Camilo Mejia and Faculty Mentor: Matthew Ancell PhD, Comparative Arts and Letters
Simone Heller-Andrist’s The Friction of the Frame ingeniously employs the Derridean parergon as a
methodological approach to analyze the mechanisms involved in the reading process. In The Truth in Painting, Derrida
uses the term parergon in the context of a frame in a painting. The parergon is the frame of a painting and a part of the
work that is commonly disregarded but influences and manipulates the interpretation of the work. Hence the parergon
presents an interaction between the canvas of a painting, and its surroundings. It is neither purely inside nor outside, but it
performs and operation that acknowledges a painting’s historical, economic, or political inscription.1Derrida performs a
thorough investigation of the nature of painting and drawing before entering in a discussion of the parergon. Although
Heller-Andrist does not analogically examine the nature of literature, she transposes the concept of frames to literature and
postulates that one can find in the parergon a “tool with which to investigate, understand, and interpret the workings of
literary frames that hold the power to influence our reading.”2Her work presents model analyses in literary works by
Walpole, Eliot, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Defoe, among others. These interpretative studies allow for novel readings that
stem from the interaction of the text and its frame. The classifications of frames are vast in literary criticism and include
narrative frames, paratexts, typology, intertextuality, and most certainly for this discussion of Calderón, theatrical frames.3
Heller-Andrist, however, chooses to focus on aspects of each work that protect the author or work, diminish or amplify the
work’s political impact, or create a textual dialogue. Her validation, as well as my own, for using the parergon in this
manner stems from Derrida’s commentary and adoption of the parergon from Kant. Derrida states the parergon “must, if it
is to have the status of a philosophical quasi-concept, designate a formal and general predicative structure, which one can
transport intact or deformed and reformed according to certain rules into other fields to submit new contents to it.”4
Although there may be multiple functions of the parergon in each Calderonian comedia that are open to further study, I
will explore a particular type of parergonality in Calderón’s El pintor de su deshonra: the tension present between the
comedia’s artistic theory framework, which finds its expression in the canvases that Juan Roca encounters and its
metonymic relationship to the reader or spectator’s experience with the text or play and their inability to ascertain
concreteness to the characters and apparent themes of the comedia.
El pintor de su deshonra is a polysemous text and is part of a series of honor plays, including El médico de su
honra and A secreto agravio, secreta vanganza, that outwardly deal with the themes of honor and tragedy. El pintor de su
deshonra further examines the visual arts. In it, Juan Roca, the talented painter, attempts to depict his wife Serafina, but
his endeavors are futile. After a series of events, Roca murders Serafina and Álvaro (her lover) as a consummative act to
regain an apparent loss of honor. Successful readings of El pintor de su deshonra, including some by Alan K.G. Paterson5
and Laura Bass6 have examined the painter’s inability to complete a painting as a commentary on the futility of linear
perspective and its inaccuracy as a representative tool furthermore indicating the impotence of the philosophical and
epistemological systems related to linear perspective. However, these investigations have been limited to the figure of an
incapable painter and have not focused on the mirroring and metonymic relationship between Roca’s failure to paint and
the reader’s inability to attribute a definitive interpretation to the text. Parergonality in El pintor is then twofold: first in
Roca’s encounters with different canvases and the discrepancies created between the content of the canvas and its
surroundings in each painting, and furthermore the related discord between the content and the text of the comedia.
I will first discuss how the parergon is efficiently highlighted in the comedia. These observations distill from the
idea that as Calderón wrote El pintor de su deshonra, he had (at least to a certain extent) a general idea of the artistic
theory discourse of seventeenth century Spain. Paterson sees various strands of philosophy in the text of El pintor de su
deshonra and regards Roca’s view on painting as a fusion between strains of painting theory.5These include Leon Battista Alberti’s Aristotelian view of imitation where beauty is defined as a agreement between parts to form a whole6 and
secondly, the metaphysical doctrine that came as a reaction against Alberti’s methodology of imitation where the artist
grasps an imitation of the beautiful from an inner idea that further guarantees its origin from the Neoplatonic epistemology
and the world of Ideas.7Nevertheless, Neoplatonism and Aristotelianism were not the only philosophical strands that
influenced Calderón. If the dramatist was indeed influenced by Alberti’s Della pintura, he was also well aware of
nominalism and Ciceronian logic.8While future studies could broaden Calderón’s connection to these philosophical
strands, Neoplatonism and Aristotelianism provide useful categories from which to construct a parergonal discussion of
the comedia in relation to the canvases in the text where they are apparently framed.
The use of retratos (or miniatures) developed out of the techniques of illuminated manuscripts. Their purpose
was to keep the image of an individual over long distances and they also served in personal introductions. Even with an
early instance of a canvas or portrait in the text, we begin to see a conflict between the miniature portraiture presented in
the text and the painting theory framework in this scene: what Paterson calls the Aristotelian attempt to represent nature.
Roca is able to surrender to Serafina’s beauty only after seeing her in person. The previously rendered retrato cannot justly
convey the superlative beauty of Serafina. Underlying this discussion of failure of representation is also the failure of the
pintor exterior, as defined by Vicente Carducho in his treatise on painting.9Carducho’s fourth dialogue includes a
discussion of two types of painters: one focused internally and another externally. The pintor interior concentrates on
intellectual understanding and practical discourse, while the pintor exterior is operative and practical. Although Carducho
does not prefer one type of painter over another, the Albertian mode of thinking since the quattrocento in Italy had focused
greatly on the pintor exterior and the painter’s ability to use practical tools, beginning with the techniques developed from
Alberti’s own treatise that later developed into linear perspective. The unknown artist in the comedia who attempted a
portrait of Serafina was, according to Roca, unable to fully render Serafina’s beauty in the retrato. Although Roca was
inclined to her miniature before meeting Serafina, it was only after he saw her in person that he fully surrendered to her
beauty. What is seen here then, is the failure of representation by the pintor exterior and a remark on the futility of the
Aristotelian methods of Albertian painting theory. The parergon of painting theory in this episode penetrates the text and
disrupts the unproductive painter further by conflating his lack of ability with the ineffectiveness of Albertian artistic
Just as the interactions between Juan Roca and his canvas are inefficient and, as Laura Bass states, unfruitful and
unfulfilling, the impotence of the reader or spectator in finding concreteness in the comedia reflects that there’s more than
Aristotelian catharsis in the character of Juan Roca. Auerbach claims that the Spanish baroque and the realism of the siglo
de oro demonstrate an adventure that seems almost exotic, colorful, poetic, and illusionistic. Calderón turns the world into
a magic stage that helps set the tone for modern realism. Auerbach maintains that a fixed order reigns in all of the
comedia, despite all the elements of adventure and miracle. Nothing in them is a riddle demanding to be solved, and there
are no questions difficult to answer.10This play is not insignificant like described by Auerbach, but represents and
translates the difficulty of the medium, a text, through the figure of a painter. Svetlana Alpers argues that the “looker” in
Las Meninas is the artist himself, Velázquez: he looks out at the viewer (who could be a viewer outside the painting and/or
the royal couple).11This is a conflation of the northern mode of painting, where the world prior to us is made visible; and
the southern mode, where we are placed prior to the world and command its presence. If this artistic gesture by Velázquez
is applied to the “viewer” (or “reader”) of a Calderonian text, we can get a sense of the complicated mechanism at work
between the text and its reader. Certainly, Calderón was aware of these complications created by Velázquez and it is
possible he created in El pintor de su deshonra his own version of polysemy and oscillation between the text and its
1. Derrida, The Truth In Painting, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1987), 54, 61.
2. Simone Heller-Andrist, The Friction of the Frame: Derrida’s Parergon in Literature, (Tübingen: Francke, 2012), 1.
3. Ibid., 3-15.
4. Derrida, The Truth in Painting, 5.
5. A.K.G. Paterson, “Juan Roca’s Northern Ancestry: A Study of Art Theory In Calderón’s El pintor de su deshonra,”
Forum for Modern Language Studies 7, no. 3 (1971): 195.
6. Ibid., 197
7. Ibid., 197
8. Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, Rev. ed. and trans. John R. Spencer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956),
9. Vicente Carducho, Diálogos de la pintura: su defensa, origen, esencia, definición, modos y diferencias ed. Francisco
Calvo Serraller (Madrid: Turner, 1979), 124.
10. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis trans. by Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953): 332-333.
11. Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1983): 69-70.