Las Meninas

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I am intrigued by the way that Velazquez’ Las Meninas has been used as inspiration through the years.

The painting itself seems to meet most of Szarkowski‘s five point framework. Whilst clearly not a photograph, there is a realism about the image, reminiscent of a 17th century Dutch Realistic painting. Las Meninas is posed, has great detail yet a rather expansive frame which cuts across other paintings in the scene. It seems to have been viewed slightly from below, to give a slight tension in its arrangement of the subjects contained within. But, as a painting it has been created over time, rather than arranged and posed for a photograph. Perhaps this does once again show the shortcomings of the Szarkowski framework, in not dealing with the essential physical nature of a photograph compared with a painting?

At a meta-level, Las Meninas has become a symbol of the flourishing of Spanish art, even before one ponders its contents. It has also become iconic, as a representative single image, featuring in so many books on at history of Western art.

Here I am using ‘icon’ in its defined sense: a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration, from the Latin iconicus, from the  Greek eikonikos  meaning ‘likeness or image’

At the micro level, it is beautifully painted, with attention to detail, a skilled use of perspective, and subtle light and shade, especially in the background images.

Does the painting have ‘aura’, in Benjamin‘s sense? Yes, on two levels. Having stood in front of the painting, even with its massive exposure in books and photographic copies, the painting has a weight and gravity which is hard to miss. And each of the central characters seem to be gazing back at the viewer, with an aura of their own.

Diego Valazquez. 1656. Las Meninas.

But the image is also indexical, with clearly defined characters, just as a family photograph might me. We have no way of knowing if that each character is accurately reproduced, as one assumes that, as a commissioned work, Valazquez’ job was to both be indexical and flattering.

The central figure of Infanta Margarita Teresa de España (1) is a clear focus of the image, and seems to have both the announced of a child yet the power of a future queen. Note the deference of her attendants. That said, is figure 4, the dwarf German, Maribarbola (Maria Barbola), truly a flattering likeness, or portrayed in a  way that focuses beauty on the Infanta?

Tyrenius at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4338769

(1) Margarita Teresa of Spain, Infanta Margarita (Infanta Margarita Teresa de España) (2) doña Isabel de Velasco (3) doña María Agustina Sarmiento de Sotomayor (4) the dwarf German, Maribarbola (Maria Barbola) (5) the dwarf Italian, Nicolas Pertusato (6) doña Marcela de Ulloa (7) unidentified bodyguard (guardadamas) (8) Don José Nieto Velázquez (9) Velázquez (10) King Philip IV reflected in mirror (11) Mariana, queen of King Philip, reflected in mirror.

So, Las Meninas is an Index, and Icon and a Symbol.

Picasso’s treatment captures many of the elements of the original, though breaks down the space and its perspective to engage the viewer’s gaze in non-realistic ways.  There seems little indexical about this image, and it has moved firmly into the realm of art, showing Picasso’s vision of the scene, and how he wanted to use art to create new ‘rules’, rather more than it shows the reality of the individual subjects.

Pablo Picasso. 1957. Las Meninas.

Witkin uses ‘real’ photographic images in a montage, to recreate his own Surrealistic vision of the scene. Many of the components might be indexical, though not necessarily of the original subject matter, but the whole is not. It recalls Nobuo Ina’s comment that photomontage is one of three, true ways forward for real photography which does not fall foul of slavish attempts to mimic painting.

Joel-Peter Witkin. 1987. Las Meninas.

And what of photographs of Las Meninas? I found this intriguing. An indexical photograph of an event, which includes both that image and The Daughters of Darley Boit, a painting which acknowledges a debt to Valzquez.

MFA Director Malcolm Rogers and Prado Director Miguel Zugaza stand in front of John Singer Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit and its direct source of inspiration, Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Photo: Andres Valentin/Prado.

Both paintings are working hard to appeal to the viewer’s voyeuristic sense. Andrea Shea notes:

‘Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” is a portrait of little girls in an ornate foyer. They’re not posing for the artist. Rather, they look like they’re just hanging out. Their placement – on the floor, in shadows – is not what you’d expect in a commissioned portrait from 1882’.

Yet the photograph itself it hardly strikes as an image with aura, or iconicity. It is a press photograph, a snapshot of an event. It might be analysable according to Szarkowski’s formula, but it has little of Barthes’ Punctum in its own right. Any that it does have is borrowed from the two paintings within it.

At the other extreme, I came across this graphic interpretation, which minimalises the content yet sticks with the same compositional framework. An illustration, defined as such by its creator, Greg Tatum.  This begs the question of the difference between art and illustration – in this case, perhaps borderline at first glance given the painterly treatment.

But if we knew that it was created on a computer screen, rather than with acrylics on a canvas, would that change our mind? Would the materials used change our mind as to which ‘category’ the image belongs?

Worthy of further thought.

Greg Tatum. 2006. Las Meninas.

 

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Header: Richard Hamilton. 2010. Picasso’s Meninas. Available at: https://www.museodelprado.es/en/whats-on/exhibition/richard-hamilton-picassos-meninas/7a501510-a120-400c-8b3b-2bfcf114f763. (Accessed 02/02/2019).

 

Andrea Shea. 2010. ‘The Daughters’ And ‘Las Meninas’ Rendezvous In Spain. Available at: https://www.wbur.org/news/2010/03/15/mfa-prado. (Accessed 04/02/2019).

Greg Tatum. 2006. Las Meninas. Available at: http://gregtatum.com/illustrations/2006/las-meninas/. (Accessed 04/02/2019).