Part Three – Exercise 3.3: Meta-Pictures

Find and collate 10 diverse examples of meta-painting from the 17th century to the present.

End of last year till the beginning of this the Prado in Madrid featured an exhibition with the title Meta-painting. A Journey to the Idea of Art.  I didn’t attend but looking and reading the webpage was quite beneficial for this exercise on meta-painting. especially in context of art history. I took some examples from there.

The course material is referring to ‘Meta-Pictures‘ as the second-order or second-hand representation of reality.

W.J. Mitchell explained comprehensively meta-pictures in his book Picture Theory (1995) as

“Pictures about pictures – that is, pictures that refer to themselves or to other pictures, pictures that are used to show what a picture is’. It turns the viewer’s attention ‘back to the process of image making”

Droste cocoa package

Fig. 1: Droste cocoa package

The difference between first and second-order representation is based on the differentation between surface image and internal image as the ‘structure of inside and outside‘. The nesting of images is necessary to stabilise a meta-picture. (Mitchell, 1995, p.42).One example of nested images is the term “mise en abîme” coined by André Gide. It refers on the one hand to the sensation of being between two mirrors with infinite, recursive images. On the other hand to the ‘Droste’ effect (related to the package image design), a technique where one image contains a smaller copy of itself. (Droste is my famous cacao that I was growing up with in Netherlands, just outstanding taste)

Alain Egyptian Life Class. Drawing by Alain (1955, 1983) by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.

Fig. 2: Alain Egyptian Life Class. Drawing by Alain (1955, 1983) by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.

Other examples mentioned by Mitchell (1995):

  • Saul Steinberg New World cartoon p.39) – a formal self-referentiality and creating a ‘referential circle or mise en abîme,
  • Alain cartoon Egyptian Life Class (Fig. 2,  p. 43) – a ‘generically’ self -referentiality, represent pictures about pictures.  and
  • Duck-Rabbit cartoon from Fliegende Blätter, (p.54)a discursive or contextual self-referentiality with a reflection on the nature of visual representations.

Mitchell concludes that ‘any picture that is used to reflect of the nature of pictures is a meta-picture.’ (p. 57) Accordingly, the multi-stability of meta-pictures stabilise the identity and do question the self-understanding of the observer. Meta-pictures are discursive and built around effects and identity, they picture theory. They are according to Wittgenstein ‘hypericons‘. Plato’s Cave allegory is similar to Alain’s cartoon an hypericon as it allow to ‘observe the observer’, both serve as a model of the mind.

Some other perspectives or phrasings on Meta Pictures:

Javier Portús from the exhibition at Museo del Prado (2017): ‘..refer to art or to images, either as self-portraits, … or because they include other paintings and sculptures, … or because they analyse issues relating to the definition of art and its history’


a voice from the internet / Ronald Richardson (2011): ‘..Truly abstract paintings are always meta-paintings, because they are about themselves, their materiality and the process of their production.’

but one could also see it simply and post-modernistic like

“the prefix “meta” is added everywhere to mark practically any phenomenon that is self-referential, self-conscious or self-parodying.” – Widewalls


Examples of Meta-Paintings:

My Pinterest board with the collection of Meta-Pictures:

[online images]  [all accessed 05-07 July 2017]

  1. David Teniers (1647-51) The Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Picture Gallery at Brussels  Available from:
    => A metaphorical allusion to the artistic interests and standing as an art lover. Images nested within the picture. A representation of power through symbolic addition of dogs and swords and as collector of abundancy of art.
  2. Diego de Velázquez (ca. 1656)Las Meninas 
    Available from:
    => Because of its subject matter. The subject of the painting is ‘absent’ The view-point goes basically back and out of the picture and therefore the view of perspective itself is the subject matter.It turns the viewer’s attention to how the artist was making this painting. 
  3. Gustave Caillebotte (1859-60) Self Portrait with an Easel Available from:
    => Because of the embodied double perspective. The artist as model is tilting the painting (oil) on the easel to avoid the glare from the light through the window on the left. By that the artist depicts a double view-point, one towards the viewer (the mirror) and one toward the depiction of himself on the surface of the canvas on the easel. The viewer’s attention is drawn to the uniquenss of making a self-portrait in oil.
  4. Pere Borrell y del Caso (1874) Escaping from the Critics  Available from:
    => A trompe d’oeil painting that extends the pictorial space towards the viewer, The painting get split into two images. one with the illusion of a painting, even enforced by the visible signature on the inner painting area. The other the pictorial space of the painted frame, enforcey by the ‘stepping out’ of the depicted boy. The viewer’s attention is focused on the double, nested images.
  5. Propaganda Poster Lenin and Gandhi Available from:
    => This is about signs and myth through juxtaposition of images. Two historical people (Lenin, Gandhi) with different cultural backgrounds and worldviews, collaged together to convey a new sense of reality perception by the artist. The viewer’s attention is taken outside of the picture plane into a world of political illusionary realities.
  6. Joaquin Torres (1938) Construction in White and Black. Available from:
    =>  Focus on the creation process, construction of shapes as reflection of construction of the outside world and the construction of the painting itself. The viewer’s attention is consciously drawn to the construction element and its relation to an external reality. 
  7. Pablo Picasso (1957) The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas, after Velázquez – Les Ménines, vue d’ensemble, d’après VelázquezAvailable from:
    => An hommage to Velazquez. Picasso’s version is appropriating as well as amending Velazques painting. The artist holds two palettes, possibly referring one to Velazquez’s original idea, and one for Picasso’s position. He is adding in cubism style more viewpoints and perspectives on objects. A kind of meta-meta-painting.
  8. Josef Albers Homage to the Square: Ten Works by Josef Albers Available from:
    => This turns the viewer’s attention to the image making and form perception through a formal image making process. As abstract painting it builds on the juxtaposition of flat canvas surface and optical illusion of color perception.
  9. Rene Magritte (1966) The Two Mysteries  Available from: 
    => A reference of images and relationship of language. Or in terms of semiotics, the symbols of language. A further extension of an earlier version from 1948 of depiction of pipe alone juxtaposed with text “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. It is a nested picture in three steps: depicted pipe, depiction of painting of the pipe, depiction the the spatial orientation of the depicted image of the painting and juxtaposed with a large pipe that in this pictorial context resembles rather an imagination. Here the ‘Droste’ effect is applied.
  10. Charles Avery (2013) Untitled (It Means It Means; Bourgeois, Friedrich, LeWitt, Lichtenstein, Malevich, Morris, Polke, Stieglitz). Available from:  
    => Depiction of museum visits and  enjoying art, Modernist Art in show, juxtaposed with children playing with curiosity. It is, and the title indicates it, a reflection of museum visits and Art reception. Made in the post-post-era, this is also a perhaps nostaligic reference to Modernist conceptions as opposite to questioning post-modernist theories. Basically, the art reception and enjoyment (symbolic meaning of the children playing) is the subject matter. The viewer’s attention is attracted by the meta-images of exhibited pictures juxtapose with external references.
Stefan513593 - Part 3 - Exercise 3 - log

Fig. 3: Stefan513593 – Part 3 – Exercise 3 – log


Meta-Paintings or second order representations seems to be ubiquitous. I am nearly wondering how a ‘pure’ first order can be done. A picture as direct observation from nature without any reference to how it is painted. I would assume that the ‘Naturalist’ and plein-air movements are the closest one can be. Even ‘normal’ still-life with staged objects of daily life are ‘producing meaning about these objects rather than reflecting some meaning that is already within them’ as Sturken and Cartwright are arguing with reference to a Dutch still-life painting by Pieter Claez from the Gouden Eeuw (2001, p.13).

Overall, I can see three main aspects to identify Meta-Pictures:

  1. Pictures that are self-referential and refer to themselves or they refer to other pictures
  2. Pictures that show  what a picture is and the process of the image making
  3. Nested images with either recursive indefinite pictures (mise an abîme, Droste effect)
  4. Meta-Pictures are pictorial representations where ‘the pictures reveal themselves and reflect on the intersections of visuality, language and similitude.’ (Mitchell, 1995, p.82)


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