Bringing people to light
Sebastian de Mora by Diego Velasquez
Wittgenstein suggested that on any visit to a gallery you should chose only one painting and study it in depth, anything else he suggested was superficial and an exercise not in culture but futility.
Spending yesterday morning in the Prado in Madrid, I could see what he meant - to me a wholly new collection, never seen in pigment and canvas before, it could simply overwhelm. But we are not all equipped with Ludwig's austerity; and, in any case, I expect people absorb art differently, if they do. For me, I am a speedy looker, whizzing round, then, noticing what arrests, return to specific points to watch closely to what reveals.
Also, being prejudiced, I can eliminate swathes of stuff that, however remarkable, leaves no impression on me whatsoever - Dutch seventeenth century still lives of dead pigeons, pewter and fruit, for example, or eighteenth century portraits of aristocrats by virtually anyone; and, most Baroque religious painting. In the latter to achieve any real contemplative depth - as distinct from wrought emotion - requires disciplined genius and a retrospective borrowing from before Raphael's sentimentality over washed or from starting elsewhere. El Greco is, in this, the exception that proves the rule.
There were, thus, many works that stepped into the loved and known - Fra Angelico's 'The Annunciation' a large scope work of poised beauty awash with light and grace, Durer's Adam and Eve on the brink of expulsion, a thwarted promise awaiting a thornier journey of grace; and, the reconstruction of a Romanesque chapel - thirteenth century frescos of a quiet humanity, simple narrative and assurance of grace received.
Beyond the known, there were works studied in books like Goya's Black paintings but now seen for the first time in all their contained, intelligent questioning fury. Here violence is exposed as the dark failure it is with no ennobling light, whatever the justice of the cause, as here with two men simply clubbing each other shorn of mystery, in an abjectness complete. They are paintings that sadly remain as topical as ever.
And there was the new and for me yesterday that was Velasquez, known yes, noticed fleetingly sometimes, but seen no. For me, the most accomplished of his works, apart from the famous depictions of court life, are his portraits of court dwarves as above with Sebastian de Mora and below with Diego de Acedo:
They too, though in a different vein, remain hauntingly topical as paintings of a compassionate inclusion of difference, of that which is apart brought within the viewers' recognition; and, painted whole in their own light, seeing out with their own eyes, gestures, positions. Seeing them together in their own gallery space was deeply moving. A reminder of how uncommon it yet is to allow everyone's beauty to be seen, to break it open from stereotype (and canon) and allow it to sing its own song.
I was reminded of reading only last week that the one explanation for absence that gains no traction with an employer is that you are suffering from depression. We carry around multiple assumptions of what constitutes 'other' but consciousness and conscience are omnipresent in all, for all who have eyes to see; and, here Velasquez is dismantling one such otherness by allowing us to step towards a population dismissed from view into a disabling category and be seen as particular persons in all their diversity and complexity. For the disability lies in us.