Wednesday, November 03, 2021

updated
How does his Olympia address us? With what sort of attention? From what specific distance?
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T.J.Clark in the LRB. Smart but he works too hard. He knows his shit, but erudition is cautiousness.

Velazquez is painting portraits of servants dressed up in costumes. But they look out at us as our equals, or superiors, or as creatures of indeterminate status—simply as others—with the full weight of their humanity.  If you look at the range of his work it becomes obvious. That's a stunning thought considering his role. 

On the secondary pics above; the character is both frontal and in repose. He has three legs! It's a brilliant touch to an image of ambiguity. 

Clark, Masters and Fools 

How does his Aesop address us? With what sort of attention? From what specific distance? Many Velázquez portraits provoke questions of this kind (think of Don Juan of Austria) but here they are intensified – exacerbated – by the suspicion that a particular set of features has been shifted by the artist to embody an entire worldview. What could be more particular than Aesop’s face? But when has a face been more imprinted with a philosophy?

Could it be, in the first place, that the very words ‘expression’, ‘address’ and ‘us’ are the wrong ones to apply to Aesop’s way of looking? Does Aesop as Velázquez imagines him exist, or exist primarily, in a world made up of interlocking subjectivities? He is, remember, the master of animals. The world he takes stock of may include ‘us’ only as objects or processes of a certain kind – entities, outsides, behaviours, patterns of dominance and submission. Such a way of thinking is no doubt extreme, or at least uncommon, but doesn’t Aesop’s whole attitude make it seem reasonable – realistic? Doesn’t his face ask us to rearrange our notions of normality? What’s normal, he asks, about reading other minds?

I reach a familiar impasse. I have no words, or none that strike me as convincing, for the way Aesop looks – the way his features hover between irony and resignation – but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what his look intends. On the contrary, the wordlessness of Aesop’s communication makes his intention all the clearer. I have a good idea what he’s contemplating. I understand the quality of his distance: he is assessing not addressing me, would be one way of putting it – reaching a judgment but not pronouncing one. (As is his way with the world in general.) And isn’t this partly what we mean by expression – isn’t this what expressions are for? Expressions, especially ones as charged and impenetrable as this, are for where words fail us, where we’re lost for them. Aesop’s original muteness – the original muteness of each individual, the stumbling of the infant into speech – is part of his power.

Near the end of the piece. 

There used to be a strand in the Velázquez literature that proposed that Aesop, Menippus and Mars were pictures, all three, of court jesters playing at being philosophers and gods. I see why the notion was discarded – it came out of a period when Velázquez’s art was interpreted too much in a late-19th-century Realist way. Nonetheless, the idea does speak to something.

How does his Olympia address us? With what sort of attention? From what specific distance?  That was a new question 50 years ago. 

The painting of the Spanish Golden age, and specifically Velázquez, is the origin of 19th century realism in France.

I'm piling it on.

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 admit. We’re back to Baudelaire, and Renoir, von Rauffenstein, and de Boeldieu, the originating tragedy, later played as kitsch, (as farce).

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