Velazquez..Picasso..Hamilton

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

Seeing or Being Seen?

Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas 1656

We are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking at us. A mere confrontation, eyes catching one another’s glance, direct looks superimposing themselves upon one another as they cross. And yet, this slender line of reciprocal visibility embraces a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints. The painter is turning his eyes towards us only in so far as we happen to occupy the same position as his subject.

No gaze is stable, or rather, in the neutral furrow of the gaze piercing at right angle through the canvas, subject and object, the spectator and the model, reverse their role to infinity. And the great canvas with its back to us on the extreme left of the picture exercises its second function: stubbornly invisible, it prevents the relation of these gazes from ever being discoverable or definitely established. The opaque fixity that it establishes on one side renders forever unstable the play of metamorphoses established in the center between spectator and model.

As soon as they place the spectator in the field of their gaze, the painter’s eyes seize hold of him, force him to enter the picture, assign him a place at once privileged and inescapable, levy their luminous and visible tribute from him, and project it upon the inaccessible surface of the canvas within the picture.  He sees his invisibility made visible to the painter and transposed into an image forever invisible to himself.

Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1966).