Term Paper: Picasso's Las Meninas (After Velazquez)

Pages: 6 (2400 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 6  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Art  (general)  ·  Buy This Paper


[. . .] The radiant gold and the vibrant pink of the infanta's dress and hair, face and rosettes, have been blanched away: in Picasso's depiction, her elaborate skirts look like a block of marble, her torso like a pillar, her head purely nominal. She has been drained of all life and character as surely as the dog: in Velazquez, the dog is full of character, and seems roused to an indolent scowl of annoyance by the prodding foot of the little boy. In Picasso, the dog looks more like a crude petroglyph, or an aboriginal rock-painting from Australia. But if we are to read the painting from left to right, we find that we go from the massive, complicated proliferation of geometric forms which comprise Picasso's version of Velazquez and his canvas-in-progress into an increasing abstraction and primitivism, so that by the time we get to the bottom right corner of the painting, it seems unfinished. The painter himself is the source of complexity -- the reality he beholds, and which he presumably will depict on his giant canvas, is depicted with crude clarity. The entire lower right of Picasso's painting looks as though he child in Velazquez' lower right -- or another child of the same age -- had drawn it. To read from left to right is to go from complexity to simplicity, the strange triangular patterns and reduplications of Velazquez to the dog, which Picasso has painted more or less by refusing to paint it.

Yet the primitivism of the dog is precisely Picasso's point, since it is still identifiable as a dog. But the means of depicting it harken back to Picasso's fascination with African masks and primitive art, indicative of a persistent strain in early twentieth century painting. Hermann Bahr's Expressionism would endorse precisely this view of the geometric abstractions of cubism as being an attempt to approach this: "primeval man sees lines, circles, squares, and he sees them all flat, and he does so owing to the inner need of turning the threat of nature away from himself" (Bahr 118). Worringer would claim likewise that "the style of the highest abstraction, most strict in its exclusion of life, is peculiar to the peoples at their most primitive cultural level" (Worringer 71). It is the right half of Picasso's canvas that seems most deliberately to strive for the effects of primitive art: the boy who is prodding the dog has been reduced to a stick figure, painted to look deliberately incomplete. The court dwarfess has now become a weirdly lumpish abstracted figure which looks like if the tribesmen of Rapa Nui had built giant icons of Humpty-Dumpty. The lurking clerics in the background seem almost to have turned into grandfather clocks. And the standing lady-in-waiting on the painting's right has had her head replaced with a weird trapezoid -- although examining Velazquez' original, we can see that the trapezoid corresponds to the shaft of light which illuminates the curtseying girl's face.

Of course the real importance of Picasso's vision here is contained within the one salient element of Las Meninas (After Velazquez) which we have not yet considered fully: the limited color palette. What it mimics deliberately is the old-style black-and-white photographic reproductions of Old Master paintings that one might see reprinted incidentally. If Picasso was not actually looking at such a black-and-white reproduction in order to paint his own canvas, then he has done his best to suggest it. And this seems to reveal the intellectual content of Picasso's approach here. What intervenes between Velazquez and himself, Picasso suggests, is photography. Photography made formal court portraiture obsolete in a certain sense: indeed the carefully composed "backstage" feel to Velazquez' original seems, from the vantage of the twentieth century, to be a laborious means of capturing the feeling of a snapshot, avant-la-lettre. Picasso, who grew up amid the omnipresence of photographic imagery which is still a feature of our own visual environment, is on the one hand suggesting that he is merely taking a sort of photo of an original Old Master: the color palette demands we see it this way, but so does Picasso's sly decision to use a canvas with precisely the same proprtions as Velazquez, but to tip it on its side. This accounts for the looming hypertrophied canvas-frame on the left, and the elision of so much of Velazquez vast and gloomy interior space: the upper right hand quadrant of Picasso's canvas reduces the murky Turneresque depths of the upper air with a set of broad, geometrically-defined shapes that indicate almost no depth. The courtier in the rear doorway is reduced by Picasso to a flat black silhouette seen against the radiance spilling inward. By invoking photography, Picasso seems to invite us to discard all those elements of Velazquez' achievement which are purely photographic themselves, including color. This redefines painting as a purely formal exercise of understanding


Apollinaire, Guillaume. "The New Painting: Art Notes."

Bahr, Hermann. Expressionism.

Baudelaire, Charles. "The Painter of Modern Life."

Greenberg, Clement. "Avant-Garde and Kitsch."

Marinetti, F.T. "The Foundation and Manifesto… [END OF PREVIEW]

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