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Ambiguity and the image of the king

The following essay explores problems posed by a recently-published fresco (dated to the first century AD) that depicts Alexander the Great standing opposite an unknown female figure. The fresco is unusual in its use of conventional or codified figure types, in particular a widely-found statue type known as the ’Alexander with the Lance,’ and for its placement of Alexander in anecdotal relation with a woman. While discussions of the picture thus far have tried to identify the scene depicted (by reference to histories of Alexander’s life), the following analysis takes the difficulty of doing so itself as a motivated aspect of the image. I argue that the fresco’s mode of representation is to bring together figure types whose conventional fields of meaning are in conflict with one another, and then to highlight this conflict in order to comment upon the fields (or figure types) themselves. In this case, the fresco’s ambiguity in signification (the undecidability of its reference) enables a highly strategic critique of the ’Alexander with the Lance’ because the latter, as a prototypical ’image of the king,’ depends upon the necessary and transparent extension of its signs. By virtue of the anecdotal relation between ’Alexander’ and the depicted female figure (an Aphrodite type) the fresco’s critique reveals the close association between the claims for representation made by the image of the king and the patriarchal structures of power they seek to instantiate. The fresco thus offers remarkably direct data for understanding the intersection of representation and gender in the early Roman empire. I suggest in conclusion that because the image seems also to posit a specifically gendered (male) gaze, its critique is extended to the spectator and thereby provides data for understanding the intersection of the practice of representation (here, viewing) and gender.

Author(s):  Mack, R. T.
Format:  Article
Date:  1994
Source:  J Homosex
Volume:  27
Number:  1-2
Pages:  11-34