Velasquez’s Las Meninas, and self-perception.

One of my pet life-projects is testing the postulate that we go about our lives perceiving ourselves through the eyes of others. Its a physical absurdity, of course … might be better to say that we perceive ourselves through how we think others perceive us. The point being that when we gaze at someone else, a part of that gaze is trying to understand how they are gazing back at us.

For my thesis, I’ve been researching notions of the illusion of reality, including spatial realities… and how they are achieved technically. In the visual arts, Velasquez’s Las Meninas harbours voluminous discourse on this topic. I havn’t gone too far into the analyses of this painting — nor do I really want to — but cripes almighty its full of people gazing at others gazing back at them. Let me try to elaborate. Note: the King (Philip IV) and Queen of Spain are the eyes of the painting and they can be seen in the mirror in the background.

  1. The painter is looking at the subject of his painting: the King & Queen. — who are looking back at him. So the Painter is actually painting himself through the eyes of the King and Queen
  2. The mirror in the back is apparently not reflecting the king and queen’s image, but rather their image as the painter has painted it (as per a paper I couldn’t be bothered referencing). In other words, the King and Queen are seeing themselves in the eyes of the painter.
  3. One suggested central subject, the daughter at the centre of the image is looking either at her parents, or the painting. If she is looking at the painting, then she is looking at a portrayal of her parents looking at her.

The same could be said for the gentleman in the back door way. As I said, I dont know exactly how this painting is critically interpreted, but it documents at least 4 instances of people looking at themselves through the eyes of others. I’m not suggesting that this is what the painting is about. It might be one of those paintings that has an inherent complexity that caters for whatever perception the viewer might happen to be inclined towards. One could say that my interpretation of this painting is more a reflection on me, than on the intent of the painter.

Either way, I’m starting to understand why this painting is considered important. Its thoroughly engaging. How does he do that?

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2 Responses to Velasquez’s Las Meninas, and self-perception.

  1. Mark says:

    It is a fascinating picture. Have you read the opening chapter if Foucalt’s _The Order of Things_? It’s a very astute analysis that argues that this painting represented a significant shift in history of European art.

    • Hi Mark,

      No I haven’t read The Order of Things. But I’ll add it to my list. I’m writing up at the PhD at the moment … trying to avoid reading any new material! I’m sure you know the deal. There’s an element of ‘cleverness’ in this painting … I’d call it ‘technical cleverness’ … about how perspective has been mapped. There’s no doubt that a majority of digital art is dominated by a ‘technically clever’ mindset (often as the expense of any expressive resonance). I’ll be interested to read how Foucault’s interprets it.

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