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Roland Barthes Photo

Roland Barthes Artworks

French Philosopher, Social Theorist, and Semiotician

Born: November 12, 1915 - Cherbourg, France
Died: March 26, 1980 - Paris, France
Movements and Styles:

Roland Barthes and Important Artists and Artworks

Roland Barthes: The New Citroën (1957)

The New Citroën (1957)

Artist: Roland Barthes

Barthes's book, Mythologies (1957), is a collection of previously published essays (in journals such as Théâtre Populaire and Lettres nouvelles) on items, images and performances from mass culture and was prefaced by his introductory essay to semiotics, "Myth Today". Put simply, Barthes argued that seemingly innocent objects and images carry a literal - denotative - meaning, and a non-literal - connotative - meaning. By deconstructing the connotative meaning one can then expose the ideological structures on which consumer society is built and maintained. One of the best-known essays form Mythologies is "The New Citroën" in which Barthes uses semiotic analysis to de-mythologize the "futuristic" Citroën DS 19 motor car. The essay stands as an exemplar of how consumer society could be approached with a critical reverence that had been reserved hitherto only for the fine arts and the great novels of literature.

Barthes likened all modern motor cars to "the great Gothic cathedrals" in the sense that they were "the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as purely magical objects". Referring to the experience of those members of the public who did encounter the car firsthand (at motor-shows or in showrooms) Barthes wrote, we are "dealing here with a humanized art, and it is possible that the [Citroën DS 19] marks a change in the mythology of cars. Until now, the ultimate in cars belonged rather to the bestiary of power; here it becomes at once more spiritual [the] object here is totally prostituted, appropriated: originating from the heaven of Metropolis, the Goddess is in a quarter of an hour mediatized, actualizing through this exorcism the very essence of petit-bourgeois advancement".

It is not without its own irony, however, that, rather than "de-mystify" the Citroën DS 19, Barthes's essay in fact did much to confirm and secure the vehicle's mythological status. As the American journal Open Culture pointed out: "at the 1955 Paris Auto Show the world first beheld a car that, aesthetically speaking, might as well have been a spacecraft: the Citroën DS. Pronounced in French like déesse, that language's word for 'goddess,' the car received 80,000 order deposits during the show, a record that stood for six decades until the debut of Tesla's Model 3 - which, whatever its respectability as a feat of design and engineering, will never have Roland Barthes to extol its beauty".


Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962)

Artist: Andy Warhol

This image is a reproduction of the same publicity still (from the 1953 film Niagara) that Warhol used for most of his Marilyn works. He altered the colours or the ink content for each piece with this edition covered in a bright gold block colour. Marilyn's surroundings glamorise her, while also making her smaller - almost swallowing her up. The idea of image repetition of icons of mass culture presented a direct challenge to the lofty high art principles so recently evidenced in the art of the New York School. But with every repetition - "Pop Art [...] repeats spectacularly. Warhol proposes a series of identical images [...] which differ only by some slight variation of color (Flowers, Marilyn)" wrote Barthes - Warhol's Marilyn became further removed from the woman herself and brought to light the ambivalent feeling we have to the overexposure of certain images and icons.

In his 1980 essay, "That Old Thing Art", Barthes was drawn to discuss Pop Art because it "wants to desymbolize the object". By this he meant that Pop Art wanted to rid the work of any deeper (connotative) meaning. But that observation was not intended as any sort of criticism. Barthes liked the idea that an artwork could exist as nothing more than a sign. He wrote: "Crossing the Atlantic [Pop] products forced the barrier of art; accommodated by certain American artists, they became works of art, of which culture no longer constituted the being, merely the reference: origin was displaced by citation [...] Pop Art as we know it is the permanent theater of [a] tension: on one hand the mass culture of the period is present in it as revolutionary force which contests art; and on the other , art is present in it as a very old force which irresistibly returns in the economy of societies. There are two voices, as in a fugue - one says: 'This is not Art', the other says, at the same time: 'I am Art'.

Commenting on the Pop artist, meanwhile, Barthes argued that a figure like Warhol "does not stand behind his work ... and he himself has no depth: he is merely the surface of his pictures, no signified, no intention, anywhere". It would have been a sentiment endorsed by Warhol himself who memorably declared: "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it".

Silkscreen - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

No. 159, 15 Dec '71 (1971)

Artist: Roland Barthes

During his lifetime Barthes produced over 700 (going by the number that remain in storage) artworks, although he very much considered himself a "Sunday painter" and never intended the pieces to be exhibited. The paintings/sketches/doodlings are all numbered and dated and range from 1971-78. Professor of art theory, Sunil Manghani, notes that there "is very little variation" between the works with Barthes restricting himself to a palette of "three or four colours" arranged on paper using "the same interleaving lines and marks". Manghani adds that, "[Barthes] appears to have considered the paintings a body of work of sorts, however modestly. Almost all of the drawings are dated, and he also numbered each piece in a continuous sequence, often using a different pen or pencil, which might suggest an operation undertaken at the end of a painting session. Perhaps this was the moment in which he reflected on the works, discarding those that had not 'worked'".

As an artist, Barthes described himself as a "marginal", and likened himself in fact to two painters. The first was the famous J. D. Ingres who was a passionate, but strictly amateur, violin player (Ingres passion for the violin was immortalized in one of Man Ray's most iconic photographs, Le Violon d'Ingres, 1924). The second was Bernard Réquichot of whom Barthes wrote: "He is the one who does not exhibit, the one who does not make himself heard ... the amateur seeks to produce only his own enjoyment (but nothing forbids it to become ours in addition, without his knowing it)".

In 1978 Barthes published a short essay entitled "Colouring, Year Zero" in the literary/arts newspaper Les Nouvelles Littéraires. In it, he said the following about his art: "From time to time, I like to do ... but here the difficulty begins - to do what? Drawing, painting, graphic art...? What I do barely has a name. It's more of the order of colouring, of graffiti. It's not, assuredly, a second-rate thing but it is a by-product, a spin-off, even though it's always subject, more or less, to cultural values that I derive, without thinking, from all the paintings or forms of handwriting I've seen [...] There are no doubt many reasons for this amateur practice. Perhaps it's the dream of being a complete artist, a painter and writer, as certain men of the Renaissance were [But more likely it is] the relief (the restfulness) of being able to create something that isn't directly caught in the trap of language and dodges the responsibility each sentence inevitably carries with it - in short, a sort of innocence that writing denies me."

Ink, acrylic, felt pen - Bibliothèque nationale de France

Self-Portrait (1975)

Artist: Robert Mapplethorpe

This is a playful self-portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe. His body is only partially in frame, and we get a view of his smiling facial expression. His arm is outstretched in a "Vitruvian-man" like fashion, as if the image is anatomical. He is nude, at least from the waist up, which perhaps brings an erotic charge to the image. This was one of the first of Mapplethorpe's career-spanning self-portraits. This image is light-hearted whilst also being self-reflexive in his role of artist/photographer.

Barthes analysed two of Mapplethorpe's photographs in his book Camera Lucida. For him, this photograph is an erotic object. Barthes explained: "The erotic photograph [...] does not make the sexual organs into a central object; it may very well not show them at all; it takes the spectator outside its frame, and it is there that I animate this photograph and that animates me". Of Self-portrait specifically, Barthes continues, "This boy [...] incarnates a kind of blissful eroticism; the photograph leads me to distinguish the 'heavy' desire of pornography from the 'light' (good) desire of eroticism; after all, perhaps this is a question of 'luck': the photographer has caught the boy's hand (the boy is Mapplethorpe himself, I believe) at just the right degree of openness, the right density of abandonment: a few millimeters more or less and the divined body would no longer have been offered with benevolence (the pornographic body shows itself, it does not give itself, there is no generosity in it): the photographer has found the right moment, the kairos [beginnings] of desire".

Photograph on paper, dry mounted on board - Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, New York

Sherrie Levine: After Walker Evans 4 (1981)

After Walker Evans 4 (1981)

Artist: Sherrie Levine

Levine was part of a loose affiliation of female artists who were aligned with the so-called Pictures Generation. Influenced by Pop Art and Conceptual Art, the group, which lasted roughly between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, used a variety of media (but predominantly photography and film) to rework popular imagery. Artists like Levine, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger were instrumental in dismantling what were in effect the foundations of modernist thinking - authenticity and artistic genius - which they did by blurring the distinctions between fine art and mass media.

Levine's image is a photograph of a reproduction (a "copy of a copy" in other words) of an iconic photograph that was originally taken some fifty years earlier. The subject is the wife of an Alabama sharecropper called Allie Mae Burroughs and was taken by the American photographer Walker Evans who gained renown for this and other photographs from the Great Depression. Levine's photograph, copied from a Walker Evans exhibition catalogue, is an attempt to undermine the authority of Evans as artist/photographer. Levine's "copy" effectively called into question both the idea of authenticity in art, and the writing of the canons of art history which was dominated by the biographical tales of the "heroic" deeds of "great men". Like her female counterparts, Levine's work can be understood in the context of two key essays: Linda Nochlin's, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" (1971), and Barthes's "The Death of the Author" (1967).

Published in ARTnews as a special issue entitled, "Women's Liberation, Woman Artists, and Art History", Nochlin argued that art institutions were guilty of holding back women artists who could reach the same status as male artists for the want of the same commercial opportunities. Nochlin's essay is heralded by feminists as a milestone in the evolution of gender equality in the contemporary art world. Barthes's essay, meanwhile, fitted perfectly with this position, providing as it did the philosophical impetus for the challenge to the "old criticism" that construed the canons of a male dominated art history. Notwithstanding the paradox that the likes of Levine had themselves risen to the status author/artist, Barthes had in effect sanctioned the idea of post-structuralism - that "truths" (plural) replaced the idea of "truth" (fixed) - which became in effect the philosophical position of postmodernism.

Gelatin silver print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Untiled ("Roma" Series) (1964)

Artist: Cy Twombly

American Cy Twombly started to gain serious recognition as a "post Abstract Expressionist" artists while a resident of Italy in the late 1950's. His tendency to "scribble" on his pictures gave small prompts, or linguistic referents, that were open to interpretation. Featuring light-colored pencil strokes, and fragments of ink and paint, the artist's "Roma" series, in the description offered by the Philips Auction House, "capture on paper a raw energy and seamless poetry in a graffiti-like manner with isolating gaps of pencil and ink [with the] outcome of Untitled, 1964 becomes a visual experience emotionally engaging the past of antiquity with a sensation of walking the streets of Rome in 1964". Barthes was so taken with Twombly's art he wrote the essay, "Non multa sed multum" (Latin: "Many, but not much") (1979), in which he referred to the artist (through the abbreviation "TW") in the section entitled "Écriture" ("Writing" or "Scripture"). Barthes was especially drawn to the idea of what he called "the gesture" in Twombly's art.

Barthes wrote: "What is a gesture? Something like the surplus of an action. The action is transitive, it seeks only to provoke an object, a result, the gesture is an indeterminate an inexhaustible total of reasons, pulsions [pushing, or, driving], indolences [idleness] which surround the action with an atmosphere (in the astronomical sense of the word). Hence let us distinguish the message, which seeks to produce information, and the sign, which seeks to produce an intellection, from the gesture, which produces all the rest (the surplus) without necessarily seeking to produce anything [...] Many of TW's compositions suggest, it has been said, the scrawls of children. The child is the infant who does not speak; but the child who conducts TW's hand already writes - he is a schoolboy: lined paper, colored pencils, ruler, repeated letters, little plumes of cross-hatching, like the smoke that comes out of the locomotive in children's drawings".

Since the essay was written the year before his death, one might, considering his essay "The Death of the Author", be given to wonder where Barthes stood in relation to "TW" the author/artist. He was able to dodge that inconsistency in the following statement: "["TW"] produces without appropriating anything, He acts without expecting anything, His work accomplished, he does not get attached to it. And since he is not attached to it, His work will remain".

Ink, graphite and colored pencil on paper - Private Collection

Hermès Scarf (2015)

Artist: Philippe Apeloig

To mark the centenary of his birth (November 2015), the French luxury fashion house, Hermès, launched (at its flagship rue de Sèvres store on Paris's Left Bank) a limited-edition of its iconic silk scarf. The scarf, designed by the famous French graphic artist Philippe Apeloig, was based on a motif inspired by Barthes's 1979 book, Fragments d'un discours amoureux (A Lover's Discourse, Fragments). Apeloig said of the commission: "Barthes' writing is very visual; his ideas on fashion, advertising and photography have inspired my generation of graphic artists. He designed a special text layout for each page of 'Fragments,' so my first idea was to use typography, but that was too obvious. Finally I blacked out all the text, turned the words into graphic blocks, and reproduced each page in its original order like a mosaic [and] a musical score, a piece of morse code, hieroglyphics and a diagram of digital circuitry".

Writing in the New Yorker, Princeton University scholar, Christy Wampole, argued that "The Barthes scarf is a particularly readable and mythological object: fragile, expensive, and thus to be handled with care, as he handled all of his objects of study. Perhaps silk is the best material with which to honor Barthes. It is a natural fiber, exuded by a living thing and thus containing something of this life within it; its history represents the encounter between East and West; and its invitation to touch puts it in the same category as human skin. The scarf holds its own significance. As a tool for veiling, it floats somewhere between the necessary and the ornamental, and it might remind us of the forgotten link between 'text' and 'textile'".

However, much in the way Barthes inadvertently turned the Citroën DS 19 into the very object of desire he was trying to deconstruct, Wampole's predicted that the irony of the Hermès scarf would not have been lost on Frenchman were he still alive. She asked rhetorically: "How would Barthes read this object? [...] How would he have read the choice to emblazon his memory across a silk carré? What would he have made of this bourgeoisification of his thought? And what would he have had to say about the scarf's eight-hundred-and-ninety-five-euro price tag?".


Belledonne (2016)

Artist: Victor Burgin

The British Conceptual Artist Victor Burgin has engaged with Barthes writing throughout his long career. Indeed, according to art historian Ryan Bishop, Burgin "was instrumental in introducing [Barthes's] theoretical work to the English-speaking art world". The Belledonne project was commissioned by Southampton's John Hansard Gallery for its 2016 "Barthes/Burgin" exhibition, where the installation (and other works by Burgin) was paired with a selection of rarely seen (outside of France) drawings by Barthes. Belledonne - named after the mountain range in the Dauphine Alps where Barthes received treatment for his tuberculosis at the remote St-Hilare-du-Touvet sanatorium - was the first of Burgin's projects to address Barthes's writing head-on. Featuring "impossible" "clean air" vistas, interspersed with intertitles featuring quotes from Barthes's work, Belledonne is presented on a perpetual loop; or a "circle of fragments" (to use Burgin's appropriation of Barthes phrase).

Bishop writes: "Burgin's technique of panorama, not only in the projection works but also in earlier photographic and video pieces, stitches together images and dissolves the frame, providing an illusion of eliding the frame of the lens. The revolution of the panoramic landscape in Belledonne, along with dynamic barrel distortion, provides a cinematically-informed dream- like quality in which [...] the sublime landscape flattens into two-dimensional planes in the rigid axis of zero degree". Bishop observes further that Burgin's loops are designed in a way that encourages the viewer to "enter at any point in the projection" and that the viewer will reach a point where they encounter a "'reprise' or 'ritornello' [a recurring passage] operating as a kind of unfolding of the layers of the work" and this will likely act as the prompt for their individual exit point.

The overlap between Barthes and Burgin occurs through both men's love - one written, the other visual - of fragmentation. It is well known that Barthes's was a great admirer of the so-called "Nouveau Roman" novel which, having emerged around the mid-1950s, experimented freely with narrative structure. It was a style of writing without (as it were) any prescribed style, and inspired Barthes's own preference for fragmented writing structures as evidenced in works such as Writing Degree Zero (1953), Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975), and A Lover's Discourse, Fragments (1979). As Bishop writes, "Perhaps the signature strategy for Barthes to resist discursive control over thought, and certainly the primary element of Burgin's projection pieces for gallery viewing, the fragment as technique [...] figures strongly in works by both".

Installation (projection loop) - John Hansard Gallery, Southampton

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Content compiled and written by Esme Blair

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Roland Barthes Influencer Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Esme Blair
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 19 Dec 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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