Friday, June 6, 2008

Fascinating painting

People at Google must be aficionados of the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez [1599-1660], because they've celebrated his birthday by creating a graphic Google banner based upon the famous painting called Las Meninas [Maids of Honor].

Here's a fragment of the original Velázquez masterpiece:

The intriguing nature of this painting was first brought to my attention back in 1966 when I read a popular work of modern philosophy, Les mots et les choses by Michel Foucault [translated into English as The Order of Things], which starts with an in-depth analysis of the Velázquez painting. Foucault suggests that this painting demonstrates, or at least symbolizes, the existence of an invisible emptiness at the heart of the world that we attempt vainly to circumscribe... not by images, but by language. So, let us see rapidly what is so upsetting about this painting.

At first sight, one has the impression that the subject of the painting is the blonde child between the two maids. Her name is Margarita, and she's the eldest daughter of the Spanish queen. When we examine the individuals more closely, however, we find that the artist Velázquez himself is present, standing behind the left-hand maid, and that he is looking directly, not at the little princess, but at us, the viewers. Then a blurry mirror on the rear wall, just to the right of the painter's head (as we see things), reveals the true subject of the painter's work: the barely-recognizable king and queen of Spain, Philip IV and Marianna.

The painting is inverted in such a way that we see, not the true subject, but rather the regard of those who can see this subject. In the antipodean sense that I evoke often in this blog, the painter has turned his world upside-down and inside-out. At a visual level, the two most prominent subjects in the foreground of the painting, from our viewpoint, are a bulky pet dog and a plump male dwarf in female attire (said to be an Italian jester). Meanwhile, supposedly major individuals such as the royal couple and a noble man are seen as mere images on rear-wall mirrors, suggesting that Velázquez himself was not overly preoccupied with the task of reproducing their image on his canvas.

This complex work of art (designated by many admirers as the greatest painting ever made) is an excellent symbol for Google. We throng to Google in the hope of receiving profound knowledge about our world... whereas Google, in reality, is simply throwing back at us, through its endless lists of websites of all kinds, our own imperfect image. Maybe a vast but essentially empty image.


  1. Ha, that's funny! I was about to write something on my blog about Google's logo, the painting of Velázquez and the different interpretations of Foucault and Lacan concerning this painting. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the exact references of Lacan.

  2. Corina: You should write what you yourself feel intimately about this painting, without bothering to find the references of Lacan. No?