The weekend before Easter, Andreas and I went to Madrid for three days and, apart from one morning when we visited the superb Thyssen Collection, we spent each day in the Prado – we had promised ourselves for so long to visit Velasquez.
His ‘Las Meninas’ or ‘The Ladies in Waiting’ is the most famous painting in the gallery. Nothing, no reproduction, could ever prepare you for the shock and power of the painting – you are confronted by another world, a parallel universe, the 4th dimensions of space and time. The surface becomes a room and the focus is on this little thing, this child who still hasn’t a clue of why she is so important: the Infanta. She’s blond – everyone else is dark – and in a silvery white dress; the hair is important; it suffuses down over her shoulders infiltrated by the rosy haze of the air which fills the room; the dress is silk and her skin has the liquid softness of a child who is still a baby.
The way it is painted! The lady in waiting bending over the Infanta from our right has a knot of silver ribbons in her hair, but when you open up your eyes you see her head is just a twizzled daub of black and thick white which grabs you and pulls you into the picture; eyes looking at you can be smudges and a hand can be lost.
I’m always thrilled how much brush strokes and paint applied on a flat surface can emphasize or not – and therefore represent – the movement of real life around us, where we never focus on everything at once but only according to our interest.
The composition is highly original – so much going on, caught in a moment of time; particular to mention is Velasquez himself in the act of painting and the images in the mirror of the King and Queen as if they were really standing next to you looking into the picture.
The Prado is one of the world’s great galleries. The collection began with Charles V, the King of Spain as well as being the Holy Roman Emperor, commissioning works, especially by Titian. It has loads of the best landmarks of innovation. Then there is Reubens who, whilst he was Ambassador to Spain (from the Netherlands) spent time copying and learning from Titian (he was in his 50’s but you are never too old to learn). Then there is Velasquez, who became court painter, and who also leant by having access to the world’s greatest paintings. The museum has just been re-done and they’ve done it so well; the paintings are grouped and hung in such an exciting way – they seem to have all the Velasquez paintings in the world. And all the Goya’s – so many and all so different. Goya had such skill he seems to have been able to paint in any way he wanted. Manet came to absorb himself in the collection and learn.
This painting by Velasquez, ‘The Buffoon’, he declared to be the most wonderful thing the world had ever produced. The man really stands in a space of his own – no background. The sense of reality is overwhelming when you are in front of it.
Coming back to London, the plane was delayed by six hours, most of it spent on the tarmac. Two weeks before, coming back from France on the Eurostar, we had a nine hour delay because of a pylon on the tracks. It was all very friendly but uncomfortable and some people were moaning because the delay was caused by French strikes. We are so used to the facilities of our consumer society. In a shrinking world economy and more problems from climate change we are going to have more of this. For me it is the ‘Beginning of the End’. Normally, I try to fly less. We got to bed at 4 am.