Figure 1: Untitled by Marta Soul from the ongoing series Ama y bebe (2015-16)
I have chosen an untitled image by Spanish photographer Marta Soul from an ongoing series Ama y bebe, (translated as love and drink), currently showing at the Waterhall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
For the purposes of this essay I will deconstruct the image and provide an interpretation of it’s meaning and consider how the image is positioned within the wider context of art history whilst reflecting upon the intentions of the artist.
This is a constructed image of a social narrative depicting a man and a woman simultaneously taking drinks in an outdoor location.
The denoted image
A woman with richly coloured auburn hair dressed in vibrant coloured leisurewear and trainers. She stands on a coloured blanket drinking a bottle of mineral water, eyes closed, head back with a slight bend in her right leg. A bespectacled balding man with a wrinkled forehead, dressed in beige short-sleeved shirt matched with pressed lightweight trousers and brown shoes. He sits crossed legged on fur cushioning in a low comfortable chair drinking from a glass tumbler with eyes never leaving El Pais. His glass matches the ice bucket placed on a picnic table to his side. Bright lighting and greenery including ornamental water feature and cultured shrubbery completes the scene.
The connoted image
The sun is shining and the assumed couple enjoy wealth, comfort and security as we make hay whilst the sun shines. The garden is neutral space as we neither view the couple in his study nor in her kitchen. We see them alongside each other and reflect on whether the space between the couple is a metaphor for the state of their relationship.
The well-groomed younger woman takes deserved refreshments after a gentle jog that she has undertaken to maintain her figure and to offer structure to her carefree existence. He is affluent, sober, middle-aged and always likes to keep abreast of current affairs. In the garden she has her restricted area signified by her blanket whilst he is left to survey the rest of the land from his throne.
He reads a reputable newspaper requiring concentration and he sits sensibly, quietly, closed off and attracts no further attention. The woman is merely a casual jogger dressed in fashion wear not professional athletics kit. As she takes her recovery her body pose is open to the viewer with a whimsical bend in her knee, her presence is seen as frivolous. At the same time, the man’s presence is regarded as substantial as he engages in a work-like task and according to western cultural codes his activity is regarded as the more serious and he is the more important.
The studium of the image is a sober middle-aged professional man married to a younger attractive woman who is kept in her expensive lifestyle by the success of her husband’s career.
However it is the woman’s footwear providing the punctum, reminding myself of a sponsored run undertaken by my younger partner when we first met. The sight of the running trainers brought back memories and a sense of the debates, which at times, surrounded our own relationship.
The artist plays on our curiosity in the stereotypical relationship between the older man and younger woman that exists in western culture. She is only interested in his money whilst he is only interested in her attractiveness and good looks. The man is always assumed to ultimately control the relationship and holds the real power. The woman is subservient to the man and will often possess a fundamentally flawed character or weakness of some description.
Within this photograph we can recognise the intertextuality in referencing aspects of the essence of this stereotypical relationship from the wider history of western art and culture therefore colouring our experience and reading of the image.
As early as in the book of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve we can read in the bible, “Unto the woman God said, ‘and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee’……..the woman is blamed and punished by being made subservient to the man. In relation to the woman, the man becomes the agent of God.” (Berger, J. 1972:48).
In Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino we see how Sam Rothstein the untouchable casino boss meets Ginger the fundamentally flawed hustler seen through the eyes of the male narrator Sam. From this short clip the Director’s intentions to depict the two characters according to stereotypical gender and role profiling is clearly evident. Please access this scene above by following the arrow or following the link above.
Figure 2: Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier And His Wife (1788) by Jacques-Louis David
We can also look to European art history for irrefutable evidence of visual stereotypes that perpetuate of the relationship between a man and woman. The painting Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier And His Wife (1788) by Jacques-Louis David demonstrates how the artist essentially uses the woman’s more fragile weaker feminine presence to create empathy and soften the stronger male presence to create a more liberal and forward thinking image and one that the famous French chemist Antoine Lavoisier was keen to promote for himself. He paid the artist an enormous amount of money for the double portrait of himself and his wife Marie-Anne who was a 13 year-old student of the famous chemist at the time of their marriage. (Schama. S 2009:197-200).
Marta Soul and her intentions
Marta Soul’s developing body of work reflects upon people living within western culture focussing on the interplay between image and appearance, values, emotions and behaviour and the resultant social interactions. Her images are contemporary constructed social narratives and explore stereotypes whilst reflecting upon specific issues such as equality, gender and the unsatisfied desires of a consumerist society.
Ama y bebe is an excellent example of her personal approach as she constructs narratives of people drinking together in order to explore her wider interests. In order to fully read this image the viewer must interpret and accept the culturally coded connotations that are offered by the photograph. The artist then with irony in mind, overlays the literal act of simultaneous drinking which acts to stimulate questions about the narrative.
Although drinking is a part of everyday life we rarely see two people take a drink at exactly the same time. In constructing this image the artist invites the viewer to look more closely at the couple and we can speculate on the structure and history of their relationship.
However more importantly we are also invited to explore the universal subject of equality and question the stereotypes and roles played by men and women. We can also reflect on the behaviours, emotions and personalities in general of each of the two subjects and how they might interplay with each other.
This contemporary constructed aesthetic style clearly lacks the confrontation adopted by the early Feminist artists of the 1970s, which focused more aggressively on deconstructing the popular image of the female. (Feminist Avant Garde of the 1970s exhibition, 2016) however I believe that the context of the debate around gender and equality within Western culture has developed and become more complex and this is reflected in Marta Soul’s style and methods of communication within a contemporary society describing itself as enlightened.
This image asks a wide range of deep, important and significant questions and has been made by an intelligent, independent thinking contemporary female artist at the start of her career.
Barthes, R (1984) Camera Lucinda. London: Fontana Press.
Bate, D (2009) Photography The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.
Berger, J (1972) Ways of Seeing. (re-issued 2008) London: Penguin.
Bull, S (2010) Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.
Sharma, S (2009) The Power of Art, London: Random House.
Wells, L. (2009) Photography A Critical Introduction (4th ed.) London: Routledge
East Meets West exhibition at the Waterhall, Birmingham Museum and Art gallery, Birmingham (2016)
Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s exhibition, Photographer’s Gallery, London (2016)
Scene from Scorsese, M Casino (1995) accessed online from Youtube.
Figure 1: Untitled by Marta Soul, taken from Ama y bebe series (2015-16) at:
Figure 2: Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier And His Wife (1788) by Jacques-Louis David accessed online AT: