Jackson Pollock: A problem for Iconography
This essay will consider two recent texts on Jackson Pollock, by Sue Taylor, (2003), and Suzette Doyon-Bernard (1997). The latter article offers us a detailed iconographic analysis of one of his earlier works, Male and Female (1942), comparing the various motifs and symbols with Peruvian Chavin art, and in particular the Tello Obelisk. The former article analyzes the motifs and symbols in Pollock’s, Stenographic Figure, (1942).
‘We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject-matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art.’
It is known that these New York based artists frequented the American Museum of Natural History and studied other ethnographic material, including specifically Chavin art so the analysis of Doyon-Bernard therefore seems apt and appropriate.
Doyon-Bernard’s article analyzes a work by Jackson Pollock, Male and Female, that has proven somewhat enigmatic in its interpretation, particularly as Pollock himself was reluctant to ‘explain’ his work: for example there is still discussion over the identity of the male and female figure (see below). The work has attracted a number of approaches to its explanation: Pollock’s interest in Jungian principles offering a possible psycho-analytical stance, or a feminist approach could be offered by the possibility that the figures represent surrogates for Lee Krasner (who he had recently met), and Pollock himself.
Stenographic Figure has also been interpreted variously as Taylor explains in her article: for example there is still argument about whether one or two figures are present in the painting. Pollock’s personal psychoanalysis leads a number of art critics to try to interpret the symbols in this painting, and all Pollock’s work, as for Jung these are indicative of the deepest psyche of the artist, an inherited ‘collective unconscious’. William Rubin criticism of this, which I believe can be applied generally to an iconographic analysis of Pollock’s work, is the habit of forcing images ‘so that one finds in them what one is looking for’: clearly, as any reading of the various articles on Pollock shows, there is no consistent or unambiguous translation of the motifs and symbols. Pollock replying in 1943 to a question in a questionnaire stated ,
‘I have always been very impressed with the plastic qualities of American Indian art. The Indians have the true painter’s approach in their capacity to get hold of appropriate images, and in their understanding of what constitutes painterly subject matter. Their colour is essentially Western, their vision has the basic universality of all real art. Some people find references to American Indian art and calligraphy in parts of my pictures. That wasn’t intentional; probably was the result of early memories and enthusiasms.’
Ernst Gombrich elaborates this point in exploring the relationship between symbols of a real horse and a hobby horse . As Hasenmueller elucidates, Panofsky’s method reduces meaning to the metaphoric, an association between the representation and the represented. For Gombrich this is only half the problem solved, the likeness between the motif and ‘real’ object does not imply they have the same function. The hobby horse can be ridden and so can the horse, but the function of each is different, and could not be implied from the symbol.
Male and Female: Gender identification
The Tello obelisk, has two vertical figures which have been identified as caimans, an alligator like semi-aquatic reptile, indigenous to South America. The two figures themselves are masked by a multitude of secondary symbols and motifs and discerning the larger figure somewhat difficult. Doyon-Bernard has produced a line drawing comparison of Pollock’s painting and the obelisk to compare the motifs, using the obelisk as the point of reference. Julio Tello, who discovered the obelisk, says the male caiman was associated with the sky and the rainy season, whilst the female figure represented the earth and the dry season and Tello also claims to have identified the genitalia of the supernatural creatures, identifying item ‘d’ as the phallus and ‘e’ as the female genitalia. However Elizabeth Langhorne has identified a phallus on the left-hand figure and associates the yellow triangle on the right-hand figure as the female genitalia. Langhorne claims that Pollock associated red with the male and yellow with the female and uses the fact that the figures contain both colours allude to a ‘union of opposites’, a joining of the Jungian concepts of animus and anima. However this colour reading seem apposite to Jungian interpretation where yellow represents intuition and red represents emotion or feeling, both traditional female attributes.
These opposing interpretations will arise: Pollock was not part of the same cultural or historical group as those who created the Tello obelisk and he therefore could not share the same tacit knowledge as them : equally modern day art historians are distanced from both of the above.
Sue Taylor’s article discusses Pollock’s painting, Stenographic Figure, 1942, the same year that he painted Male and Female.
Taylor considers the various approaches and interpretations for the painting in her article, from the pre-iconographic description of O’Connor to the psycho-analytical by Naifeh and Smith, whilst also offering her own lucid comment,
‘If Pollock injected “willed confusions” into Stenographic Figure, he did so ingeniously, leaving generations of viewers uncertain about its specific subject matter and content.’
Langhorne again tries to ‘explain’ the various motifs in the painting through Jungian analysis ; ‘Thus the numerical formula 66=42 can be seen as yet another statement of Pollock’s desire for a union of opposites’ , something Rubin attributes to ‘compositional needs’. Taylor chooses the middle ground here and concentrates on a more literal explanation of the painting through its title: the painting is of a stenographer and the symbols on the painting are the result of the recording of shorthand. However the validity of this could be called in question once one realizes the painting was originally called just that, Painting , although it was Pollock that renamed it in 1943 .
Even if we accept the literal Jungian interpretation of the symbols, how can we be sure that Pollock was not consciously manipulating them: the symbols lose their meaning if they are not unconscious acts? Varnedow notes : whether Pollock’s works, ‘contain consciously coded references to doctrine or involuntary exhumations of predictable symbolic structures.’ Taylor adds doubt to the symbols interpretation by suggesting that Stenographic Figure is an allegory for Pollock’s relationship with his psychotherapist and his apparent lack of autonomy in his artistic work: his work is suggested as being just a derivative of his unconscious.
If Pollock was trying to shake off the unconscious act that Jung’s followers attributed to painting, where the artist was just a stenographer, and move to Greenbergian autonomy, then any absolute interpretations of symbols in his paintings should be cautioned.
A year later in 1943, Pollock produced the painting, Guardians of the Secret. This work appears to combine both Male and Female (having two mythic symbols representing human figures), and Stenographic Figure (by showing tablet covered in figures). However here the symbols have deliberately no Jungian significance, Pollock has stated his autonomy. As Kuspit writes, the artists despairing ‘sense of meaningless becomes dominant and overt in the all-over paintings, which is what makes them truly untranslatable and uninterpretable’ ,which Taylor goes on to add is ‘a frightening prospect to art historians’.
Panofsky’s iconography is in opposition to the formalist approaches of Wofflin or Greenberg and fall short of a deeper contextual social-historical analysis offered by, for example, Baxandall. Iconography is an attempt to bring science to art history, to offer an empirical analysis of painting without humanistic concerns. Panofsky’s iconology watered down these boundaries, and his concerns were shown when he writes, ‘There is admittedly some danger that iconology will behave, not like ethnology as opposed to ethnography, but like astrology as opposed to astrography.’
Modern day art historians are still using iconography to bring meaning to paintings and this essay considers two such analyses, one comparing Pollock’s painting Man and Women with Chavin art, and the other looking at interpretations of his painting, Stenographic Figure, particularly from the Jungian perspective.
We can see from Taylor’s article that it is dangerous to apply such an explicit ‘reading’ of Pollock’s painting. We know now that the paintings considered were transition paintings on the way to the drip paintings and Pollock was fighting to achieve his autonomy and not to be a pawn of his Jungian subconscious: he was trying to obliterate the meaning of the symbols in painting. The dedicated iconographer will try to show that Pollock ‘over-painted’ the symbols, even on his most abstract works, still allowing them to be understood. But given Pollock’s intentions an iconographic reading is certainly, at best, open to interpretation, and at worst misleading. Pollock stated, in talking about his painting She Wolf of 1944, the painting ‘came into existence because I had to paint it. Any attempt on my part to say something about it, to attempt an explanation of the inexplicable, could only destroy it.’
Such interpretations of Pollock’s paintings distil the impact of the work, and go against the formalist instantaneousness of Michael Fried. An iconographic reading of an image supposes a degree of naturalism in its realization and largely only works when the work is a narrative representation of literary subjects. Panofsky's methods relate 'text' to 'image' and could form the basis of a semiotic reading of the image. However relating literary analysis to images assumes images are read narratively and not realized instantaneously. Indeed, it was the association of text with image that opened up the possibility of a semiotic reading of images.
However, if iconography cannot be applied to Pollock’s work, if it appears to have no narrative does it mean his work does not ‘mean’ anything? I do not believe so. Pollock stated, when questioned how a viewer should approach his art, ‘I think they should not look for, but look passively – and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for.’ Iconography, by studying the minutiae of its symbolism, prevents being engulfed by the work, to be drawn in and by so doing, to be absorbed into its ‘big idea’. Abstract artists own intentions are often stated that their wish is to convey the big idea, and their removal of artwork names and their increasing abstraction were done to convey this as effectively as possible. Therefore if we continue to analyse these works iconographically we lay ourselves open to the possibility of the ‘intentional fallacy’, that we are reading motive into a work that was not the artist’s intention. As Rothko wrote, 'The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy....finite associations' . William Wright, in a radio interview, asked Pollock , ‘Then deliberately looking for any known meaning or object in an abstract painting would distract you immediately from ever appreciating it as you should.’ To which Pollock replied, ‘I think it should be enjoyed just as music is enjoyed – after a while you may like it or you may not.’
Rosemblum wrote of Rothko’s painting, they offer us a depiction of, 'the awe-inspiring infinities of the natural world as a metaphor of the supernatural world beyond' . As such any symbols present would deter us from 'looking beyond', and looking for them distracts us from the true meaning and effect of these great works.
Mark Rothko 1903-1970, pp.69. This was part a letter in the New York Times, written by Rothko and Gottlieb, in response to a review of Rothko’s The Syrian Bull and Gottlieb’s Rape of Persephone by Edward Alden Jewell.
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