Saturday, March 13, 2010

Las Meninas

The idea of self-creation comes to us from the world of art. For thousands of years, only kings and the highest courtiers had the freedom to shape their public image and determine their own identity. Similarly, only kings and the wealthiest lords could contemplate their own image in art, and consciously alter it. The rest of mankind played the limited role that society demanded of them, and had little self-consciousness.

Velázquezs famous painting, Las Meninas (1656) changed this. The artist appears at the left of the canvas, standing before a painting that he is in the process of creating, but that has its back to uswe cannot see it. Beside him stands a princess, her attendants, and one of the court dwarves, all watching him work. The people posing for the painting are not directly visible, but we can see them in tiny reflections in a mirror on the back wallthe king and queen of Spain, who must be sitting somewhere in the foreground, outside the picture.

The painting represents a dramatic change in the dynamics of power and the ability to determine ones own position in society. For Velázquez, the artist, is far more prominently positioned than the king and queen. In a sense he is more powerful than they are, since he is clearly the one controlling the imagetheir image. Velázquez no longer saw himself as the slavish, dependent artist. He had remade himself into a man of power. And indeed the first people other than aristocrats to play openly with their image in Western society were artists and writers, and later on the bohemians.

Diego Velázquez - Las Meninas (1656)

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