Balenciaga's Infanta Dress 1939
He inspired (and probably taught) the great Artemisia Gentileschi, whose name should be a household one, like that of her teachers, but being a woman painter from the 17th century, there's no chance of that, the canon is male dominated (still!). I was bemused that even some friends of mine who are usually rather knowledgeable about art could not really recall her. Her self portrait as the Allegory of Painting, such a bold choice for a 17th century female painter, is in the Royal Collection and definitely worth a visit. She was included among the artists featured in the recent Beyond Caravaggio exhibition also at the National Gallery with her magnificent Susannah and the Elders, a canvas permanently housed at Burghley House.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Allegory of Painting
It is a beautiful nude, classically inspired. The mirror is a well known motif in Velàzquez paintings also found in his masterpiece, Las Meninas. The latter is at El Prado in Madrid and never leaves it, the Velàzquez exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2015 had to make do with what is probably a copy but attributed to Velàzquez as a trial drawing.
What is so special about Las Meninas?
Volumes have been written about it and many artists, including the great Picasso, were inspired by it and made their own version. Cristóbal Balenciaga, whose work is currently being exhibited at the V&A, created the Infanta Dress in 1939, modelled on that of the Infanta pictured by Velàzquez.
Las Meninas gives us a glimpse of court life, and using a system of mirrors and two different perspectives working simultaneously within the painting, a very large canvas , it is also a self portrait of Velàzquez who showed himself as the painter within the painting.
Who is being painted?
Las MeninasNot the infanta, whom we see in the foreground surrounded by two ladies-in-waiting (las meninas) and other courtiers, but possibly the King and Queen whom we see reflected in the mirror at the back, but even that is not certain, as the angle of the mirror is such as not really showing the sitter. We, the viewers, are put in the position of royalty, as we look in, for it seems that Velàzquez is painting us. There is a lot going on here, in this juxtaposition of worlds and perspectives.
José Maria Canas Maeso recreated Las Meninas a few years ago for El Corte Inglès, the famous Spanish department store, with Velàzquez turned into a photographer holding a Mamiya (or an Hasselblad?) and models of different ages arranged like the court characters (minus the dwarf) showing off the range of clothing one can buy at the stores. The background is unchanged, obviously photoshopped in, and one can even see the King and Queen reflected in the mirror at the back, just like in the original painting, except that in the photographic recreation there would be no King and Queen. Are shoppers being cast as royalty? It's an interesting thought. The photo is for an ad claiming that El Corte Inglés is where 'fashion is art' and indeed this take on Las Meninas is very effective, visually. It used to be a billboard seen at Spanish airports. I mentioned it in an older post in this blog.
El Corte Inglés adThe pairing attempted by Canas Maeso is very fitting. Las Meninas is a conceptual mirror of a multilayered reality, showing us the artifice of court life and more. Fashion too is a social and cultural mirror, oscillating between reality and fantasy. Fashion imagery artfully reflects back a rearranged reality.
'Fitting room', Adland, Photo: David StewartThis mirroring in the style of Las Meninas, also brings to mind the beautiful series of photographs taken by David Stewart in 2016 and entitled Adland for which I modelled. Here the photographer, like Velàzquez, inserts himself, through a model that represents him (Annie Leibowitz type, modelled by Nicola Griffin), in the picture, surrounded by models, stylists, make up artists, creative directors, clients (the patrons of today) and assistants. The whole paraphernalia, in other words, necessary for creating a photo for an ad is depicted, a reality within reality, a picture within a picture, in which the actual mirrors of the dressing room also play a role.
Las Meninas, with its co-existence of reality and illusion endures in the cultural imaginary.