Justin R. Erenkrantz Where do you want to go today?

The Mask and The Mirror

Pablo Picasso is generally viewed as one of the most original artists of the twentieth century. His cubist style shook the entire art world. Most people would not question placing Picasso in the same lofty realm as Van Gogh, Renoir, and Da Vinci. Would you be surprised to learn that one of Picasso´s largest bodies of work were copies of these other past masters? In fact, that is precisely the case with Picasso, and art critics have titled these unique Picasso works "Variations on Past Masters." As much as Picasso was leading the art world into uncharted waters with his cubist works, he was keeping his eye trained on the past with these variations.

It is remarkable that Picasso could on one hand replicate the essence of a painting, yet on the other hand present it in a brand new format. One of the artists Picasso targeted for his variations was the great Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. When Picasso was getting ready to start his Velázquez variations in the late 1950s, Velázquez´s masterpiece Las Meninas was nearing its three hundredth birthday. Furthermore, Diego Velázquez is routinely hailed as the father of Spanish art. Picasso was worried that if he copied Velázquez´s paintings, they would be seen as copies, when they were only intended to be his own representations. In a letter to his close friend Jaime Sabartés, Picasso wrote,

"...I would create a painting of The Maids of Honor [Las Meninas] sure to horrify the specialist in the copying of old masters. It would not be The Maids of Honor he saw when he looked at Velázquez´s picture; it would be my Maids of Honor."

Picasso is clearly cognizant of his effect on the art world. He realizes that if he were to create a copy of a masterpiece, some would not be able to separate the copy from the original. This is blurry line Picasso was leery to cross especially with such a revered Spanish painter as Diego Velázquez.

Yet, Picasso proceeded to copy the works of Velázquez. The Velázquez´s copies culminated in the modernization of Las Meninas, released on August 17, 1957. Picasso was seventy-five when it was unveiled - the same age when his own father died (which was a fact Picasso was only too cognizant). The enormous oil canvas painting measured 76 3/8" by 102 1/4". It was Picasso´s largest work since his 1937 masterpiece Guernica. In fact, there are many similarities between Guernica and Picasso´s Las Meninas. They are both horizontally oriented on the canvas (unlike the Velázquez´s original). Both are painted in a grisaille (gray) palette projecting a dark and haunting image. These aspects clearly stamp the unique Picasso signature on the painting. However, the comparison between Las Meninas and Guernica ends there. Its lineage is clearly with Velázquez.

Picasso retains the striking visual effect of the infanta tended to by her numerous maids of honor. He retains Velázquez´s depiction of the infanta with the white dress that forces the child to be the eye of the storm in this whirlwind of people and events. One can also see the King and Queen in the mirror behind the painter albeit in an almost comical expression not seen in the original. Yet, the visual space of the palace room has been compressed into a cacophony of cubist shapes. Some of the maids and especially the pet below the infanta are completely devoid of any detail save a black outline. Picasso has also shifted some of the figures in the paintings in an almost deliberate attempt to further distance himself from the Velázquez´s original.

The painter (presumably Picasso´s depiction of himself a la Velázquez) depicted on the left side of the painting is the most chaotic figure in the painting, while in the original Velázquez painting, the painter is the most ordinary figure. In the variation, all of the lines used to draw the painter lead towards a central point in the middle of the figure. The exterior image of the painter bleeds into the surrounding area. It is as if the painter does not really exist there at that moment and is only a blurry figment of imagination. Picasso also alters one other major figure in his variation - a figure that many art scholars have suggested holds the key to Velázquez´s intention with Las Meninas.

A striking difference in Picasso´s variation is the increased visibility of José Nieto, the Queen´s chamberlain. Picasso, looking on Las Meninas, once said, "The door José Nieto holds open suggests the entrance of fascist soldiers into the studio of Velázquez with a warrant for his arrest." Nieto, who is almost an afterthought to the unobservant viewer in the original (but definitely not placed there as an afterthought by Velázquez), has been altered by Picasso into a menacing figure contrasted by his dark figure and the light background behind him. Nieto´s position in this variation has also been altered slightly to be directly above the child. It is now impossible for any viewer to ignore Nieto. The eyes are immediately drawn to him. His shadow casts a direct light over a substantial part of the painting. Picasso forces us to ponder questions about this mysterious dark figure. Is he a friend or foe? Is he coming or going? Why does he have no detail at all? But, we do not have enough information to make even a futile attempt at answering these questions.

All of these distinctions from the original Velázquez painting are relatively minor when we consider that the most important quality of the Velázquez original is lost - the aspect of being right there at that moment in that room. By use of the Cubist motif, Picasso severs that tie with the audience. Velázquez´s highly realistic painting makes you feel as if you were right there, but with the chaos portrayed by the cubist figures, this feeling is lost. The viewer now feels distant from the events portrayed in the picture. We can no longer relate to the infanta with all of the maids of honor surrounding her.

If Picasso had copied the Velázquez painting perfectly, and a painter of his skill could quite easily do that, a conundrum would arise. How to tell the difference between the two? There would not be a way to distinguish between Picasso´s Las Meninas and Velázquez´s Las Meninas. If the physical images were the same, how could they differ? Yet, Picasso did not do that. By making small and not-so-small variations to a well-known physical image, Picasso proceeded to create a brand new spiritual image. An interesting duality then arises - Picasso copied a masterpiece, yet it was clearly not a copy because he distorted the physical aspects of the painting. Hence, Picasso created an entirely different image than the original Velázquez work. By varying some details of a masterpiece, Picasso took the risk of destroying what made the original so great. Or, as Picasso himself predicted, the copy could become an original in its own right.

Last Modified Friday, 20-Aug-2010 02:50:27 EDT These pages were made by Justin R. Erenkrantz unless otherwise stated. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. These pages will look best in an XHTML 1.0 compliant browser.

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