Velazquez: Painter and Courtier.
Since a review of this book is long overdue in this journal, and as excellent reviews which discuss specific technical or factual matters have appeared elsewhere, I will concentrate here on the main theoretical questions which this book raises.
Brown takes his subject admirably seriously, with a consequent scrupulous attention to factual detail and to the high quality of the plates reproduced here. But that scrupulousness also seems to erode Brown's confidence in analysing Velaquez's art. He anxiously turns away from the subjective and the speculative to rest his analysis of Velazquez's work on a historicist undertaking. "There is what might be called a 'wall of fact' against which misguided theories inevitably crash and fall to the ground" (vii). Brown does not, of course, deny that relationships between present and past are central to hermeneutical interpretation; he believes that the answers to the most interesting questions have to be produced through imaginative analysis 'of scattered fragments' and are not the sort of thing one turns up in the archives. He is, however, obviously much more at ease reclining on the rocks of facts than plunging into the scalding waters of interpretation. And this is a pity, as somehow Velazquez and his paintings tend to slip further from our grasp, even as we read about Velazquez's brilliant self-promotion through court positions, what infrared photographs reveal hidden in the paintings, or how Velazquez's handling of chiaroscuro differs from that of Caravaggio.
Thus the tension in Velazquez's early paintings - the way in which objects seem to assume a life of their own, what Brown regards as the loss of overall composition in favour of the depiction of individual elements - is dismissed as "youthful" (7) (something that will be corrected later on). The challenges to the spectator which Velazquez's work implies thereby become invisible. The knife whose handle sticks out over the edge of the table, provocatively, towards the viewer in Three Men at Table Brown sees only in terms of its hardness (as opposed to the softness of the cloth, the bread). Although Brown admires Old Woman Cooking (1618) his interpretation is strangely static, as he analyses the painting as a solution to a series of technical challenges, the brilliant bringing into being of different materials and contrasting forms. We might be tempted also to see cooking itself as a metaphor for the metamorphosis of matter, of the threat to matter of matter, the making of distinction, as the liquid albumen of the eggs floats in water, fuses with it, separates itself and congeals. Beside objects, Velazquez's figures remain, as Brown says, 'rough-hewn', resistant to definition. But he does not analyse the disquietening objectification of figures where people assume the status of an earthenware jug or a mortar and pestle, instead diminishing this as a sign of the young painter's immaturity (although, as Las Meninas most famously shows, ambiguities and tensions in the relationships between people and things, subject and object, being and representation, continue to absorb and enthrall Velaquez throughout his life).
Brown sees Velazquez against a stark Spanish background, a country where the painter was defined as a practitioner rather than as a creator, and where the Spanish Church, "self-appointed defender of Catholic orthodoxy" (3) (isn't it more complex than that?) reduced artists' freedom to manoeuvre and encouraged a conservative development of style in art. His central theme is what he sees as the dichotomy between Velaquez the courtier and Velaquez the painter, one the enemy (in a sense) of the other. Brown does indeed demonstrate how Velaquez became less productive as a painter in later life as he became increasingly successful as a courtier and as his talents were diverted from painting to commissioning and organizing great art schemes to which many artists and architects contributed. Court ceremonial was not focused simply on palaces in and around Madrid, but moved with the person of the king. In 1660 as aposentador mayor de palacio and court decorator Velaquez was responsible for organizing the meeting between Philip IV and Louis XIV on the Isle of Pheasants. Philip stopped at 23 places on the way, each of which Velaquez had to decorate. While this apparently demonstrates the distinction between painter and courtier, it also indicates that there can be no effective distinction between the court and representation. Indeed, Brown sees Velaquez as becoming "his own work of art," dressed in diamonds and precious stones - art as indistinguishable from rank and its very safeguard.
Brown has probably done more than anyone to put Philip IV's collection of art on the art historical map, but his treatment of it remains inventorial rather than analytical. Yes, Guido Reni's superb Atalanta and Hippomenes may be described as an "authentic masterpiece" (243), but why did it draw the king? How may this painting have illumined for him the nature of desire? Certainly for me, the interesting questions evoked by Mercury and Argus are not those which hold Brown's attention ('We wonder how Velaquez managed to put the correct amount of pigment on the brush, how he knew where to begin and end the lines' (246)), but the sorts of relationships between men, and between a man and his desire that Velaquez describes and denies.
Given all this, it is tempting to agree with Charles Dempsey's earlier review of the book (Art in America Sep 1986). For Dempsey, Brown's strengths lie in illuminating the social historical context of Spain and its ruling court, and his weaknesses emerge in his writing of Velazquez as a painter. According to Dempsey, this is a problem of greater reach than Brown's book. We have, he thinks, made great advances recently in "such practical problems as the establishment of patronage, documentation of artist's lives, attribution of pictures, dating and the like," but he laments the paucity of "criticism worthy of the name nowadays" (19). To my mind this is a false dichotomy. Can there be criticism of art work separate from its effective contextualization? Can there be effective contextualization which does not illuminate a painting as a painting, its form, its style, its meanings, its references? Surely contextualization does not mean the infinite elaboration of a "background" against which a painting emerges or to which a painting can be reduced, or into which a work of art fuses and disappears. That would be to assume that a context is homogenous and concordant and the progress of history teleological; if we think of context as controversial, conflictual, the historical process as inevitably overflowing with contingency, and of art works as relational, we have a very different model from both Brown's and Dempsey's. Such a concept of the contexts in which an art work was produced does not make that art work inevitable, or even probable; it simply makes it possible, imaginable, An investigation of a painting in relation to its contexts can, then, indicate what alternatives to the painting might have been and what it helped make possible or conceivable. Such an imaginative exploration of contexts can illuminate the necessity of making a work of art in the precise forms it adopts, and the delight, welcome, and relief afforded by it.
Consider Brown's context. Brown sees court etiquette as effectively and deliberately depersonalizing the king. Certainly contact with the king was mediated through the enfilades of the palace, through processions of rank, with the audience chamber at the end of a succession of dimly lit rooms. But when the door to this room was opened, "the ambassador would see the king [who would communicate by one or two formulaic remarks] standing unaccompanied by any attributes of office" (40), in other words, at that point apparently embodying kingship himself. Perhaps a more satisfactory understanding of court might accommodate this paradox, in which the embodiment of authority was both intensely personalized even as it was depersonalized. Brown tries to distinguish the rooms of the Alcazar in Madrid on the basis of"private" and "public" distinctions - a distinction that is doomed to failure. As Brown acknowledges, "the rather untidy division between the public and private life was epitomized by [a] room, which was used at different times as a bedroom and audience room." But the untidiness belongs to us, not to the seventeenth-century palace, and is the result of our different conceptions of interpersonal relations and of the "public/private" divide. Likewise, Brown sees the country houses, such as the Palace of the Pardo, as "escape hatches from this gilded cage of ceremonial" (41), and again I am left wondering whether this is not to presuppose a slippage from an early modern subjectivity into a modern "casual" one with which we may feel more familiar (but which might have left our seventeenth-century counterparts dizzy).
These problems serve as reminders of the great disservice to notions of subjectivity in the early modern period that recent work on subjectivity and modernity has effected. Subjectivity is now generally conceived as emerging only with and in relation to industrialization and capitalism, and we have failed to formulate persuasive conceptualizations of the formation of pre-modern (pre-public) subjectivities in societies based on rank, display, and personalized (if not always feudal) relations. The "untidiness" of the bedroom/audience room in the heart of the palace of one of the most powerful monarchs of Christendom is a good place to start such a reformulation.
We need a more mobile model of court and of courtly relations. The Spanish court, at the heart of the new centralized and absolutist monarchy, was a social organization in which rank was all, the crucible of power, where resources (material and non-material) were concentrated, in which competing groups sharpened their wits, where the noble and transcendental value of art was used both to ennoble and to naturalize distinction. The nature of subjectivity in the production of social relations is what the court and its art invent and explore.
If Brown had really illuminated the place Velaquez occupied in the court and Spain of his day, a place he occupied precisely as a painter and through the very paintings he produced, then the necessity and brilliance of what his art work brought into being and made visible, would precisely have been what was illuminated. The problems of illusionism, the relation between subjectivity and representation are also the principal issues of the court. Dempsey and Brown both split representation off from social relations, yet representation can be understood as a social relation made possible by, enacted and performed via specific appeals to vision, specific managements of imaginary spaces and bodies for the production of embodied visual pleasure (or displeasure). Visual representation is part of a wider intricate discursive field within social formation; we need to think of the social as exchanges within discourse through which subjects are constituted and operated. Velaquez's work itself courageously investigates how rank, etiquette, court, and the experience of self effectively exist through practices of representation - not separately from them, as both Brown's and Dempsey's models seem to imply.
University of Manchester, UK
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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