Sunday, June 12, 2005

Diego Velazquez, Venus at Her Mirror

I have been surrounded by art these past few days. On Friday, I led the discussion on the topic "The 'Work' of Art" that I mentioned a couple of posts below this one. Mrs. Meridian and I have begun to frame some posters that I've had for a couple of years and were threatening to become permanent cylinders. And a couple of days ago, Mrs. Meridian and I spent an enjoyable couple of hours at Bookaholic, a local used bookstore in Wichita. Among my finds was this Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition catalogue of its 1989 Velazquez exhibition. Sorry, no pic available at Amazon, but the cover is a close-up of this painting,Prince Baltasar Carlos as a Hunter. This catalogue is absolutely beautiful: great pictures, very informative text. And, hey: $12.

Long-time readers of this blog know that one painting in particular that I return to again and again (and not just in this blog, either) is Velazquez's Las Meninas (a visual reminder here in case the reader needs one).



But, aside from Foucault's famous chapter on that painting in The Order of Things and a less-than-half-remembered biography of Velazquez for children that I read when I was in elementary school, I know very little about Velazquez. So, rather than remain like the "admirer" of someone's work who actually just knows the song that ALWAYS gets played on the radio, I snatched up the catalogue and have been reading through the introductory essays.
But before I became as systematic as all that, I did what we all would do: I looked for the song that ALWAYS gets played on the radio. Las Meninas was not part of the Met's exhibition (it's hard to imagine that the Prado would ever let that painting leave), but, of course, it's mentioned throughout the text in relation to the works that did make the trip. So, as I looked for/at references to good ol' Las Meninas, one painting that caught my eye was this one,


Venus at Her Mirror. I was immediately taken by it. Mrs. Meridian expressed her suspicion that it was the sumptuousness of Venus' body that had caught my eye, but that part became true only later. No: what had caught my eye was that we don't see Venus' face but its IMAGE, its reflection in the mirror that Cupid is holding up. Indeed, that's the center of Venus' attention as well as Cupid's--and it becomes what we contemplate as well, moreso (for me, anyway, as I look at this painting) than her body. The mirror, note, is not quite at the center of the painting--what IS at the center is the bright-white sheet or towel that intervenes between the mirror and Venus' hip. The white of the towel draws our eye to it, and we gaze into the mirror as well.
And what do we see? The face of a beautiful woman, certainly. But it is also an IMAGE we see, and not HER. Somewhat as in Las Meninas, the mirror here works to incorporate the viewer into the space without directly showing us the source of the reflection we see in the mirror. Also, it stands to reason, just as the messages on the trailers of trucks remind the driver, if we can see the mirror, the person looking into the mirror can see us. Venus returns our (reflected) gaze even as we look at her.
So: is this painting a complex message about the nature of Love? That what we love about the beloved is an image as opposed to something "real" but that that delusion is a happy one--that, indeed, we are active participants in its creation?

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7 comments:

sutrix said...

This ties in with my belief that we believe what we want to believe, I think.

It is quite interesting when you really think about it: when we love something, we do tend to ignore its flaws in favor of the qualities we love. That, as you said, we love the illusion.

And what happens when that illusion is lost? What happens to love then?

Interesting indeed.

Raminagrobis said...

Like you, I've always been quite taken by that painting, ever since I first saw it (it's in the National Gallery in London, don't you know). We Brits tend to refer to it as 'The Rokeby Venus', which is about as presumptuous as calling a bunch of ancient Greek statues pillaged from their country of origin 'The Elgin Marbles'. It's just because we're convinced that all great artists are British at heart, and Velazquez (real name Phil Asquith) is no exception!

I liked your reading of the painting as an allegory for love. I'd be more inclined to see it in Neo-Platonic terms: Marsilio Ficino writes about the 'two Venuses', the earthly one and the celestial/Intelligible one. On the one hand we have an image of fleshly allure and sensuality (just look at that curve of that hip! ahem), and on the other...what? The face is half in shadow, its features blurred and indistinct; and the angle of reflection is not quite right. This might suggest that the Intelligible Venus can't be represented in visual terms precisely because she is not of the same order as the terrestrial Venus. And yet her gaze connects with ours...or does it? I don't have the impression when looking at this painting that Venus is looking at me; or rather, it's impossible to catch the gaze of the reflected Venus, because you can't actually see her eyes. This poses a problem, since, as all good Neo-Platonists know: love enters through the eyes. There's something unsettling, almost uncanny, about the Venus reflected in the mirror (probably the odd angle of reflection is chiefly responsible for this). But, as you rightly pointed out, everything about the composition draws your eye to the mirror, no matter how much it wants to return to the curve of that hip. Did I mention I find that to be one of the most erotic images in painting? Anyway, the movement of the eye might allegorize the ascent of the loving soul from the terrestrial realm to the divine, with the physical beauty of the beloved being the first 'stepping stone' upward. So when you say that what we see in the mirror is really only an image and not her, I think you're half right: it is only an image, but that's the whole point: the indistinct, disembodied face that exerts a strange fascination over the viewer but denies him her reciprocal gaze is (suggestive of) the 'true Venus' ; or rather, it points towards the Truth of love. According to that reading, it is not the mirror image that is illusory: it's more 'real' than the naked Venus on the couch. It is the fleshly, sensual Venus that stands in the way as an illusory distraction; or potentially, for the enlightened Platonist, a means to a transcendent end. So, an allegory for Love rather than love?

Oh and sutrix, re your belief that we believe what we want to believe: why would you want to believe that?

sutrix said...

Oh, I don't know, Grobie. I don't even have any definite idea yet regarding what makes a belief belief, what makes an idea an idea, and what makes a thought a thought.

John B. said...

Thanks to you both for the comments.

Sutrix,

For some reason your comments reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (have you seen it?) and, as I see it, that movie's exploration of the dynamic between love and memory.
I need to see that film again.

Grobie,

(it's in the National Gallery in London, don't you know).

Yeah, yeah.

You are a careful reader of paintings, Grobie. I don't know if that sort of thing is your cup of tea, but you seem to have the knack for art crit. You could write books bought up by tens of readers.
Your comments about neo-Platonism remind me of something else I get a strong(er) sense of as I've been reading the Velazquez book: That he's not just well informed on the world and ideas of his time; his paintings are actual commentaries on those things and not just explications of them. In writing about V.'s paintings of the royal children, for example, the author detects a sympathy for these children who, too young, have been thrust into a very adult world. In Las Meninas, the Infanta wears that extraordinarily-elaborate dress, but in her slightly-impish smile and that half-turn of her body, we see a little girl (I personally can't get over how much, in her physical appearance but more in her attitude, the Infanta resembles my younger daughter).
In short: what's so grand about V.'s paintings is that, while he is clearly IN the world he paints (and the text makes clear that he's benefited mightily from being in it), he is not OF that world but a detatched observer of/commenter on it. I'm not sure, based on what I've read, that I would have liked Velazquez as a person, but it's interesting to me that I tend not to like very much the personalities of the people whose art I admire.

sutrix said...

I have seen Eternal Sunshine, John B. And that too, after your recommendation a few months back.

It certainly does seem to work along my views.

What fascinated me about the film, though, is that it seems to ascertain the idea that we are bound to make the same choices, even after knowing that those choices will be bad ones. This theme is repeated twice in the film: once with Kirsten Dunst's character, who falls in love again with the older doctor (though Kirsten does not remember her past affair); next with Joel and Kate Winslet's character (both are aware of their shoddy past as a couple).

Anonymous said...

Those puritan guys ...

Isn't it more likely that Venus is not looking at the beholder but is doing what is usually done with mirrors ?

Think about it and then ask a friend to pose like Venus and add a mirror to the scene in the exactly same way as shown on the painting. What will your friend look at in the mirror ?

Judy said...

The culture of any civilization was shown through Statues and Design Toscano is the place where those great things are made and shown to the world