Saturday, April 14, 2007

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. 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.

More below the fold.

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, more so (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?

(Originally posted at Blog Meridian. The comments at the original post are worth visiting for.)

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