self-destructs, a picture is a possession.  But a painting may also return our thoughts to the humblest products of the earth: carrots, peppers… ordinary fruit and vegetables which the artist has laboured over with love, to stress the marvel of God’s creations, which can be so incredibly beautiful however lowly their origins.  Still lives of the sort exemplified by the raw Xenia have a relationship to humility, often they have been painted in monasteries, as meditations on the vanity of grandeur.  In one painting by Van der Hamen y Leon, the humble still life is arranged in front of a window in winter. The chill landscape, though, presents us with an ambiguity we are always going to have to deal with – is it a window or is it a picture?  We don’t quite know.

If it’s a window we can assume that this is some sort of store for the winter and that the chill of the outside world makes it a useful pantry.  Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber – a painting by Juan Sanchez in the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego – stresses the geometry which is innate to these very ordinary objects.  They are set in a strange space, a window ledge opening onto blackness.  Is this a cold-store where vegetable commodities are chilled by the night-air?  We’ve got a picture within a picture here.  Figuration, as exemplified by the fruit and the veg and the sill of the window is offset by the black abstraction beyond it – which is blacker than any Ad Reinhardt.  It’s a painting of nothing, but it’s still a painting set into that space behind the objects.  That’s at layer three: layer one would be a real melon set in front of this painting, as Braco Dimitrijevic used to set real fruit in front of Cezanne still-lives in the eighties.  The second layer is the painted melon, at one remove from us but inhabiting the same world as the sill, while the blackness partakes of the layer that lies beyond that painted sill.  In pictures within pictures we are always dealing with these step-backs from the surface.   There is also an irony about the the vaunted humility of the objects, presented by this Jesuit painter Cotán, for some of them are suspended from strings in order to display their fine geometry.  So in a sense the appearance of these objects is not as raw as their nature.  They have been cooked by the artist, cooked by the very act of their presentation to us as art.

Backtracking from the sixteenth century, an early fifteenth century illumination in the Biblioteque Nationale, (Paris ms. 13420, f.101) shows Marcia painting her self-portrait from Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Claris Mulieribus (Of famous women), written 1361. Boccaccio – more well-known as author of the Decameron – credits Marcia with inventing the self-portrait, utilising a mirror to paint herself; and, by the way, his book is entertaining; the first collection of biographies of famous women ever written! Boccaccio, incidentally, was a Euhemist, who believed that pre-Christian gods must have been actual people, as any true Christian should! So many of his first women are mythological but he writes about them as an atheist would, making-up real-life explanations for their shenanigans!


In Wolfgang Heimbach’s Woman Looking at a Table in the Staatliche Gemäldegalerie in Kassel, we begin to see how effectively the picture within the picture can operate when it comes to telling a story.  This picture is placed on the cover of Bryson’s book. The woman is staring in through a window.  It is winter.  Her breath mists the pane.  A magnificent spread of meats and fruit is displayed below the window.  But the window she is peering through is barred.  Remember the equation of humility and affluence with the raw and the cooked.  Here, among other luxurious items, we have a smoked ham, a compote, baked bread, and what looks like the most incredible cream cake just below the woman’s nose.  And meanwhile there is fruit, a natural thing, which has been thrust aside by the prepared delicacies, and almost pushed off the table to make room for the beer and the wine – beverages which demand the most elaborate processes before they are ready to be consumed. Another aspect to this painting is that it brings about a certain marriage of genres – still life with portraiture.  Mediation between genres is a distinct feature of the picture within the picture.  The misting of the glass emphasises the third layer in this work – the wall and the glazed window in it – which performs the act of separation and brings about the mediation of the genres in this case.

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by Velasquez in the National Gallery is perhaps the finest example of mediation between genres.  Mary and Martha are the sisters of Lazarus.  Lazarus has been raised from the dead and is having an engrossing conversation with Christ and Mary, to the fury of Martha who has to prepare their meal.  Three different genres have been organised into this one painting.  There’s the still life of the meal with its humble commodities – raw fish, eggs, crude jug and clove of garlic.  Most of these objects gleam, including the mortar Martha is using – and on an abstract level these gleaming things take the eye on a tour of the picture’s various components which include a mirror hanging above the table.  Reflected in it, and thus placed at the other end of the room, we can see Christ with Lazarus sitting at his feet and his sister behind him – a finely composed religious painting replete with drapery – high art as opposed to the low exercise of food arrangements – for so still life was perceived.  But Martha’s business-like fist intrudes on the still life as she grinds away with the pestle in the mortar.  We are led up her arm to her resentful eyes, which seem to be looking out at us in accordance with the conventions of portraiture.  However, since we know that Christ is sitting in the place of the viewer, we become aware that her resentment is directed at him and at Lazarus and her sister.

There’s a debate about whether the reflection is just that or a scene viewed through an interior window occurring in another room.  The painting has been heavily restored so the answer is difficult to establish by examination.  However José Lopez-Rey argues for the image being a reflection seen in a mirror surrounded by a wooden frame.  The figures in the scene gesture with their left hands – indicating that it is actually a reflection – and this interpretation aptly locates the resentful sister’s gaze.  But the issue raises a fresh ambiguity about pictures within pictures.  In every case we have to ask ourselves, is this a painting, or is it a window, or is it a mirror?  In the case of the work we’re debating, the argument for the scene being reflected in a mirror is born out by the strategy Velasquez used for Las Meninas – where the Royals viewing the Infanta posing for her portrait with her maids-in-waiting and other attendants are viewed in a mirror at the back of the chamber.  In the first case, the picture within the picture places the viewer in the position of Christ – we see the incident through his eyes – thus Christ is in a sense within us.  In the second, the strategy places the viewer in the position of the King of Spain – and the regal spirit of Spain is within us.

Velasquez served his apprenticeship in the creation of bodegas – or tavern paintings – a Spanish term equated with the humble veracity of still-life.  In Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, the high value attached to religious or historical painting and the low value placed on the bodegas seem values that the painter has managed to subvert.  They appear reversed.  The humble is placed in the foreground.  The transcendental is situated in the background, made of lesser importance – although, if a mirror, it refers to the first level, that of the viewer’s reality.  The harsh stratum of society which Martha occupies is that of unremitting toil, it generates the potentially disruptive evil of resentment.  But Martha is grinding the garlic, a holy bulb, the solace of peasants and workmen, used to ward off the evil eye (Lazarus, after all, has only just returned from the underworld).  Garlic can also annul the spite of nymphs envious of pregnant women and engaged maidens.  Could this painting have been intended for a nunnery – and is Mary a precursor of a ‘bride of Christ’?  Is Martha crushing the garlic’s goodness out of it in her anger, or is she releasing its beneficent odours, despite her anger – thus sanctifying her labour as she prepares this meal for a sacred individual?  In this painting, the conflict between high and low art becomes a metaphor for the ambiguity of Christ’s incarnate nature, and it echoes his mediation between impoverished reality and transcendental glory.

When I first gave this talk, I found the image of this painting in the library and had it made into a slide.  The painting spanned two pages, so you could see the seam of the book running through it.  That added more layers to the image.  When my audience saw it they could tell that this was a slide of a reproduction in a book which showed a portrait impinging on a still life with a transcendental image behind it.  Had someone taken a photograph of me as I indicated to some area of the picture, yet more layers would have been added to the image.  None of this will surprise those of you who use Photoshop.

To return to the use of mirrors in the work of Velasquez.  Somehow we have come back to Narcissus and his reflection in the pool.  Many of the emblems and strategies with which the picture within the picture concerns itself are indicators of vanity.  The still life may be known as a Vanitas, showing the frailty of our wishes, its fruit attacked by worms, while weevils burrow into the biscuits, reminding us of our mortality.  Again, scenes with mirrors in, or naked females posing with mirrors, may signify vanity, or they may simply be a convenient way of presenting us with a view of a pretty face in addition to a view of a lovely posterior.

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As well as preparing surprises in mirrors, pictures within pictures are preoccupied with that displacement of back for front which mirrors give, the scene reflected being in front of the canvas rather than residing in the background.  In Las Meninas (The Maids in Waiting), Velasquez presents us with the back of a painting.  We see the artist’s subjects, and we see the artist, but not the work which engages him, only a view of its canvas, from behind.  And then there’s that picture by Magritte – of the man looking into a mirror and seeing the back of his head, a work which denies reflection and substitutes a regressive series for its commonplace return of the gaze.  The notion of a regressive series permeates the art of Magritte.  It’s the universe of the mummy’s box inside its stone tomb, of Russian dolls, one inside the other:  the notion of the picture within the picture within the picture, the artist painting a painting of the artist painting a painting… and so on to infinity.

A few years ago I wrote a poem inspired by a lecture on Vermeer given by the painter Michael Crowther.  This is a picture within a poem, and it has some relevance to several of the issues we are considering here:

Mike, the bearded teacher of Fine Art,
Is talking on Vermeer, and in the darkened
Lecture theatre, carousel projectors
Aim at vacant wall space on each side
Of a bulky video monitor. His first
Illuminated slide comes up behind
The lectern where he scratches in his grey,
A trifle anxious, with so much to talk about.
The slide is of A Lady at the Virginals
With Cavalier.  Projected, it is blown
To more than twice its actual size, and Mike
Proceeds to show how form arrests an image
One is drawn towards by steep perspective
And the chequered floor invaded by
A sumptuous carpet thrown across the table
In the foreground.  He remarks how hastily
The floor tiles have been painted – rendered in
The cursory convention of some imitation
Marble, as opposed to the intensely
Focussed detail of the table’s corner
Covered by the carpet.  With a stick,
He points out how the woman at the deeper
End of the picture, standing at her virginals,
Her face reflected in the glass above,
Appears hemmed in by rectangles; by those
Of the instrument itself, its open lid,
The glass above her, and the faded blue
Chair before her, at the feet of which
A cello has been laid down on the floor.
Mike stresses how the artist took particular
Pains establishing the chair was worn,
Employing a paintbrush with a single hair
To indicate its over-sat-on edge.
As for the resplendent cavalier
Standing somewhat over-near the girl,
He rests a hand so elegantly on
His cane you’d think the hand did little else.
Mike says the lines which follow the perspective
Underneath the light-source to the left
Have been deliberately delayed by blemishes:
Chips along the edges of each window-ledge.
Indeed, the very pattern of the floor
Softens the corner, blurs the sharpness of
Its angle, stills the picture; to create
A less determined aura round the man
And the young woman whose alerted face
Is only seen reflected in the glass
Which seems inclined towards her hidden keys.
Finally, Mike mentions that the painting
One can only see a part of, which
Is hung behind the shoulder of the cavalier,
Would instantly be recognised by anyone
Contemporaneous with the artist as
A Roman Kindness, that is, of a maiden
Suckling her poor, distressed papa
Who may have left his cello on the floor.

The Roman Kindness refers to a senator of ancient Rome who was imprisoned without food.  His pregnant daughter visited him and permitted him to suck her breasts for her milk, thus keeping him alive.  The suggestion in Vermeer’s painting is therefore that the daughter of the house is sustaining her aged parent through her lucrative liaisons. Thus narrative is conferred to the painting via commentary on the room in which the scene occurs – a commentary provided by the painting hanging on its wall.

The simple idea of hanging up paintings on walls in pictures is another rich theme utilised by this genre.  We see it used by Hogarth.  If you look at the Rake’s Progress series, the pictures on the walls are satirically referring to the reality of what’s going on.  It’s a simpler way of using the picture within the picture than this idea of reflections and windows and doorways, but it’s still very much played on, particularly in the eighteenth century.

But if we leave Hogarth aside, and also turn from the austerities of Dutch painting to the more sumptuous styles of Italy, we will find other ways of creating pictures within pictures.  In Titians painting of Venus and Cupid with an Organist, for instance, there seems to be a certain synesthesia going on.  Is it a painting of her, or is she only incidental? – an excuse to reveal the window that looks out over an extravagant panorama, a landscape which might have been painted not by Titian but by Claude.  Wonderful space!

But there’s something about the musician who plays for her.  His position and the way that he’s looking at her suggests that he is painting her portrait in sound – his attitude is that of a painter.  The window is, in an imaginary sense, his canvas and he is turning towards his subject, drinking her in with his eyes.  She is his mythical landscape.  This brings us to the theme of the artist and his model which often creates situations in which pictures occur inside pictures.  In its own abstruse way, Las Meninas is a picture of the artist with his models.  Picasso created an entire series of works based on this work by Velasquez, and Picasso himself was preoccupied with depicting artists with models.

At the same time as Hogarth was painting in Britain, Pietro Longhi was painting in Venice.  In one of his works, The Painter in his Studio, a lady has come with her male companion to sit for her portrait.

Longhi is a master of the gaze.  In his small paintings, the eye-lines dart through the space, darning it, and connecting one character to another in visual dramas often based on situations to be found in the sparkling comedies of the Venetian playwright, Goldoni.  Some central personage is usually looking out of the picture, but someone inside the picture is looking at her, while someone else glances at him and observes how closely he watches.  The characters often wear masks.  In The Painter in his Studio, there are five faces but only three characters. We see the back of the artist, and his face is turned towards the lady.  In front of him is the portrait he is working on – and we get two views of her face – that of her actual presence in the studio and that of her portrait on the easel.  Hers is a vacant stare and a somewhat forced smile.  Her affluent companion stands behind her.  It’s hard to tell what he is looking at, since he stands to the rear of the easel, but the line of the painter’s marl-stick connects his patron’s rather absent-minded gaze to the pot of turps standing on a small paint-smeared work-bench beside the artist, and one notices that he is reaching for his wallet.  He is wearing a domino cape, a black three-cornered hat and a mask – suggesting that he has hidden his identity while coming to the studio.  But he has removed his white mask (the fifth face in the picture) and wears it now at the side of his face so that it stares in a deathly way up at the ceiling.  Further to the right, behind the couple, a pallette hangs against the wall and a cello is turned towards the wall.  The canvas on the easel looks as if it is finished.

Has the companion paid a surprise visit to the studio?  And has the probably costly painting been finished for some time?  Have these sessions being going on for a while now, accompanied by some pretty musical interludes?  Pictures within pictures lend themselves to narratives which are pieced together through all the various components made available to us.  But these various components result in a single story.

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Now let’s turn to literature and consider the effect of stories within stories.  Two issues emerge here, that of referral and that of incompletion.  Referral concerns the conceit of attribution.   Plato refers to Socrates in his dialogues, as Carlos Castaneda gives us the thoughts of Juan.  On a banal level, this is a simple trick:  if I say that I sat at the feet of someone and heard him say something, I’m more likely to convince my listeners of the importance of the dictum, for I thus aver that I have been impressed by it, which is better than saying that I thought it up myself.  The chorus in a Greek drama fulfils a similar function to that of the author who refers to an authority, for the chorus is often a crowd of onlookers, and it mediates between spectator and action.  The chorus is in a sense a fictitious audience, and by being moved by the action it gives a lead to the audience – but whereas the audience may be watching a play the chorus is watching an event unfold – thus we have an audience looking at witnesses watching an action, and when that action involves a messenger reporting an action offstage to some main character – death must always occur offstage according to attic convention – another layer gets added to the series.

Incompletion concerns the perspective from which the subject is viewed:  it figures as another impulse, and it may cause stories to run parallel with each other rather than exist within each other.  No story is ever complete:  another view of it could always cause another aspect of it to emerge, and this is sometimes called perspectivism.  We feel this especially when the story seems important.  Perhaps the most obvious instance of this process is the four gospels – four different ‘versions’ of the life of Christ.  To tell one story from several points of view is a technique that William Faulkner explored in The Sound and the Fury, that Lawrence Durrell used in The Alexandria Quartet, and Milorad Pavic employed in The Dictionary of the Khazars.   It’s a species of literary cubism.  Pavic tells the story of a mythical race from a Jewish point-of view, an orthodox point of view and from an Islamic point of view.  There are also two versions, and indeed two editions of the book, one ‘male’ and one ‘female’.

Then there’s a whole genre of literature we might think of as “narratives of doors”.  One of the great examples of this genre is the 1001 Nights, the classic of Arabia. In many of these stories, a princess will meet three tailors, say, and each tailor meets a wizard, and everyone met has a story to tell and it all works out in the end.   Now this was called “a novel of boxes” – it’s very much like the Russian doll composed of shells within shells – within each story there’s another story.  It may be no accident that a Spaniard, that is, Velasquez, first refined the picture within the picture.  Consider the influence of the Moors on Spanish culture.  In their story-spinning, we must acknowledge the origins of the picaresque novel – that is, one written in episodes rather than one concerning a ruffian – though both varieties flourished early in Spain.  Moorish architecture, the Alhambra, for instance, actually realises many of the airy fantasies which are mere fictions in Roman wall painting: here we find windows within windows, arches within arches, vistas that take us through one chamber into another.  And just as the Marquis de Sade seems to have modelled the construction of certain of his books on Versailles – the east wing being devoted to flagellation, the west to sodomy – so the Arabs constructed a literature modelled on their palaces – or perhaps it’s the other way round.

In the 1001 nights, Scheherezade has to tell her husband the sultan a story every night.  The king is a homicidal insomniac.  If she doesn’t manage to tell a story her head will be cut off.  Each night she stops the story just before its end – leaving the sultan with a cliff-hanger.   The structure is essentially erotic.   It titillates.  A great deal of episodic writing can be traced back to this Oriental fund of bifurcating fairy-tales, and many European fairy-tales bifurcate in a similar manner.  In the Renaissance, novels comprising collections of stories were extremely popular, and of these the most renowned is the Decameron by Boccaccio.

The first part of Don Quixote by Cervantes contains several stories told to the knight by characters he meets during the course of his adventures.  Predicaments and quandaries revealed by these stories get resolved during the course of subsequent events.  This is a fairly standard procedure for the Renaissance story-teller to follow, but a far more sophisticated use of the story within the story strategy is brought into play when the first volume of these adventures figures as a dynamic element in the second volume – with the knight of the lugubrious aspect – as Don Quixote is called – furious that a spurious sequel to his initial errantry has been written by a spurious author.  Clearly, Cervantes must be acknowledged as a pioneer of the book within the book.   Don Quixote’s published past rapidly starts to influence his future.  When he sallies forth once more, on his gaunt steed Rosinante, with his barber’s bowl helmet on his head, and with the down-to-earth Sancho Panza tagging along beside him, the eccentric Don discovers that he has become a celebrity – that the majority of those he meets have read all about him in that already-published first volume!  They expect him to behave in an eccentric manner and indeed encourage him to do so, humouring him by contriving to make it possible for him to live out his illusions of being a knight errant and for his servant to realise his dream of becoming a governor.  It is worth noting that Cervantes makes out that the ‘authentic’ Don Quixote has been written by an Islamic author, and that Cervantes himself spent a number of years as a prisoner of the Moors after the battle of Lepanto in 1571, and almost certainly spoke Arabic.

Apart from Don Quixote, perhaps the finest example of stories within stories to be found in European literature is The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Count Jan Potocki (1761-1815).  Potocki is a legendary figure, a Polish patriot, one of the first men to go up in an air-balloon, possibly a freemason, and an indefatigable traveller.  The manuscript concerns a young army officer called Alphonse van Worden who kept a diary of his experiences in the Sierra Morena in 1739.  Forty years later the book, sealed in a casket, is found by a French officer at the sack of the Saragossa.  He is so intrigued by its contents that he allows himself to be captured while reading it.  The manuscript itself is thus a feature in its own narrative – just as the first volume of Don Quixote’s adventures is a feature in the second.  It is also significant, given what I have said about the Moorish origins of picaresque literature, that the setting chosen for the action of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is the Sierra Morena in Spain.  Potocki was a pioneering ethnographer and spoke fluent Arabic.  In demographic terms, we might speak of the Spanish condition as that of a culture within a culture, or indeed of there being three cultures there – one Christian, one Arabic and one Jewish.  This in itself resonates with the Balkan condition expressed with confusing clarity by Pavic in The Dictionary of the Khazars.

In Potocki’s labyrinthine novel – a veritable Garden of Forking Paths as described in the short story of that name by Jorge Luis Borges – the action consists of a cascade of stories.  The stories abound in witches, demons, bandits, sheikhs and dervishes. Each is complete in itself, we realise, once we discover its outcome.   However, these outcomes are forever being delayed, since each story is interrupted by a fresh story that some character encountered in the earlier story begins to relate, only to be interrupted in turn.  The novel is thus constructed as a series of parentheses enclosing other parentheses – a technique employed later in La Doublure– a poem by Raymond Roussel.  By the time we get to the ‘onion-skin’ centre of the ‘manuscript’, the interweaving of these stories has become so complex that even its characters have begun to complain – (click on the image below to watch a marvellous film of this novel made in 1964 by Polish director Wojciech Has).

Here we are dealing with delay, as we are in The 1001 Nights, and as we would be in abundantly erotic writing, when a character who is being rogered is asked to describe a previous act of wickedness while the rogering is going on.  Erotic literature abounds in stories within stories – for this method of telling leads to a culmination of simultaneous climaxes.  The jouissance of an achieved ending is constantly being put off – increasing the need for release and positing some ideal apotheosis of our pleasure, when all expirations ‘come together’ at the same time.  Equally, the structure of the picture within the picture can be viewed as both vaginal and regressive: an entrance revealing an entrance into an entrance (and the act of love being the outcome of an amatory act that was the outcome of another one).  However, when we move from painting to literature, we notice that the frame-within-frame technique seems to lead to dissimilar results.  In painting, it has been suggested, pictures within pictures generally result in a single narrative, a unified message.  It is only in the twentieth century that such unity gets flouted.  In writing, we discover that stories within stories have usually bring about a fracturing of the narrative, provoking interruption and delay – even if it all works out in the end.  And, when stories bifurcate, one senses a reminder of genealogy: how each of us has two parents, each of whom had two parents and so on.  Bear in mind, also, that because it exists in space we can see all of a picture “at the same time”, whereas, in a literary work, we can only entertain a new story by putting aside the story we are in – because the sentences occur in time.

Often the long-awaited culmination to an interrupted tale never gets delivered; the overwhelming urge to explore yet another side-track becoming the dominant process.  The narrative peters out eventually, losing itself in some swampy ground, which is what happens to The Arcadia, by Sir Philip Sidney, otherwise a marvellous compendium of heroes in travesty, knightly derring-do and breath-taking poetry, which will be discussed further in my next essay.  Alternatively a somewhat contrived ending is finally tacked on, in exasperation, by the exhausted author – as with The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.  Nevertheless, Potocki’s book is one of the key works for the American avant-garde.  John Ashbery is one of its admirers – he is also an expert on Raymond Roussel.

The story within the story often sets up contrasting worlds.  For instance, it was common in Victorian novels, to set up a framing reality as the environment in which to encounter the narrator, from which the narrator launched forth on his tale.  Alice embarks on her journeys into her dream-worlds from such environments.  This sets up a mock “reality” contrasting with the reported reality of the adventure.  It is not quite the case for Alice, since she is an adventurer rather than the narrator, but the framing reality out of which she falls still acts as a down-to-earth contrast to her fantastic adventures.  Since the tragic action must be carried out off stage, classical Greek drama relies heavily on the messenger.  Stories within stories must necessarily consist of reports. And in Elizabethan drama, Hamlet reacts to the most virtual of reports – that of a ghost.  He re-processes that received information by adapting it for the stage in the play within the play.

Stories within stories must consist of reports, but they generally hit on some unity of space and time in which to deliver their messages.  There are exceptions – Virginia Wolfe’s episodic Orlando travels through time and even changes sex, and in More Things in Heaven by Walter Owen, now forgotten, but still one of the greatest horror stories ever written, the ramifications of a curse are traced from the time of Alexander the Great to a climax in the twentieth century.  Potocki’s masterpiece has been called ‘a novel of frames’, and it has the Sierra Morena as its unifying setting.  This basic environment constitutes its all-enclosing frame.  In the work of Georges Perec, the Oulipian novelist, the all-enclosing frame may be an apartment building in which all his characters reside – as is the case for his Life, A User’s Manual.  Their flats may be drab or bizarre, their lives ordinary or exciting, and their stories may interlock – or they may not – just as if one were trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle and occasionally came across a piece which did not fit.  Indeed the jigsaw is the leitmotif  for this book – as a card-game is for Wonderland.  The leitmotif works as another framing device or unifying structure counteracting the tendency in novels of boxes towards fracture and dissolution.  In a work by Daniel Spoerri – The Anecdoted History of Chance – a still life comprising the objects found scattered on top of his desk on a particular day provides the environment for a sequence of descriptions – each article of the desktop described in minute detail.

But even when held together by some framing device, stories within stories still tend to cause a fracturing of the narrative. Uniquely perhaps, coherence of plot is maintained in Hamlet, despite the occurrence of a play within a play.  The inner play is after all a contrivance by the prince, designed to reveal his suspicions without him having to resort to direct accusation.  The play within the play is a sort of caricature, mirroring and mimicking the crime essential to the development of the play (which actually occurs before the play begins). Hamlet himself is very prone to deviate from his purpose.  His tragic ‘mole of nature’, the flaw in his character, is that of prevarication and delay.  Thus his awareness of himself, his self-consciousness, brings about its own set of parentheses contained within parentheses – as awareness of consciousness will – “I am aware of myself being aware of myself.”  When the American performance artist, Stuart Sherman, created his performance version of Hamlet, presented at the Mickery Theatre in Amsterdam in 1980, the cast consisted of some nine Hamlets.  The set was in part made up of cubes contained in hollow boxes.

A more recent use of the play within the play was The Prosecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat performed by the Play-acting Group at the Charenton Asylum under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, written by Peter Weiss in 1964.  Here the revolutionary stridency of the views of the ideologue Marat are undermined by the subjective views of the intellectual de Sade, who can use the grotesque properties of the asylum inmates as his satirical tools, while being nevertheless committed to the asylum himself, and therefore deranged in the eyes of society.

As well as Sherman’s version of Hamlet, a recent performance art usage of this method of art-making was Station House Opera’s Roadmetal Sweetbread created in 2000In this work, the two artists – Julian Maynard Smith and Susan Hart – get filmed creating actions in the space in which they are to perform live later on.  In the subsequent show, they inter-act with their own virtual actions which are projected into the space in which they were filmed.  If not a performance within a performance, this is at least a film within a performance, and thus a development of what used to be called “expanded cinema”.  But it still relies on a base-frame reality in the present on which to display the “reported” reality of the past.  With it’s theoretical emphasis on the integrity of action for itself, it is difficult to see how performance art can set up the performance within the performance without turning into theatre, though a performance by one artist or group of artists might be employed to enclose the work of another artist.  There are, though, great possibilities for the play within the performance or the performance within the play – musicals being but one example.  Elements that figured in a narrative drama might also be used as functional objects contributing to an art performance later in the piece.

Theatres are interesting in themselves from the point of view of our subject.  For at its most conventional the theatre may resemble a doll’s house with one wall removed.  A theatre is a world within the world, a house within a house.  Palladio’s theatre at Vincenza takes this notion to its logical conclusion and creates an architectural set, a street scene, a set though that is made of stone – as permanent as the amphitheatre from which this set may be viewed – so here we have a street within a house.  The massive temple of Pergamon now resides within a museum in Berlin. Sir John Soane’s tomb for his son is a tomb entombed, a shelter residing below a shelter.  Guarini’s architecture for the cathedral in Turin is abstracted from baroque visions of layers of cloudy sky; sun-suffused, supporting angels, and progressing upwards from spheres of cherubim to that of the godhead.  In Guarini’s hands this notion becomes pure geometry – roof above roof above roof.  And the house within the house can come about almost by accident, as children may make dens beneath a table.   Conversely, it may come about by artistic design, as with the rooms within galleries created by Bruce Naumann – these are sometimes illusory, suggesting a rectangular structure when the actuality is triangular, or lifted an inch or so off the floor, as if the room were hovering in the air of the room which encloses it.

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The items lying on Daniel Spoerri’s desk in The Anecdoted History of Chance are flattened out by writing into a text.   By 1885, it was fashionable to flatten still life out, onto a vertical plane.  As early though as 1623 a painter called Wallerand Vaillant had done a painting of a letter-rack – as Bryson points out – for by then there was a tendency to accumulate souvenirs on a flat surface, held in place by a cris-cross lattice of ribbons.  As we move towards the twentieth century, we move more and more towards the surface of the painting.  We know this at least about modernism – that it sought to “de-humanise art”, as Ortega y Gasset puts it, eschewing the “humanitarian” and “heroic” sentiment of some promoted figuration – as in Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen – for the material stuff of painting’s making.  We know how modernism pioneered the actual mark on the canvas, placing its emphasis on what is termed matière.  But this impulse actually starts happening earlier, in a paroxysm of trompe l’oeil, urgently seeking its most arduous accomplishments (though it was the mannerists of the sixteenth century who first cited the overcoming of difficultà as proof of the artist’s virtù or talent).

A label on the back of a painting – can I paint it so that it fools you? – this was the question that obsessed Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts who obsessively – and brilliantly – reproduced the back of a canvas.  This also indicates the rise of trompe l’oeil as a species of formalism since it shows the genre choosing the most humble and innocuous of subjects the better to set off its prowess.

In letter-rack painting, which became a genre in itself in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we find images on flat surfaces and small artworks depicted – postcards, for instance, or feathers or cameo-broaches.  What is being introduced is the consciousness of what Baudrillard terms the “hyper-real”.  The image is no longer a representation directly realised from some living model.  Just as plays within plays and novels of frames or boxes are constantly pushing reality a step further back into fiction and then pushing that fiction back a step further again, so the depicted worlds, the reported worlds within our world, distance us from tangible reality.  Increasingly that reality is mediated via its reproductions – humanity and its actions, the world, the objects in that world – these all become emblems, cyphers, items of rapportage.  The only reality in letter-rack painting is the reality of painting these emblems, for even the rack itself is an illusion.  This tendency to copy what is already an image is an aspect of art which dominates the development of American painting, possibly because the “old world” was so often known to the descendants of immigrants only through its depictions and descriptions.  Outlaws in the wild west thumbed postcards of the Eiffel Tower.  The “old world” was very much a virtual one.

The letter-rack could be a portrait composed out of a dead-man’s belongings.  Here again the relationship between still life and mortality is reiterated.  Influenced by the Dutch tradition, early American painting often relied heavily on the effects of trompe l’oeil.  In Grandmother’s Fireplace by John Haberle, for instance, in the Detroit Institute of Arts, a very realistic warming pan has been hung in front of the frame, just as Crivelli sometimes places a fly or a fruit on the frame enclosing his picture. This fakery becomes actualised later in the work of Rauschenberg and Salle, where we may find a real object stuck onto the painting, intruding into the viewer’s space in an attempt to deny the virtuality of perceived existence – an attempt which is rendered impotent when the work gets reproduced.

The flattening out of the subject brings us ever closer to the surface of the canvas and the preoccupations of the twentieth century.  Each letter-rack is intended to be viewed as a reality, presumably, but we’re beginning to get objects stuck together and put up next to each other in the way that we later associate with collage.

In a portrait of Émile Zola by Edouard Manet we see that a reference to Manet’s own painting, his Olympia, has been propped up, it’s a sketch or a photograph, placed in front of a yellowed etching and a Japanese print – these items all arranged in a framed display similar to the letter-rack situation.  We have another point of focus in an area of still life with books piled up – more references – and with much attention given to the intensely painted ink-well – Zola after all is a writer – and in the writer’s hands there’s a book spread open which has a picture in it.  We see the writer almost in profile, so there’s a whole series of flat planes interplaying – his profile flattens him – thus the painting includes portraiture as well as still life and actual pictures within pictures, and behind the sitter’s chair there’s a Chinese screen.

Manet loved the wings, those flat scenic barriers on either side of the stage.  Though a “realist” – and a pioneer of impressionism – he enjoyed the flimsy fakery of a backdrop.  He liked costumes and disguises.  It’s an interest in layers of illusion.  We might not consider his Lunch in the Studio a picture within picture.  But I think it’s a picture contrived out of many pictures.  It seems a unified picture, but pictures within pictures need not work in an obvious way.  Many artists are interested in how they can employ the dynamic of this process.

One way to get to the dynamic without obviously dividing the picture into framed areas would be to disguise the fact that there’s actually more than one picture going on. In Manet’s Lunch in the Studio there are five principal points of interest: a military still life – sword, buckler, helmet – a young man posing for his portrait, a seated man, a coffee cup, and a woman who seems no more than a “serving wench” who has just brought in the coffee.  The woman seems like one of those menu people whose silhouettes one apologises to when bumping into them outside Parisian bistros.  Compared to the intense reality of the young man’s face, she’s like something merely painted.  The youth with the faraway eyes is immaculately dressed.  He’s probably hoping for a commission in the army since the still life area – of heroically military kit – is well realised, and worked on long after the departure of the persons in the painting, or perhaps before they arrived.  The young man is already dreaming of grandeur and glory.  No wonder the servant recedes in the way she does.  Her life is lived in one dimension.  It cannot compare to the sheer volume of this young man’s aspirations.  But meanwhile the third figure, an older, more experienced person, seems to have more a tangible issue at heart – his summum bonum is that cup of coffee set in front of him – another object laboured over with great diligence.  Manet lets the still life aspects epitomise the mental life of the characters.  So the painting brings together several pictures.

The ironies of his Lunch on the Grass are celebrated.  The more you look at it the more you wonder whether it really was painted on the grass.  More likely it was artificial turf!  Here is another disguised painting within a painting.  The forest background of the river bank is delineated by a line that suggests it is a backdrop and indeed it is coloured like a backdrop.  An opulent still life is placed in the foreground.  Manet’s impressionism is full of contrivance.  His female matador is not standing in a bull-ring but against a painted backdrop of a bull-ring.  It seems one painting.  But the foreground is one thing and the background is another.  The artist pulls down rolls for a background as if he were a photographer.

Now we are moving closer to our own time.  As one might expect, Magritte’s canvas, Personal Values, deals with many of the games we can play with pictures within pictures.  Clouds float about the room as if they were wallpaper but the ceiling is given reality by dint of the cracks in it, and the clouds and the massive bar of soap on the carpet get faithfully reflected in the mirror on the wardrobe door.  Trompe l’oeil is used artfully to alter scale.  The comb is enlarged by being propped on the bed and reaching nearly to the ceiling, but by the same token the bed becomes a bed in a doll’s house.

Then, in A Courtesan’s Palace, again by Magritte, we’re looking at a mirror.  It’s a painting for a man.  He can look at this painting and his great male tusk can be put aside.  He can look at himself in its mirror and he’s a woman.  All he has to do is go through the gap behind the painting.  But he can’t go through that gap because it’s simply been painted.  And so we get back to the Romans.   So many of Magritte’s works deal with issues already raised that to raise them again here would be to labour a point.

Instead, let us move on to the work of James Rosenquist.  Now we notice that many of the games concerning windows and mirrors have been put aside.  That flattening out we associate with the modern age has taken over.  Painting’s function as a picture window looking out or reflecting some fiction is denied.  Now the artist is concerned with cut-out reproductions.  Here a snippet gleaned from a fashion magazine, here the snapshot of a child: images taken from images.  The hyper-real has won.  The welter of received images overwhelms reality.

This is indicative of a shift away from that plein air to which many of the impressionists were devoted – though not Manet.  The simple effects of light and shade on river-bank, poplars and water suggest that the countryside can be taken in without recourse to language – an idealised, Arcadian notion which is a far cry from the sign-infested condition of urbanity.  Towns are negotiated by signs.  New Yorkers are quicker at switching channels than any folk, but they wouldn’t know from observing it on the box whether a cow was sick or not.  Shuffling images matters more now than conveying their intensity.  Rosenquist is more interested in butting pictures up against pictures than in dealing with pictures within pictures.  The fictional depth has gone.  But he is still intrigued by the notion of the still life.  In still life, objects are simply in conjunction with each other rather than placed inside each other.  But are we looking at a corner of the artist’s kitchen or is the image derived from a scrap of paper taken from a kitchen magazine?  We can’t be sure.

In truth it is not only in the twentieth century that artists have been concerned with flattening the image.  Early Christian mosaics, the works of Italian primitives and Persian miniatures often have areas of flatness, anamorphosis and patterning.  It is convenient to think of the Renaissance as inventing depth, volume and perspective, thus designating otherness in this respect to naivety rather than choice.  But in Venus with Mars and Cupid – a canvas with an immoral nuance by Paolo Veronese – we find a rectangle of blue, and a pasting on of shapes against a black plane, a horse’s head intruding into the picture – it seems to be coming down steps it could never actually negotiate – and these are hints at the fakery to come in Manet.  The work partakes of a directness, a flatness we might consider contemporary.  It’s an early example of image abutted against image.

Equally, earlier genres get replayed.  Richard Hamilton’s My Marilyn returns us to the letter-rack.  Photographs have been pinned up on some notice-board.  Some have been crossed-out and the best shot on the contact sheet has been identified with an arrow, then ticked and outlined emphatically with the word ‘good’ scrawled on it.  The markings on the images constitute energetic flurries of brushstrokes we can appreciate for their material qualities.

But however modern, this is still a sophisticated exercise in trompe l’oeil.  Its illusory games are engaging – just as they were in the days of Pompeii.  And while My Marilyn is a painting of photographs, photography itself has emerged as an ideal medium for the multiplication and juxtaposition of images – consider the multiple photo work of Jan Dibbets and later that of Hockney.  Photography in turn has inspired painting, and in a photo-realist work such as Tiptop by Robert Cottingham we get the picture within the picture perceived as a virtual objet trouvé, in this case a meticulous rendition of a segment of a New York Street, a segment replete with signs, labels, symbols and notices.  Here the juxtapositions are part of urban life.

When they actually occur within a painting, physical juxtapositions of flat surfaces get badly served by subsequent reproduction.  In David Salle’s works, for instance, reproduction renders important shifts undetectable.  One image may be set into a canvas showing another image.  The first image occupies a canvas of its own – thus contradicting my earlier assertion that with pictures within pictures we are always dealing with step-backs from the surface.  Where there is an overlay of images different media may have been employed – acrylic soaked into the canvas renders one image, while its overlay is achieved with thick oil paint which resides on top of the canvas.  He may also use stencils which cause a silhouette to reside on the skin of the canvas itself.  Then an actual object may be fastened to the surface.  This means that different images occupy different dimensions – it’s an alternative, a new option that replaces traditional methods of rendering depth.  And it means that his images seem uncluttered when viewed in a gallery.  They each occupy a sort of separate space.  However, these differences get annulled by reproduction and a sense of confusion prevails which is not the case in actuality.

The Bigger Credenza is a very simple double painting: one side a painting of minimalist art, the other a beaver shot.  Titles are important in Salle.  And one senses that his paintings show us some inner workings, that they represent a state of mind.  Say he’s been painting this minimal bastard for ages, but he’s really thinking about getting home to his girl.  Which does he believe in most?  The regressive series indicative of self-consciousness, the parentheses of Hamlet, have been superseded by simultaneity – “while I am doing this, I am thinking that.”

*        *        *        *

Take a look at Marking through Webern.  Salle’s wife is a dancer and choreographer.  Perhaps he was working on this painting while she was working out some ballet steps to a piece of music by Webern.  The painting projects a precarious sensation.  A key image is of a woman standing on her head which is then turned upside down, variations of which are repeated four times.  This series of images serves as a row of caryatids supporting the upper panel of the picture.  However, the reversed situation of these images creates a vertiginous unease, for in two of the images the feet are visible, dangling above the bottom edge of the picture and thus destabilizing their role as supports.  This causes us to feel that the upper panel is in danger of overbalancing and tipping towards us.  A wooden chair with a white pole stuck through its seat has been fastened to a board set into this upper panel, so that if we approach the surface to examine the work closely, this part of it actually hangs over us.  Displayed along the top panel are what might be called some twentieth century ikons.  Such ikons figure strongly in Salle’s work.  In some cases they refer to art, modern art and primitive art, high art and low art, in some cases they refer to the sphere of design or to photography, film or politics.  In the case of this painting, they refer to blackness.  One image is that of what looks like a ‘nigger’ money-box.  The term is used descriptively rather than pejoratively, for these items were innately mocking.  You placed a coin on the figure’s tongue and he swallowed it, rolling his eyes.  Further along the upper panel there are two other images, both of a primitive black head, one painted on a red oval, and then the same image or a very similar one painted on a blue oval next to an area which amounts to a ‘stain’ of blackness.  The other item in this frieze of ikons is the aforementioned chair with the pole protruding through it, unseating any sitter who would anyhow be sitting at a right-angle to the wall.  The pole is white – it would get shoved up the “arse” of the sitter if a sitter were to be there.  Inset into the lower part of the painting is a small canvas sketching out a cafe scene where a gent in a hat and a raincoat seems to be accosting a prostitute while a little girl behind him begs for money, and painted over the soaked acrylic image of one of the ‘caryatids’ is a nude with her vulva exposed in a reclining position – this painted in thick oil paint.

Essentially the painting is divided into two parts – the caryatid part and the panel above it.  All the lower images refer to issues concerned with feminist issues.  The artist has placed his female model in an undignified precarious position, he has upended her – as if to suggest, perhaps, that women aren’t the unacknowledged supports that hold up society, as might be maintained.  Far from it, they hold up nothing, they get it the wrong way round.  But because obliged to submit to the indignity of up-ended-ness, Salle’s model is oppressed: really no more than a ‘cunt’.  Basically the artist is treating her like a prostitute.

On the panel above, every image refers to blackness or to the denigration of black people and their oppression.  So does this amount to a meditation on a trite snippet of conversation, someone asserting that the history of women is a history of oppression just as the history of black Americans is a history of oppression.  Is this an argument that is about to topple over on itself?  Where does Webern, the intensely serial composer, fit in?  Didn’t he write musical palindromes – and isn’t there something palindromic about upending a headstand?  And hasn’t someone got the argument upside down? Like it’s not women who are oppressed like blacks but blacks who are oppressed like women – except that they get all the grants now and “lap up” the money like the darn money-box.  And wasn’t Webern shot by the Germans?  Doesn’t that make him oppressed?  So artists get oppressed too.  Yeah?

Well, I may be wrong.  Maybe it isn’t a money-box.  Readings of art-works as complex as this can only be a matter of throwing the viewer’s subjectivity against that of the artist.  Nevertheless, this is how work gets read, and the reading is always a mediation between subjectivities.

Salle’s ikons are “quotes” – and thus relevant to our topic.  They are a catalogue of our cultural values, but often they’re held up by some upside down reference to sexuality, or sexuality provides them with an enormous shadowy backdrop.  His pictures seem very male, ominous female posteriors abound, but inset into their massive privacies we may come across junk images of the female.  The joke ‘primitive sculpture’ of a woman perhaps – western man’s idea of Miss Basic-Afro-Earthiness with buns on (echoes of Robert Crumb) – or of Miss Lovely-Western-Piece-of-Ceramic.  Meanwhile a painted eye may be looking out at you, Buster.  Rather like an iceberg, five eighths of our thought concerns sex, according to Freud.  The dialogue Salle’s work sets up is less considered, more slangy than that of Velasquez.  But that’s the modern, or the post-modern, age.  It’s still working on the same lines.

Salle is a brave painter, I think, because I guess a lot of female artists have begun to examine their psycho-sexuality in a way that male artists have been too scared to do.  But Salle is an exception to this.  It’s easy to dismiss his pictures as macho, but they are actually exposing that machismo in all its vulnerability, in its rawness.  And then, Salle is as obsessed by art as he is about sexuality.  One can easily dismiss the inset image of an emphatically naked and vulnerable girl in Saltimbanques as simply poor painting.  What seems to be going on though is that here Salle is trying to paint an image by Lucian Freud from memory.  He is not actually trying to get it right, he is trying to paint it as he remembers it.  It’s like a vague image in his mind.   

Let’s make a further examination of the camouflaged picture within the picture, an issue we first touched upon in the work of Manet.  Art concerns betrayal as much as it concerns fidelity – this is at the crux of trompe l’oeil.   So as often as artists may show forth a fact or an action, their quest for new ways may pervert the course of such fidelity.  This is why we find artists disguising the fact that they’re dealing with such a complex thing as more than one picture at once.  It’s very well shown in the work of Eric Fischl – whose canvases are often so camouflaged – and I think the best way to get to this is to talk about one of his methods of working.  Basically, what he does is to take sheets of glacine paper – which is like tracing paper but more transparent – like acetate.  On one sheet, perfectly academically, he can draw a paddling pool.  And on another sheet he can draw this boy – who may have been peeing quite decently behind a bush.  But now the artist slides the two sheets of glacine paper together.  Thus three or four separate drawings can be slid over the top of each other to form a composition that never existed in reality.  In his Dying Woman, are we looking at some woman having a heart attack or have two fairly conventional life-drawings simply been juxtaposed?  The work includes an ordinary picture of a dog slid across a quite banal picture of a record-player.  Fischl does not move towards a symbolism he intends to promote.  But he slides his drawings around until they intensify.  When they hit that tension, he may not know what it means.  He knows that it causes this stress – either on the surface or in him.  Sometimes these juxtapositions may exert no particular psychological pull.  Where they do exert such a pull however – although for no concise reason – the artist will unify them into a painting.  He paints them to explore their significance, to dwell in their enigma.

Mark Tansey has a large painting of a life-sized cow looking at a painting of some life-sized cows.  The cow examining the painting, and the cows in the painting are surrounded by academicians.  The painting is called The Innocent Eye Test.  Here the picture within the picture scheme is being used satirically.  One supposes that the academicians are realists – one thinks of the scrupulous adherence to methods of getting observed phenomena onto canvas that typifies the work of William Coldstream.  These academicians want to ensure that the work presented is true to life, true enough to convince a cow that she is looking at another cow, a sublimely ridiculous test of the sincerity of realism, for, as Linda Nochlin puts it:

“The history of late eighteenth-and nineteenth-century art is indeed, as Gombrich declares, the story of the struggle against schemata; and the major weapon in this struggle was the empirical investigation of reality.  When Constable said that he tried to forget that he had ever seen a picture as he sat down to paint from nature, or Monet that he wished he had been born blind and then suddenly received his sight, they were not merely placing a high premium on originality.  They were stressing the importance of confronting reality afresh, of consciously stripping their minds, and their brushes, of second-hand knowledge and ready-made formulae.”

(Linda Nochlin, Realism, p.20)

Today’s eyes are anything but innocent.  Imagine a painting of a cow which is actually a collage, made up of snippets of separate cows.  The world itself is now so illusory that it has become sophisticated to disguise the illusion.  In my example, the illusory connections created by collage are camouflaged by a seeming unity.  The collaged cow might present us with an apparently seamless image.  Yet fractures will inevitably occur.  Fischl has a work called The Evacuation of Saigon.  It is made up of three separate canvases.  One is fixed to the wall and depicts a woman on a river-bank.  The others – a simple picture of a dinghy and a half submerged wicker basket – simply rest against that wall, slid into an alignment with each other which allows the bollards in one painting to marry those in another.  The low angle of the dinghy canvas confers reality to the sense that it floats in front of the isolated person on the bank.  So the painting represents a unified image.  But the unity is destroyed by the separation of the canvases.  Their angles go against the tendency to flatten everything into a unity of emblems.  As with Salle, in Fischl’s paintings, we are dealing with some psychological state.  This is a fractured reality.  The scene never took place, and the title probably came last.  But could this be how the American people felt, at the time of the evacuation; terribly distressed and naked on the side of some murky paddy-field?

In Bayonne, which comprises two canvases – one on the wall, one leaning against it and placed slightly at an angle to the wall – an aged woman is looking at a dancing child.  On the canvas that is flat to the wall, the woman is naked; and on the canvas in front of this the child is dressed in a tu-tu.  Is the woman looking at her grand-daughter rehearsing?  It=s unlikely that she would be naked if this were the case. Now the artist may not admit to knowing what is going on. He may have simply condensed the tensions he felt about this juxtaposition, and fashioned these into the image presented.  The viewer though is at liberty to hypothesise a meaning.  Is it that the woman is looking back at her own past?  When physically in front of this painting there’s a reversal of that notion of doors or windows into the land of the dead – since the memory image, the image of that which is gone, is located in front of the image of exhausted old age.  The child she was is more present now than the woman is to herself.  And the child is in an un-balletic posture.  Her feet are braced against the ground and she pushes something invisible back – mortality perhaps.

So all those themes of reversal which we noted in Velasquez are still going on today, though the interesting thing about such reversals is that perhaps they reflect the picture within the picture back on itself – as in Christ in the House of Mary and Martha.  This should enable the work to retain some homeostatic integrity, to remain an object in itself.  Or so it might seem.  But of course as soon as the work is witnessed, the viewer brings to it his or her individual contextualisation of it.  Not only that, the situation of the work may need to be taken into account.  Is it surrounded by a mount?  Why is it placed in this or that frame?  Why has the curator of the gallery positioned it next to this other picture or that?  The notion of “deconstruction” – which was pioneered by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida – see his book The Truth in Painting (published by the University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1987) – should not be confused with any conventional act of analysis.  When I analyse a work such as Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, I keep as much as possible to its own terms.  I treat it as an object in itself.  At least, I think that that is what I am doing.  In fact I am bringing my own terms to bear on it.  More deliberately, deconstruction avows that its concern is to examine the components of a work in terms other than its own – perhaps in terms of its socio-historical background, in terms of its architectural context, or in terms of the artist’s sexuality, or the philosophical aura in which it was created or in which it is read today, or in terms of its value on the market.  These are simply instances.  Derrida would question whether anything can ever be read by referring only to itself.

Take the “nigger” money-box.  For Derrida, even a sentence needs to be framed by its context, in this case therefore framed by the fact that I am a white writer.  For me, the word “nigger” should be out-of-bounds.  The money-box was doubtless designed by white people for consumption by other whites.  This signifies that it is a racist item.  The same firm might have manufactured a red-faced British “bobby” money-box (though they didn’t).  If they had, this would not have been a racist act.  But if a “bobby” money-box had been manufactured by a black firm, then it could again be read as a racist item.  In the nineteen-thirties, Carl Van Vechten wrote an entertaining book called Nigger Heaven – describing the cultivated atmosphere of the “Harlem Renaissance”.  At one point some young black intellectuals express their aspirations: to do something truly great in cultural terms as other artists have done who have hailed from black backgrounds: and as examples, they cite Beethoven, Pushkin and Dumas.  The book was denigrated by blacks – who were scandalised by the fact that a white man had used the n-word; while white people dismissed the book because it appropriated supposedly white characteristics – intelligence and intellectuality – for the black community.  This shows that we do naturally deconstruct the products of creativity and the imagination, just as we do political statements and decisions in law.  A possible danger is, though, is that we tend now to contextualise before properly examining the text.

In conceptual terms, deconstruction turns all works into works within works, works within the work of presentation as well as the work of apprehension and comprehension.  We can see this operating (before the term was invented) in Marcel Duchamp’s Etants Donnés, which is a cross between a sculpture and an installation.  The viewer approaches the initial “appearance” of the work, an ancient door.   Through spy-holes in that door a dummy figure of a naked woman can be glimpsed with her legs spread, holding up the lamp supposed to illuminate her “private” parts.  This essay in voyeurism has its precedent in the peep shows devised by Samuel van Hoogstraten in 1660 – one of which can be seen in the National Gallery.  More recently, John Hilliard has created photographic works where the same image is shown from three different focus-points: with the foreground in focus, with the background in focus and with a mediation between both focal points.  In a deconstructive sense, his work is telling us that the view depends on our view of it, since the narrative figured within the frame seems to alter with the ways in which it is seen.  But isn’t the story incidental, isn’t the artist more concerned with drawing our attention to the nature of photography?  Thomas Struth’s photographs of galleries also express an awareness of deconstruction – for here we see the work (a painting, say, or at least part of it and possibly part of another work as well), together with its placing in the gallery, and its viewers.  But at the same time, Struth’s photograph is on a grand scale and immaculately presented – so it becomes the work – which is equally a deconstruction of the painting or paintings presented in the space and wholly or partly shown by his photograph.

But while deconstruction may be a new-ish term, it is by no means a new practice. We have seen that Duchamp had a de-constructive tendency.  But, long before, the iconoclastic Dominican Savonarola had effectively deconstructed the Renaissance from a moral standpoint.  Then Immanuel Kant deconstructed the art of his time by placing the emphasis on the sensation it aroused and analysing this rather than the nature or method of its making, (even if he still perceived the work as “standing alone” in a way that would irritate Derrida).  Deconstruction has been going on for as long as thought, just as the preoccupation with mortality and the illusory nature of appearances has persisted through the centuries – which is why I identify “The Picture within the Picture” as one of the streams of art that move through time.

We have discussed the play within the play and the fact that a theatre is a sort of illusory house within a house.  We should also note that the dramas of Tom Stoppard often concern plays which impinge on other plays – as in Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, with its backdrop being Hamlet, and, more recently, Shakespeare in Love – with its setting being the first production of Romeo and Juliet. Of course “The Picture within the Picture” affects film-making as well as painting, literature and theatre.  Wojciech Has’s filmed version of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa faithfully reproduces that novel of frames in frames of celluloid.  In her book of essays, The Emptiness of the Image, Parveen Adams has written at length on Peeping Tom, made in 1960 by Michael Powell.  This very much concerns a film within a film – in this case a “home movie” made by a cinema-obsessed voyeur who films his victims as he kills them, using a blade secreted in his tripod.

Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) is another good example of the movement from one world into another, for at one point in this film a character seems to walk into a picture she is looking at in the Uffizi Gallery. As she intrudes on the picture though, the picture intrudes on her.  Based on a quote from Stendhal, the “syndrome” in question applies to those so affected by a work of art that it causes them to swoon.  The viewer of the picture is found huddled up later, semi-comatose in the gallery.  Argento is working from a similar view-point to that of Thomas Struth in his photographs.  The characters within the photograph and the character within the film are essentially viewers, that is, they are all placed in the position of the spectator, while we view them from outside the frame of the photograph or the film.  Argento is sometimes described as the Italian Hitchcock.  I would guess that he read the stories of John Masefield when he was young, since he likes to use the covens of witches as his subject as did the now unduly neglected Masefield in The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights.

In the Box of Delights an old Punch-and-Judy man escapes into a picture hanging on the wall of a cosy study.  He does so in front of the eyes of a small boy – so again we have a character cast in the role of a spectator:

“Master Harker, what is the picture yonder?”

“It is a drawing of a Swiss mountain,” Kay said.  “It was done by my grandfather.  It is called The Dents du Midi, from the North.”

“And do I see a path on it?” the old man said.  “If you, with your young eyes, will look, perhaps you will kindly tell me if that is a path on it.”

As they stared at the picture, it seemed to glow and to open, and to become not a picture but the mountain itself.  They heard the rush of the torrent.  They saw how tumbled and smashed the scarred pine-trees were among the rolled boulders.  On the lower slopes were wooden huts, pastures with cattle grazing; men and women working.

High up above there, in the upper mountain, were the blinding bright snows, and the teeth of the crags black and gleaming.  “Ah,” the old man said, “and yonder down the path come the mules.”

Down the path, as he said, a string of mules was coming.  They were led, as mules usually are, by a little pony with a bell about her neck.  The mules came in single file down the path: most of them carried packs upon their backs of fallen logs, or cheeses made in the high mountain dairies or trusses of hay from the ricks; one of them towards the end was a white mule, bearing a red saddle.

The first mules turned off at a corner.  When it came to the turn of the white mule to turn, he baulked, tossed his head, swung out of the line, and trotted into the room, so that Kay had to move out of his way.  There the mule stood in the study, twitching his ears, tail and skin against the gadflies, and putting down his head so that he might scratch it with his hind foot.

“Steady ther,” the old man whispered to him.  “And to you, Master Kay, I thank you.  I wish you a most happy Christmas.”

At that, he swung himself onto the mule, picked up his theatre with one hand, gathered the reins with the other, said, “Come, Toby,” and at once rode off with Toby trotting under the mule, out of the room, up the mountain path, up, up, up, till the path was nothing more than a line in the faded painting, that was so dark upon the wall.  Kay watched him till he was gone, and almost sobbed, “O, I do hope you’ll escape the wolves.”

A very, very faint little voice floated down to him from the mountain tops.  “You’ll see me again”; then the mule-hoofs seemed to pass onto grass.  They could be heard no more…

(John Masefield, The Box of Delights, pages 59-61)

Anthony Howell, 5 Oct, 2003.

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About anthonyhowelljournal

Poet, essayist, dancer, performance artist....
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