In 1957, almost 300 years after Diego Velazquez painted Las Meninas (1656), Picasso painted and sketched 44 interpretations of the masterpiece. Between August 16 and December 30, 1957 Picasso explored every aspect of the painting creating versions of the painting as well as almost daily sketches of the different characters in Las Meninas. While Velazquez’s Meninas was baroque with rich hues, Picasso’s black and white renditions, with their geometric shapes are true to his style.

Picasso saw a painting that was revered, and managed to hold mysteries even 300 years later, and perhaps wanted to leave something of himself in the painting. Or perhaps he wanted to analyze its details and analyze how they fit together into the composition. Perhaps he wanted to carry the painting forward by infusing it with his cubism, and perhaps he wanted to make it truly immortal by removing the humanity of its characters by replacing them with geometric shapes. Whatever the reason, Picasso worked on this, in solitude, for months towards the end of 1957 emerging with a total of 58 sketches – 44 interpretations and the rest of cubist pigeons that came to his balcony while he painted.  

The interpretation was carried even further by Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) in 1972 when he made an etching called Picasso’s Meninas to celebrate the artist’s 90th birthday. Here Velazquez’s composition and Picasso’s style are fused together – the temptation to paraphrase Velazquez in Picasso’s style was irresistible” (Hamilton). And in this paraphrasing, Hamilton did a truly fantastic job!!

Richard Hamilton, Picasso’s Meninas (1972)

In a true homage to Picasso, Hamilton covered all of Picasso’s artistic styles in this one etching – the Infanta is in Picasso’s Analytical Cubism of 1912. The meninas to the left of the Infanta is in the flat graphic language Picasso was using in the 1930s. The maid behind her is in Picasso’s neo-classical style of the early 1920s, whereas the male figure is drawn using spare lines and the vocabulary of African forms that Picasso was using around 1907. The female dwarf is a version of Picasso’s Seated Woman (1927). The harlequin from Picasso’s Rose period stands in place of Velazquez’s page, and the bull, from Picasso’s 1934 Dying Bull replaces the dog (Source, Tate Britain).

The rectangular paintings in the background are copies of Picasso’s surrealist paintings, L’Aubade, 1942 and Three Musicians, 1921. The mirror – which was the focal point of Las Meninas and showed a reflection of King Philip IV of Spain and Queen Mariana, are replaced by Hamilton himself and the artist Rita Donagh, who later became his wife. They are rendered with a particular etching technique that was created by Picasso which made the two figures appear painted in the print. He replaced Velazquez’s self-portrait with Picasso in his etching and added a hammer and sickle on Picasso’s chest.

I think it’s fairly poetic that Hamilton, like Velazquez, managed to insert himself into the painting – that too in the focal point of the original painting – thereby paying homage through the etching not just to Picasso, but to Velazquez as well.

(Sources: Tate Britain, Museo Picasso, Musée d’art moderne, Museum of Modern Art).

Soup Tins & Comic Strips

The glorification and elevation of a soup tin to high art could only happen in a country that was the birthplace of democracy and considers the pursuit of happiness a national pastime.  The generation that grew up in war time was clearly going to be different from previous generations, and this was evident in almost every aspect of their lives. There was a sense of impermanence, and the desire to enjoy life for the moment. When the children of the people who fought in the war became adults, they lived life on their own terms; changed their hairstyles, shortened their dresses, removed hats and collars, listened to music that was definitely not their parents’ music, and freed art from the shackles of fine art and refinement.

Jasper Johns, Painted Bronze 1960

In their adulthood, by the late 1950s, America was a place of affluence and material wealth. Families purchased new age gadgets like automobiles and televisions, moved to the suburbs, and lived a consumerist life. Capitalism in society also inspired the art movement known as Pop Art which started in the late 1950s and lasted until the 1970s. The movement was mainly limited to the United States and Britain, and its most defining feature was that it took art lightly and turned to mainstream media and culture for inspiration.

James Rosenquist, Dishes, 1964. Oil on Canvas

            The art world’s immediate reaction to World War II was to turn inward to an art movement that eventually came to be known as Abstract Expressionism. By 1960s, the artists who grew up with and learned their trade from the abstract expressionists were ready for a change. And since no conventional realism would do, the answer came in the form of Pop Art – this happy medium of abstract and realism, which is both and neither at the same time, was coined “Pop Art,” by British art critic Lawrence Alloway in 1951 referring to the pop culture of the era.

Roy Lichtenstein, In The Car, 1963, Oil and Magna on Canvas

            Pop Art was a product of its times. By the 1960s, the US was a consumer goods society with mass media extensively promoting material goods to a society looking to increase its material possessions. Pop Art looked towards the graphics and images from advertisements and other forms of mass media for inspiration. Mass media had already perfected images to sell products to the American public and Pop Art elevated these images further by putting by elevating them to an art form; what art critic described aptly as gilding an already gilded lily. In the UK too, a public tired of war rations and shortages wanted to reap the material benefits and affluence so seductively presented in American films and magazines.

Richard Hamilton, Fashion-Plate, 1969 – 1970

            Among contemporary art movements, Pop Art, with its bold, bright colors, is one of the most instantly recognizable styles of art. Pop Art blurred the distinction between fine art and commercial art by turning to banal, everyday items for inspiration. This art movement captured everyday items such as ice cream cones, soup cans, billboards, and comic strips and recorded a moment in time of American life. Pop art presents realistic images of these items, but not in the conventional sense; the enormous sizes, though not unrecognizable, are sufficiently transformed by the artist to be no longer realistic.

James Rosenquist, The Facet 1978

The revolutionary group of artists who worked in Pop Art were not only rebelling against the status quo in the art world, they were also affirming the post-war capitalist boom in America.  Similar to previous generations of artists who recorded the ever changing contours of the great American outdoors, the avant-garde group of pop artists sought to capture the transient nature of the subject matter they painted. Among the most well-known were Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Jasper Johns, and Robert Indiana. British pop artists, who were influenced by American culture from a distance, included Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, and Peter Blake.   

In my next blog I’ll write about three of these artists, their works, and some concluding remarks about this art movement.