Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Goya's Redocorations, The Black Paintings

In Madrid to see Velasquez, I had expectations. Goya was a different story: I knew there would be surprises and I knew there would be paintings I had never seen. And yet, nothing prepared me for the power and seduction of what have posthumously become known as the Black Paintings.

Towards the end of his life, at age 72, Goya redecorated by painting the walls of his two-storey house outside of Madrid. For Goya this didn’t mean deciding between egg-shell white, satin white, semi-gloss or matte. For Goya, painting the walls of his house meant 14 of his most extraordinary works. In 1874, the fresco paintings were transferred to canvas and placed in the Prado. None of them were titled, and none of them were meant for public exhibition. And despite the claims of most critics, they are not unanimously melancholy, frightening and dark. The figures might be surrounded in darkness, and the paintings may have an overall tone of intensity, but they do not all strike me as either sinister or gloomy.
To the contrary, what is so striking about them is the brilliant light that illuminates the moment depicted. In my three favorites — works that have since been titled, Reading, A Man and Two Women, and Judith and Holofernes — the intense emotion excited by a simple, everyday action is vivdly brought to life by Goya’s masterly handling of light. In stark contrast to the placement of the light in his tour de force, The Third of May, there is no light source in these paintings. It is as though the belly of the man in the modestly named A Man and Two Women by art historians, a painting if it were left up to me would be titled The Masturbator, has the light within him. And the light by which the men gather to read the paper in Reading is once again like an emanation from the man who holds it. Together with the intense grey background, this light is what these paintings are all about. The illumination at the centre of the works draws us in – it is more than an invitation, more like a command, to share the secret world of whatever is written in that newspaper, of both the women and the man’s delight at bawdy pleasures, of Judith’s sheer determination to sever the unsuspecting Holofernes' head. Within minutes of standing before them, I found myself silently creeping into the simultaneously exciting and unknown worlds of these compelling characters. Interestingly we see Judith preparing to behead Holofernes, her breasts bared, the knife in hand. This is not a painting that is about the beheading, it is about the intent to behead. The depiction of the feelings aroused as opposed to the significance of any action is typical of these three Black Paintings.

As I say, critics want to focus on the darkness of these and the other paintings. It is true that the one that depicts the witches Sabbath is more sinister because it is witches who are at work. However, as I stood before even these paintings, the darkness was in the execution of the background only. And that gray background is as exciting because it exists hand in hand with the light that inflames the canvas. Even in the stillness of the moment of reading, these paintings are about the motion and emotion of the experiences of the readers. What makes Goya so outstanding is the energy and kineticism of his paintings, at a time when portrait-like paintings were all about stasis and sitting still.

It is said that Goya bridged the classical and the modern. And if his work does indeed venture into the modern period, it can be seen here. In the use of light as though he knew that the cinema that was on its way. And like the cinema, Goya externalizes emotions in a way that painting had not yet thought to do, at least not in Spain, and never with the use of a loose, undefined brushstroke. Again, the openness of Goya’s brushstroke in these works is exciting. In official portraits and paintings of the period, the painted world is still hermetically sealed, closed off from a viewer. Thanks to the looseness of the brushstrokes and the light, these paintings reach out to us, beckon us into the painted world in a way that painting would not do for anything up to another one hundred years.

Lastly, the thing which makes Goya so exciting is that, like Velasquez, Goya’s most memorable, and powerful paintings are not the ones that are done on commission for royalty. It’s the ones he does behind their backs, the paintings he executes in contradiction of the violence that is going on in the world around him. Included among the black paintings are the bitter and horrific image of Saturn devouring his son, but there is so much more to these fourteen images than a dark depressive vision of an old deaf man.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Velásquez encore: Las Hilandera (The Spinners)

If Velásquez and his easel create a disruption to our experience of Las Meninas, then the unforeseen appearance of the girl in the foreground and the warrior in the background disturbs our experience of Las Hilandera (The Spinners), c. 1657. Everything about this painting speaks a moment of interruption that creates uncertainty in the spinning workshop at the front of the painting and completely unsettles the background in which a drama variously identified as based on Titian’s The Rape of Europe and Ovid’s fable Arachne is played out. The balls of wall, the red of the spinner’s face, the blurred face of the girl at the painting’s center, and the stark illumination of the girl in the foreground wearing a white shirt are all disconcerting. Why is the focal point of the perspectival recession of the painting blurred? Why does the protagonist of the main action have a red face? How can the cat cast a shadow when no one around it does? It is not only the activities and objects that fill The Spinners, but Velásquez’ mode of representation that raises more questions than it answers.

I had always thought that the girl who appears as if from the wings of a stage on the left of the painting was an angel. I assumed she was an angel in a red dress, come to tell the spinner of some secret future for which she must prepare. Perhaps the angel’s news is not good, thereby explaining the strained look on the older woman’s tired face. But now, I am not so sure. As I stood before the painting, I realized that what I have always taken to be her “wings” might in fact be a pile of fabric neatly folded on a table behind her. And I was startled to recognize that her supposed red skirt is some kind of barrier, perhaps a chair over which a length of red fabric is draped. Having just seen Las Meninas I was also keenly aware of the inconsistency and impossibility of Velásquez’s lighting: the girl with the white shirt is so illuminated that it appears the beam from the back window magically finds her at the end of its throw. And yet, she would have to be lit from where I stand and a little to my right for the spotlight to have her as its object. Again, I am perplexed: Why is she lit like this anyway? She is not the center of the action, so why is she in the spotlight, the climax of the painting? I follow the line of the lightbeam and I see that the girls at the back, one in a platinum grey dress, her attention caught by the dramatic entrance of the warrior, the other blending into the curtain and turned towards us, are also lit inconsistently. The light source clearly shines on them from above and to their right, and yet, they must be lit frontally for the light to fall on them as it does. How can this be? This is far removed from the stasis and consistency of the figures, their facial expressions, their jewels, the cloth that adorns them, and the perspectival logic in which they are placed in Velásquez’ royal portraits.

In the drama played out on the stage at the rear, I can’t be sure if the man is a character in the drama depicted on the tapestry, or perhaps he is actually on the stage. The light would suggest that there has been an “appearance” of some kind, but just like the ambiguity of its illumination, its source is abstracted. The beam is itself marked more as representation than as a realist source of illumination. With Guernica still on my mind, I wonder if Picasso was influenced by Velásquez when he painted light as just another object in the compositional plane?

And so I begin to appreciate the extraordinary vision of Velásquez in The Spinners. It is not simply his triumphing of daily life in the spinning workshop over the mystery of the fable in the background. This is only the start of the ambiguity brought to the fore in this painting. Whatever the cause of the interruption created by the visitors to the scene in both background and foreground, it is matched by the disturbance of and to Velásquez’ representation. This is a painting in motion and crisis as we see the artist’s collapse of the principles of composition, and the logic of narrative exposition as it was conventionally understood in the seventeenth century. He has not just taken our attention away from the regality of his portrait sitters, but he has upended their stasis and stability through disturbing the world of representation in paint.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Picasso's Guernica in the Reina Sofia, Madrid

Of all the famous paintings we saw last week in Madrid, the one that did not open up to new revelations and new insights was Picasso’s Guernica. It was exciting to see it in all its splendor, but it’s not a painting that I wanted to look at for any length of time. When I think about why this is, I begin to realize that this is precisely the point of the painting. What you see is what you get. Despite, or perhaps because of the fragmentation of the picture plane, once I had seen and surveyed the surface of the canvas, there was little to keep me in front of it. It’s not a painting that is in any way beguiling, it is to the point, up front, immediate. This, of course, was exactly what Picasso was looking for. Guernica doesn’t shock in any way, it doesn’t ask for contemplation, despite its size, it’s a very understated painting. Executed as it is in the greyscale of the printed press – which, as many critics and commentators point out – makes it a critique of the representation of war and violence, and in particular, the way such events are fragmented and sensationalized by the press.

The grey, the flatness of the image, the absence of drama via an absence of color is what makes it so powerful. If it is possible for Guernica’s post-cubist style to be labelled realist, then that is how I would best describe it. In the aftermath of Picasso’s war, light does not emanate from lamps, shadows are not in the process of shifting or being cast, and both take on the same status as body parts: mere ineffectual objects laid flat on the picture plane. Guernica is a matter of fact, “realist” representation of the devastation of war. I want to say that there is something grisaille-like about Guernica. The painting could be mistaken as a study for another, brightly colored version of the same image. But unlike the fifteenth century grisaille’s that depicted the drama of life and the spectacle of the grisaille technique, Guernica is two- not three-dimensional.

It’s not hard to see why the Guggenheim in Bilboa want Guernica moved there. Of course they do, it’s a tourist draw card. Unfortunately for Thomas Krens and his corporate machine, the painting is also owned by the Spanish State, so it is unlikely they will be convinced by the “American exploitation of art-as-tourism” argument that Guernica belongs in the Basque region where the bombing took place. Rather than appeasing the Guggenheim’s greed, Guernica is a painting that must stay where it is in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Not only because it is a national treasure, but because the painting belongs with all of the works that inspired it, and all of those that come in its wake. In the adjacent rooms, all of the drawings and studies and sketches that Picasso did in preparation for what was to become this highly controversial painting give it a context. Guernica belongs as much to the art world that produced it as it does to the history of Spain: surrounded by Spanish cubism, and taking its place in the progression of Picasso’s works is where it makes sense. Guernica may be realist in its representation of the bombing of Guernica in April, 1937, but how would that be understood if it was just another painting in the company of works by Jim Dine, Andy Warhol or a contemporary Spanish video artist?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Diego Velásquez, Las Meninas, 1656

I have been learning about, hearing about, and reading about Velásquez’s Las Meninas for over twenty-five years now. I recall being transfixed by the painting as an undergraduate in a literary theory class when I first read Michel Foucault’s description of it in The Order of Things. Foucault’s argument about “truth” as a discursive construct was beyond me at the time, but his description of the instability of Las Meninas when seen from the perspective of its conflicting sightlines, its harboring of secret truths and its exposition of others, left an indelible impression. Together with the painting’s centrality in the history of Western art, its fascination finally drew me to Madrid to see it for myself.

Initially, it was with some disappointment that I stood up close to Velasquez’ masterpiece, because my first reaction was to recognize just how realist it is. Unlike many of the modernist paintings I spend hours looking at, at first glance, the Infanta and her Meninas, Velasquez, the King and Queen of Spain, the dwarfs and the dog appear as they do in reproduction. I felt let down to find it much the same “in the flesh” as in the coffee table books. But as I stood with it, looked at it from different distances, perspectives, through the filter of different discourses on painting, I slowly realized its immense complexity. And worse, its disquieting effect.

Any reproduction can tell of the excitement of Las Meninas’ reversal of the social hierarchical privilege with the King and Queen at the pinnacle of the vanishing point, yet blurred, mirrored, de-emphasized, indeed backgrounded. Similarly, we don’t need to stand before the painting to see the primadonna performance of the Infanta, her privilege, her place at center stage. Neither does our involvement perhaps as audience to her performance, perhaps as subject of the painting Velásquez executes within Las Meninas need to be experienced in person. And the relay of gazes around the surface of the painting is clearly represented on a postcard. However, up close and at a distance, in person, the scene comes alive in unanticipated ways.

First, Las Meninas loses its realist dimension as we move in relation to it. Both the space of the representation and our relationship to it changes as we move towards it, from a distance. Like a Candida Höfer photograph, the space of the courtroom flattens out and opens up, embraces us, folds us into it. But only as we move. It is a painting that asks us to move, and not only in space, but also in time. At a distance we see figures on a stage, a scene, the Infanta being prepped and primed, whether for us or for the painting. And then, in time, I see the painting represents a moment of interruption, a disturbance for which I might be the reason. Velasquez looks at me, confronts me with his look in my direction. No matter where I stand, he is looking at me, I am being watched, I can’t get away. I become unsettled, what have I done? How do I look? And now, I am being as difficult as the Infanta, resisting my being looked at, as much in need of appeasement as her.

Up close, the bright light of the painting converges on the Infanta, on the space she occupies in the foreground. Where that light comes from might be ambiguous, but like the stage on which she might be acting, all that matters is that she is in focus and she is in the spotlight. Then as I move back, I focus less on her, more on myself — it is me who is now in the spotlight. Everyone is looking at me (including myself) perhaps because I am the subject of Velásquez’ painting? Or perhaps because I came to close to the one that frames it, Las Meninas? It’s impossible to know where I stand, who I am in relation to this painting, which is, of course, what makes it such an unsettling experience.

My friend James pointed out that my discomfort in front of the painting is the result of the painter and his easel in the foreground. If we were to take them out — as my undergraduate students would like change the endings of most films I show them — we would be left with a frontal, staged image of the royal characters and their attendants. The placement of the artist and his easel in the mise en scène open up to the work’s infinite complexity. Their presence creates the tension between who is being painted, as they now come to rival the Infanta (and me) for the role as protagonist of the painting. Their presence suggests, as other critics have done, the artist’s power in this highly structured society, a society which, in reality, he has no place. They create all sorts of questions about the status of representation — and as Foucault would have it — of truth. And for me, in Madrid this weekend, Velásquez’ presence with his easel unsettles my identity as a viewer – who am I? Am I the looked at? The one doing the looking? Am I welcome inside the painting? Am I represented? Or is this a representation of my imagination? Perhaps my place within the space of the painting, of the social world, of the museum is no more than a reputation. To create such ambiguity and disturbance is quite a feat for a painting that is nearly 400 years old. That’s what makes it a masterpiece.

Lastly, I have to say that one of the great joys of experiencing Las Meninas “in person” comes from the fact that it sits in the Prado Museum in Madrid, and not in the Louvre or another great museum. It might be a national icon in Spain, but there is no altar to Las Meninas: there is no glass in front of it, no barriers, no hovering guards, no hoards of tourists. On a sunny afternoon in mid-August, there was plenty of opportunity to take up my place among the royal cast of characters in the Museo del Prado. It is a painting that rewards time and energy, neither of which would be possible to give were it hung on more prominent walls.