In the summer of 2000 I went on holiday with my family to northern Spain. We stayed in a village called Colombres, pretty much on the border between Asturias and Cantabria, near the Picos de Europa. I got really sunburnt when I spent most of a day bodysurfing, and spent the whole of the next day in bed reading Michael Frayn’s Headlong. But anyway, during this trip I had an unusually intense (for me) experience with a piece of visual art that still surprises me when I’m reminded of it today.
So as I said we were staying in Asturias but my sister developed this plan to go to Madrid. It’s like a 7 hour journey, but we did it anyway. The parents and uncle remained in Colombres and the kids (me, 3 sisters, a couple of their friends) jumped on a bus early one morning and by early afternoon we were in Madrid. No place to stay, but a plan to stay out all night and get on a bus back up north early the next morning. It was a good plan, and typical of my sister. We went to two of Madrid’s major art museums, the Prado and the Reina Sofia. At the latter, we saw Picasso’s Guernica, which was pretty amazing, what with being about the size of a house. But what really surprised me was Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas, which was at the Prado. Here it is (in reality it’s pretty big, like 8 feet tall or something. At least, as far as I remember):
Like I said, it was unusual for me, and that’s because while I admire visual art and like to go around galleries and so on, I never developed that deep a connection with it, partly due to never being particularly good at drawing or anything, I guess. So I was completely ignorant of this painting’s existence before actually seeing it for the first time; in fact, I doubt that I had heard of the artist, either. I later discovered that it’s one of the most significant paintings in the history of Western art, basically because it is so epicly meta. At first glance it’s just a picture of a little girl surrounded by courtiers. But it’s a far stranger composition than that. You’ve got to imagine it hanging in a gallery where just about every other painting is a standard portrait of some nobleman or king, or a religious scene. The setting, and the amount of stuff going on, immediately sets it apart. It’s also worth considering (although I didn’t at the time, due to the aforementioned ignorance of things artistic) that there was a sort of political-cultural debate going on at the time about what painting actually was – whether it was mere craft, or should be considered among the liberal arts. Strange to think now, but back then painters were thought of as more artisan than artist: someone who could do something useful with their hands, a bit like a carpenter.
Anyway, the contribution of Las Meninas to the “is painting art” debate isn’t remotely what struck me at the time: the thing about it is, the more you look at it the more weird you realize it is (especially, again, considering what most artists were painting at the time). Basically, Velazquez is totally screwing with the viewer’s head. If you look at the background of the painting, there is hanging on the far wall a picture of two people. But it’s not a picture, it’s a mirror and it’s showing us something that lies outside the frame of the picture – in fact it’s showing what sits at the point of view from which the painting has been done. It’s the king and queen, sitting to have their portrait painted. Then we realize that on the left side of the painting is a self-portrait of Velazquez, standing at the easel which holds the picture of the king and queen that he’s working on. This makes the painting incredibly active, because by giving us the perspective of the king and queen, he’s drawing us inside the painting. It’s like… films and TV shows that use documentary-style filming, or a choose your own adventure book, or a video game, or one of those crazy simulator rides that moves in time to a video being played at the front (do those things still exist, BTW?). It’s totally breaking the fourth wall! It’s inventing post-modernism before modernism has even come along (see also: Don Quixote (ha: self-referential artworks were clearly A Thing in early-modern Spain) and Tristram Shandy).
Looking at this picture was one of those “whoa” moments, like when you first think to yourself “what if I’m dreaming now, and what I think is a dream from last night, that’s the real world.” Or something.
What really cemented the thing in my head, though, was that a couple of months later I was in Barcelona at the end of a month Interailing and I went to the Picasso museum and discovered, like, an entire room of crazy cubist variations that Picasso had done on Las Meninas! And I thought, if Picasso liked that picture, it must have been good.
OK so what made me write all this now? Well I just came across this website, which is collecting people’s recreations by staged photograph of famous paintings. Half way down, what do I see?