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December 20, 2006

Teenage rebellion more profound than anything we see today: Velázquez at the National Gallery

Posted by Jane Kelly

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

Miss, if that painting isn't in it, it can't be much of an exhibition, can it?
A question put to me this week by a member of my art class in Wormwood Scrubs.

He was interested to hear that Las Meninas, that great representation of representation, was not included in the Velázquez show at the National Gallery.

The prisoner has never been inside an art gallery and didn't know much about Velázquez until I showed him the catalogue to the exhibition, but with his wheeler-dealer turn of mind he knows what's what.

The show is rather an anti-climax. After huge advance-publicity billing it as the most exciting art event in fifty years and glossy pull outs in serious newspapers, it is rather odd to find only 46 works, with many of the great ones tucked up safely in Madrid.

It is a bit like going to a show business party where none of the major celebrities show up. But that is not always such a bad thing as you get a quieter experience and are forced to meet people you might have overlooked. Besides we British don't really feel comfortable with anything too flash, and often prefer the small and obscure.

When I visited on a gloomy Tuesday lunchtime, the gallery was abundant with elderly ladies, some with sticks and wheel-chairs, the kind of English who enjoy brushing up against towering genius, regarding it like some kind of amusing, wet terrier.

It must be so jolly to be able to paint like that,
said a plummy female voice as we stood in front of a large canvass showing the flagellated Christ communing with a Christian soul, the instruments of his torture - including something like a blood spattered cable - scattered over the prison floor.

The deep melancholia which leads to reflection upon reflection itself, is perhaps not part of our national character. Whatever we see of his work, Velázquez, once described by a Punch cartoonist as a "desirable alien", can only ever give us small snapshots into a culture which we have never wanted or needed to understand.

What is interesting about this exhibition is that it is the pictorial record of a man, from the very earliest of his work, Three Musicians, which he may have painted in his hometown Seville, as early as 1615, when he was 16, right through to the end.

The first rooms, containing the Old Woman Cooking Eggs, now in The National Gallery of Scotland, and the Waterseller of Seville, from the Wellington Museum, in London, show us the imprint of a remarkable teenager.

A recent feature about Velázquez on Radio 3, to tie in with the show, took some students from the Slade School of Art in London, to see his work in Madrid. In their mock-cockney bad English, they expressed surprise and awe at his painting technique and even pretended to be sorry that such an apprenticeship in art is no longer available to them. They would not know it, but these first rooms show us a teenage rebellion far more profound than anything they will experience.

Painting at the rotten rump end of the Spanish empire, from the start of his career Velázquez paints against the rules. No morbid, masochistic Spaniard, he is a man of the new age, influenced by the humanism which flourished outside Spain.

Like his Italian contemporary Caravaggio, he carries this naturalism into sacred subjects, such as the Immaculate Conception, 1618, showing the Virgin Mary as an ordinary peasant girl who just happened to be the mother of Christ.

He goes into kitchens, and rather than producing sentimental, highly detailed images bearing a moral message he produces a spare, hard record of working people's lives. He dares to offer his viewer something raw, literally, the over-looked and the over-cooked.

In a country of absolute faith, where doubt was persecuted by the Inquisition, he goes for the ambiguous. Even if in the House of Martha and Mary, with Christ in the other room, or the Kitchen Scene with Christ at Emmaus, he asks the viewer to step inside, sit with the dark skinned, snub nosed servants, and have a point of view about what is taking place.

In 1628 he was fortunate to meet Rubens, visiting Madrid on a diplomatic mission. The Flemish master introduced him to Italy the following year. Free of Spain for a time, we see the young man flourish in a land where artists were equated to poets, thought was free and artists were prized if they could display real invention.

Inspired by prints from Italy and Flanders, his tavern and kitchen scenes, his "Bodegones", such as The Drunkards, 1629, one of the celebrities sadly not with us, were utterly original, the most dynamic work seen in Spain.

Rubens also helped him, aged 24, gain a place at the Spanish court. Velázquez, the grandson of a Seville tailor who made breeches, who may also have had some Jewish blood, lied about his ancestry and gained the patronage of Count-Duke Olivares, the man who really ruled Spain. By a stroke of luck vital to the flowering of genius, Olivares prided himself, like Velázquez, on being a "son of Seville". As his protégé the parochial lad quickly became the teenage Philip lV's favourite painter.

In this court, dedicated to preserving reputation at all costs, with its coffers and its gene pool disastrously reduced, artifice and sleight-of-hand were essential. Once there, the radical youth could not carry on painting like Caravaggio, he gives his master's what they want; we see the great Olivares in gleaming black armour, easily staying in the saddle as his horse performs a levade, a move which requires the peak of equestrian ability, and also conveying the message that this man, not the king is the architect of Spain's military prowess.

This is a pose he also uses, with some irony, for the King's heir, Infante Baltasar Carlos, all part of a highly ambitious programme of political propaganda. Yet we can also see the artist's continuing dedication to painting the truth, looking beyond the restrictions of hierarchy and caste, into each human being who stood before him, whether King, kitchen maid or dwarf.

The public particularly likes the rooms showing the Spanish royals, and it is here that his truth telling is at its most forensic and penetrating.

Initially Velázquez did the right thing. We see in The National Gallery's portrait of Philip IV in Brown and Silver, of 1632 that he used a pose developed by Titian, and presented the King as a handsome man: the Habsburg jaw defined, the chin softened with a downy beard, the tip of the nose flatteringly sharpened.

But all the time he is dedicated to reality. Daringly he reduces his ruler's height; in early portraits, not only of the King but of Olivares too, the painter tended to make his grandee subjects absurdly tall, the proportion of head to body 1:9, the small head mounted on an overwhelming mass of clothing, but in the National Gallery portrait the ratio is 1:7, much nearer reality.

The court, accustomed to a King in black, must have been astonished to see Philip in velvet of purplish-brown, the silver embroidery not described in detail, but dabbed on freely, as he strips down the symbols and trappings of monarchy, leaving the ruler's grave demeanour alone to epitomise a sense of majesty.

Even in his paintings of the king we can see that he refuses to conform, insisting on painting in broad terms when detail does not matter, inventing a personal painterly shorthand when it does, leaving areas unfinished. He is as confident and as free as Franz Hals, and develops the kind of painterly shorthand taken up so brilliantly by Rembrandt and later artists. As Brian Sewell put it, he is

less tied to Titian than anticipating Manet.
This formula was repeated with slight changes in Philip IV as a Hunter, in the mid-1630s. Here the King is in the plainest of practical woollen clothes, all trappings abandoned, his kingly presence vested only in himself and perhaps his noble dog. It is improbable that Philip posed for this portrait for he feared the painter's penetrating gaze -
I am disinclined to submit myself to the phlegmatic temperament of Velázquez,
he wrote using phlegmatic in the sense of cold, and self-possessed, admitting that he had avoided its gaze for nine years.

Despite this, this exhibition does capture the development of the painter's relationship with his royal master, as well as giving us what Manet called "the breathe of the court".

The "royal rooms" are full of small paintings from that mysterious, long extinct court. On every wall we see Spanish dignitaries, heads like footballs, cruel mustachios twirling. They all look dastardly and inspire laughter, which probably wasn't the intention, although with Velázquez' penetrating eye you are not sure.

There is not so much joy to be had looking at the royal ladies, when the boy from Seville has somehow managed to turn formality and protocol into psychological drama.

It is heart sinking to stand before the portrait of 17-year-old Queen Mariana, Philip's niece as well as his wife, a bride originally intended for his dead son. We get an icon of fashionable dress enlivened by bravura brushwork and wonderfully loose paint, topped by the tragic face of the girl, trapped within her giant skirt, a 17th century tagging device. Her delicate fingers, holding a white lawn cloth, are like desperate little claws.

His portrait of the Infanta Margarita, aged 8, already betrothed to her uncle, the future Emperor of Austria, Leopold I, is drenched in sympathy, the brushwork, in its looseness bringing to mind the modern images of Manet, Degas and Sargent.

The culmination of the exhibition, in default of Las Meninas, is surely his painting of the doomed handicapped second son, The Infante Felipe Prospero.

Painted a year before the boy died aged three, the ageing painter gives us an affectionate evocation of frailty. The most taking character in the painting is of course the bright eyed little dog on the chair. As is usual in these paintings, the animal looks brighter than the owner, and no dog was ever so poignantly recorded as this one.

His greatest painting of the king is reserved for their mutual old age. Here is a man who has lost a beloved wife, and his heir, and has only a tenuous grasp upon his empire. Once an aimless youth, he is now a sad ageing man who has given up resisting the artist's cold relentless gaze.

After all these riches, that breath of the Spanish court, do we need to see Las Meninas as well? It is rather humiliating that the Spanish haven't entrusted it to us, but its absence does not really detract from the event - for this is a good enough record of a life, from creative boyhood to mature genius, to move and fascinate even the most English eyes.

Jane Kelly worked as a full time staff feature writer for the Daily Mail for 15 years, but she now lives as a freelance journalist and painter in west London.

To read Prof. Christie Davies take on the National Gallery's Velázquez exhibition, see: 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.

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