Paul Brandford, alerted me to a talk a friend of his was giving at the National Gallery. He explained that she had written a book about a missing Velazquez portrait of Charles the 1st. So on Friday night we went to ‘The Vanishing Man: In pursuit of Velazquez’.
Introducing us to the outline of Laura’s Cumming’s true tale, Letizia Treves, described how a nineteenth century book seller had discovered a blackened painting at a country house sale. Realising it was a Velazquez portrait he bought it. She went on to expand the devistating story, both of the painting and the bookseller himself as the tale unfolded. At this point Laura protested that her talk was being pre-empted and she then took to the lectern!
There was really nothing for her to worry about as she embarked on a different tack. Mentioning the Diego Velázquez paintings in the building, of which there are several, (including the ‘The Rokeby Venus and Philip IV of Spain) she encouraged the audience to look at them later in the evening. Also she showed ‘The Water Carrier’ from Apsley House, Wellington’s house at Hyde Park Corner. An absolute master piece that many people are unaware of.
Doubtful like a diligent parent, Laura Cumming raised a question ‘Should art critic’s have favourite artists and paintings?’ (Of course they do, I thought. They must and should.)
An artist’s daughter herself, Laura Cumming experienced the death of her (obviously beloved) father whilst in her early 20’s. Hugely affected, she vowed never to look at art again! A vow that was impossible to keep. Astoundingly she maintained it for almost a year when she found herself staying in the centre of Madrid. Each day she passed by the Prado Museum and each day temptation grew, until overwhelmed the young Laura Cumming entered the building and whilst wondering about encountered ‘Las Meninas’ by Velazquez, a painting she did not even know was there.
We, that evening, beheld the painting from the projector to a gasp from the audience. (I’m sure that most people at the talk would knew this painting but it is huge and breath taking… )
Laura’s description of it was deep and powerful as she interwove the raw emotion of loss and grieving with the mastery of the painting. She described the pool of light with the little princess and her servants, “Like fireflies beneath a tomb of darkness.” Velazquez himself stands back to catch himself in the mirror and in doing, looks straight at us. He is attractive and tall. The King and Queen look on from another mirror, or is it a painting at the back of the room. The Queen’s chancellor departs in a rectangle of light in the back of the painting. “Our arrival at the painting keeps them alive.” she said. “They wait for us in an instant of time.” implying that our looking re-animates these characters from 1656. One wonders if looking at painting also keeps Laura’s father alive for her too in a “Chamber of the mind where people never die”.
I like the way she talked about the actual paint, more like a painter than a critic, she was bowled over by how the image is “vividly present and spellbinding.” yet dissolves as you go forward towards it. That intangibility in painting, something Rembrandt shares with Velazquez, is possibly part of what makes some works so compelling and emotional.
Laura confessed to weeping in front of the painting which I think is a natural response. Great works of art are there to communicate with us, not to be judged, not to intellectualise about but for us feel and identify with.
I would agree with her ”Art is not only for the eyes.”
There was so much more to the talk that I am not able to describe.
I will certainly be buying “Vanishing Man-In pursuit of Velazquez, for Laura Cumming’s compassionate rendering of the artist Velazquez, her observation of the democratic and modest humanity that he bestowed brilliantly on all his sitters high or low.
National Gallery’s ‘The Rokeby Venus’.
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