I saw ‘Las Meninas’ for the first time when wandering through the Picasso Museum in Barcelona this summer. The one-way system guided me through the gallery in a purposeful way. In the ceramics room, I found some amusing pendants with odd faces in Picasso’s characteristic line-drawing style. I was then taken on a journey from Picasso’s youth to maturity, with each room representing a phase in his artistic development. I marvelled at paintings I had never seen before, produced during his classical training, including a magnificent work he painted at the age of 15. The gallery deftly contextualised Picasso’s gradually more abstract style with descriptions of his trips to Paris and interactions with leading artists of the early 20th century. The tour culminated in a large space devoted to a single series: ‘Las Meninas’.
In 1957, Picasso began a series of works based on the 1656 painting by Diego Velázquez – one of the most important works in Spanish art history. Over the course of a few months, Picasso produced 58 paintings from his studio in Cannes, 44 of which were directly related to the Velázquez painting. What struck me most, apart from the sheer size of the series, was that the master work (pictured above) was actually the first painting Picasso completed. The 57 other, smaller works, while appearing to be ‘studies’, are more appropriately seen as further explorations. As I walked around the gallery room, following the works in chronological order, I saw how elements of ‘Las Meninas’ were scrutinised more closely by the artist – stretched, abstracted, coloured.
The exhibition did not display an image of the Velázquez painting for comparison and I was struggling with the Spanish captions, so to begin with I had little idea of what the subject of Picasso’s series really was. The greatest epiphany came with a quick Google search. With the Velázquez painting in front of me, I could immediately see the parallels between the two masterpieces. All of the figures from the original are present, occupying similar positions on Picasso’s canvas. The fragmented black, grey and white palette felt cold to me in comparison with the warmth of Velázquez’s palette. I liked that Picasso’s version was less muted, with light flooding the space producing a sense of real luminosity. The Mastiff in the original is replaced by Picasso’s own dog, Lumb, who receives much attention in subsequent paintings in the series.
This first work was so rapidly executed, it seemed to be the inspiration of a day. Though on closer inspection, ‘Las Meninas’ may have been the work of a lifetime. I wondered why Picasso had decided to explore this historical piece at that point in his life. Perhaps the idea had been developing for some time, with ‘Las Meninas’ permeating Picasso’s career in many guises. Indeed, he had first seen the old master’s work at the El Museo del Prado in Madrid In 1895. In 1916, he watched the ballet ‘Las Meninas’ in Rome, where he met his future first wife, the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova. One could even suggest that Picasso’s series is a commentary on contemporary events in Spain, with the object of a great Spanish painting as an ode to history. Around the time he began this series, the artist was involved in the Amnesty for Spain campaign to free Spanish Republicans still imprisoned 18 years after the end of the Spanish Civil War. In some ways, ‘Las Meninas’ can be seen as a continuation of the political protest apparent in some of his earlier paintings, such as ‘Guernica’. Being a devout supporter of communism, Picasso may have drawn on the 17th century masterpiece to protest the deterioration of Spanish culture under the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco.
Aside from the aesthetic appeal of art, I relish the feeling of understanding an artist’s thought process and inspiration. Picasso gave us a lot of clues about his ruminations, as in Alexander Liberman’s article “Picasso” in Vogue, New York, November 1956:
“I never do a painting like a work of art. It is always a search. I’m always seeking and there is a logical connection throughout that search. This is why I number them [the works]. I number and date them. Maybe one day someone will thank me for it.”