speaking in Madrid | Main | open-ended politics

November 07, 2005

trying to look at Las Meninas

Last week in Madrid, I spent a long time staring at Las Meninas by Velazquez. I soon realized that some of the other tourists, especially those accompanied by professional guides, were deliberately looking at the painting in pocket mirrors. I went to the museum gift shop and bought myself a small mirror. I thought I was clever to find one, but on reflection I suspect that the Prado stocks mirrors just so that people can use them to view Las Meninas.

I don't know precisely why people look at Velazquez' masterpiece in a mirror. To me, however, the reflection of the painting looked extraordinarily three-dimensional--more real and natural than the tourists who constantly passed in front of it. Velazquez depicts light coming from three angles, the back, the right, and the front; and all the resulting shadows and highlights create a startling illusion of depth when viewed in a small mirror.

Many of the tourists behaved in the following way. They rapidly approached the painting, planted one of their party in front of it, took a digital picture of this person, and then walked away. I often saw this in my mirror.

Las Meninas shows Velazquez looking back at us, so to speak. He has been painting a large canvass that we cannot see. It blocks his view, so he looks around and directly at the middle of the crowd of tourists. Several of the other people represented in Las Meninas also look in our direction.

What is Velazquez painting? There is a mirror behind him on which appear the faces of the King and Queen of Spain. So perhaps the mirror reflects the canvass that Velazquez has been working on. In that case, we are viewing a double royal portrait reflected in the mirror. There is no reason to assume that the King and Queen still stand before Velazquez at the moment depicted in the painting. He might be working on the background or applying a varnish after his sitters have left.

Alternatively, perhaps the King and Queen do stand in front of Velazquez, just where I stood with my mirror and the other tourists posed for their snapshots. Then the mirror behind Velazquez shows the two live Royals. He might be painting them, or he might be painting something else while they happen to visit his studio.

In fact, the royal couple could be visiting Velazquez while he paints Las Meninas, which is a portrait of their daughter and her attendants. Then, on the canvass in front of him, Velazquez would also appear--painting Velazquez, painting Velazquez, painting Velazquez, in a mise-en-abime. All these theories have been advanced and defended.

When I was in the Prado, Velazquez appeared to be looking--not at the King and Queen--but at the backs of tourists, who faced the viewfinders of cameras, which appeared in my mirror as I stood with my back to Velazquez looking at him. It was a very "post-modern" moment, made even more self-referential by the fact that Foucault himself wrote a famous essay about the self-referentiality of Las Meninas.

Why were the tourists taking pictures of Las Meninas? Because it is a Masterpiece. Walter Benjamin explained that when a unique object is reproduced thousands of times over, the original gains an aura. It alone is "real," and all the coffee table books, documentaries, postcards, coasters, and candles that reproduce it are fakes. People want to be able to go home and see themselves in a reproduction of Las Meninas that proves that they were near the actual object, the one that Velazquez himself made. Velazquez, after all, was a Great Artist--which happens to one of the messages of Las Meninas. The artist shows that his genius has made him the peer of great aristocrats.

Las Meninas is a Masterpiece for several other reasons: the excellence of the illusion, the air of mystery, the striking ensemble, the self-portrait (which ties the image to its genius-maker), the perennial appeal of a princess and her life at court, and even the remoteness of Madrid in the 19th century, which allowed visitors to report that there was a great painting in the Prado that people couldn't appreciate unless they went all the way to Spain to see it. "Las Meninas" had an aura even when it could only be reproduced in lithographs.

I have spoken of "tourists." I want to make clear that I was also a tourist in the Prado, also standing in front of the artifact to be near it and blocking others' view. I would never take a snapshot of myself in front of a painting; I'm too much of a snob for that. But I am writing a souvenir right now, wanting to remind myself what it was like to be near Las Meninas. While I was there, I had so many meta-thoughts that I'm not sure how well I saw the thing-in-itself.

One kind of tourist wants to do what is typically done by tourists. The goal is to experience the classic experience. In contrast, we academics are trained to be original. We get no credit for writing something that has already been written. For us, Masterpieces like Las Meninas become imposing, they gain a kind of aura, because so much has been said about them in the past that there is surely nothing we can add. Ortega y Gasset argued that Velazquez had established the nobility of painting by depicting himself as a courtier-painter. Foucault declared Las Meninas to be the death of representation. John Searle declared Foucault to be wrong. Svetlana Alpers took issue with both Foucault and Searle. And legions of specialists have isolated the pigments, analyzed the perspective lines, traced Velazquez' influences, and identified the figures in the painting. What else is there to say?

Actually, if I had time to play the academic in relation to Las Meninas, I would look at what has been written about the dog (hoping, of course, that no one has written anything, because then I could leave my mark). Pets are domesticated nature, and nothing could be more domesticated than a large hunting dog that allows a dwarf to step on its back without moving. In Renaissance terms, court dwarves are natural (as opposed to supernatural), but also unnatural (as opposed to normal); and they are part of the King's domestic scene. Painting, too, is domesticated nature: it is infinite, shifting space reduced through magical artifice to a flat, motionless surface.

In Las Meninas, everyone is looking at someone or something: everyone except the dog, whose eyes seem to be closed. We look at nature; nature doesn't look at us. We look at paintings, and usually paintings don't look at us. But Las Meninas is an unusual painting, one in which the artist has to peer around a large canvass to look in our direction, and in which a mirror pointed in our direction eerily reflects the King and Queen of Spain. Las Meninas is a piece of canvass with some paint on it; it is also an artifact with a sacred aura. Viewed in a mirror, it looks more real than reality. All this is enough to make you wonder how natural the painting really is.

Posted by peterlevine at November 7, 2005 07:35 AM


From Colin Dixon, via email:

I have only recently been introduced to this amazing painting. Truly a moment of suspended belief when you first look at and increasing amazement with each return. (There was an article yesterday in the Guardian about a forthcoming exhibition of Velasquez in London that set me off.)

However .... having read just a little about this and having spent the last few hours playing around on the net and aware of the interest in the mirrored image of the King and Queen centre, I suddenly saw the painting in a very simple way. I then read your intriguing blog 'trying to look at Las Meninas', and what really disturbs me is that it seems that no one else sees it this way ....

Surely the whole painting is a mirror image.

The extraordinary focus of attention in this painting is achieved because the main figures including Velasquez are looking into a mirror, which is where we stand.

The princess is looking at her hair with the maid to her 'left' looking at the mirror image of the other maid talking to her. The man framed in the background is also transfixed by his own image. The dwarf is just taking in the whole scene.

A normal situation in front of very large mirrors and if such a mirror was indeed possible to manufacture at that time a truly fascinating experience for all the subjects in this beautiful painting.

As for Velasquez he is looking at his subject, just as an artist would, except this time he can stand behind them and be in the picture himself. Naturally we cannot see the picture he is painting as he would then have to paint the picture twice and at what point would the picture we cannot see be left?

The background image of the King and Queen would be easy to have established or could just have been painted in as a conceit.

The problem with this hypothesis which is visually very compelling (I think) is that to have achieved this effect Velasquez must have engineered the 'handedness' of himself (unless he was left handed) and of the maid handing something to the princess. The others are ambiguous although the little boy is toeing the dog with his 'left' foot which for most of us would not be preferred. Perhaps the orginal was painted with the infanta in front of a mirror and later Velasquez constructed himself as a logical step to be behind her.

Let me know what you think. Can't be right can it?

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2006 07:42 PM

Again from Colin Dixon:

.... here is a better theory.

Originally V. placed his young subject and her attendants in front of a mirror and painted them from the usual place. So what we are looking at is not in fact a mirror image but as they actually were.

Subsequently for whatever reason he contrives to compose not only a beautiful picture of a transient moment but also a theme, a tease almost. By placing himself behind them and looking in the mirror himself not of course at his own image but at the 'image' of the girls as he would have seen them had he really stood behind them, he makes the viewer, not the artist, the 'mirror' with his subjects, and himself as one of them, the 'viewers' looking at us looking at them. This idea gives me great satisfaction bearing in mind that I am a materialist psychologist (I won't even start on that) who finds the idealisms of the likes of Foucault fundamentally flawed. (On the other hand I have only read abstracts of his seemingly famous essay on Las Meninas so I had better not go any further with this.) Talking of which I have a load of A level papers to mark and while this is so much more interesting ....

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2006 07:45 PM

You write: "Walter Benjamin explained that when a unique object is reproduced thousands of times over, the original gains an aura."

Actually, he argued that these mechanical reproductions cause the original's aura to 'decline':

"Experience of the aura rests on the transposition of a response common in human relationships to the relationship between the inanimate or natural object and man. The person
we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in turn. To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return."

How strange, then, that in placing a mirror at the point normally occupied by the object to be represented, Velazquez manages to make a painting that causes us feel as if we are being painted. Tourists and theorists alike can occupt the place reserved for the royal portrait, in turns and simultaneously. This, by the way, follows the same train of thought that Foucault adopts in The Order of Things.

It also explains why the small thumbnail picture you supply does nothing to assist the aurality of this work. The viewer is not moved to see the original, to make a pilgrimage to its hallowed resting place. Rather we are curious why the original is so important if we can view it easily online or browse it at Barnes and Noble.

Posted by: anotherpanacea [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 22, 2006 01:13 PM

"Anotherpanacea" is of course quite right about Walter Benjamin, and also about the effect of thumbnail photos. However, when you are actually in the presence of a super-famous object, I think it gains a kind of glamor because of the frequency with which it has been reproduced. Seeing Las Meninas in the Prado is like spotting a Hollywood star walking down the street. The painting's glamor makes it relatively hard to appreciate for its own extraordinary merits.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 22, 2006 01:36 PM

Sorry, on re-reading I see that I conflated Foucault's point with Benjamin's without making the necessary steps. This quote, from "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," demonstrates the problem of the thumbnail:

"By making many reproductions [the technique of reproduction] substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced."

The quote from my earlier comment, from Benjamin's "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," explains what is lost in reproduction, but it also suggests what it was about Velazquez' painting that titillates Foucault: the general features of aurality (an object looking at its viewer) represented explicitly through the use of the mirror. Sorry for the muddy train of thought.

Posted by: anotherpanacea [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 22, 2006 01:39 PM

Oh, hello Dr. Levine! Yes, I think the aura of celebrity has now replaced the aura of the work of art. Our 'stars' shine forth with a special glow, and to have these objects of our scrutiny suddenly look back at us on the street is very strange indeed.

I doubt that Las Meninas can truly excite the same level of uncanny discomfort and awe that, say, Brad Pitt elicits. Nor do we visit museums as often as we do movie theaters. Our culture's pilgrimages do not generally travel to the shrines of fine art, but rather to the homes of our celebrities. (In Nashville, tourists board sweltering buses to see the mansions of fading country starlets.) So perhaps what Benjamin identified as a decline of the aura was actually a displacement.

Posted by: anotherpanacea [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 22, 2006 01:52 PM

Post a comment

This blog is under attack from comment spammers, who are causing a problem for the server. I believe I can block them by upgrading to a recent version of MoveableType. However, I do not have time to do that until late December. Therefore, I have temporarily disabled comments. Please feel free to email me feedback at plevine@umd.edu.

Site Meter