Picasso’s Las Meninas (After Velazquez)
Baudelaire, in The Painter of Modern Life, approached the modern element in modern painting by reminding us that everything old-fashioned was necessarily once in fashion: “every old master has had his own modernity; the great majority of fine portraits that have come down to use from former generations are clothed in the costume of their own periodIf for the necessary and inevitable costume of the age you substitute another, you will be guilty of a mistranslation” (Baudelaire 497). Yet what if the artist is attempting such a deliberate mistranslation? A mistranslation, of course, changes the meaning of a statement by attempting to make it more comprehensible. To some degree, though, I think that Picasso attempts in his 1957 painting Las Meninas (After Velazquez) precisely this sort of “mistranslation” — the canvas itself a work of revision, or re-vision. Picasso uses Velazquez’ 1656 court painting — essentially an intricate and unusual portrait of the Spanish infanta and her entourage — as a starting point for his own canvas, which we might be tempted to call “minimalist” for its shockingly limited color palette, were it not for the extraordinary fullness and depth that Picasso is able to evoke even within the chalky whites and sepia-ink browns. But it is worth considering how and why Picasso chooses to re-imagine a classical work, by examining his work in detail with reference to the earlier painting, and will conclude by offering an interpretation as to the meaning of Picasso’s re-vision of Velazquez.
Velazquez’ original canvas has the same basic proportions as Picasso’s version, but is about 25 inches longer in each direction. But Velazquez uses the dimensions of the canvas to articulate a vast interior space. The left foreground is dominated by a large canvas, not unlike the one on which Las Meninas itself is painted, which stands upright against a wooden easel. This is obviously intended to set up the self-portrait which Velazquez includes on the painting’s lower left, of himself standing with brush in hand and gazing impassively toward the viewer. But it also functions almost as a theatrical curtain, or even a painted set piece seen from backstage, in terms of framing and contextualizing the assortment of figures arranged toward the viewer, in a rough line extending to the right of the self-portrait. The central figure is the infanta herself, adorned with rosettes and a period frock with a bustle-like frame whose hips flare like flying buttresses, with her hair falling delicately down. She looks at the viewer as well, with a smile of precocious bemusement. Her ladies-in-waiting (for that is the basic meaning of Velazquez’ title) are depicted on either side: the one to the left crouches, so that her head is at the level of the infanta’s head, although she looks to be about ten years older and substantially taller, while the one to her right curtsies shallowly, so that she stands almost at full height. The painting’s lower right depicts a scowling dog, a court dwarf, and what appears to be a page-boy annoying the dog. Behind the taller lady-in-waiting, in the middle distance slightly further away than Velazquez himself, are two standing adults, who seem to be a nun and a cleric of some kind, depicted in shadow. There is nothing further behind until the back wall, on which is depicted an open door (through which a courtier can be glimpsed) and also a mirror, which glimpses the King and Queen of Spain, either standing in the viewer’s place or possibly on the large canvas which forms the left border of the painting. Velazquez’ original seems to place a real emphasis on reminding the viewer of its status as a painting, not only by including a self-portrait and the vast foregrounded (if sidelined) canvas-in-progress, but also depicting huge hung paintings, barely to be discerned in the shadowy gloom of the upper half of this chamber, on the upper half of the room’s walls. It would seem like this emphasis on the status of the work as a painting is meant to be an ironic commentary on the otherwise spontaneous character of the scene — a formal portrait of a royal court is likely to seem stiff, as though painted out of a sense of grim duty. Velazquez deftly evades all of our expectations of what the worst sort of commissioned official portrait might look like by capturing not the sitting, but the preparation or aftermath of the sitting. Given the infanta’s careful pose, it seems more likely that Velazquez intends the viewer to see the little princess as being prepared to sit for a formal portrait — but that formal portrait is actually enclosed within this artfully-composed but informal-seeming “snapshot,” as it were, of the moment before the dull official portrait can be painted by someone with less talent than Velazquez himself.
It is worth inquiring first why Picasso should have chosen to approach Las Meninas in the late 1950s, but he did so repeatedly, creating an entire series of paintings based in some way on Velazquez’ original. The Las Meninas (After Velazquez) of 1957 therefore deliberately represents merely one approach of many, and is painted in an abstract style reminiscent of Picasso’s early cubism. We may recall that Clement Greenberg would trace the origin of abstraction in “imitatingthe disciplines and processes of art and literature themselves,” and would indeed single out Picasso as one of those who “derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in” (Greenberg 532). To a certain degree this is true, but it is important to recall that the great aesthetic achievements of the past can be viewed by an artist as a burden or hindrance. Greenberg may make the case that all painting derives from prior painting, but of course there is always the risk that the work produced in such a way is arid, sterile, derivative, or purely academic. Marinetti may be taken to represent the opposite tendency in twentieth-century art, with his claim that “Admiring an old picture is the same as pouring our sensibility into a funerary urn instead of hurling it far off, in violent spasms of action and creation” (Marinetti 148). Yet Picasso seems to move beyond resenting or misrepresenting Velazquez: instead, he seems to ask us to consider each aesthetic choice he makes — as a revision upon the original painting — as also a sort of commentary on that painting as well. To a certain degree, Picasso’s Las Meninas (After Velazquez) is itself not only a painting, but a work of art criticism.
Las Meninas (After Velazquez) returns, to a certain extent, to the cubism of Picasso’s earlier manner. In particular, the large canvas seen from the rear — the painting within Velazqeuz’ painting, which provides a framing left border to Las Meninas — follows the methods of cubism precisely, taking the clean three panel structure of the original, and reduplicating its geometric features with a series of triangles that now bisect the panals, and reduplicating the entire image itself — so that it now looks like two canvases leaning against each other, or like a giant door opening from the left, or possibly even a ladder. What is crucial to note is that it has grown substantially larger (proportionally ) in Picasso’s canvas. In the original by Velazquez, this propped-up canvas is taller than anything else in the room by far, but it does not reach the top of the painting — on Velazquez’ left margin, the painting climbs about nine-tenths of the way, but the very top left corner partakes instead of the same shadowy vaulted space which dominates the upper half of the canvas. It is worth noting that in Velazquez’ painting the entire upper half of the canvas is more or less empty space. Picasso in choosing to reimagine the original seems to enlarge the painting-within-the-painting to grant it an even more outsize importance than Velazquez himself gave it. This sense is confirmed by the most salient single revision of the original in Picasso’s painting, namely his transformation of Velazquez’ self-portrait. Velazquez depicts himself modestly, in sober black garb, with a neutral expression on his face — the only hint of vanity may be the fact that his head is ever so slightly higher than that of anyone else in the room. Picasso instead turns Velazquez into a Kwakiutl totem-pole, with two interlocking faces (each fixed on the other) and a vast segmented body. Velazquez and his painting fully occupy the left third of the canvas, from top to bottom. (The rightmost third has a similar integrity on its own, and so the painting itself feels — as Velazquez’ does not — almost as though it had been divided into the three panels of a triptych.) It is this element which Picasso chooses to abstract and distort, as though his version of the same scene must necessarily seize on that “meta-theatrical” aspect of the painting, and comment upon it. To a certain degree, Picasso’s re-vision of Velazquez entails abstracting away its realism, and becomes a work of intellectual analysis: Picasso’s friend, the surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire, would defend the cubist practice in his essay on “The New Painting: Art Notes,” by noting that they offered works that were “more cerebral than sensual” and this is particularly true here (Apollinaire 182). The radiant gold and the vibrant pink of the infanta’s dress and hair, face and rosettes, have been blanched away: in Picasso’s depiction, her elaborate skirts look like a block of marble, her torso like a pillar, her head purely nominal. She has been drained of all life and character as surely as the dog: in Velazquez, the dog is full of character, and seems roused to an indolent scowl of annoyance by the prodding foot of the little boy. In Picasso, the dog looks more like a crude petroglyph, or an aboriginal rock-painting from Australia. But if we are to read the painting from left to right, we find that we go from the massive, complicated proliferation of geometric forms which comprise Picasso’s version of Velazquez and his canvas-in-progress into an increasing abstraction and primitivism, so that by the time we get to the bottom right corner of the painting, it seems unfinished. The painter himself is the source of complexity — the reality he beholds, and which he presumably will depict on his giant canvas, is depicted with crude clarity. The entire lower right of Picasso’s painting looks as though he child in Velazquez’ lower right — or another child of the same age — had drawn it. To read from left to right is to go from complexity to simplicity, the strange triangular patterns and reduplications of Velazquez to the dog, which Picasso has painted more or less by refusing to paint it.
Yet the primitivism of the dog is precisely Picasso’s point, since it is still identifiable as a dog. But the means of depicting it harken back to Picasso’s fascination with African masks and primitive art, indicative of a persistent strain in early twentieth century painting. Hermann Bahr’s Expressionism would endorse precisely this view of the geometric abstractions of cubism as being an attempt to approach this: “primeval man sees lines, circles, squares, and he sees them all flat, and he does so owing to the inner need of turning the threat of nature away from himself” (Bahr 118). Worringer would claim likewise that “the style of the highest abstraction, most strict in its exclusion of life, is peculiar to the peoples at their most primitive cultural level” (Worringer 71). It is the right half of Picasso’s canvas that seems most deliberately to strive for the effects of primitive art: the boy who is prodding the dog has been reduced to a stick figure, painted to look deliberately incomplete. The court dwarfess has now become a weirdly lumpish abstracted figure which looks like if the tribesmen of Rapa Nui had built giant icons of Humpty-Dumpty. The lurking clerics in the background seem almost to have turned into grandfather clocks. And the standing lady-in-waiting on the painting’s right has had her head replaced with a weird trapezoid — although examining Velazquez’ original, we can see that the trapezoid corresponds to the shaft of light which illuminates the curtseying girl’s face.
Of course the real importance of Picasso’s vision here is contained within the one salient element of Las Meninas (After Velazquez) which we have not yet considered fully: the limited color palette. What it mimics deliberately is the old-style black-and-white photographic reproductions of Old Master paintings that one might see reprinted incidentally. If Picasso was not actually looking at such a in order to paint his own canvas, then he has done his best to suggest it. And this seems to reveal the intellectual content of Picasso’s approach here. What intervenes between Velazquez and himself, Picasso suggests, is photography. Photography made formal court portraiture obsolete in a certain sense: indeed the carefully composed “backstage” feel to Velazquez’ original seems, from the vantage of the twentieth century, to be a laborious means of capturing the feeling of a snapshot, avant-la-lettre. Picasso, who grew up amid the omnipresence of photographic imagery which is still a feature of our own visual environment, is on the one hand suggesting that he is merely taking a sort of photo of an original Old Master: the color palette demands we see it this way, but so does Picasso’s sly decision to use a canvas with precisely the same proprtions as Velazquez, but to tip it on its side. This accounts for the looming hypertrophied canvas-frame on the left, and the elision of so much of Velazquez vast and gloomy interior space: the upper right hand quadrant of Picasso’s canvas reduces the murky Turneresque depths of the upper air with a set of broad, geometrically-defined shapes that indicate almost no depth. The courtier in the rear doorway is reduced by Picasso to a flat black silhouette seen against the radiance spilling inward. By invoking photography, Picasso seems to invite us to discard all those elements of Velazquez’ achievement which are purely photographic themselves, including color. This redefines painting as a purely formal exercise of understanding
Apollinaire, Guillaume. “The New Painting: Art Notes.”
Bahr, Hermann. Expressionism.
Baudelaire, Charles. “The Painter of Modern Life.”
Greenberg, Clement. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.”
Marinetti, F.T. “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism”
Worringer, Wilhelm. Abstraction and Empathy.