I know that some of you are more or less eagerly awaiting reports from our summer roadtrip through France and Spain, but before losing myself in memories of Real Madrid
matches victories, Flamenco evenings and German beer bars formerly visited by Hemingway, there is one part of our roadtrip which is especially important to me right now because it has also become part of my university studies: Diego Velázquez’ painting entitled Las Meninas, which is exhibited at Madrid’s Prado.
If you thought that Mona Lisa’s smile was the most mysterious riddle of art history, fasten your seat belts. Velázquez’ painting has been the object of various theories regarding its message. Is it about the Infanta Margarita, so prominently portrayed in the lower centre? Is it Velázquez’ attempt to show off his skills in realistic painting? Or is it a metaphor for the status of art itself?
One of the most intriguing aspects about the painting is the strangely illuminated “painting” in the background which is so different from all the other paintings decorating the walls. Art historians generally agree that the difference in lighting is due to the fact that it is not a painting but a mirror depicting the King of Spain and his wife. Now, thinking logically, the royal couple would have to stand exactly where the viewer of the painting is standing when looking at the painting. This can have two implications: Firstly, that the viewer’s gaze is privileged in the sense that the viewer becomes king. Secondly, this trick can also annihilate the viewer as a subject. The viewer is looking at the painting from an impossible perspective because the viewer’s space is already filled with king and queen. We, as viewers, are eliminated by the painting. The viewer’s perspective becomes impossible which is a common technique in horror movies to create unease. Seeing something that we should not be able to see frightens us.
The second – and perhaps most interesting part about Las Meninas – is the canvas depicted on the lefthand side behind which Velázquez himself is gazing at his model. But what exactly is Velázquez painting? King and Queen? Us as gazers? Himself? The last possibility opens up a new way of interpreting the painting as a whole. It is a known fact that Velázquez was fascinated by mirrors. What if he simply took a mirror, positioned it in front of him and painted himself painting Las Meninas. Doesn’t the Infanta Margarita look like a little girl who is posing in a mirror? And is it only a coincidence that the artist depicted the Infanta in a previous painting with her hair parted on the other side? The painting on the hidden canvas thus becomes the exact painting that we are looking at. But there is a problem: What about the mirror in the background reflecting King and Queen? In this scenario, the royal couple becomes the annihilated element of the painting. Monarchy is no longer present but is reduced to a doubly inverted mirror image. Quite a bold statement for the King’s favourite artist, isn’t it?
In either case, the painting unveils its own constructedness because it always shows us an unrealistic scenario. If the painter is painting the mirror image, the royal couple becomes an eerie absence. Yet, if the painter paints the royal couple, then how can he in fact compose a painting of the king and queen while simultaneously painting himself painting that painting? If the painter’s intention was to show himself painting an unknown viewership, then how can we as models be in the same representational space as king and queen? See the complications?
Whereas I usually prefer contemporary art, I just love Velázquez’ painting for these impossibilities. It shows monarchy as a mere reflection which is simultaneously present and absent. It makes me aware of myself in my position as viewer and creates a strange sense of claustrophobia because I can never escape the painter’s gaze: I am becoming Velázquez’ model. It makes Velázquez look at me. It is a painting which seems to be realistic but at the same time cannot be.
So, if you ever go to Madrid, visit the Prado and have a look at it yourself. It’s worth it!