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ART

Las Meninas: The Work of Art That Only True Geniuses Can Decipher

Por: Carolina Romero 18 de enero de 2023

‘Las Meninas’ by Diego Velázquez is one of the most intriguing works in art history.

Art is not for everyone. It requires reflection and questioning. It is necessary to see far beyond colors and shapes; to transcend the strokes, to overcome the boundaries imposed on a canvas. Las Meninas provides the best opportunity to do so.

The work, painted in oil on canvas, was completed in 1656. Diego Velázquez innovated in his composition the aerial perspective, and there are three sources of light: one comes from the right window, another from the left side, and another from the background. That, in terms of the most technical aspects -and what seems to be the simplest. However, Las Meninas goes far beyond these questions. From the astonishment it provokes, hundreds of theories have been formulated.

The realist trend, represented by Stirling-Maxwell and Carl Justi, this theory interpreted this painting as an everyday scene of the time. These historians saw in this painting a typical court scene. Nothing unusual. However, later readings argued that Velázquez had knowledge of cosmography and astronomy and that this was reflected in the composition of this painting. Other theorists even argued that, if one looked closely, one would find esoteric or occult elements in it. On the other hand, Charles Tolnay, an art historian, argued that it was a kind of allegory of the painter’s artistic creation.

Meanwhile, Michel Foucault (from philosophy), and Jaques Lacan (from psychoanalysis), devoted some reflections to this picture. The former in Words and Things, and the latter in The Object of Psychoanalysis. To tell the truth, these studies are not opposing readings, but complementary.

In a general way, Foucault places special emphasis on the spectator, whom he says:

“The spectacle he contemplates is twice invisible; because it is not represented in the space of the painting and because it is situated right in this blind spot, in this essential box in which our gaze is subtracted from ourselves at the moment we see it.”

If we look at the painting closely, we see how the viewer is looked at directly by all the subjects in the portrait. He is there, perceived by all. A kind of surprise visitor.

For his part, Lacan maintained:

“It is thus the presence of the painting in the painting that allows us to free the rest of what is in the painting from this function of representation and it is in this that this painting captures us and surprises us.”

Lacan gives a reading from psychoanalysis and adds to them conceptions of his own thought. For example, he argues that it is about the value of demonstrating the existence of a kind of ghost represented in the spectator.

Both, however, agree that it is a game of representations: the represented and the representation itself. The difference between the two lies, essentially, in the meaning of the figures of the Kings. For Lacan, that picture is the subject of the canvas. In addition, both question Velázquez’s action. Why did he portray himself in a painting impossible for the viewer to see, what is he painting?

According to Luciano Luterau in The Object A as Gaze: The Question of Representation, for Lacan “the gaze is that which is opposed to the unified subject of perspective.” Whereas for Foucault, the play between gazes and representation is an exemplification of that which cannot be said; that is, that which is made invisible from the scene and explains it:

“Foucault considers the blind spot of vision, while Lacan radicalizes this approach to think that which subtends the field of visibility. That is why his analysis considers fundamentally the luminous component of the picture.”

It can be seen, then, how it is a moment of irruption. It seems that the world is on pause. Perhaps this is the reason why a mysterious aura surrounds the whole scene. So mysterious that, still in our days, Jonathan Brown -the most outstanding authority on the Spanish painter, said: “It is a very bold painting as a reflection of his social aspirations. But I have not yet touched the bottom of Las Meninas. It is a work that needs to be revised every 25 years, and I think it is my turn for a new interpretation.”

It is clear that understanding Las Meninas is extremely complicated. The readings that seek to approach this painting do not cease to get lost among their own discourses. It is still, after all, an interpretation.

Art is such insofar as it does not need theoretical discourses -at least not for its primary purpose- although these interpretations may become completely necessary to look at it from another angle and perhaps decipher a little of its content.

Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva


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