I recently completed a 15 week drama workshop under the auspices of the English Theatre Düsseldorf during which each participant wrote and staged a 5 minute piece which were all then presented on the final night of the course.
For this project I wrote a piece titled 'Las Meninas' in which I examined Velázquez's masterpiece. In it I attempted to combine my impressions viewing the painting in the Prado with my research on the subject.
I visited Madrid, and the Prado, in June this year and was thrilled to be able to spend time with 'Las Meninas', Velázquez's great masterpiece painted at the end of his life. In it he attempts to demonstrate that painting is an art form of the highest order and in so doing shows the full extent of his talent and genius.
Some have called it 'THE masterpiece' and because it is so familiar it is very difficult to see clearly, with fresh eyes. We come to it with our brains loaded with memories of the painting. I saw it first as a child of 10 or 11.
In this project I want to get new view of the painting by recreating it in another form. The best example I can think of of this type of undertaking is indeed related to 'Las Meninas'. In 1957 at the age of 75 Picasso spent an entire year working and reworking his vision of 'Las Meninas.' In the end he had a suite of 48 paintings in which he grappled with the masterpiece and which he donated in its entirety to the Museu Picasso in Barcelona.
My performance piece opened with a large projection of 'Las Meninas' on the wall to orientate the audience. This image then disappears and as the lights go up the painting in the form of members of the ensemble fills the left side of the stage; in effect a tableau of the painting.
Two characters then walk through the audience towards the painting. One of them is speaking Italian, a symbolic nod to the influence of Italian art on Velázquez's work and on Spanish art. The two characters stop in front of the painting and begin commenting on it.
The figures in the painting then begin to speak although the two characters outside the painting cannot hear them. Through the dialogue of the figures I tried to give the audience a feel for the tremendous achievement of this great masterpiece and my own excitement looking at it.
The final simplified version with the ensemble playing the painting came after ditching a complicated first draft. Using the ensemble to create the painting was the key idea that in the end made the piece work. The focus, in the end, was on the painting.
If I did the piece again (every work is in some sense a failure) I would perhaps have one of the two characters outside the painting express some skepticism about the work. Maybe say it looks to them like just another big boring old painting. This would have created some drama, some conflict. I would also have had less of the art history factoid stuff and more about how the painting made me feel. What the hell was the artist trying to tell us about life and how he saw it? How did it make me feel standing in front of it? Did it simply overwhelm me so I didn't know what to think? What was the atmosphere inside that room with all those characters, all being played out at the highest level of Spanish society?
I enjoyed the process of cross pollination between art history and performance, and being able to communicate my enthusiasm for the painting in a dramatic form.
Below is the final draft of the script.
LAS MENINAS / THE MAIDS OF HONOUR
Clinton De Vere
A. and P. walk through the audience. P. is speaking Italian. They both stop as though stunned for a moment, just looking.
P: Here it is!
A: Ah. Yes.
P: Not even the crowds can ruin it.
A: We are the crowd!
P: Yes, I suppose we are.
A: (reading the painting tag) "Las Meninas. Diego Velazquez. 1656."
P: You can see straightway the influence of Italian art. Titian and Caravaggio.
A: If only the figures could speak.
INFANTA: We can. You just can’t hear us.
P: Some call it THE Masterpiece.
VEL: I painted it to honour the king, to honour art and to show what painting could do. I painted it to win the honour of this cross on my chest. It was my last big push and I gave it everything I had.
A: The composition is extraordinary.
VEL: Thank you. I worked hard on it.
LM1: Linear and aerial perspective.
LM2: The arrangement of the figures.
DARK FIGURE 1: The lighting.
DARK FIGURE 2: The repetition of rectangular forms of the frames and doorway.
P: The way our eye is drawn to the figure in the doorway.
FIGURE IN DOORWAY: Ah yes. Am I coming or going?
A: And of course, the reflection of the King and Queen in the mirror.
P: Who would have been standing where we are standing.
KING: Well observed.
INFANTA: And me as the focal point. Well lit, but slightly off centre.
A: And the largest figure in the painting?
VEL: Me of course. The artist. The creator. Everything from that day is gone. Only the painting remains.
P: The light and dark of Caravaggio and the tones and brushstrokes of Titian.
KING: Not only are you a great painter and a great friend, you are also a collector and connoisseur. You chose many of the paintings which form the basis of the Prado collection.
A: The painting is looking at us! Six of the figures are looking directly at us.
ALL: Yes, we are! And at each other!
LM1: A painting of glances.
VEL: Well done. Yes, the painting is about the viewer. About looking at art. About paying attention. The viewer is the key to the painting.
QUEEN: Any response to a work of art says more about the viewer than it does about the viewed.
OTHER FIGURE: A painting about painting a portrait.
P: It’s also a moment.
A: A snapshot.
LM2: My curtsy.
FIGURE IN DOORWAY: Me in the doorway.
DARK FIGURE 1: Us in the background.
DARK FIGURE 2: All of which makes it feel so timeless and modern.
P: Someone called it ‘the theology of painting’.
VEL: I always liked that phrase.
INFANTA: Unfortunately, we never leave the Prado.
QUEEN: And you know why darling. They say it’s because of insurance and size but we all know the real reason.
QUEEN: We are the crown jewel of the collection. El Prado’s beating heart! THE Masterpiece!
A: What a painting!
P: Yes. Amazing. Shall we grab a coffee?
I am an Australian artist living in Düsseldorf, Germany.