Articles About Art - Las Meninas and the Problem of Interpretation
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Las Meninas and the Problem of Interpretation*
The contradictions and subtleties of form and content in Velazquez's painting Las Meninas have contributed to the enchantment and fascination that this work has exerted on viewers for several centuries.
Many attempts have been made by critics, art historians, writers and philosophers to discover the intrinsic structure and meaning of the painting. In spite of this extensive research on different aspects of the work, it must be accepted that, as a result of differences in approach and interpretation, the problems of Las Meninas have by no means been resolved.
All the figures represented in the painting have been identified. On the face of it the scene in the room looks like an intimate interior, but Fritz Saxl describes the experience as follows: 'We are bewildered because we feel that this, a subject for a snapshot, has suddenly been turned by Velazquez into a representative court picture.'
Opinions differ on what the figures were doing in the room, and why they had been brought
together in this particular way. Halldor Soehner's exposition of the events proceeds from the movement of figures captured for an instant, as in a photograph, and the fact that the attention of the figures is drawn to an event beyond the picture plane. These two issues explain the effect of a particular moment and the influence it had on the postures of the figures.
One of the most important points for discussion is the confirmation of the presence in the
room of two more figures, namely those of the royal couple reflected in the mirror against the rear
wall of the room. King Philip IV and his second wife, Mariana can therefore be regarded as
catalysts in the action depicted in the painting.
This reflection in the mirror and the invisible frontal view of the large canvas on which Velazquez is busy painting led to an illuminating study by J.R. Searle. He bases his arguments on the contradictory or paradoxical character of the work resulting from the violation of one basic rule '... the axiom system of classical illusionist representative painting'.
According to Snyder and Cohen, who reacted to Searle's article, this violated rule is precisely 'the basic "axiom" of representative geometry that requires the painting to be projected as well as viewed from the viewpoint of the artist.
As mentioned above, Searle bases his arguments on the paradoxes in the Las Meninas
painting, namely that we as viewers do not see the painting from the same viewpoint as the artist,
but from that of other viewers or 'models'. These viewers - the royal couple who were perhaps
posing for the artist - are in fact the subject of the painting.
This apparent contradiction is compounded when we ask ourselves what Velazquez was
painting on the canvas which, to us as viewers, is invisible and, therefore, inaccessible. Searle
maintains that Velazquez was busy painting the royal couple who, like the viewer, are standing in
front of this scene outside the picture plane. In other words, Searle places us on a par with the
royal couple, which means that Velazquez was busy painting us..
Searle therefore sees Las Meninas as a paradox in itself - one which he tries to resolve by
contending that what Velazquez was painting in Las Meninas was in fact las meninas (the female
Searle's arguments are disputed by Snyder and Cohen. Both writers contend that even on the geometric level Las Meninas does not reflect any contradictions, but has been ingeniously planned and constructed compositionally in a perfectly orthodox way.
The construction of the painting violates no canon of 'illusionist' representation. Searle's error originates in a misconception of how viewpoint functions in the construction and interpretation of perspective painting and how a viewer identifies the point from which a picture in perspective is projected.
According to Searle, the painting has been constructed ingeniously around the point of view
or focal point. How Searle establishes this specific point of view will not be explained here, but
without basing his case on any classic principles of perspective, Searle posits that the viewer is
postioned 'exactly opposite' the mirror. In reaction to Searle's argument, Snyder and Cohen
firstly place the vanishing point of the painting more or less in the bent elbow of the figure that
has taken up position in the doorway in the background. The point of view is therefore exactly oposite the vanishing point and not in the mirror, as contended by Searle. Snyder and Cohen
accordingly believe that it would have been impossible for Velazquez to have observed his
reflecttion in the mirror, especially if he placed himself directly opposite the figure in the doorway.
the point of view of Las Meninas is established - correctly or otherwise - this contradiction falls away.
Concerning the second argument - that is, whether the mirror really reflects the royal
couple - both Searle and Brown endorse the view that '... the mirror on the rear wall
reflects the persons of the king and queen ... . All eyes, so to speak, are focussing, or are about to
focus on Philip and his queen'.
On this point, however, Snyder and Cohen argue that the mirror could not reflect the couple
and it would be impossible '... if the royal pair is supposed to be standing in front of the picture
plane. They might be standing hidden from our view, in front of the canvas that is shown in the
painting' . But in that case, according to a geometrical exposition, Velazquez's back should
also be reflected in the mirror.
It should be kept in mind that a geometrical division of the picture plane, as proposed by Snyder and Cohen, assumes that the room represented in the painting is a reasonably correctly structured rectangle.
It would be correct to deduce that the king and queen observe thie representation from in front of the picture plane. It is precisely the presence of the couple which explains the outward glances of the royal retinue in the room. But there is still widespread speculation on this point.
The debate between Searle, and Snyder and Cohen is but one of many interesting arguments
provoked by the composition of the Las Meninas painting in recent times.
Velazquez managed most ingeniously to paint a court portrait in such a way that he immortalises the king of Spain in a mirror. Or could it be that the king here acts as witness to Velazquez's extraordinary artistry? 'The unending reincarnation of Philip and Mariana gives them an existence that is safe from the reach of time. More important for Velazquez's purposes, it also secures the presence of the monarchs as perpetual witnesses to an art that is worthy of kings precisely because they are there.
* Drawn from notes compiled by B.M.R Van Haute for the University of South Africa