The work is a painting depicting a boy or young man, with his head pressed against an open book lying on a desk with a vise. Other books are stacked on the desk; no labels are visible, and text in the two open books is illegible. The proportions are realistic, and the colors are primarily golds and greens. The source of light is above the scene and up to the right, putting most of the boy’s body in shadow and the desk’s surface in bright light.
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The painting’s subject is an allegory for the education system. A vise can be a workshop tool used to press objects together, but it can also be used as a torture device. Books are traditionally used metaphorically to signify knowledge, learning, or doctrines. Compositionally, the boy’s head, the open book, and the vise occupy the center of the painting. Light has significant importance for this painting as it is bright and yellow, suggesting its source is an incandescent lamp. The artificial warm light, coupled with the lack of detail, creates an unsettling feeling that the scene is unnatural despite its realistic appearance. Furthermore, the boy’s arms and body being invisible due to the shadow implies he is unable to act. The lack of detail in the scene also makes the scene look like a tight space, further strengthening the notion that there is no escape from this situation. Finally, the painting does not convey any motion or change. No one is touching the vise, nothing suggests it may move on its own, and the boy’s eyes are closed.
The painting is a critical metaphor for the education system or ideological teaching. The boy appears young, showing that the process begins early. Each book is larger than his head, suggesting that the ideas contained within cannot be naturally learned. The vise, therefore, may be intended to help “press” the knowledge into the boy’s head. However, at the same time, it prevents him from moving and probably hurts and, as a torture device, threatens his life. Furthermore, since the boy’s arms are not visible, the painting suggests that someone else set this tool, possibly against his will.
The boy’s face being pressed into the book while his body is covered by shadow, as well as his clothes suggest another interpretation. His face is obscured, though not distorted, and any features are impossible to make out. The boy’s clothes are unremarkable, missing any unique distinguishing marks, and may be a school uniform. His arms are not visible, suggesting an inability to act, and his body is concealed, possibly suggesting a lack of overall agency. Taken together, these elements can be interpreted as depicting the erasure of individuality and identity by the education system. Together with the vise, this erasure is performed without the boy’s consent, further suggesting some form of oppression. Finally, the boy’s eyes are closed, and his head is pressed into the book: he cannot read the text and learn from it, regardless of whether he wants to learn.
As a critical or satirical metaphor, the primary criterion to the painting’s quality and value is its ability to convey a central argument. At the same time, this argument should leave room for interpretation (Molyneux, 2020). The argument, in this case that education is oppressive, possibly inherently so, is delivered succinctly through the visual metaphors. However, while the metaphors point to these issues, they do not suggest any causes or solutions to these issues, thus allowing the viewer to interpret the painting as he or she desires. Therefore, this painting serves its purpose as a critical piece well.
Molyneux, J. (2020). The dialectics of art. Haymarket Books.