As part of the series ‘the Collection seen by…’ the Museu Picasso invited professor Valentín Roma to give a talk, and we are now posting on our blog the excerpts most directly related to Picasso’s famous work. This is a highly stimulating, playful and provocative text: 5-star recommended reading.
I would like to propose two terms in relation to Picasso and Las Meninas. The first term is tradition. The second term is promiscuity.
We can distinguish four kinds of artistic promiscuity: the promiscuity of the flesh, the promiscuity of time, the promiscuity of the gaze and the promiscuity of history.
[…] We come at last to the fourth promiscuity, that of history, and here we arrive, finally, at Picasso.
To speak of appropriationism in Picasso’s Las Meninas is to refer to something inexact and excessively partial. At the same time, to speak of variation is to focus exclusively on a way of working that is neither a part of Picasso’s legacy nor even a distinguishing feature of his art.
I have been invited to talk about this series of pictures and I have to confess to you – and I’m not joking – that I scarcely understand them. I wish I were John Berger, but unfortunately for you I’m not, so instead I shall try to put forward a series of ideas that the Las Meninas series suggests to me and that I would like to share with you.
The first idea is that Las Meninas makes me think of an adolescent diary, one of those diaries in which someone writes down everything that happens to them and then, years later, manifest themselves as a repository of psychological skirmishes and emotional swings. Those leaps from the inconsequential to the structural, from the anecdotal to the defining are somehow to be found in these paintings. I intuit in these gestures a certain didactic spirit, as if Picasso in 1957 had wanted to learn something from Velázquez. And of course we learn as much from things that are almost meaningless as from that which is important. We learn by opposition, testing out the limits of things, what their ends are.
The second idea is that when we look at Picasso’s Las Meninas we do not see Velázquez either reinterpreted or deconstructed. Nor, I would go so far as to say, do we see Picasso. What we see is simply a way of looking at a picture. That may not seem very epic, but in fact it can be extremely important. A lot has been said about the stillness of Velázquez’s paintings, that ‘lack of air’ Cortázar referred to in relation to Velázquez and also to Mondrian. If this is true – and surely in some sense it is – Picasso managed to bring Las Meninas to life, to extract from them whatever impenetrable icon they have within them.
The third idea is that after looking and learning, Picasso ‘popularized’ Velázquez’s Las Meninas and in so doing somehow humanized them, rescuing this wonderful picture from the reverential discourses of art history, from the fetishism of the museums, from the indiscriminate fascination of the masses and even from the deranged gaze of contemporary artists like Jeff Wall or Alfredo Jaar.
The fourth and last idea is rather wicked. I don’t think of Picasso as a ‘humanitarian’ artist, so I cannot see this operation of his of looking at, learning from and humanizing Velázquez as some felicitous school exercise. I feel, rather, that Picasso was ‘coming on to’ the history of painting, to use an old expression; he was flirting: he was, in short, being promiscuous. I will name no names, but there are artists who make a moral and aesthetic currency of consistency, and there are others who centre what they do on infidelity, on the disorganized, the incoherent, the rhapsodic. I do not mean this as an indictment of romanticism or an apology for rapture. Many years ago, when I was younger and was studying art history, I had absolutely no interest in Picasso because I thought of him as ‘antiquated’, because he was a painter whom everyone liked and because every year, at Christmas, the Caixa de Sabadell gave you an illustrated book about Picasso. Today, however, he seems to me to be an artist who merits serious analysis, set free of all the stereotypes that have been landed on him. As you see, this talk is also an act of infidelity, another gesture promiscuous.
Art historian, exhibition curator and professor of aesthetics and digital culture
What does Picasso’s Las Meninas suggest to you?
Do you think of it as a tribute to Velázquez, an apprenticeship, a reinterpretation, an exercise of freedom?