Foucault's Las Meninas and Art-Historical Methods

By Gresle, Yvette | Journal of Literary Studies, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Foucault's Las Meninas and Art-Historical Methods

Gresle, Yvette, Journal of Literary Studies


This article focuses on the ways in which Foucault's Las Meninas has been represented and critiqued in art-historical texts and endeavours to gauge its significance to the discipline, in particular, the "New Art History" of the 1970s and 1980s. Art historians have not yet adequately engaged the historical, philosophical, theoretical and methodological dimension of Foucault's articulation of an archaeology of the structures of thought and the significance of this inquiry to the writing of art histories. However, Foucault's unprecedented reading of Velazquez's painting--unfettered by art-historical methods--played a significant role in facilitating a critique of the limitations of canonical art-historical interpretive procedures. Art historians Svetlana Alpers, Norman Bryson and Eric Fernie have, for example, drawn attention to the insularity of the discipline; its emphasis on connoisseurship; its preoccupation with the construction of meaning via archival documents and iconographic and stylistic analysis. Against this framework Foucault's elucidation of Las Meninas's self-reflexive meditation on the nature of representation was groundbreaking.


Die fokus van hierdie artikel val op die maniere waarop Foucault se Las Meninas in kunsgeskiedkundige tekste voorgestel en beoordeel is en poog om die belangrikheid daarvan vir kunsgeskiedenis oor die algemeen en die "Nuwe Kunsgeskeidenis" van die 1970's en 1980's in die besonder te bepaal. Kunsgeskiedkundiges het hog hie die historiese, filosofiese, teoretiese en metodologiese dimensie van Foucault se verwoording van 'n argeologie van die denkstrukture en die belangrikheid van hierdie ondersoek genoegsaam by die skryf van kunsgeskiedenisse betrek nie. Nietemin het Foucault se ongeewenaarde lesing van Velazquez se skildery--losgemaak van kunsgeskiedkundige metodes--die weg gebaan vir 'n beoordeling van die beperkinge van kanonieke kunsgeskiedkundige verklarende prosedures. Die kunsgeskiedkundiges Svetlana Alpers, Norman Bryson en Eric Fernie het byvoorbeeld die aandag gevestig op die bekrempenheid van die dissipline; die klem wat dit plaas op die kunskenner; 'n beheptheid met die konstruksie van betekenis aan die hand van argiefstukke en ikonografiese en stilistiese ontleding. Teen die agtergrond bet Foucault baanbrekerswerk verrig met sy toeligting van Las Meninas se selfrefleksiewe besinning oor die aard van voorstelling.

Michel Foucault's study of Velazquez's Las Meninas (1) was first published in the volume Les Mots et les choses in 1966 which was followed, in 1970, by the English translation titled The Order of Things. In "Las Meninas", which is the title of the opening chapter of The Order of Things, Foucault focused on the artwork itself as though it were before him, describing in extraordinary detail what he saw. His seemingly unobtrusive actions--looking and describing--elicited observations that, when positioned within the context of contemporary art-historical practice, were unprecedented. His examination of the painting is neither prescribed by, nor filtered through the various texts of art-historical investigation. For example, the artist's biography is absent and there is no declaration of technical virtuosity and genius. Neither is there an acknowledgement of sources and influences, nor an exploration of questions of style and iconography. Nor is there interpretation, through the selection and interpretation of archival documents, of the relation between the painting, the artist's social context and his relationship with his patrons. In one instance, Foucault comments on the art-historical practice of identifying the subjects represented: "These proper names would form useful landmarks and avoid ambiguous designations; they would tell us in any case what the painter is looking at, and the majority of the characters in the picture along with him" (2002: 10). But the convenience of the proper name, in this particular context, is "merely an artifice: it gives us a finger to point with, in other words, to pass surreptitiously from the space where one speaks to the space where one looks; in other words to fold over the other as though they were equivalents" (p. …

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