(by Michael Jacobs, with an introduction and coda by Ed Vulliamy) (2015)
Diego Velázquez (Summer 1599 – 6 August 1660), one of Spain’s greatest painters, created Las Meninas (“The Ladies in Waiting” or “Maids of Honour”) in 1656. A large work, a masterpiece of High Baroque, it seems to be the painter casting his patrons (King Philip IV and Queen Mariana) as a camera, they surveying the room in which Diego is painting them, with its royal domestic scene.
With brilliant use of light and shade, peerless brushwork and tasteful use of colour, Velázquez provides a series of highlights that float around the vanishing point(s), one a mirror reflection (of sitters? of the painting of the sitters?), one a gentleman hovering in the far doorway, one their daughter (the Infanta Margarita) with exquisitely attired attendants, and the painter himself, standing back from his big canvas as if to take stock, intensely contemplating the seated royals who, in our shoes, gaze back at the vista. Kenneth Clark in Civilisation called Las Meninas “The greatest of all pictures based on the facts of vision”.
This book (or idea for a book), however, suffers from the modern tendency to present The Author As The Story. Purporting to deconstruct and explain the picture, it reads uncomfortably like a (repetitive and reductive) memoir of obsession, and thus we perceive the danger of over-analysis, a creeping disease that can become acute in academia, and particularly when confronted by a work so teasingly and unambiguously enigmatic as Las Meninas. One recalls the incremental nature of this devilish trap, memorably charted by Michael Frayn in Headlong, where the protagonist follows an iconographic trail to its inevitable, futile, catastrophic conclusion.
Furthermore, the dead hand of Foucault is daubed on these pages, with its oafish structuralist meanderings, its smug join-the-dots certitude that social and historical context explained all artistic creation. So Mr Jacobs can’t eat what’s on his plate, because he lifted one side to see what was lurking under it. There is much talk of artists, their social position in Spain of the golden and less-than-golden-age, contemporary travelogue and some passing swipes at formal art theory, but not really much of Velázquez or his masterwork, and who can quibble about that? If, as Martin Mull reportedly said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, writing about painting is like knitting an overture. One medium does not much complement the other.
Not to say there is nothing here of interest. Las Meninas is an interesting picture. A theory is posited where the courtier, José Nieto (with the matronymic Velázquez) loitering above the central far doorway, seems to look towards his namesake and show him the way towards the light of eternity. Once beyond the haven of royal patronage, there lies oblivion. This idea has additional poignancy because the author was dying and left a handful of notebooks from which this piece was concocted.
But a picture is an intimate, albeit anonymous, covenant, and we can set what terms take our fancy, and a single paragraph from E.H. Gombrich (mentioned in this book only in passing) in The Story of Art, is just as valuable and plausible as this entire volume:
“We may never know, but I should like to fancy that Velázquez has arrested a real moment of time long before the invention of the camera. Perhaps the princess was brought into the royal presence to relieve the boredom of the sitting and the King or Queen remarked to Velázquez that here was a worthy subject for his brush. The words spoken by the sovereign are always treated as a command and so we may owe this masterpiece to a passing wish which only Velázquez was able to turn into reality.”