Electric Objects

A few years ago I wrote an essay (Painting and Algorithms) about the effects computers might have on painting and the arts in the coming years. Specifically, I compared the impact algorithms will have on painting to the impact photography has had on it since the 19th century. One prediction I made was that advances in screen technology would bring wireless ultra HD screens that you will hang on your wall like a picture frame. These screens, I predicted, would eventually be more like Kindle screens than LED screens (no glare or unnatural glow) and that the images would be so detailed that the texture of the painting could be discerned and perhaps even fool the eye. I also thought the business model for attaining such high res images would be something akin to Netflix (I called it Artflix.) Well, it looks as though the first substantial step is about to be taken by a startup I've had my eye on since they did their Kickstarter. Their name is Electric Objects and they make a no-nonsense screen that is connected to the internet. They emphasize that it isn't a computer-- it will not be full of menus and distractions. They market it as a screen for long looking, not the restless glances that the internet tends to cultivate.

The Verge has a good overview of what they want to do:

For internet addicts, a gadget to help you slow down and savor

A couple of quotes from the article:

But the thing I enjoyed about the EO1 was that it found the right medium between the web and analog eras. Instead of entering the intimidating and often expensive world of galleries, I can browse through the app for original artwork or uploads from community members. The software has the sparse look of a minimalist Tumblr feed, offering you the choice to bookmark art you like or display it on your device. It won't, however, set the images to rotate through a slide show, and there are no notifications when a new work is available. You choose the piece, and it just stays there, slowly seeping into your brain. "It’s been a slightly unusual experience because you don’t normally buy electronics for them to just sit there," said Graham Hicks, a product designer living in San Francisco and EO1 beta tester. Hicks studied industrial design and worked on digital products at IDEO, Square, and Prismatic. He was never a real art collector but always loved a good museum. "There’s always buttons to push or menus to explore. But with EO1 there’s just the choice of what to display, what you want to look at today. And that shifts your focus to the art itself rather than device."


The animated pieces, changing subtly over time, were equally entrancing to my two-year-old son and 65-year-old father. Adding to the sense that the device was alive, the screen also dealt well with the shift between day and night, appearing more like a paper canvas when exposed to sunlight and offering a strong glow at night. At first I was tempted to change the image multiple times a day. But slowly my metabolism moved to match the more contemplative mood of the device.

And here comes Artflix:

The idea of paying for fine art, or treating it like an investment vehicle as so many wealthy buyers now do, scares me. Electric Objects hopes to keep things simple, aligning with the business users are familiar with from their streaming video and music services. "We will probably start with the Netflix model where a subscription gets you access to all the original artwork," says Jake Levine, the company's CEO.

I don't know that this will be the specific screen to cause significant shifts in how people view and buy art, but I do think it is the beginning.


On Painting and Algorithms

With an apple I will astonish Paris

Paul Cezanne

If you wanted to paint an apple in the manner of Cezanne, you would need to have an extensive knowledge of his work and a strong sense of his aesthetic intentions. Every brushstroke would need to be accompanied by the question, “what would Cezanne do?” You might stop frequently to refer to his paintings to see how he handled certain visual situations. As your painting progressed you would gradually develop perhaps a dozen general stylistic guidelines for yourself. These guidelines would be instructions along the lines of “when you see this, do this.” Of course, much of the process would be based on wordless intuition; a vague sense of when a group of marks looked “Cezanne-esque.”

On a basic level, this is not unlike a how a computer algorithm works. An algorithm is "a finite sequence of instructions, logic, an explicit, step-by-step procedure for solving a problem, often used for calculation and data processing and many other fields." It acts as a kind of flow chart which guides a computer through a series of evaluations and decisions. When translating, say, a Shakespeare sonnet from one language to another, a computer will use an algorithm to evaluate and substitute words and phrases into the other language. This is called “gisting” because computers are still not capable of making a translation that is much more than 80% accurate—for all their processing power, computers have a difficult time processing the complexities and nuances of contextual meaning. In art of literary translation there are no clear-cut right or wrong rules for choosing a phrase that means the same thing in one language as it does in another and that keeps the same rhythmic or emotional characteristics. From Wikipedia on the art of translation:

Fidelity (or faithfulness) and transparency are two qualities that, for millennia, have been regarded as ideals to be striven for in translation, particularly literary translation. These two ideals are often at odds. Thus a 17th-century French critic coined the phrase les belles infidèles to suggest that translations, like women, could be either faithful or beautiful, but not both at the same time.

Here is a Shakespeare sonnet translated from German into English by a computer program:

I am to compare one summer day you, which you
lovelier and moderate are? Mays expensive buds
drehn in the impact of the storm, and is all too short
summer period.

You get a general idea of the what the words mean but the poetry is missing. The best a computer can strive for is faithful-- beautiful, for the time being, is out of the question.

In painting a Cezannesque apple you would, in essence, be acting as a kind of translator. Specifically you would be trying to translate one visual language (Nature’s) into another’s (Cezanne’s.) Or, in Photoshop parlance, you would be acting as a Cezanne filter.

There are no Cezanne filters that I am aware of but there are, of course, the increasingly ubiquitous art filters that use algorithms to manipulate o imitate a film type or fine art media. Interestingly, in the 1800s a number of photographers attempted to make their photos look more like paintings by manipulating the development process to achieve painterly effects— an analog version of an algorithmic photo filter. Computer applications can be quite sophisticated in terms of there ability to mimic natural media like oil paint or watercolor-- both in terms their appearance and their working properties. There are also more and more programs now that attempt to mimic specific styles of painting like, say, Impressionism or Pointillism. You feed the program a photo and it spits out an "impressionistic" version of it. The results are almost always very bad. Like language translation, art filters are far too simplistic to handle the contextual/aesthetic complexities of painting. It is hard enough for a human to define what a good painting is, much less write an algorithm that can define it for an unthinking computer.

But computers are getting more powerful and algorithms more sophisticated. Massive databases of information can now be accessed so quickly, and patterns discerned so efficiently, that a computer can appear to be sentient like when IBMs supercomputer named "Watson" competed against two Jeopardy champions. The computer had access to 200 million pages of information that consisted of raw data like encyclopedias and dictionaries, books, news, movie scripts etc. It was not connected to the internet or guided by any human helpers. As with most computers, Watson’s weakness is the inability to understand the nuances of speech and language or to have any life experiences to draw upon to devine answers, but scientists alleviated these problems by loading the data onto the computer’s RAM rather than the hard drive which made searches much more quick and nimble. Algorithms were then designed to take advantage of this increased speed to find subtle patterns and probabilities inside the mountain of data. So Watson listened to Alex Trebeck, rang the buzzer, and answered in the form of a questio all without human intervention. Watson won.

Another interesting example is a program called “Emmy” designed by David Cope, a professor at UC Santa Cruz. Cope was having trouble finishing an opera commission so he designed a program that could emulate the work of several great composers to help spur his thinking. Emmy uses an algorithm to find patterns in a great composer’s music and then uses that information to piece together the composer’s style and create a new composition. When an audience was asked to listen to an Emmy-created Bach composition and a real Bach composition, they could not tell the difference. An argument could made that the “new” compositions are merely derivative and so not new at all, but couldn’t the same be said of human composers? As Picasso once said, “good artists copy, great artists steal.”

At the University of Georgia, Gil Weinberg designed a robot, named Shimon, that can interact with other musicians and also, supposedly, play and improvise like Thelonious Monk.

From NPR:

Weinberg programmed Shimon to play like Thelonious Monk. He says that, though he and his team were trying to teach the robot to play like a machine, they first had to teach it how a human plays. To do that, they used statistics and analysis of Monk's improvisation. Once they had a statistical model of the pianist, they could program the robot to improvise in that model.
Weinberg says the robot won't play everything exactly like the bebop pianist — or any other jazz master — would, though he says, "It probably will keep the nature and the character of [the musician's] style."
"It's difficult to predict exactly what they would do in every single moment in time," he says. "But our algorithm pretty much looks at the past several notes that it plays and, based on that, it sees what is the probability of the next note to be, based on all of this analysis of a large corpus of transcribed improvisation."

Here’s a video of Shimon playing.

I think it is likely that in the near future there will be a painterly version of Emmy, Watson or Shimon that can digitally paint in the manner of an artist by analyzing an enormous database of that artist’s work and perhaps even the work of those who influenced him. The output will vary in quality, of course, and depend a great deal on the appropriateness of the input, but I’d guess that at least some of the resulting images will be quite convincing. Also, it is not hard to imagine that in 5 or 10 years, display screens will be capable of displaying images that, from a few feet away, are virtually indistinguishable from real paintings. Perhaps they will be like the Kindle screen, except able to reproduce millions (billions?) of colors and a have a resolution that not only reproduces the details (think of the Google Art Project) of the depicted image but also accurately conveys the texture, sheen and depth of the brushstrokes. This screen would likely be very thin, light and easy to hang on a wall. It would also be fairly inexpensive and have a battery life of months rather than hours or days. And, as an aside, maybe there will be a company called “Artflix” rather than “Netflix” whereby one could download an ultra-high resolution image of a great painting (I suppose the company would have to work out some kind of revenue sharing system with the museums and galleries that owned the rights to those paintings— like iTunes did with the music labels.) You could rent a Vermeer for a week.

We all act as filters to some extent. Our minds edits incoming signals (photons don't have color, for instance-- we assign them colors via rods and cones) These are primal algorithms over which we have very little control (we do not have a choice to see in black and white.) The human algorithms I am referring to are those decision matrices we use by choice in course of a painting-- processes, techniques and methods that we learned in our training and practice. In one sense they help us build our paintings by freeing us up to focus on the larger idea of what we want to express. In a painter's formative years he borrows algorithms because emulation is one way a painter learns from other painters. Borrowed algorithms serve as temporary bridges that allow him to cross artistic waters he may not have the experience or knowledge to navigate by himself. As he practices he slowly develops his own. However, an algorithm can devolve into a habit of sorts if a habit is defined as an automatic reaction to a specific situation. Painters are tempted to rely on such habits because they allow them to avoid the risk inherent in painting and thus mitigate the struggle. The quest for a technique or method often turns into a quest for shortcuts— that is, the successful deployment of a technique or style becomes an end in itself. The larger thought or idea that style or method was supposed to serve gets lost in the pursuit of risk-avoidance and efficiency. A kind of analog version of an algorithmic filter is the paint-by numbers painting system. In paint-by-numbers, one is presented with an image divided up into numbered sections, with each number assigned a color. You paint each section with the corresponding color. If one designed a PBN system using thousands of colors and thousands of sections and perhaps added other parameters like degrees of softness to edges or types of brushstrokes (thick or then, fats or slow etc), the end result might appear to be quite sophisticated and intricate. Add a few more subtle variations and a painter could come to believe he was following his own muse rather than a set of instructions. The whole purpose of paint-by-numbers is to make painting a pleasurable, soothing experience like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It takes patience and some skill but your path is made plain and you know what the results are going to be beforehand. The painting is a foregone conclusion, no matter it’s complexity, and the smell of paint belies the fact that the painter is simply being a computer running an algorithm.

An example of efficiency in painting taken to an extreme can be found in the art factories of China. Sixty percent of the world’s mass produced, cheap oil painting copies come from one small town (1.5 square miles) in China, called Dafen. A worker there can produce a couple of dozen copies a day by hand and it is estimated that 5 million paintings are produced in Dafen every year. There are assembly lines too, as described in The Economist:

Dafen—and other villages like it—are bringing the factory assembly-line into the artist's studio. In a dimly lit hall on the outskirts of Dafen, “painter workers” stand side by side dabbing colours onto canvas. Liu Chang Zhen, a 27-year-old, works eight hours a day to complete more than 200 canvases a month—painting several copies of a picture at a time, methodically filling in the same patch on each before moving to a new part. At other factories, painters work on the same product, but specialize in different parts—in ears or hands or trees. They work from art books, postcards and images from the internet. Sometimes they just paint inside an outline copied electronically from a photograph, enlarged and stamped on the blank canvas.

These workers are trained to be, first and foremost, efficient. They find the quickest, easiest way to complete a technique so that it can be repeated without much thought. Apparently there is little pretense among the workers that this is high art, but workers do take pride in the specific skills required. In Dafen, for instance, there are regular art competitions where several dozen workers compete to see who can complete a copy (or a “replica” as they are referred to) of a masterpiece the fastest and most accurately. It is art as sport.

I am sure one day robots, using algorithms and printers (or perhaps using real brushes and paints) will replace these assembly line workers just as robots replaced many workers in industrial factories here. Looking at this medical robot, called Da Vinci, it is not hard to imagine it manipulating a brush. Low level, repetitive jobs are always the ones that technology targets and replaces first. "Low-level" is always being defined up:

Tuesday was a great day for W. Roberts, as the junior pitcher threw a perfect game to carry Virginia to a 2-0 victory over George Washington at Davenport Field. Twenty-seven Colonials came to the plate and the Virginia pitcher vanquished them all, pitching a perfect game. He struck out 10 batters while recording his momentous feat. Roberts got Ryan Thomas to ground out for the final out of the game. Tom Gately came up short on the rubber for the Colonials, recording a loss. He went three innings, walked two, struck out one, and allowed two runs. The Cavaliers went up for good in the fourth, scoring two runs on a fielder's choice and a balk.

The above excerpt was written by a computer program that writes local sports stories using just the statistics from the game as a source.

Every painter experiences moments when he feels as though he is just filling in the numbers. The mind drifts and the algorithms take over. For too many painters this is a desirable and sought-after state because it is taken as a sign of skillfulness— an ease that comes from many hours of practice. But we have all seen paintings that are skillfully, even beautifully done, yet something is missing. It is as though the painter knew what his painting was going to look like before he started and did not allow any room for variations or tangential discoveries. There is no risk, no probing, no investigation, no surprise. No curiosity.

Here is a quote from a lecture given by David Breswick from the Center for Applied Educational Research, University of Melbourne, where he discusses the nature of curiosity:

The highly curious person will have a high regard for the uniqueness of the signal and for the integrity of the cognitive map, and so will be loathe to either assimilate or accommodate. He or she will seek the best possible fit, and typically that will require seeking additional information to build a suitable new integration of the incoming information with what was known before. So questions will be asked, calculations might be made, things will be turned over and looked under, there may well be much wondering and doubting, but after the ball has been kept bouncing for a sufficient length of time some sort of resolution will be reached in which sufficient accommodation occurs for the conceptual conflict to be resolved. The result is that a new order of representation of the world is developed.

He goes on:

To continue with the characteristics of highly curious people, I like to think of curiosity as belonging at the border between chaos and cosmos, so highly curious people will remain longer than others in situations of uncertainty, as well as being more likely to be there, that they will have developed a range of investigative skills to help resolve conceptual conflicts by gathering additional information, that they will have a sufficient sense of security in their world to put their cognitive map in jeopardy without debilitating anxiety, to run the risk of creating a new and better order, and that they will have the capacity to carry out the integration required to create a sense of cosmos where there was the threat of chaos. That is, they will be able, typically, and more than most people, to create, maintain, and resolve conceptual conflicts.

Curiosity is a quality more often associated with scientists than artists, but all the good painters I know are exceedingly curious. They like to “peel the onion” in that they peel away one layer of understanding in a painting so as to reveal another and another and so on. In so doing they learn to become comfortable with being lost in a painting; of not knowing what to do. Scientists are quite comfortable in this state of unknowing because it is where they spend most of their time. They have a “notion about the cosmos” that they then must test with experiments. The results, invariable, will lead him, or someone else, to further questions, theories and experiments. And so the onion is peeled. Paintings should be experiments too. Not in the sense of self-consciously trying to create something new or cutting-edge, but rather in the sense of being open to new possibilities as each painting develops.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog on making movies:

Coincidences always happen if you keep your mind open, while storyboards remain the instruments of cowards who do not trust in their own imagination and who are slaves of a matrix... If you get used to planning your shots based solely on aesthetics, you are never that far from kitsch.


Very often, footage that you have shot develops its own dynamic, it's own life, that is totally unexpected, and moves away from you're original intentions. And you have to acknowledge, yes, there is a child growing and developing and moving in a direction that isn't expected-accept it as it is and let it develop its own life.

Painterly, to me, does not mean a painting with thick paint or bravura brushwork. It means a painting that is cultivated and allowed to grow in it’s own way. This is difficult to do because it requires that we wander into unknown territory where we have no rules to guide us and thus we are forced to make our own. This is where it is tempting to unthinkingly use “off-the-shelf” solutions, a ready-made pieces of "code" that we can insert into our painting to help us deal with an edge or a shape or composition that doesn’t seem to work. We ask, “What would so and so do?” or we reach for some well-worn solution of our own instead of exploring other possibilities or refinements. We have instant access to more painters and paintings than anytime in history. This is, by and large, a good thing but it can also be quite inhibiting because that means, at any point in a painting, we can peruse and find a number of solutions to whatever painting problem we are working on. Malraux wrote,"The poet is haunted by a voice with which words must be harmonized." Today it is a million voices.

My reason for discussing such technology is not to sound an alarm about computers replacing painters but rather to study and perhaps become more sensitive to those moments when we become computers. No, the computer will not make painting obsolete anymore than photography did, but I do believe it will be disruptive. Much of what we see now in terms of painting and computers is in it’s infancy and, like most technology, when it first starts out it can appear simplistic and even silly. However, it did not take long for photography to become the de facto way to record visual facts and as cameras grew smaller, cheaper and more efficient it became evident: if your job as a painter was to merely paint facts, your equal became a box with a pinhole in it. Similarly, now, if your mission as a painter is to merely follow a set of visual rules (“when you see this, paint this”) then your equal will soon be a piece of silicon. Photography started an ongoing conversation about what painting is and what it should be and I believe computers will soon rekindle this conversation.

Cezanne had a unique goal in mind for what his painting should be and so he had to find unique solutions. Frankly, I don’t understand how Cezanne did what he did. I don’t know how he made an apple seem so dense and heavy and tangible. Obviously it has something to do with his deliberate marks, his use of color and strong edges and the way he structured his compositions and his perspective, but the traditional building blocks of rendering volume and weight don’t quite explain it. I’m not sure even Cezanne could explain it. Cezanne’s technique and style came as a result of the pursuit of his goal, a goal that was maybe, to him, beyond his technical ability or perhaps even his full understanding (he felt that he failed to reach it.)

In the opening paragraph of Cezanne’s Doubt, Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes:

It took him one hundred working sessions for a still life, one hundred- fifty sittings for a portrait. What we call his work was, for him, an attempt, an approach to painting. In September of 1906, at the age sixty-seven—one month before his death—he wrote: "I was in such a state of mental agitation, in such great confusion that for a time I feared my weak reason would not survive.... Now it seems I am better that I see more clearly the direction my studies are taking. Will I arrive at the goal, so intensely sought and so long pursued? I am working from nature, and it seems to me I am making slow progress”. Painting was his world and his mode of existence. He worked alone without students, without admiration from his family, without encouragement from the critics. He painted on the afternoon of the day his mother died. In 1870 he was painting at l'Estaque while the police were after him for dodging the draft. And still he had moments of doubt about this vocation. As he grew old, he wondered whether the novelty of his painting might not come from trouble with his eyes, whether his whole life had not been based upon an accident of his body. The hesitation or muddle-headedness of his contemporaries equaled this strain and doubt. "The painting of a drunken privy cleaner," said a critic in 1905. Even today, C. Mauclair finds Cezanne's admissions of powerlessness an argument against him. Meanwhile, Cezanne's paintings have spread throughout the world. Why so much uncertainty, so much labor. so many failures, and, suddenly, the greatest success?

Several years ago I read a lovely metaphor for how an artist develops a way of painting. I cannot seem to find it online anymore and I don't recall who wrote it. Anyway, it went something like this: The Nautilus is born in a small shell that has seven chambers. As the nautilus feeds and grows it adds a new chamber, slightly larger than the last, to accommodate its new size. This growth continues until death (on average twenty years later.) At the end of its life the nautilus leaves behind an extraordinarily precise architecture that is as beautiful as it is strong. The Nautilus did not set out to make a beautiful shell-- the shell formed as a result of the nautilus living its life.


On "Las Meninas" by Diego Velazquez

After many years of studying Las Meninas from afar, I finally got a chance to see it in person. In January of this year I went to the Prado in Madrid with my teacher, Ray Berry, who introduced me to the work of Velazquez in undergraduate school. This was his second time seeing Las Meninas, the first time being a couple of decades ago. I suppose this was a pilgrimage of sorts-- in addition to seeing the painting I think we wanted to pay our respects to a painter who had an enormous influence on how Ray and I think about paint and painting. Velazquez is a painter's painter and most every painter I know reveres him regardless of their pedigree or style of painting. Las Meninas is, by all accounts, Velazquez's masterpiece. Visits to the painting are often described in sacred terms-- apparently you don't just look at Las Meninas, you experience it. Since its completion in 1656, Las Meninas has maintained an almost mythic status, and enthusiasm for the painting has come from an unusually broad swath of disciplines-- Leo Steinberg wrote, "the literature on Las Meninas is an epitome of recent thinking about illusionism and the status of art...a cherished crux for modern investigators, for geometricians, metaphysicians, artist-photographers, semioticians, political and social historians and even rare lovers of art." On the flight to Madrid, I wondered whether the Las Meninas in the Prado would live up to the Las Meninas in my mind. It did.

So after a long and predictably miserable airline experience, we settled into our hotel rooms. We walked down the narrow streets of Las Cortes district to the Prado and to the large Velazquez room which has Las Meninas as its centerpiece. We made our way to the front of the small crowd gathered around it and got our first look.

I've included a couple of visual aids so that you can easily refer to the various passages of Las Meninas that I discuss. One is a Flash slide show which contains several detail images, and the other is a single large image of Las Meninas. I recommend opening each link in a separate window so that you don't have to switch back and forth between my writing and the images:

FLASH SLIDE SHOW (click on the thumbnails at the bottom of the slide show screen to advance images according to the ones referenced throughout the text.) You probably already have a flash player installed on your computer but if you don't, you can download one here.

If for some reason the flash slide show doesn't work, then just go to this page to view a static listing of the slides

HIGH RES IMAGE of Las Meninas (click on the image to enlarge)

At this point I thought it might be helpful to include a brief primer on the painting:

A menina is a "lady-in-waiting."

The painting is about ten feet high and we know the name of every person depicted in it. We see Velazquez on the left working on a similarly-sized canvas with brush and palette in hand, looking in our direction. A menina (Maria Agustina Sarmiento) crouches down to offer a refreshment to the Infanta Margarita who reaches for the small jug as she looks toward us. To the right of Margarita is another menina (Isabel de Velasco) and behind her is a senior-lady-in-waiting (Marcela de Ulloa) dressed in mourning clothes (she was recently widowed) and talking to a guardadamas (a chaperone.) Further right is a dwarf (Mari-Barbola) and to the right of her is a male midget (Nicolasito Pertusato) who nudges Philip's mastiff with his foot (the dog was, apparently, an excellent sitter for portraits.) In the back we see the Queen's chamberlaine (Jose Nieto) looking on and in the mirror we see the image of Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Austria. A window to our right lights the scene.

On the face of it, this is a behind-the-scenes view of a family portrait in the making, but as you look more deeply some fundamental questions arise which in turn raise further questions: Is Velazquez, as seen in the painting, making a portrait of the King and Queen, of the Infanta Margarita, or all three (maybe the Infanta is taking a break from posing with the royal couple?) It has been theorized that the dog was Phillip's personal Spanish mastiff (who use to follow him around the palace) so perhaps the King has just finished watching Velazquez work on his daughter's portrait and is now about to leave-- thus Nicolasito nudges the dog to wake up. Who is everyone looking at-- us (the viewer) or the King? Are we looking through the King's eyes? Is the image in the mirror of the King and Queen (see slide 1) a direct reflection of them or is it a reflection of their painted image on the canvas that Velazquez is working on? And just what is on the canvas that Velazquez is working on-- is it an different portrait of the royal couple or is it Las Meninas? It is a wonderful mystery; a visual riddle that never quite resolves itself-- a reflection of a reflection of a reflection and down you go down the rabbit hole. Leo Steinberg equated Las Meninas to an encounter, "... the picture conducts itself the way a vital presence behaves. It creates an encounter. And, as in any living encounter, any vital exchange, the work of art becomes the opposite pole in a situation of reciprocal self-recognition. If the picture were speaking instead of flashing, it would be saying: I see you seeing me--I in you see myself seen-- see you seeing yourself being seen--and so on beyond the reaches of grammar."

When I first saw it I didn't think about the paint, or the composition, or the narrative. The "art" disappeared and in place of it there was, as Steinberg wrote, an odd sense of being seen and in turn seeing back. Really. I'm not exaggerating. It is a strangely visceral experience. My initial impression was that I was looking through the King's eyes (seen reflected in the mirror on the back wall) at the scene before me and thus making me a participant and a bystander at the same time (like in the movie Being John Malkovich.) It is almost startling in the same way watching a play from the front row of a small theater can be startling when an actor happens to look directly at us as he speaks a line-- for a brief moment we believe the actor is conversing with us. You might assume this odd sensation comes from the simple fact that the subjects are looking toward us as though we had interrupted the portrait session and the mirror, in essence, includes us in the composition. But there is something more happening here, a shock of reality; a hyper-representation that can't be explained by compositional devices alone. Velazquez creates a palpable air that surrounds the subjects, the room they inhabit, and even us. This is where reproductions fail miserably because much of this gets lost in translation. When you stand before all ten feet of Las Meninas there is a sense of ones eyes being "activated" to react as they do when seeing something in real life rather than in a painting. It is difficult to isolate what, exactly, is causing this but I have a few ideas.

In Las Meninas I believe Velazquez exaggerated or "goosed" the natural inclination of our eyes to view things conically. We have a cone of vision that is clearest toward the center and softer toward the outside (our peripheral vision.) There is a cone of vision that surrounds the infanta and extends out to include the menina kneeling down to her, as well as the standing menina to the her immediate right and left. Outside of that cone of sharpness the figures are painted differently-- the forms are slightly softer. I should point out that when I say the forms are softer I do not mean they are blurred in the photographic sense. Our peripheral vision is not blurred. Blurring is really just a symbol or stand-in for peripheral vision, though it is a close enough approximation of it (and depth of field) that we interpret it as such. Part of this softness is because Velazquez is representing figures in shadow, yet the dwarf and the midget are well into the light and their features are clearly less defined (see slide 2.) The effect is subtle-- obviously if he simply sharpened the Infanta and smeared everything else in some formulaic manner, the peripheral forms would fall apart when looked at directly. This is clearly not the case.

There is movement in Las Meninas too. Not prolonged, animated movement but flickers of movement-- the dwarf nudging the Phillip's mastiff as his hands rise up slightly for balance. The menina dropping down, her left hand bending up slightly as she asks or pleads with a slightly defiant (or perhaps distracted) Infanta Margarita whether she wants the red vase; the man in the back pulling back the curtain, the senior lady-in-waiting talking with her hands, the midget looking up as she brings her thumb and forefinger together, and Velazquez with his brush as he bends to see around the canvas. Heads turn and eyes glance toward us. The only person completely still is the chaperone in the shadow and the King and Queen in the mirror. I sense that even the dog is moving slightly as he is being awakened with the nudge. Part of the sensation of movement comes from the characters being precisely posed, but it is enhanced by the paint application. We are strangely adept at interpreting paint, even in the abstract, so a quick flick of paint can imply movement and a slow mark can imply stillness. We know fast paint when we see it and we instinctively associate it with movement. Lively paint in other words, can be a kind of animation because its looseness conveys change and impermanence -- because the paint breathes the subjects breath. There are no passages in Las Meninas where the paint is precious or static-- there are no heavy glazes or overly-caressed chirascura (see slide 3) and he never seems to lose touch with the texture of the canvas surface (see slide 4.) A lesser painter would have polished and smoothed and glazed Las Meninas to make it fashionably finished and would have unknowingly killed it in the process. Las Meninas feels like an improvisation-- but a perfect improvisation, a preparatory oil sketch that required no finished version. Indeed, the evidence indicates that Velazquez just dived in, probably starting with a quick sketch made with thinned paint. X-rays reveal several small pentimenti he made along the way-- you can see one of them if you look at the standing leg of the Nicloasito where there is a shadowy shape of a previously painted leg. A nice example of how Velazquez works can be seen in one of his unfinished paintings (see slide 5.) Notice how quickly he gets to the heart of the matter in her right hand. Her pinky finger is a simple dash or two of paint. To Velazquez, painting and drawing happen at the same time.

An important aspect of the painting that also gets lost in reproductions is the texture of the paint and the canvas underneath, and the role they both play in creating a sense of air around the subjects. In general, if you place a thin patch of paint on a canvas and then add a thick stroke of paint on top of it, the thick paint will seem to come forward while the thin paint will recede (the same goes for sharp and soft edges-- sharp comes forward, soft recedes) and thus we cannot help but sense space between the two marks, a distance that sinks into the canvas. Look, for instance, at the edge of Margarita's dress and the slightly thinner paint behind it (slide 6.) In effect, air is created between the two. There are many passages in Las Meninas where there is this subtle pushing and pulling of paint-- "half-gram poems of paint" to paraphrase Louis Finkelstein in one of his essays on painting. In reproductions the ceiling area and shadowed background space often seems muddy and dead, but there is a slight sheen to the paint/varnish and, when the texture of the canvas (which is revealed because the paint is thin) is scraped by the museum lighting, it reads as almost smoky or atmospheric. One of Ray's observations was that there seems to be a box of air that extends out in front of the canvas which envelopes the viewer and so the ceiling covers us as well as the royal family. Velazquez is including us in the painting.

Ray and I spent many hours (and many drinks) in various bars around The Prado talking about Las Meninas and how it came to be and why it still resonates so profoundly. One's mind sinks into Las Meninas. It is hard not to create a narrative around it or to feel a connection to the people depicted. I imagine Velazquez and Philip were close friends (or as close as a King could be with a painter) and that in Las Meninas they conspired to make a great painting for themselves and for Spain. I've read that depicting a painter with the royal family was highly unusual. It is possible that this was a way for the King to impart to Velazquez a degree of noble status and reward him for his service to Spain. The family entourage must have been thrilled to be playing such a rare prominent role in a royal portrait by the great Velazquez. (like getting a small part in a Spielberg movie today.) I envision the children occasionally sneaking into the studio to watch how they were being immortalized. Indeed, it is known that Philip visited the work in progress quite frequently.

Las Meninas is rich and complex and can be about many things but I can't help but think that it is mostly about family and remembering. I have a wall of family photographs in my house, some old some new. From time to time I try to remember details of the moments depicted: who took this picture? Which wedding were we at when it was taken? When? Who is that in the background? What was going on in my life then? These old snapshots become part of a ritual of remembering or, perhaps, of not forgetting. I can imagine Las Meninas as serving, to some degree, a similar purpose for Philip. Here is Margarita (whom he referred to in letters as his "joy") among the people he saw most often in his daily life and perhaps the people he knew best. They are not in a formal setting or in an artificially official pose, but rather we see them without a royal veneer: a family being a family (I can picture Velazquez and Philip discussing, with some amusement, which mannerism or expression to include in the painting that would most accurately represent each person.) Nobody is really sure why, but for ten years prior to Las Meninas Philip did not sit for a portrait. It has been theorized that the for a time he was in mourning over the death of his first wife, Elisabeth of Bourbon, and two years later the death of his son, Baltasar Carlos. Letters also indicate that he was sensitive about being portrayed as an aging king. Whatever the reason, he must had some sense of fragility, of things changing. Spain, after years of constant war, was in decline. I imagine that for Philip the time depicted in Las Meninas was a relative sweet spot in his life and a time he wanted to remember during the inevitable changes to come. Velazquez died a few years after Las Meninas was completed and several years later Philip would be planning and preparing Margarita to be married off to King Leopold I of Austria (a year after Philip's death, Maragarita was on her way to Austria.) A year before Velazquez's death, Philip awarded him the Order of Santiago which we see represented as a red cross on Velazquez's chest. It is said that Philip, upon Vleazquez's death, painted the cross into Las Meninas himself. In the margin of an official correspondence dealing with choosing Velazquez's successor, Philip wrote, "I am crushed."

From the day it was finished, Las Meninas resided in Philip's private office until his death in 1665. I can imagine Philip looking up at it often and remembering.

a postscript- you may be curious to know, as I was, what happened to Margarita in a "where are they now?" kind of way. Here is a blurb from Wikipedia:

In the summer of 1666, the fifteen-year-old Spanish infanta left Spain and traveled with several Spanish attendants to Austria, where she was solemnly welcomed by
Leopold I. Their wedding took place in Vienna on 5 December 1666. Despite the difference in their ages and Leopold's unattractive appearance, the couple were very happy together since they shared a number of interests, especially theatre and music. She called him "Uncle" (even after they were married); he called her "Gretl".
One of the most outstanding events during their reign was the splendid performance of the opera Il pomo d'oro ("The golden apple") by the Italian composer Marco Antonio Cesti in order to celebrate Margaret Theresa's seventeenth birthday in July 1668. This magnificent performance is frequently considered as the peak of the Baroque opera in Vienna during the seventeenth century.
After giving birth to six children and weakened by many miscarriages, Margarita Teresa died at the age of twenty-one — leaving Leopold heartbroken. Her only surviving child was the Archduchess Maria Antonia.
And here are a couple of paintings of her-- the first one was done a few years after Las Meninas and was painted by Velazquez (Ray aptly described her as looking like a puff pastry.) The second portrait was painted by Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo who depicted her in mourning dress in the year of her Father's death.


Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

As I continue writing my blog entry about Las Meninas (coming soon,) I thought I'd write about my visit to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which sits about a block from The Prado. I'm embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Thyssen-Bornemisza before my visit to Madrid. I'm embarrassed because it is one of the most fascinating collections of painting I have ever seen. If anyone wants to get a sense of the evolution of painting, of artists pushing, toppling and building upon foundations of painting through the centuries, then this is the place to go. It reminded me that the well-manicured "isms" of art history fail to give an accurate sense of the experimentation and play that occurs in the studio. The Thyssen-Bornemisza collection allows room for the art historical orphan, a painting that doesn't quite fit within an artist's prescribed "style" of painting (I found myself saying "so and so painted that?" several times.) Every room seemed to have a miraculous gem of a painting that we had never seen before.

The collection is beautifully presented on colored walls in airy, comfortable rooms. It is organized so that there is a natural flow from one room to another along an historical time line of painting. And unlike many museums, the layout is intuitive-- I looked at a map maybe once the whole time I was there.

It is an astounding collection of work.

They also have an excellent web site (and make sure you check out the cool virtual tour.)

Van Gogh