El tiempo de posar [The Time of the Pose]

First published translated to German as Die Zeit der Pose in Durch, no.5, pp 25-27
Also published in English as The Time of the Pose in Juan Muñoz, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. in association with The Art Institute of Chicago [cat.exh], 2001, pp. 64-65


The work of Parmigianino does not belong to dreams. What could possibly be more realistic than to paint the space in which one is painting?

The mother in the picture Camilla Gonzaga, Countess Sansecondo, with Her Sons appears not to be taking part in the scene she dominates. Each of the faces in the painting is turned toward a specific point in the salon —a corner, a wall— in which they are portrayed. The figures are intentionally presented as objects of artistic consideration, as a representation of a reality, which ends at the edge of the painting and to which the picture refers by noting its absence. A reality, perhaps, which in the final analysis is apparent neither inside nor outside the painting.

On the grounds of a certain polychrome perspective, I should like to juxtapose a photograph by Agusti Centelles from 1936 with the Mannerist work. Even beyond its suggestive parallels, however, this photograph deserves our careful scrutiny.

The license plate on the automobile on the left could indicate that the person standing in the middle has just recently made his way through the narrow streets that lead to Barcelona’s main thoroughfare, the Ramblas. Perhaps it is his intention to join in one of the political demonstrations of that time. Suddenly —perhaps too suddenly for him to understand— something has changed. The figure has forgotten his part. Interrupted in his presentation, he directs a frozen stare toward the prompter. He waits for his next cue. He stands there, immobile, and does not move as the curtain falls. The prompter waits in his little box in the floor, the photographer behind his camera, and neither says a word. They simply contemplate the beauty of the moment.

Beyond their formal, indeed numerical, similarity, both works share the strangeness of the picture itself, and even that of the expressions of the people portrayed.

I said before that the expression on the mother’s face in the Mannerist painting seems to reflect no participation in the represented scene. And yet, it is not without that degree of tenderness that a mother owes her children. The presence of the mother symbolizes something of a discernible tranquility. As soon as the time of the pose is over —“The Time of the Pose” might make a good subtitle for this work— the three children will return to their play. Their presence in the picture is an interruption.

Centelle’s photograph presents the concept of a linear time with its irreversible and inevitable end, maintained only through the voice of the photographer: “One minute please, everybody hold still …thank you.”

Parmigianino’s work, on the other hand, seems to assume, to adopt, a circular concept of time. There is neither beginning nor end. The echo, previously a call, itself becomes a call with each repetition. The viewer’s gaze, which is turned toward the family portrait, wanders ceaselessly back and forth. Like an echo, the eye returns to its starting point. It moves from the face of the boy on the left to that of the mother, then turns to the boy on the right and drops down to the hands. And the gaze flees from the centre of what it sees, multiplying it. Parmigianino’s work presages the world of the Baroque that will follow him.

The Mannerist painter and the Catalan photographer conjure their work into an aesthetic creation, perhaps in order to suggest that the boundaries of what is within lie beyond it.

“What is in the centre of a column?” The architect Lou Kahn once asked his students this question. It may be that his disciples might have been able to satisfy him with an answer that the great Spanish mystic Juan de la Cruz suggested three hundred years earlier: ”the stone lies in its innermost core.” The column is within its own interior.

In Parmigianino’s work we find precisely this determination to describe the moment in which the viewer’s gaze collapses in front of the painting (and this also includes his recognition of the image).
What does the worker see in the photograph? Only the lens? Does he stand still because he knows that whoever moves will not appear in the pictures? What is essential here is that we are participating in a moment of dissolution.

Here I would ask my readers to indulge me and to play a little game. Let us pretend that the two pictures are identical.

So, let us begin.

First, we can say that the various theories that attempt to express the manifestations of that cultural epoch we call Mannerism in terms of a common denominator constantly stress the same points.

A Mannerist painting shows, as a general rule:

a) A refined selection of poses
The three member of the Guardia Civil, with their dark, elaborately swirling coats, are arranged like the reflections in a triple mirror atop an Art Deco dressing table.

In another work Parmigianino had attempted to depict the riddle inherent in painting a mirror. The painting I am referring to is his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In this picture, the artist himself is copied by his work. Perhaps there is another symbolic meaning at work here, namely that illusory nature of imitation, of copying. Only the artist’s right hand, holding the brush, appears distorted in the roundness of the mirror. All the rest, his face, remains unchanged, keeps its distance, as if it wished to draw attention to its own full control.

The three guardias imitate the poses in the triple mirror, while the actual (central) image is frozen and absent. Centelle’s photograph imitates the mirror, which is itself imitating that reality which cannot restrain fleeting time. In the eyes of the worker this reality wants to be an illusion or to appear as an illusion.

The attempt by the Mannerist master to raise his hand to the mirror is in vain. An attempt, not as Vasari intended, a whim.

Several other concepts are also to be found among the characteristics of Mannerism:

b) The exaggerations of stylistic conventions
c)  The calligraphic character of bodies
d) The love of quotations
e) The tendency to spiritualize or dramatize scenes

And yet Parmigianino emphasizes in his work two more things than his fellow artists Pontormo or Bronzino, two major aspects that will help to make the hidden thread in this meandering text clearer: secondary figures and hands.

f) Secondary figures

Remember the Madonna with the Long Neck, or consider the standing figure wearing a hat, to the left of the worker. He too observes the scene. An yet how precisely he recalls the lines by Auden as he walks past us and this scene: “About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters: how well they understood/ Its human position; how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window, or just walking dully along.”

g) The hands

It would be pointless to discuss in detail the wonderful expressiveness of each individual hand in the Mannerist work. Permit me to ask just one question: What are the three gaurdias holding in their hands? What is the worker pointing at with his right hand?