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Compelling, convincing and contradictory readings of 'Las Meninas'

Friday, December 24, 2010; 12:44 AM

The genius of "Las Meninas" may be most obvious in the range of compelling, convincing - and contradictory - readings it has sparked over the centuries. Here's a tiny selection of its hundreds or thousands of readings.

-- 1724, the Spanish painter Antonio Palomino published the first significant biography of Velazquez and the first extended account of "Las Meninas," which ran under the rubric "A DESCRIPTION OF DIEGO VELAZQUEZ'S MOST ILLUSTRIOUS WORK":

"Velazquez proved his great genius because of the clever way in which he reveals the subject of what he is painting. He makes use of the mirror at the rear of the gallery to show us the reflection of our Catholic kings, Philip and Mariana. . . . The figure painting is superior, the conception new, and in short it is impossible to overrate this painting because it is truth, not painting."

-- Sometime in the later 1870s, Anton Raphael Mengs, a great neoclassical portraitist who had taken a position at the Spanish court and disapproved of unidealized art, gave "Las Meninas" a backhanded compliment. "As this work is already so well known on account of its excellence, I have nothing to add but that it stands as proof that the effects caused by the imitation of the Natural can satisfy all classes of people, particularly those who have not the highest appreciation of Beauty."

-- In 1848, the writer William Stirling helped spark Velazquez-mania in Britain with his "Annals of the Artists of Spain." It included an extended discussion of "Las Meninas."

"The perfection of art which conceals art was never better attained than in this picture. Velazquez seems to have anticipated the [photographic] discovery of Daguerre, and taking a real room and real chance-grouped people, to have fixed them, as it were, by magic, for all time on his canvass [sic]."

-- By 1906, when the painter Aureliano de Beruete published his book on Velazquez, praise for realism had started to fade. It was replaced by the modern notion that great art is about line, color and shape.

"How completely ['Las Meninas'] confutes the large number of people who measure the importance of works of art by the importance of their subject! . . . The 'Meninas' moves us in a manner absolutely independent of the subject it represents. . . . And as the different elements of this painting, [in its] lines, colouring, proportions, light and shade etc., have no other aim than art in itself, it follows that their attraction for us can lose nothing of its intensity."

-- Art historian Leo Steinberg, now 90 years old, is one of the subtlest thinkers of the modern era. In a lecture in 1965, he applied his skills to "Las Meninas." "The picture conducts itself the way a vital presence behaves. It creates an encounter. And as in any living encounter, any vital exchange, the work of art becomes the alternate pole in a situation of reciprocal self-recognition. If the picture were speaking instead of flashing, it would be saying: I see you seeing me - I in you see myself seen - see you seeing yourself being seen - and so on beyond the reaches of grammar. . . . The mirror within 'Las Meninas' is merely its central problem, a sign for the whole. 'Las Meninas' in its entirely is a metaphor, a mirror of consciousness."

-- In 1966, the great French philosopher Michel Foucault gave a reading of "Las Meninas" that has informed - and confused - all later ones.

Velazquez "is staring at a point to which, even though it is invisible, we, the spectators, can easily assign an object, since it is we, ourselves, who are that point: Our bodies, our faces, our eyes. The spectacle he is observing is thus doubly invisible: first, because it is not represented within the space of the painting, and, second, because it is situated precisely in that blind point, in that essential hiding-place into which our gaze disappears from ourselves at the moment of our actual looking."

-- Starting in 1978, the great Velazquez scholar Jonathan Brown convinced us that a true understanding of "Las Meninas" demanded knowing why it was created.

"We see the painter's ambitions as an artist and a courtier displayed side-by-side. . . . 'Las Meninas' is a monument to painting as a noble art. . . . Yet, as we know, the picture was created just at the time when Velazquez' aspirations for personal nobility were being put to a hard test. It is difficult to avoid the feeling that the case so eloquently argued un 'Las Meninas' is really a counter-argument; that the defense of the art, by its very nature, acknowledges the existence of a credible attach on its pretentions to a lofty status."

-- Debate about "Las Meninas" almost filled a recent issue of the Art Bulletin, the leading art-historical journal. A graduate student named Byron Ellsworth Hamann launched his career by coming at the picture with some cutting-edge art history.

"Transatlantic connections are renderred visible in three painted details: the red ceramic vessel Infanta Margarita reaches for, the silver tray this vessel rests on, and the red curtains reflected in the mirror at the back of the room. . . . I have tried to use details within the painting to unearth the unseen conditions of possibility that made this scene, and much of the splendor of the seventeenth-century Madrid court, possible: the labor and economic value extracted from New World possessions. . . . Cup, tray and curtain allow us, now, to see the indirect presence of New World labor in cochineal [dye], silver and clay."

- Blake Gopnik

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