Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The last few posts are updated a bit. I'm back at the megillah
Baroque art is the art of perception, the space between what is,in an ideal sense, and what we experience. Velázquez is a the first painter to paint the world and as it appears to the eye; the other way to put it is to say he was the first painter of illusions.  Jonathan Brown on the portrait of the bufón, jester and actor,  Pablo de Valladolid 
The figure, clad in a black velvet suit an wrapped in a cloak, stands with both feet planted firmly on the ground, his right arm dramatically thrust into space. The marvelous economy of the pose is intensified by the handling of the surrounding space. Pablo is set against a light-colored ground, which is almost completely undefined except in the upper right corner, where the color turns darker, and the shadow at his feet, trails inconsequentially off to the right. The juncture between floor and wall, the key to imparting a sense of space, has simply been omitted. And the figure does not float or appear to be unduly flat. Indeed, the absence distracting elements of any kind brings the jester to life with startling directness. Implicit in this painting is a remarkable challenge to the rules and procedures of Renaissance painting. Through the exercise of his powerful creative mind, Velázquez appears to arrived at a conclusion which, to us, seems obvious – conventional rules of painting produce conventional pictures of the world. Put another way, Velázquez had come to understand that paintings executed by following the classical produced a view different from what the eye sees.  Works of art governed by rules were almost by definition a mental fiction, and Velázquez was interested in perceptible fact. Pablo de Valladolidis based on a simple optical phenomenon—it is impossible for the eye to focus simultaneously on different planes of depth. Thus, the background of a portrait can be treated almost as a blur without any loss of verisimilitude, if one or two cognitive accents are given the viewer. In fact, the illusion of reality gains immeasurably from but far-reaching change of approach. In Pablo de Valladolid, as in the Portrait of Philip IV in Brown and Silver, Velazquez begins to experiment with a novel approach to the art of representation which would eventually redefine the relationship between art and nature.[i]
What’s ignored is that Velázquez is a loyal and committed servant of the most reactionary, absolutist monarchy in Europe,  and has given his king a life sized image (the painting itself is 209 x123 cm) of another, lower, servant represented in a fully realized psychologically astute portrait of another human being, a picture that at the same time has a hieratic classicism, almost the distancing of a still life. Manet called to it “possibly the most extraordinary piece of painting that has ever been done.”[ii] To us it’s almost Brechtian. 
There’s no inherent contradiction between political absolutism and the materiality in Titian’s paintings, in the literary classicism of Poussin and Claude or the physical grace of Baroque sculpture. Tensions are resolved one way or another, or awkward subjects are avoided. Velázquez’ paintings are defined by paradox. To sense this fully you need to look at -and ideally of course to stand in front of- the portraits of the people he served, his superiors, not his equals or below. Here's  Brown's description of  Philip IV in Brown and Silver.
[I]t is here the first time that see the remarkable and original technique which sets Velazquez apart from almost every other artist of his day. In this portrait, Philip wears a costume comprised of a tunic and breeches decorated with silver brocade, under which is an ornate blouse of silvery white and black. On his shoulders there is a black cape also embroidered with silver thread. The challenge of depicting an ornate costume of this kind lies in reproducing the dazzling play of light on the surface without sacrificing the intricacy of the design. The artist who concentrates on the pattern is inevitably forced to imitate the dull geometry of needlework, as dozens of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century court portraits show. But Velazquez’ approach, which aims at capturing the fleeting effects of light as it glances off the silver threads, is not only difficult, but runs the risk of minimizing the intricate workmanship of the garment and thus displeasing the wearer [a note shows that a portrait had been rejected for this reason]. His solution to the dilemma is a brushstroke of genius. Realizing that a high degree of finish was fatal to rendering  spontaneous effects, he resorted to using a sketch-like technique in a formal, official work of art. 
From our perspective, this seems like a logical and not especially innovative idea. But in the context of the seventeenth century, it was virtually unprecedented. A sketchy technique is of course not unknown in the work of other great seventeenth-century painters, but there is a difference of degree which is crucial. In the Portrait of Philip in Brown and Silver, Velazquez abandons the fluid technique of sketching in oil used, for example, by Rubens, and instead utilizes short, succinct, impastoed strokes of infinite shape and size which are applied so that they appear to hover above the brown ground. Seen at close range*this busy tangle of brushwork appears almost random and formless, But at a distance, it reproduces the glittering surface of a richly brocaded costume with remarkable fidelity.[iii]
The passage is confused. There’s no reason to think that Velazquez, once the issue became clear, was ever not interested in the duality that’s visible in the painting here. After all he had begun with solidity, not the reverse. The question more likely is how much practice it took get the result he wanted: light implying structure. And Brown is confused again writing about Las Meninas, or rather he refuses to accept the contradictions that lay behind in.
 Las Meninas is the culmination of  a lifelong examination of the relationship between art and  nature. Velázquez seems to have tried to create art without apparent artifice and thus to reduce the gap between what the eye sees in nature and what the eye sees in art. The desire to attain greater naturalism in painting was widely felt in the seventeenth century,  but no one went further in achieving it than Velázquez. The proof of his success is Las Meninas, a painting in which his new type of artistry is used to produce an intense encounter with reality. 
In planning the calculated approximation of art to nature, Velazquez had to redefine the traditional relationship between painting and reality. 64 Renaissance theory placed the intellect at the center of artistic activity; the painter's mind was required to mediate between the haphazard world of appearances and the ordered, harmonious world of art. If the idea of beauty changed according to time and circumstances, the value of an accepted canon of beauty was never challenged. Works of painting which merely recorded natural appearances, such as still life and portraiture, were assigned a lower place in the hierarchy of art than were those which aspired to express universal truths about man, nature, and the divine in an ideal style. In Las Meninas, however, the illusion, not the improvement, of everyday reality is given primacy. For whatever the picture may be, it is a brilliant tour de force of illusionistic painting.
“…to create art without apparent artifice” . “…the illusion, not the improvement, of everyday reality is given primacy. “…a brilliant tour de force of illusionistic painting”  But the artifice is apparent; illusion has replaced the ideal, and all this is in an art made to celebrate Catholic absolutism. You can see why Brown’s head is spinning.
Velazquez’ job was to project to the world the authority of the Spanish throne, to proclaim the divine right of kings, but as he matured he became a master of  tricks and illusion. Physical solidity gives way to flickers of light and the mere perception of solidity.  He painted people of every rank with emotional directness and honesty, so we see weak and melancholy kings and proud dwarfs. He was a loyal both to the king and to his own perceptions, and for the first time in Christian art we’re presented not with an embodiment of ideal truth but images suffused with the need to believe.  Velazquez was the first artist to depict the monarchy, and maybe even god, as a noble lie. 
In the inventory of his fine library one finds very few books of devotion in comparison to what was usual among people of good breeding and social position. There were, however, numerous books on mathematics, architecture, history, and Spanish and Italian poetry. If one excepts the years of Velázquez's youth in Seville, when as merely one more of the artists of his generation, he had to work for ecclesiastical patrons, religious themes occupy an insignificant position in his works and are always the response (Christ on the Cross, The Coronation o the Virgin, Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit) to specific royal assignments. Of course we cannot think of Velázquez as a religious skeptic (an attitude inconceivable and obviously unconfessable in the Spain of the time). In contrast to his contemporaries, however, he distanced himself from conventional religiosity; this absence of the religious is nevertheless accompanied by a dignified and serious tone of mercy toward all creatures, by a "modern" and lay humanism, that makes him unique. [iv]
Panofsky dismisses the story of  The Holy Roman Emperor picking a paintbrush off the floor, but the same story is told about Philip IV. Velazquez’ royal portraits are tragic; they show the weaknesses of an insecure man, yet they show him great respect.  Stripped of the obligatory pomp, it’s the same respect Velazquez showed Pablo de Valladolid.  Brown ends his book writing that  Velazquez “…discovered a new way to transmute images of kings and queens and princes and princesses into a new form of art which continues to grow in power long after the memory of his protectors has faded nearly into oblivion.”  Brown, the defender of progress and art for art’s sake, stripped of its full depth of meaning, can’t see the obvious. Velazquez’s “new way” and “new form of art” describe the end of monarchy. The maturation of his technique, the curiosity that drove it, and the obligations of his calling diverged, but the form of his obligation changed as well. The glorification of a master became the sympathy for a friend, in ways that neither king nor servant could ever admit. We’re back to Baudelaire, and Renoir, von Rauffenstein, and de Boeldieu, the originating tragedy, later played as kitsch, (as farce).

[i]  Brown, p.101
[ii]  Svetlana Alpers The Vexations of Art: Velázquez and Others,Yale 2007 p. 232
[iii] Brown, p.85
[iv]Perez Sanchez, p.22

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