Page 12, 13th March 2009

13th March 2009
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Page 12, 13th March 2009 — The artist who saw the beauty of ugliness
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Locations: Seville, Hamlet

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The artist who saw the beauty of ugliness

Charlie Hegarty Notebook

Only one authenticated quotation by the artist Diego Velázquez, court painter to Philip IV of Spain, has come down to us: “I would rather be first in painting something ugly than second in painting beauty.” He meant that an artist should not lie or be tempted to prettify.

Thus, paradoxically, something seemingly ugly is made beautiful by the truthfulness of the artist’s vision. Nowhere is this demonstrated with more profundity than in Velázquez’s portraits of the dwarfs who were part of the Spanish royal household as companions and playmates for the royal children. He neither ridicules nor sentimentalises them; he simply paints them with the same respect and attentiveness that he shows in his portraits of the king himself, where he does not minimise Philip’s Hapsburg jaw or his sad, timid expression. In his great painting, Las Meninas of 1656, Velázquez gives the dwarf Maribarbola, with her disproportionate body and large head, almost as much prominence as he gives to the delicately aristocratic portrayal of the little Infanta Margarita with her poise and grace.

No doubt there were brutalities of life in 17thcentury Spain which in the enlightened West of our own times we would abhor. It permitted slavery, for example, commonplace since the Moorish conquest, and slaves in Spain were forbidden to practise the arts. Velázquez himself inherited a slave (whom he later freed) from relatives in Seville and later painted his portrait. The story of this slave, son of an African woman and a Spaniard, is told in a charming story, I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino. Although ostensibly written for children, like all the best children’s stories it can be read by those of any age. Juan de Pareja taught himself to paint in secret and became an accomplished artist in his own right. His life is told in the first person with much imaginative sympathy and understanding. Of his master’s treatment of Maribarbola, Francisco Lezcano and others of their kind, the author has the slave/assistant comment that at first he thought the depic tion cruel, “but later... I saw what he had done and what glossing over their deformities could not have achieved. He had painted, in every case, a soul imprisoned.” Hamlet admonished the players to “hold the mirror up to nature”. For artists it is a magic mirror which, like that in the fairy tale of Snow White, confronts the viewer with something they did not know and would rather not see. In his sculpture, Alison Lapper Pregnant, which caused some controversy when it was exhibited on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2005, the sculptor Marc Quinn accords the same dignity as Velázquez to his study of a nude woman, eight months pregnant, who was born with no arms and shortened lower limbs. It is a painful exposure, a triple vulnerability: unclothed, heavily pregnant and physically helpless. Yet the model’s courage and spirit are also apparent in the way she holds her head erect, as she challenges spectators’ preconceptions of the body beautiful.

Velázquez has proved an inspiration to later artists such as Picasso and Francis Bacon. Bacon, in his 1953 Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, has stripped away the familiar and recognisable features to reveal the violence and anguish beneath the skin, a human being in torment. It is a different psychological insight compared to his Spanish predecessor’s, reflecting the dissolution of values after World War II.

Yet again we are confronted with our poor forked humanity. Whatever marvels science may discover about the body, it cannot reveal the imprisoned soul.




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