Quick Snapshot: A Mystery Greater Than Las Meninas

March 8, 2009

(friday i wrote about watchmen. now for an art and photography analysis. enjoy!)

Velásquez’s painting Las Meninas is generally regarded as “ a ‘masterpiece’ painted by a ‘genius’” (de Diego). It is not unexpected that it is the subject of a great amount of art criticism as well as other art. The German photographer Thomas Struth, for example, spent an entire week at the Museo del Prado taking snapshots of not the painting itself but of people viewing the painting (“Best Shot”), such as his Museo del Prado 7. From these photos it appears that the fact that Las Meninas is a picture that tells a story appears obvious, but precisely what that story is remains unknown. Despite this, historians have gathered a wealth of information about the particulars of the painting. It is known that Velásquez was the court painter of King Philip IV of Spain and thus that the painter to the right of Las Meninas is Velasquez himself. In addition, all but one of the other figures in the painting have been identified to some degree, and it has even been confirmed that all of the paintings represented within Las Meninas were actual paintings housed in the home of King Philip (Pruitt 1-4). In this way, a large part of what is considered “the unsolved and unsolvable mystery in the painting” by Estrella de Diego in “Representing Representation” actually is solvable and known. Struth’s photographs, on the other hand, do not have this certainty. Its people are strangers. In this way, the photographs are an even greater and complex mystery than Las Meninas.

Part of the mystery of these photographs lies within an inherent quality of all candid photos. Composition is a matter of timing and placement on behalf of the photographer as well as the whim of the subjects of the photo. Just as a viewer can’t know precisely why the top half of Las Meninas is mostly obscured and dark, a viewer could not positively determine a reason for the negative space at the center of Struth’s 7. One could assume that even the subjects of this painting, if asked, could not explain precisely why they stood where they were standing at the time of this photo. Struth is by no means omniscient, and thusly knows little more than a viewer of the photo concerning why these people are arranged as they are. His compositional choices may go no farther than the angle from the photo views the painting and its observers.

Conversely, when he painted Las Meninas, Velásquez placed his subjects deliberately. A study by Palomino considers different characters within the painting, saying that one figure “gives great harmony to the composition” while two others “give marvelous effect to the figural composition” (Pruitt 2). The emphasis on composition suggests that it is not arbitrary or necessarily based upon the composition in the room during an actual event, but that it came about because the event, whether it took place or not, was filtered through the mind of the great artist.

If the composition of the artist was an invention, it is not a stretch to say that other elements of the painting are his invention as well. Whereas the facial expressions of those portrayed in Struth’s 7 are spontaneous and natural, Las Meninas’s faces are the creations of Velázquez. Though the expressions he painted may have just been reflections of the faces during this real event, the way he captured and painted these moments reveals some understanding of human emotion. Velásquez understood what he thought was going through the mind of the Doña Margarita María at the center of the painting when he painted her, with a mischievous smile on her face. The portrait’s painter clearly gave thought to the fact that each character is in the middle of something, and therefore gives them life through the thoughts that they convey through the emotions on their faces. The painting can be considered masterful because of Velásquez’s great understanding that each person is a human being and not just a character.

On the other hand, Struth has none of this advantage. He cannot be considered a great photographer merely because the subjects of his photography are so emotive, or that each of these people has a life on his or her own because he has absolutely no control over these things. These elements are expected and taken for granted within photography. His mastery lies within choosing a subject that causes people to emote, and that reveals something about its subjects.

Just like Las Meninas has been open to interpretation, then, so is Museo del Prado 7. Despite the fact that historians have unearthed most of the facts about the painting, it is still very much a mystery. De Diego points out that an analysis of the painting by Michel Foucault speaks almost entirely in terms of the uncertain, using phrases such as “perhaps he is considering” and “though it is possible”, with the emphasis added by de Diego. The fact that there is so much uncertainty about the events of the painting despite so much being known about it serves to greater highlight the uncertainty of Museo del Prado 7.

The photograph is simple enough. A person could view the photo and see it as a group of people looking at a painting, and then move on. Paid attention to more closely, however, a viewer realizes that this is actually a moment trapped in time in the lives of more than thirty-five people. Remembering that these are real people with lives helps to reveal that the picture is much more than a bunch of people looking at art.

The six schoolchildren to the right of the painting, for example, aren’t merely viewing the painting. Closer analysis poses many questions about their precise intentions. Five girls and a boy in similarly colored uniforms stand in front of the painting with papers over hard surfaces and pens, scrawling notes. One may wonder what their purpose is there. Whether they are genuinely curious about the painting or they are merely answering questions about the painting as an assignment for class and could care less are unknown. Only two of the students, the girl directly in front of the painting and the boy right in the foreground, appear to be diligently taking notes. The other girls are huddled in a circle, peering over, and sharing their information, possibly bored and ready to move on.

To the children’s left is an empty space, perhaps a result of the man in the grey suit on the left being a tour guide, and the people listening to him not wanting to get in front of him. They do not approach the painting, trusting this man’s words about its meaning and content rather than seeing it for themselves. The woman directly in the foreground snaps a photo with her camera, making Struth’s 7 also a photograph of a woman taking a photograph of a painting. The man behind her, possibly a husband or a brother, looks to the side, seemingly having had enough of the woman’s interest in such art. A couple in the background reads a statement about the painting in the background, forcing one to consider whether they really care about the art or just to know about it. Indeed, only about half of the subjects of the painting seem to even be looking at the painting.

And then there is the fact that the painting is not within full view in the photograph, and were it not for the fact that not a single person appears to be looking at the portrait in the background, one might assume that that was the subject of the photograph. In fact just by looking at this photograph, it might even be possible that the painting in the background is the subject of the painting. It remains isolated and unwatched, perhaps making it as interesting a subject as Las Meninas itself, at least for the purpose of photography. The photograph, a picture as well as art, remains in this way uncertain and completely open to interpretation.