Didem Doğan

Velazquez, Las Meninas in Prado Museum

Prado Museum’s first floor, room number twelve, section Spanish Painting, the walls of the circular room is lined with portraits, right in the middle of the room a painting that differs from others. We see a party of nine people inside a room with a high ceiling surrounded by paintings on the walls, a little girl in the middle and next to her two teenage girls who look like they are taking care of her. On the right a dwarf, next to him a little boy or another dwarf, a dog is lying in front of them. Behind them a middle aged couple. On the left the painter holding his palette on his left hand is standing in front of his canvas, we do not see what he is painting. Behind the group a man is standing at the back door that is opening to the corridor, is he leaving the room or just entering? The walls are full of paintings, the one behind the painter must not be a painting but a mirror, it is reflecting the couple that is being painted, the King and the Queen of Spain. Made in 1656 the painting ‘Las Meninas’ shows the room inside the Alcazar Palace in Madrid, we do not know if this scene really took place, the painter might have also registered this moment in his mind and painted it later on his own. There is never a lack of crowd in front of this painting in Prado, several people speaking different languages stand in front of it; for minutes or for hours they are talking about it looking at it over and over again; I hear the conversation and I wonder what they are saying to each other: What is the painter looking at? Is he looking at us or the royal couple that he’s painting (because we see their reflections in the mirror)? What is the little girl looking at? Is she looking at her parents? One of the maids is looking at her for sure, but what about the other one, what is she looking at, to the King and the Queen? The man at the back who is about the enter is he looking at the room? And the viewer, us, the ones that are outside the painting what are we looking at? The painter? The girl? Who is at the centre of this painting? Aren’t we also making the part of this painting? Aren’t we also supposed to be inside the canvas? But, just a second, there is something disturbing about the eyes of these people, it is like a curtain has fallen on their eyes. They look like the images of the people we see in our dreams as if they are not real. It’s like our own image in the mirror, that is at the both time real and there, we are looking at it, but also not real, just a reflection… Las Meninas stands there, in one of the corridors of the Prado, like an unsolved puzzle for almost four hundred years, so we stand there with other people looking at it over and over…

The French philosopher Foucault makes a long analysis about it in the opening section of The Order of Things, saying “…it is vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say. And it is vain that we attempt to show, by the use of images, metaphors, or smiles, what we are saying: the space where they achieve their splendour is not that deployed by our eyes but that defined by the sequential elements of syntax.” So maybe what Velazquez was trying to say was that it is impossible to express what one really sees. Indeed the Spanish painting is defined by art historians as ‘sceptical’, taking the term from the philosophy of scepticism that defends ‘a certain knowledge is impossible’. The art critic John Berger relates this to the geography of Spain, “the Spanish interior is timeless, indifferent, galactic.” The sense of nothingness is so strong that what must be the essence must be somewhere outside what we are seeing, the appearances are just an illusion, that “what is essential is the invisible sense, what may lie behind the appearances.” The Spanish painting’s masters were masters not just because they lived during the gold age of Spain, in 16th and 17th centuries when Spain was the most powerful country of Europe, they were masters because they took the art from the Italian and Flemish masters and turned it against itself. By depicting not only faces, landscapes, what was visible to the eye, by also representing something that was not visible to the eye. Like the thing that is being painted in Las Meninas that is not inside the painting, that we do not see but we do know that it exists, either it is the Royal couple, the spectator or something else. Berger says that “Spanish masters painted all appearances as though they were a superficial covering.” He analyses the portraits made by Velazquez, Goya, Ribero, Zuberan, and he says “…their eyes have the same expression: an unflinching, lucid resignation- as they had already seen the unspeakable, as if the existent could no longer surprise them and was scarcely worth observing anymore.”… “The Spanish painters, with all their mastery, set out to show that the visible is an illusion.”

Some people said Las Meninas was about the representation of power. The time of Velazquez, seventeenth century, the golden age of Spain, the rule of Monarchy did not permit the painter to depict the Royal family with the common people. From the historical perspective one can see how he used the tools of his era to become a master. Born in Sevilla, his talent was discovered at early age, he went to Venice twice to learn the mastery from the Italian and the Flemish, he became the painter of the royal family, painted several portraits, was given a room inside the Palace, he painted ‘Las Meninas’ a couple of years before his death. He might have been the painter of the Royal family, however, in Velazquez paintings we also see regular people, dwarfs, the mythological characters. Berger says “Everything he sees receives its due; there is no hierarchy of values.” His dualistic philosophy was to “Render unto the visible what is seen, and to God what is God’s.” His mastery lied not only in his indisputable perfection of his technique and composition; it lies in his philosophical stand by showing that the authority, maybe the real authority, not the officially declared one, is the authority of the narrator, the story-teller, the painter who sees and paints. So maybe what the painter is really looking at is the spectator, to millions of visitors of Prado, to the human kind in most abstract terms and he is asking ‘what are you doing here in this world?”.