When Italian Baroque artist Luca Giordano declared Las Meninas “the theology of painting” in 1692, he was paying an extravagant compliment, “by which he meant to convey,” as Giordano’s friend and Velázquez’s biographer Antonio Palomino put it, “that just as theology is superior to all other branches of knowledge, so is this picture the greatest example of painting.” But just as a passage from Pierre Menard’s Don Quixote is, according to Jorge Luis Borges, “almost infinitely richer” than the original by Cervantes, so this phrase becomes infinitely richer if we imagine it being pronounced by a later admirer like Édouard Manet, who certainly did consider Velázquez the greatest of all painters. A visit to the exhibition of the Spanish master’s work at the National Gallery in London, on view through January 21, makes it hard to disagree with Manet, even despite a big handicap: Of necessity, the show lacks many of the artist’s most celebrated works–including Las Meninas. Most remain at home in Madrid, as the great portrait of Pope Innocent X does in Rome. Still, the Prado, along with other institutions and a few very fortunate private collections, has been generous with its loans, and since London already domiciles the largest concentration of Velázquez’s works outside Spain, the National Gallery has been able to round up forty-six paintings, about a third of the surviving oeuvre, to give a powerful précis of this astonishing career.
What an artist like Manet rather than Giordano could have understood by “the theology of painting,” the more profound force of this statement, emerges when one contemplates the obvious truth that in the seventeenth century, unlike the nineteenth, the primary subject matter of painting was indeed theology. Painted images had their highest import in the service of religion; they were devotional and didactic in purpose. But there’s a great difference between the painting of theology and the theology of painting. Velázquez offers a glimpse of a strange and haunting idea, one that should have been nearly unthinkable in his own time–that painting could have what we might today call spiritual significance, not because of its exalted subject matter but, somehow, in itself; that painting, through the intensity of its realization, could transmute its subject into something holy.
As odd as this fateful idea would have seemed to Velázquez’s contemporaries (other than Rembrandt), as peculiar as it probably seemed to him even as he entertained it, it’s not one that was ever likely to have had many adherents. Manet, worldly man that he was, would have been leery of putting it so bluntly. Today, most painters would probably find it embarrassing. And yet the relentless urge in modern art to incorporate the most humble and abject aspects of human existence, the most trivial and insignificant objects, surely finds one of its roots here. Duchamp’s ready-mades may amount to a kind of sophisticated joke about this idea, but it’s a dead-serious joke, all the more so for his radical insistence on choice–on being able to see something in a certain way–as a sufficient form of realization. In this sense all the Duchampian postmodernists, no less than their Modernist granddads, are children of Velázquez; that’s why, although Duchamp’s melancholy aperçu that art only stays art for fifty years before declining into art history is generally true, certain paintings by Velázquez strike us as powerfully contemporary.
The first of this exhibition’s four rooms is devoted to Velázquez’s early days in Seville, when he emerged from the informal academy of a prominent local artist who was richer in erudition than in talent, and who was soon to be his father-in-law. But Velázquez must have had more in mind than taking over the family business even as an 18-year-old earning his license, in 1617, as a “master painter of religious images, and in oils and everything related.” Awkward and disjointed as his first independent paintings can be (Three Musicians might be a puzzle put together from unmatched pieces), they possess an eerie power. Caravaggism had swept through Europe, and while Velázquez probably never saw an original work by Caravaggio until years later, his followers’ efforts would have been sufficient to suggest to the ambitious young painter that a way forward might pass through the Italian master’s dramatic naturalism.