Thursday, 24 March 2016

#3: Las Meninas

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It can be emotionally exhausting to wander through the Prado’s galleries. The museum specialises in 16th to 18th century paintings, particularly portraits, and many challenging gazes meet you from the walls. Without the luxury of easy reproduction technologies, painters had to convey as much as they could about the sitter in one shot, as it were, and the result is very condensed. Personality, status, profession, age, mood – in clothes, face, objects, background. 

Mary Tudor, then betrothed to Philip II of Spain, looks cross and formidable, as if she has been forced to sit and hold the red Tudor Rose and is ready to spring out of her chair the moment the sitting is over. Nearby is a portrait of the Grand Duke of Alba’s court jester: ‘only his large head, short legs and deformed hand (holding a deck of cards)… indicate his status of buffoon,’ says the label. In another room, St Peter Nolasco stares at an apparition of Saint Peter crucified upside down.

This time I am caught by Tintoretto’s Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet in a main hall, mainly for the charming scenes in the background – a crystal ship on an almost transparent sea, just sailed through a neoclassical arch; the Last Supper in a back room, sparky halos barely glimpsed. A dog sits squarely in the foreground.

A dog also appears in the foreground of Velasquez's Las Meninas (‘the maids of honour’), being teased by one of the attendants surrounding the little Infanta Margarita. She looks out from the canvas, perhaps at her parents Philip IV and Mariana of Austria, who would be standing roughly where I am now, since they are reflected in a mirror on the back wall. Another attendant leans to speak solicitously to the child, and a taller one also leans into her protectively, while glancing at us. Another servant stands in an open doorway at the back of the room, yellow light beyond. But the most challenging gaze in the picture comes from higher up, from the painter himself, staring down from behind a huge canvas he is working on (perhaps even this one?), which we see from the back. 

I fight off art history voices pointing out how, by putting himself in the picture, the artist highlights the subjective nature of representation, or makes plain the role of the painter-servant in legitimising the Spanish monarchy. What strikes me most is that this little group seem about to leave. The Infanta is still looking appealingly at her parents, but the group is breaking up and has started to chat, play and relax. There is movement, dynamism, crosscurrents, unlike Mary Tudor’s gripped posture. It is a playful portrait, of people about to disappear into their own world again, far from us.

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