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December 14, 2006

Christie Davies admires the great Jewish artist Velazquez and particularly his gift for still life and deplores the fascist suffragette who attacked the Rokeby Venus with a chopper: Velázquez at the National Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

National Gallery, London
18th October 2006 - 21st January 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (Wednesdays until 9pm)

Velázquez was one of the greatest artists Spain ever produced, one who is universally revered for his ability to capture people. The myth on which this exhibition is based is that he could always do this even in his earlier work that through his talents gave dignity to the humble. It is certainly true that he was always talented in the use of paint. It is not the case that all his work deserves equal respect.

Velázquez is often thought of as a painter of people but his early pictures are best regarded as still lifes. Three Musicians, 1616-17 should be renamed "Bread on a table napkin", Tavern Scene, 1616-17 should be called "Knife and bursting Pomegranate", and An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1618 "Eggs being Cooked".

These early paintings are remarkable not for the people in them but for the objects. The party line on these early paintings is that they show how the young Velázquez was able to use his precocious skills to dignify the humble; he was not just a court painter. What we actually see is stereotypical youngsters with crude simian faces and quaint oldies. Velázquez had not yet learned portraiture. It is the old woman's eggs that matter, floating sunny side up in olive oil.

Likewise The Water Seller of Seville, 1618-1622 should be renamed "Porous Pot", for it is the pot that counts; see the water seep through its pores, so it can evaporate and keep cool what remains inside to be drunk. Even in Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1618, it is the fish, the shelled eggs, the pestle and mortar in the young woman's hands, the spoon and the onions that are memorable. In each case the people are merely clumsy caricatures. To see dignity in them is to be anachronistic, to impose a modern prejudice on them.

Why should it be otherwise? They are but actors for a street painter, not individuals waiting and inviting our attention; Velázquez only found and seized this opportunity when he went from his native Seville to the capital, Madrid. There he succeeded much as Holbein had done in England because there was a demand for what he turned out to be outstandingly good at - portraying a single individual or a family who want to be recorded by a talented artist. An inspiring visit to Italy followed where he learned new techniques of light and space.

As a court artist much of his work was naturally to portray the royal family, the Habsburgs, King Philip IV of Spain and his successive wives and their children. In some respects it must have constrained him because there had to be an expression of calm power, of a long dynasty that was settled in charge. And so his best portraits are informal ones of King Philip IV when relaxing in the countryside as in Philip IV as a Hunter, 1636. The dog is as good as the King.

It is worth looking at it and then looking at the formal Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver, 1632, the very picture of impassive superiority in a magnificent costume which seen from close up is squiggles but from further away sparkles. Yet the most touching and insightful is Philip IV of Spain, 1656-7 when he is old and failing. His wife and his son have died before him and his empire is fraying. He is worn out, still a king but a humanly afflicted one.

For inhuman power you need to look at the seated portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650 done on Velázquez's second visit to Italy. It displays all the political shrewdness and capacity to make others fear you that go with being the Vicar of Christ and lodged in a sacred apostolic succession that stretches continuous and unbroken from the keys to eternity wielding St Peter to our own beloved Benedict XVI.

The painting came to England thanks to Napoleon. When, during the Spanish War of Independence from France, Joseph Bonaparte - the king imposed on Spain by Napoleon - had to get out, he took with him the best of the Spanish royal portrait collection as loot including this Velázquez, rather in the manner of Herman Goering. Most French art galleries have been stocked in this way by the jackals of France. They are as much a record of French military aggression as the Arc de Triomphe. The Greeks are always wingeing about losing their marbles (which will shortly be moving to a third country anyway). Why does no-one ever reproach France? The Duke of Wellington intercepted Joseph's baggage train at Victoria and held them for safekeeping. When he sought to return them to King Ferdinand VII of Spain in 1815, the King gave them to him in gratitude for his role in expelling the French monster. Military prowess and national virtue were rewarded. And so the hard ruthless eyes of a Pope ironically named Innocent with his thin mouth set below a forehead held in a red hair-concealing cap came to look down at the household of a British Protestant duke.

Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez needed the Pope. He had risen in standing from mere craftsman of Seville to fulfil his teacher Francisco Pacheco's ambition of the artist as an intellectual. But he wanted to be a nobleman, to be admitted to the Order of Santiago. The King nominated Velázquez but he was rejected. There was the little matter of his father Juan Rodriguez da Silva's Portuguese Jewish ancestry. There was a lot of it about in Portugal. When in the eighteenth century King Jose I of Portugal suggested to his principal minister the Marquis of Pombal that he should design a special hat to be worn by all those with Jewish ancestry to make them visible, Pombal agreed and came into court the next day with two of the new hats. Why two, asked the King? One for you and one for me, Pombal replied.

After the Jews had been expelled from Spain, those who were left had at least nominally to become Catholics - the conversos. Many intermarried. It set off a ludicrous and persisting Spanish racism, an obsession with limpieza de sangre, purity of blood. If Spanish readers wish to know whether they are blue-blooded or not, they should look at their wrists. If they are light-skinned from the unconquered Asturias they will be able to see their blue veins. If they have Sephardic Jewish ancestors mingled with their Spanish ones, their wrists will be too dark for the blueness of the veins to be visible. Even a crass peasant such as Sancho Panza (as it happens less likely to have such ancestry than his social superiors) reminds us regularly that he is an Old Christian, i.e. without "New Christian" Jewish convert ancestry. If you wanted to get on, it was a problem to have Jewish ancestors, much as it is in present day Poland.

Velázquez' ancestors were not merely not noble but probably ….Getting into Santiago was worse than joining a golf-club in Finchley. Even the King couldn't swing it for him; it needed a papal dispensation. The popes were not bigoted about Jewish ancestry. They had accepted Torquemada despite an "ancestor" and one day they would embrace Edgardo Mortara. To this we owe the care Velázquez took over the Holy Father's portrait.

Velázquez' many portraits of children and of courtiers and intellectuals are also masterpieces in particular but the history and classical paintings here (the best are not in the exhibition) are a disappointment, except in their details. Looking back from the twenty-first century it is a matter of amazement that painters in Christian Europe should have spent so much time and paint on the cavortings of pagan gods. Indeed the only worthwhile reason for knowing anything at all about the tedious mythologies of the Greeks and the Romans is so that we can understand European painting. Give me Rama and Sita and Hanuman or Lord Krishna and the gopis any day; at least they relate to a respected living religion with a billion devout adherents, many of whom live in Leicester. Your G.P., dentist, pharmacist and accountant are probably numbered among them.

But who on earth cares about the sun-god Apollo tipping off the blacksmith Vulcan that his wife Venus is having it off with Mars - Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan, 1630.

The painting Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan is a piece of Victorian high kitsch, the clumsy telling a clumsy story, one heavy with crass emotion. Today such a tale full of grunting sound and fury would be televised in a sleazy pub for Eastenders:

Apollo: " 'ere, Vulcan, I 'eard yor missus Venus is - er - well yer know what I mean, with that Martian bastard."

Vulcan: "I'll be round 'is 'ouse with my 'ammer."

Apollo:"Now Vulcan, don't do anything, 'asty."

Vulcan grunts and then sobs into his beer. Cut to giggling barmaid who has been eavesdropping.
Nonetheless Velázquez does once again bring his mastery of objects to the picture of Apollo and Vulcan. Look at the pearl-white jug, a delight of curves on the grey shelf above the fire, set against a grey wall. For a real delight of curves, though, turn to Velázquez great classical nude The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus), 1647-51. It is his only surviving nude and rumoured to depict the mistress he had in Italy who also bore his child. Who knows?

It is a picture of a bottom, as Venus lying on her couch tucks away her knee and her shoulder away from us to emphasise her best feature for posterity. The face in the mirror, held up to her by Cupid, angled so that we too can see it from the front, is blurred, ugly, Boetian and does not match her elegant neck and mere profile that we can see directly from the side. Velázquez has done this deliberately. He is in effect saying "who cares about her face?". There is nothing spiritual about it. The classical setting is merely an excuse for a very material sexuality.

Its first real British owner John Morritt, M.P. of Rokeby Hall (hence "The Rokeby Venus") understood full well what Velázquez was saying and took great care in hanging it. He wrote to Sir Walter Scott, a popular if ponderous novelist of the time and author of the ballad Rokeby:

I have been all morning pulling about my pictures and hanging them in new positions to make room for my fine picture of Venus's backside which I have at length exalted over my chimney-piece in the library. It is an admirable light for the painting and shows it to perfection, whilst raising the said backside to a considerable height.
Ladies and clergymen could now pretend it wasn't there, avert their eyes and turn the other cheek. But it must have been a great distraction to the classical scholars working in the library on a hot Yorkshire day. You can also imagine an all-male company of local worthies gathering in the library to enjoy an incomparable blending of high aesthetic enjoyment and sheer lewdness.
"Bottoms up!"

"A well-reared girl that",

"Nothing like an argument a posteriori".

General guffaws amidst a very real appreciation of Velázquez's achievement. Far from there being a tension between their two sets of feelings, the one reinforced the other through excitation transfer, something that later nearly led to tragedy.

In 1905 the Rokeby Venus was bought by the National Gallery in London to stop it being sent to Berlin. On 10th March 1914 a terrorist feminist and suffragette, Mary "Slasher" Richardson attacked Venus' famous buttocks with a cleaver thrusting her chopper deep into them and inflicting severe damage on the painting. It was an act of senseless fanatical destruction comparable with the anarchist bomb attack on the Royal Greenwich observatory in 1894, immortalised by Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent.

Terrorists are criminals obsessed with a narrow ideology such as anarchism, feminism or Talibanism that enables them to destroy without compunction the highest productions of human civilisation in the pursuit of what they call "justice". They are enemies of humanity who move easily from one fanaticism to another. Mary "Slasher" Richardson who had been a Drum Major in the suffragettes' "Fife and Drum Marching Band" went on to be the head of the women's section of the British Union of Fascists in 1934, a sort of British version of Gertrud Scholtz-Klink. Any fanaticism, any drumbeat to march to, would have done.

Fortunately the painting was expertly restored by the National Gallery's Chief Restorer, Helmut Ruhemann. Today Venus' bottom is unscarred and we can see it as Velázquez did. Vita brevis est. Ars longa.

It is easy to understand why a fanatic might attack a hated portrait as when a Welsh nationalist slashed that of Caradoc Evans in Cardiff or a suffragette that of Thomas Carlyle. But why slash the Rokeby Venus? We can only understand why if we realise that the suffragette movement was as much about sexual frustration as about votes for women.

In the period 1900-1914 unmarried middle class women were compelled to be chaste by social convention. Their young male counterparts by contrast sought out ladies of easy virtue who sold sex. This was how it had always been and still is in many traditional societies. The suffragettes wanted equality and they could not demand sexual freedom for themselves, so they wanted to deny it to men. Their slogan was "Votes for women and chastity for men". It was probably the main reason for the fierce opposition to their otherwise reasonable demand for the vote. What Edwardian masher was going to risk having chastity imposed on him and his pals by an alliance of women and clergymen.

The suffragettes and the clergy did in fact conspire together in the Social Purity Movement and to combat what was called the "Social Evil". Street prostitution was widespread in London at the time, even though brothels were illegal and remained so until the 1959 Street Offences Act. It was the guarantor of the virtue of respectable daughters or sisters and only the moralistic clergy were daft enough to believe in male chastity even for the men of the armies of World War I.

The suffragettes put about the myth that the working girls were either "fallen women" cast aside by an evil seducer (male villain) or the victims of a "white slave trade" run by evil foreigners. What they could not accept was that for many women a period (not a lifetime) working as a prostitute was a welcome escape from their usual job with its long hours, tedious work and poor pay. Most would work on their own account and could decide when to work and when not. They may well have preferred it to being a sneered at skivvy in a household of middle-class suffragettes.

Of course prostitutes then as now faced the risk of being assaulted or worse by their clients. Some prostitutes were, it is also true, under the control of ruthlessly exploiting pimps, who then as now were often members of ethnic minorities. The feminists' response to this was to demand and get legislation providing for the flogging of men convicted of living off the immoral earnings of prostitutes. It was a wonderful moral panic with a sadistic punitive and xenophobic outcome that will have exhilarated the feminists.

We can now see why Mary "Slasher" Richardson, the future fascist, chose to attack this picture. She said at first that it had to do with Mrs Pankhurst's "beautiful character" (as distinct from physical beauty) but later Richardson admitted that the real reason was that she

hated the way men gawped at Venus.
That was why she layed into the bottom that had launched a thousand gawps, a perverse encounter that should have attracted the pen of a J. B. Priestley or a Kenneth Tynan.

As I said, it was about sex. Freud would no doubt have prescribed it for her three times a day. In our twenty-first century world of SM feminists and louche lesbians and where the womens movement's chief enemy is family values, it seems like another world. In 1914 the feminists wanted to make the world into a monastery. Now they want to turn it into an orphanage. I didn't see any visible feminists at Velázquez but then they don't do art because all the great painters are male.

Velázquez certainly was one of their number. Go to the exhibition and enjoy his work.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain.

To read Jane Kelly's take on the National Gallery's Velázquez exhibition, see: Teenage rebellion more profound than anything we see today.

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What a superb article! The bit about Spanish “racial purity” reminds me that the background to the tragedy of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino is that Don Alvaro is an Incan prince.

There is only one place where it doesn’t quite add up:

and only the moralistic clergy were daft enough to believe in male chastity

Is the author suggesting that the clergy should have condoned so-called “incontinence”? All too often, in the last century, eminent professors of mathematics and physics expressed in most erudite terms reasons for their atheism, agnosticism, or pantheism, but closer examination of their lives suggests that their real motivation was, in the words of Chuck Berry, “I want to play with My Ding-A-Ling”.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 15, 2006 08:16 PM

Very well written, this free-for-all commentary on Velasquez. I particularly admired the dashes of south-Londoner humor relative to the classic paintings, tossing them into a far different light than I ever thuoght possible. A light, even informative, review which made for fun reading; a hard thing to acomplish... and yet you did. Bravo!

Art fan in Sacrmamento, CA

Posted by: Bravo at December 11, 2007 05:25 PM
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