Compositional interpretation is, as Chapter 4 points out, a term of my own invention. The activity that supports that chapter here is based an essay by Catherine Belsey on the painting 'Tarquin and Lucretia', by Titian; and that chapter does not use the term 'compositional interpretation' to describe its approach to that painting. Instead, Belsey is discussing what she calls 'textual analysis'. There is more to her essay than I will explore here; there are several discussions of authors, writing and readers that are more generally about the making of meaning in all cultural texts. I have excised several of these discussions in order to focus on her discussion of her method in which 'the text sets the agenda' (Belsey 2005: 167), which is very close to what I have described as compositional interpretation.
This activity has two aims:
to follow an example of a compositional interpretation in action;
to reflect on its strengths and its limitations.
First, though, here is the painting (roll mouse over the link to show image; click to open in new window). It's large – some 189cm high by 145cm wide – and it's oil paint on canvas. It was painted by the artist Titian near the end of his life, for his patron King Philip II of Spain, and currently hangs in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
To work through the activity, read through the extracts from Belsey's essay and whenever you see this icon , hover your mouse over it to explore her arguments.
What, then -- to pose the inaugural question as broadly and baldly as possible - is going on in Tarquin and Lucretia? The first and most immediate answer is rape. Even to a viewer who does not know the story in advance, the position is clear from Tarquin's raised dagger; his knee between Lucretia's legs; his muscular dominance over her body, already placed visually at a lower level than his, and so subject to it; and from the white bedlinen draped over her thighs as the only available protection against violation. Her nakedness and the bed point to the sexual nature of the assault; they also show her to be defenceless.
This is a moment of considerable intensity. The painting arrests and fixes an instant immediately before the rape itself, offering to enist the viewer in a kind of suspense. What we are invited to fear will follow is left to our imagination, and may well in consequence be experiences as more, not less, painful. Rape is a sustained action; its duration is part of the horror; and in that sense a still image cannot capture it. But this one comes close -- partly by showing the figures so evidently in motion, but above all by leaving the action to be completed in the spectator's mind.
Lucretia is evidently already in bed, and is taken by surprise. Human beings seem to be at their most vulnerable when they sleep, especially if they sleep without clothing. The female nude in general tends to hover between helplessness and sexuality. Where does the emphasis fall here? My second question, then, would be how the painting invites us to see Lucretia. Is she presented as a victim struggling to resist a brutal assault? Or is she offered as an object of desire for the spectator, as well as Tarquin?
Where, in other words, are our sympathies? The light comes from the left and falls on Lucretia's naked flesh. To that extent, the nude body of a woman, set against her bedlinen, is offered as a spectacle. On the other hand, the breasts, usually a focus for the erotic gaze, are here only indicated, rather than depicted. Meanwhile, two main composition lines draw attention to the violence rather than to her body itself: the diagonal line formed by the legs, and most sharply defined by Tarquin's, leads direct to her left shoulder, drawing the eye to the other diagonal formed by her left arm and right. So the visual emphasis falls on what goes on between the figures. And because the woman seems to have no chance against Tarquin's greater strength and the threat indicated by the dagger, the occurence seems to me to be on the whole more shocking than titillating.
But there is room for debate, and a researcher might well want to come back to this uncertainty, since it arguably constitutes part of what continues to hold the viewer's attention. Whatever the decision, the painting evidently plays a part in the history of gender politics. If, on the one hand, it confirms the view that images of the high-lit, naked female body objectify women, on the other hand it goes some way to substantiate a good deal that feminists have been arguing about rape since the 1970s. Rape, we have maintained, constitutes assertion of force over vulnerability; it is as much about power as sex.