Art History: Diego Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” (Part II)

Was the painting “Las Meninas” meant to be a criticism of the Spanish Royal Court? Let’s have a look. You can read part I HERE!

Waite, in his Marxist approach to Las Meninas, states that we cannot clearly see everything that is depicted in art.  He expounds that there is no adequate way to describe the appropriate socioeconomic history of a painting (249).  Can we really see everything that is present in a picture?  Or perhaps more importantly, can we see everything that is absent?  Biberman seems to agree that art cannot be fully understood by merely looking at the finished canvass.  She writes, “….viewing a picture, however, is fragmentary by nature; its temporality is not necessarily successive and does not correlate with the strict criteria that narrative structure demands….visual surplus that cannot be verbalized” (237).  According to this, there is no way that a painting can tell a complete story.  There is too much left unsaid.  What are the issues left unsaid in Las Meninas.  Waite takes the approach of looking at the painting through the eyes of revolutionary Marxist leader Lenin.  What is left unsaid that would speak volumes to Lenin?  Before looking at that, what is the context of the actual Spanish empire when Velasquez paints this picture?

The reign of Philip IV was one of great conflict and turmoil for Spain.  The great Spanish empire was waning.  The gold from the Americas was drying up and there was precious little economic activity happening at home to make up for the difference.  By 1656 the mines of the West Indies nearly exhausted and the economic boom which once abounded by the extracting of resources from the new world was nearly finished (Waite 274-275).  All that was still be accomplished in the Spanish American colonies were being done on the back of the beaten down native peoples.  Waite describes Philip’s rule as being full of “bread riots, abandoned towns and serious demographic changes, terrible crop failures, contagion….troop shortages” (268).   It is perhaps without a hint of sarcasm that Waite describes the handmaidens of Velasquez’s picture as literally having more money in their pockets as King Philip has himself.  Waite points out that the whole structure of the painting is made to point out the reality outside the painting itself (260).  The mirror certainly plays a significant part of that.  However, the barren ceiling, the hidden picture, and the light coming through the window also play a part as well.  Biberman claims that “the Infanta [Margarita] demonstrates how vision comprises, beyond what is being represented, a missing thing” (250).  It might be explained that the two focal points of the mirror and the Infanta are somehow merged together representing the royal subject who is actually missing from the picture.  However, what if it was looked at in the sense of what is truly missing from the picture – a legitimate heir to the throne?

Waite contends that it is impossible to know all of Velasquez’s intentions or to question his political ideology (269), but there seems to be plenty left unsaid in the painting which could illuminate a Marxist view of Spanish society.  Waite poses the question as what exactly Lenin would see if he looked at this painting.  Waite speaks of a “determinate absence” of what cannot be seen by the consensus (265).  What exactly does he mean by this?  When looking at a painting, most people see a certain thing which the majority can agree on.  When looking at Las Meninas, it is easy to see the prominent positioning of the artist on the left, the charmed royal daughter delightfully posing around her court entourage, and the enigmatic mirror in the background showing the faces of the monarchs.  But for Lenin, what is missing from the picture would be the very real and determinable reality of life under a cold, unforgiving, authoritarian regime.  The consensus view or the bourgeois view can only try to conceal the barbaric reality of Spain under the reign of Philip IV (Waite 265).  Waite reveals how the mirrored image of the king and queen show them to be reversed from the normal way they would stand for a portrait with the queen standing on the king’s left in the painting’s viewing position (258).  Is it a show of disrespect – conscious or otherwise?  Waite shows how Lenin sees a monarch upset over the lack of a real, legitimate heir to the throne.  Indeed, the impotent, deformed last son of Philip ended his family’s rule with an unmemorable reign (271-273).  Perhaps this was a symbol of Spain’s own fallen image in the light of its crumbling empire?  Waite argues that this picture does not represent real power but a power that is on its way out where capitalism and authoritarianism is nearly finished (270).  Even the empty chandelier hooks point to a Spanish empire which is destitute, powerless and too bankrupt for even the basic lighting requirements of the seventeenth century (278).  As Waite describes, Lenin would see the “abyss” behind the pleasingly aesthetic picture (282).  Waite is playing a kind of game with the painting albeit an interesting one.  Biberman argues in his psychoanalytical view of Las Meninas that the image that we see when we look at a painting, as Freud would argue, “serves as a cover for an unknown, unconscious, repressed event” (243).  Lenin, in Waite’s view, would uncover the meaning of the event in a predictably Marxist way. In hindsight, one may not be able to argue much with some of the historical socioeconomic facts of the time in light of the Spanish empire’s decline during this period.

Whether Las Meninas was truly meant to be an indictment on the Spanish royal court remains to be seen. However, it is unmistakable that King Philp IV and Mariana of Austria “must give up their ‘privileged position’ in front of the scene to any other viewer in history” (Waite 280).  Whether they give up their privileged position in order to elevate the artist, to elevate the viewer or to demonstrate their own power by giving meaning to the painter with their presence is a point of argument which may never satisfactorily be resolved.

This is perhaps the great genius of this work of art.  The “reality outside the surface of Las Meninas” (Waite 260) is vast.  It is a reality where the painter is exalted for doing his art.  It is a reality where the viewer gets to stand in a position usually reserved for royalty.  It is a reality where the common man is one step closer to being in the position of power alongside the monarch.  Privilege and power are being unmasked by a society in turmoil.  With so much to be said about what is ‘missing’ from the canvass, Las Meninas is in an enviable position among works of art which will be discussed and interpreted for years to come.

 

Works Cited

Biberman, Efrat. “On Narrativity in the Visual Field: A Psychoanalytic View of Velázquez’s Las Meninas.” 237-253. Ohio State University Press, 2006.

Kahr, Madlyn Millner. “Velazquez and Las Meninas.” Art Bulletin 57.2 (June 1975): 225.

Schmitter, Amy M. “Picturing power: Representation and Las Meninas.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 54.3 (Summer96 1996): 255.

Volk, Mary Crawford. “On Velazquez and the Liberal Arts.” Art Bulletin 60.1 (Mar. 1978): 69.

Waite, Geoffrey. “Lenin in Las Meninas: An Essay in Historical-Materialist Vision.” History &     Theory 25.3 (Oct. 1986): 248.

 

 

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