Velazquez, National Gallery

Exhibition held in Winter 2006

The little catalogue handed out to visitors at the National Gallery’s Velázquez exhibition was at pains to chart the painter’s ascent to artistic genius. Not only were the breathtaking leaps in ability mentioned but also the youthful slips and errors defects that accompanied this climb. “Although they are endowed with great presence,” it say speaking of the early Adoration of the Magi, Velázquez cannot yet relate a convincing space around them.” It’s almost as if the aesthetic merit of each canvas could be determined by Velazquez’ age at the time he painted the work in question.

Such a thesis may be tenable in the ultimate Velázquez exhibition, with every one of his glittering jewels exposed in some fabulous uber-gallery. But what struck me more about the collection of paintings on show at the National Gallery was that the artist, whilst working within a broad familiar approach (some very familiar, others largely unknown, some very obviously absent), was keen and able to explore different paths, exploring different manner of painting over time. The dark, metallic colouring of An Old Woman Cooking Eggs contrasts with the washed-out pastiness of Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob; portrait styles subtly adjust themselves – the fleshy, mottled jowls of the caustic poet Luis de Góngoray Argote; the soft-focus view of the haughty collector Camillo Massimo; or the cold, precise intimacy afforded the nun Jerónima de la Fuente.

Velázquez, Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob, 1629-30, El Escorial, Madrid.

Velázquez, Portrait of Camillo Massimo, 1650, The Bankes Collection, London.

Rather than delineate a smooth trajectory towards the glories of Las Meninas and the other late portraits, Velázquez seems to have zig-zagged. This makes him a more interesting painter for me, not less.

Velázquez, Detail of Apollo at Forge of Vulcan, 1630, Prado, Madrid.

Velázquez, Detail of Mars, 1638, Prado, Madrid.

One can look at different styles in Velazquez’s paintings. One can also draw much from the incredible variety of body-sizes in the exhibition – how the painter manipulated the body’s dimensions and appearance to provide added magnification of the sitter’s character. So we see the petite frames of the unsuspecting princesses, their fragile innocence already ruined by their exposure to the mechanics of royalty; the deflated sagginess of Mars, God of War contrasting with to the trim, muscled bucks working in Vulcan’s forge. Don Balthasar Carlos, a youth gilded with adulthood before his time is hoisted up on swollen horses, his frame expanding outwards on each canvas, dressed up in clothes and concepts that no child should have to face. Or the huge balloon-like frame of the courtier Don Pedro de Barbernana y Aparregui, puffed up by the large collar and jacket that seemingly holds a tumultuous body in place. And of course the tall elongated portraits of the regal but apprehensive Philip IV. In these, and with many other of Velazquez’s portraits of noblemen, the head almost touches the upper part of the frame, and the feet the lower. So the viewer, when observing a portrait correctly hung, sees the royal personage stretch below and far above him – a king of truly grand stature.

The continuing appearance of dwarves and jesters allows Velázquez to provide an additional corporeal perspective. Here were people of actual low or misshapen stature being represented next to those whose dimensions Velázquez was rearranging in pigment. So while Velazquez’s manipulation of size allowed him a certain freedom in how he visually expressed his sitters, the juxtaposition with the miniature or the crippled allowed him to emphasise the reality or truthfulness of this situation. ‘My sitters are all different shapes and sizes, because this is how reality is,’ he seems to say. As with the best artists, Velázquez mimics not the external world nor fabricates an idealised, perfect world, but fashions a glorious space somewhere in between.

Velázquez, Portrait of Abbess Jerónima de la Fuente, 1620, Private Collection.

And then there’s the Nun – Abbess Jerónima de la Fuente, submerged in intensity. The lined, suspicious face, with two piercing dark eyes, wrapped in the tight folds of her off-white skullcap. A small rope clasping the folds of her cloak in place. The veined, pulsating (and huge) hand cradling the bible. Further down, a knotted rope slips out, a small and almost unnecessary reminder of her Franciscan ideals. She is a painted personification of the religious super-ego, ready to take the harsh, disapproving line at the merest hint of disobedience. Indeed, there’s a knowing weariness on her face. She has seen and she expects disobedience.

And perhaps most auspicious of all is Jero’nima’s hand, tightly clasping the crucifix, not with reverence or piety, but as one would hold a hammer. The beam of the cross is pushed upwards (as if to give added purchase) and the curved banner that issues from Jero’nima’s neck could equally describe the trajectory that this crucifix/weapon will follow. The text along the bottom, presumably added by another hand, contributes to the power of the painting as well. A ceaseless, inexorable flow of words, pushed around by her folds of her cloak. Even with painted words, the Abbess Jero’nima de la Fuente can dominate the shape of things. Bonum est prestolari cum silento salvatare dei reads the motto above – very (very) roughly, “it serves you well to speak to God in silence”. The tight-lipped Abbess will strike at the merest hint of noise.

Another interesting question this exhibition of the Spaniard’s paintings raised – does Velazquez’ difficulty in presenting comprehensive narratives work to his advantage? Does that fact that storylines are rarely clear in his paintings give the characters added psychological depth? For you’re never quite sure what story Velázquez is trying to convey. While he shares with other Catholic painters of the era a fascination with intense psychological states, there is none of the insistence on a bland, unambiguous storyline that is to the detriment of painters such as Guido Reni, Guercino or Murillo.

It’s the early paintings in particular, gathered together in the first room for the National Gallery exhibition, that focus attention on this question. Characters don’t engage with one another visually; they seem distracted, absentminded, as if reacting to their (troubling?) thoughts rather than an actual event. Such pictures are indeed strange, but they have much stronger resonance for it. Paintings seem artificial when characters are just puppets for a storyline or moral tale. In Velazquez, the storyline is opaque, thus imbuing the characters with a confusing reality. The experimentations with the secondary images placed in the corner, (are they windows, paintings, thought-bubbles?), such as in Christ in the House of Mary and Martha only augment this uncertainty.

Velázquez, The Water Seller, 1618-22, The Wellington Collection, London.

In The Water Seller, we see the boy gaze intently not at the water he is trying to sell (or maybe drink), but inexplicably, at the cloak of the older man. And the man himself engages not with the boy or the water, but gazes moodily at something above the glass of water. In the background, a man drinks, but his eyes are not focussed on the drinking vessel, but on some other distant event.

Velázquez, Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1628, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

And in the Old Woman Cooking Eggs, the boy approaches, hands full with flask and barrel, but his eyes gaze away from the direction he walks, past the ken of painter and viewer. The woman, famously, stares into the far distance, instead of watching the eggs being fried. This has often been interpreted as blindness, but fits in more easily with the mood of the other paintings – the everyday worker, engaged in mundane tasks, disturbed by more weighty thoughts.

And this is exaggerated by the stark, physical immediacy of the objects around them. For the viewer, these are painted with such calculated brilliance that they are pleasure to behold. Curves, textures, reflections, droplets and shadows are painted with a forensic beauty. But for the characters within the paintings, these knifes, jar, onions and barrels are nothing compared to the thoughts within their heads.

Velázquez does that tricky thing – he represents the interior life; one sees that his figures think, reflect, judge. How many artists have attempted to do such a thing and failed dismally! And here Velázquez has no need of props like books or globes or character dressed as philosopher or mages. A thoughtful life belongs to everyone. Like Chardin over a hundred years later, Velázquez imbues the common man or woman with a weighty sense of being.

A note on the exhibition space. Four lighter, airier rooms of the main gallery were used, I think for the first time. Ignoring the fact that this meant pushing some of the permanent collection to the dungeons downstairs, I think this helped the exhibition. There was more space for the paintings to breathe, especially the large history paintings which benefited from their juxtaposition with each other in the same room. But it’s still not good enough for a world-leading museum. There’s still too many visitors peering over each others shoulders, heads and hairpieces. Only with spacious, well-lit dedicated exhibition space will one gain enjoyment that one would wish.

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Filed under Baroque, National Gallery, Velazquez

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