Project Myth is a type of speech

This project called for me to read (several times) Roland Barthes essay Myth Today  and to consider a number of questions:

  • Who was Minou Drouet and why does Barthes cite her?
  • Consider Barthes reference to a bunch of roses and a black pebble and find other examples of elements signifying passion, emotions,or other objects or events from images I know.
  • Myth changes the real into the ideological. Find an example of an image which exemplifies this.
  • Consider carefully the passage on meaning and form “The meaning is always their to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning’. Annotate and artwork to illustrate my thoughts on this passage.

Minou Drouet was a child prodigy who published a book of poems Arbre Mon Ami (Tree my friend) in 1957 – the year Barthes published Mythologies. There was much controversy at the time as to whether Drouet wrote the poems herself or whether she was assisted by her parents. I suspect that Barthes refers to her because her poetry transformed real objects into myths. Trees took on a meaning beyond that of the tree. I also wonder if Barthes considered Drouet herself to be a myth, signifying the idea of the child genius. It is also clear that the Drouet affair was a major news item at the time Barthes was producing his work and this may have been a current affairs issue which intrigued him.

When considering how elements within an image can signify passion, emotions etc I thought about the way in which portrait painters have incorporated elements within their works to present a broader picture of their subjects. Holbein’s The Ambassadors is an excellent example of this.

The Ambassadors by Holbein

This image incorporates a multiplicity of references. The globe signifies the international nature of the role of the subjects, the lute and the books testifies to the fact that they are cultured men and the skull signifies the inevitability of death. It is a memento mori (Holbein has disguised this such that when the painting is viewed from the front it appears as a slash across the mid bottom of the frame, but from the side it is revealed as a skull).

Magnum photographer Rene Burri’s iconic photograph of Che Guevara has come to stand for so much more that just a ‘Cuban with a cigar’. It signifies revolution and opposition to western capitalist imperialism. It is now a strong idealogical statement.

Che Guevara by Rene Burri

To understand what Barthes means by “The meaning is always their to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning” one needs first to understand the terms he is using. He defines ‘meaning’ to be a sign which has become the signifier in a myth and ‘form’ to be the signified. So in the case of the above photograph this means that the ‘Cuban with a cigar’ becomes the ‘meaning’ within the myth and the ideological concept of opposition to western capialist imperialism is the ‘form’. The combination of the two Barthes called the ‘signification’. When Barthes refers to ‘The meaning is always there to present the form’ he is stating that the ‘Cuban with a cigar’ is a signifier in a myth. By ‘the form is there to outdistance the meaning’ he is saying that the ‘form’ takes on a meaning beyond the original concept of the ‘meaning’. In other words the ‘form’ in the myth goes beyond ‘Cuban with a cigar’ to stand for the idealogical concept of opposition to western capitalist imperialism.

Project: Structuralist analysis

I have annotated two portrait paintings.

The first is Gainsborough’s portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews, which represents the subjects within what appears to be there country estate. The second is Velasquez’s portrait of Philip IV in brown and silver.

Both portraits are formal portraits and are constructed to showcase the wealth, power and influence of the sitters. They have a  number of features in common which might be regarded as portrait conventions.

The poses of the sitters show them in role. Mr Andrews as protector of his family and estate, Philip IV as statesman and protector of the nation. In both portraits the subjects engage confidently and directly with the viewer, indicating their status. Their expressions are quite serious demonstrating that they are not to be regarded lightly. The environments in which they are shown are directed at illustrating their status – a great landscape in the case of the Andrews and rich fabrics and furniture in the case of Philip. The paintings have detailed elements which are intended to be signs telling more about the subjects. Mr Andrews is carrying a gun and has a hunting dog beside him. Mrs Andrews is in a pose which a woman would adopt when nursing a child. Philip holds papers in one hand and a sword in the other.

One gets the impression that these portraits are intended to present  the subjects both literally as a naturalistic representation and perhaps more importantly symbolically as individuals of power, influence and wealth.

PDF files of my annotations can be found here:

Gainsborough Mr and Mrs Andrews annotation

Velasquez Philip IV annotation

For the second part of this project I have reviewed two portrait photographs – one formal and one informal. The idea is to determine what features the two have in common. The formal portrait is from Rineke Dijkstra’s Beach Portrait series. The second is an informal portrait of a friend’s son. Here are the portraits:

Beach Portrait by Rineke Dijkstra

Informal portrait of friend's son by Keith Greenough

The aspects in common with these two photographs are as follows:

  1. Both show a young boy
  2. Both boys are looking at the viewer
  3. Both are full body portraits
  4. Both have water in the background
  5. In neither portrait is the boy smiling.

The key points of difference are as follows:

  1. In the formal portrait the boy is posed standing full square to the viewer whereas in the informal portrait the boy is captured midway through climbing onto a wooden platform
  2. In the formal portrait the boy has a neutral expression whereas in the informal portrait the boy looks a little surprised and is exerting himself.
  3. In the formal portrait the boy is the key point of interest in the frame with no other distractions whereas in the informal portrait there are many other elements in the frame – the wooden platform, red lettering,  a notice leaning against the platform, white bars jutting out into the water and what appears to be the end of a pier reaching out into the water.
  4. In the formal portrait the boy looks a little awkward and self conscious whereas in the informal portrait the boy seems natural and unselfconscious.
  5. In the formal portrait the boy seems to be ‘on display’ almost as an ethnographic study. In the informal portrait what I see is a snapshot of a boy at play.