- Las Meninas by Velázquez (Foucault & Lacan)-
Painted in 1656 by Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas is not only the most enigmatic painting of the Spanish Golden Age but undeniably the most significant of all Western art. It is unlikely another work of art has been so thoroughly studied by academic art institutions. The Napoleonic artist Luca Giordano already in the late 17th century referred to it as the religion of painting, and Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1820 president of the Royal Academy, as the true philosophy of art. While the painting was originally displayed in the personal collection of its patron King Philip IV, it is now at the Prado Museum in Madrid. It is one of Velázquez’s largest canvasses, measuring over three meters in height.
Las Meninas, meaning maids of honour, depicts a family scene at the royal court of King Philip IV and was previously titled Portrait of the Empress with her Ladies and a dwarf. Most peculiar to the scene is that Velázquez painted a figure of himself prominently in the composition, standing adjacent to the 5-year-old princess and behind a canvas with his brush and palette in hand – as if he is busy painting. We cannot see what he is busy painting because the canvas has its back to us, facing him while he, having taken a step back, looks at the viewer positioned outside the frame of the painting. The viewer looks at Las Meninas, from where Velázquez stares back at the viewer, from within the painted scene.
Three hundred years later, in 1957, Picasso produced his famous series of 58 paintings reinterpreting Las Meninas and a year later, Salvador Dali painted his interpretation, titled, Velázquez painting the Infanta with the lights and shadows of his proper glory. The latter is the popular interpretation; a representation of the artist within the picture making a painting of the Spanish child-empress.
In The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, the French intellectual Michel Foucault gives his remarkable 1966 interpretation. For him, the painting demarcates the cultural rupture between Classical knowledge and modern science. On 18 May 1966, in his seminar The Object of Psychoanalysis at the École pratique des hautes études in Paris, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan addresses Foucault’s interpretation with an in-depth analysis – the seminar was attended by Foucault.
Both Lacan and Foucault agree that key to understanding the painting is the problematic of the canvas hidden from the viewer, the one that the painter in the composition is busy working at. The other side of the turned canvas holds all the possibilities of interpretation.
This writing gives a brief outline of their contrasting approaches. Beginning with Foucault’s discursive interpretation and followed by Lacan’s psychoanalytical interpretation.
Foucault explains that the focus of the pictorial composition is the 5-year-old princess Margarita in her white gown, surrounded by her court attendants. She is the only heir to the throne and last remaining bloodline of King Philip. She is not the one being painted by the artist in the picture, instead, she and her entourage are in audience, witnessing her father and his wife Queen Mariana being painted on the hidden canvas.
The artist in the scene, standing adjacent to her, is busy painting a portrait of the king and queen. He has taken a step back from his canvas to observe his model, the royal couple, standing outside the picture plane, out of sight. From their virtual position, they are looking at both the painter and his audience. In other words, Velazquez’s Las Meninas is a representation of what the royal couple observes while posing for their portraiture.
For evidence, Foucault refers to the mirror in the background of the scene, reflecting the position of the royal couple in their pose.
The painting is being painted for the king, to hang at the royal palace where he will resume the same virtual position as the day when he stood there as model. The only difference is that on the day he stood there posing for Velázquez, he gazed at his heir, Infanta Margarita in real life. Displayed at his palace, the king gazes at the same scene, but as artistic representation.
In short, Las Meninas represents an exchange of gazes, with focus on the gaze of the sovereign – the sovereign is the master who gives order and meaning to his subjects in the scene.
The exchange of gazes is pivotal to Foucault’s interpretation of Las Meninas as historical marker of the transition between Classical and modern thought.
Foucault argues three different gazes are superimposed, both from inside the painting and from outside.
Inside the painting are, firstly, the reflection of the royal couple’s gaze in the mirror, while observing their loyal subjects in the staged scene; secondly, the royal court artist working behind his canvas, gazing at his object of study, the pose of the royal couple; and thirdly, the visitor in the far-right background, seen leaving up the staircase, gazing at the entire staged scene in progress.
Foucault explains that the three gazes from within the painting represents the Classical 17th century era, when everything in the world belonged to a natural order dominated by the sovereign power of religious and monarchical knowledge. In this natural order, the identity of every object was inherently preordained by ontological status.
For example, the king saw the world in relation to the power that was invested in him by the Papal supremacy, to whom he is subjected. The red insignia on Velázquez’s chest marks him as both subject and property of the king. The visitor, like every other subject in the kingdom, saw a world that has remained virtually unchanged since the Renaissance – a seemingly stable natural order in which it was the task of human nature to find reflection in the given natural world, and to name, categorise, and describe each object in nature according to its essential function and natural history.
Foucault (1970:308) writes that in Classical thought, “the personage for whom the representation exists, and who represents himself within it, recognising himself therein as an image or reflection, he who ties together all the interlacing threads of the ‘representation in the form of a picture or table’ – he is never to be found in that table himself. Before the end of the eighteenth century, man did not exist,” he had no objective representation in natural history.
This all changed with the explosion of scientificity when, for example, natural history of wealth and health was exchanged for economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and so forth. With the invention of the human sciences, we are both subject and object of study. Like with an autobiography, the human sciences create a empirical template of what it ought to mean to be a productive individual. The template is then used as instructive manual to reshape and transcend our social behaviour. The shaping of this new identity evolves historically, according to the progression of scientific research in the human sciences. In his critique of the human sciences, Foucault names this new human identity the Empirico-Transcendental doublet.
Foucault argues that the three gazes from outside Las Meninas observe its representation within the picture as object of study. This self-reflective gaze signals the end of Classical thought and anticipates the invention of a new human identity.
For the sovereign gaze, King Philip sees the last days of his political rule, three years later the Spanish Golden Age officially ends and becomes an historical object of study for the new constitutional authority.
Velázquez paints the representation of himself within Las Meninas as historical object of study, he is the last Spanish Golden Age painter. His painting signals both the end of Classical representation and beginning of a new form of representation, with progression elsewhere in Europe.
The spectator, leaving the room in the background, has seen enough of the old order. He is departing in anticipation for a new form of subjectivity. For Foucault, this spectator is us, the modern subject looking back at the historical Las Meninas.
In the final chapter of The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Foucault argues the sovereign gaze of the human sciences is as unstable as that of the Classical gaze. It could disappear as rapidly as Classical knowledge did at the end of the 17th century. The recent invention of man's modern identity is without promise or certainty of a future form and could, for some unknown event, crumble and return to a similar serene non-existence as that of the Middle Ages – then, Foucault (1970:387) writes, “man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”
To conclude, Foucault interprets Las Meninas as a meta-representation – a pictorial representation that exemplifies the working and function of representation itself. He explains this with his demonstration of the subject both being inside and outside the representation.
Lacan disputes Foucault’s claim that the painted painter in Las Meninas is busy painting a portrait of the royal couple. The hidden canvas is simply too large for a portrait painting – unless he is painting them as giants, but such a monstrous depiction would simply be too unconventional for the Baroque era.
Instead, Lacan argues, the hidden canvas is the meaningless bait to lure the viewer closer to the fantasy that shapes the formal construction of Las Meninas – a trap for which Foucault takes the bait instead of keeping a safe distance and figuring out how the fantasy works.
Instead of the inaccessible hidden canvas, Lacan’s focus is on the figure of the painter within the painting, where he stands between the hidden canvas, the royal court scene, and the viewer outside the picture frame. He is standing there like a ‘showy guide’ at the entrance to the scene of the painting, guiding the viewer a safe passage to aesthetic pleasure by exposing the fantasy at play in Las Meninas.
To better understand the function of a painting within a painting, Lacan points to a work titled The Human Condition (1933), by the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte. The painting depicts a landscape painting on an easel placed in front of a window with the same landscape setting. In Magritte’s painting, the artist is showing us a landscape while at the same time warning us it is not a real landscape. The landscape representation is an illusion, a composition of blotches of paint, and we must not be fooled by trying see what is behind the screen of appearance. Instead of coming up close to discover some objective truth, the viewer must rather approach this fascinating, fictional space for what it is, a constructed fantasy.
The staged setting of Las Meninas is reminiscent of Spanish Golden Age theatrical convention. Lacan points out that all the characters in the scene look past one another, like cut-out cardboard actors carefully placed in theatrical pose. In this regard, the pose of the painter within the painting is highly dramatized. He steps back from the hidden canvas, distancing himself from the dramatic play and gaze back at the virtual viewer outside the frame of the painting. This gazing gesture inaugurates the dramatization of the fantasy, it creates an uncanny screen in which, Lacan tells us, the viewer’s gaze is “caught like a fly in glue.”
In what is known as the ‘aside’ in theatrical convention, an actor would briefly step out of character and address the audience directly. For that moment, the actor is located in-between the fictional space of the stage and the reality of the auditorium. The characters on stage pretend not to hear him and the audience plays along. From within this liminal space, the actor would often warn the audience to keep an emotional distance and not be taken in by a certain character’s deception. This transgression of the barrier between fiction and reality creates an uncanny satisfaction because the spectator now realises that the drama is gazing back at the auditorium – it demands audience participation.
With the viewer’s eye now arrested by the gaze of the ‘aside’ gesture of the painter in the painting and relayed onto the painting as screen of fantasy, we can move on to the central object in the scene, the princess. She is a fascinating doll-like object, ornamented in her striking regalia and surrounded by her royal entourage. As the libidinal focus of the entire scene, Lacan names her the imaginary phallus, a status she shares with Cleopatra and Theodora because, as ‘Infanta Margarite,’ she will rise to power and become Empress.
Lacan agrees with Foucault, the entire scene of Las Meninas is staged for King Philip and his wife, Queen Mariana. Their eyes will always come to rest on the five-year-old, the only successor to the throne. From their sovereign position, as shown in the mirror reflection in the background, they control the line-up of their subjects, the child-princess, and the court attendants. Lacan names this sovereign control the gaze of the big Other, which can be translated as symbolic order or regime of convention. Moreover, both Foucault and Lacan agree the royal gaze of the 17th century is superseded by the gaze of contemporary culture – the gaze of modern sovereignty.
In other words, the subject who gazes at the montage of objects in the scene arranges these for meaning by following a regime of convention. The king, who is also a subject of the Pope and the Church, arranges the montage to conform to the symbolic order of monarchical rule. Instead of seeing his daughter in the scene, he gazes at her as the Infanta Margarita – soon to be Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. As for Diego Velázquez, perhaps he looks at the blotches of available colours he lifted from his palette, but he certainly gazes at the symbolic significance of the red insignia on his chest. As for the contemporary viewer, we look at the puzzle of objects, awry, and the scopic field distorts into the fantasy gaze that is the regime of Western art history.
To conclude, Lacan explains that when the ego rejects the symbolic gaze to find what objective reality may be concealed behind the fantasy screen of pretence, the ego will find nothing but the vanity of its own narcissistic projection.
Theoretically then, in short. The ego, as lacking entity, is forever searching for wholeness. It searches for an external object that would reflect its image and confirm its identity and mastery. But the search is futile, it never finds satisfaction – It is simply driven by desire from object to object. Aesthetic sublimation provides a partial resolution, the exchange of object relation for symbolic relation. For this transformation, from ego self to symbolic subject, the working structure of fantasy is required. And as we saw above, the screen of fantasy operates by thwarting the scopic demand of the ego and distorting it into a symbolic regime of difference.
Las Meninas exemplifies Lacan’s theory in practice. For example, all five-year-old princesses are captured within an egocentric world. She would recognise her ideal image everywhere, owning all objects that indulge her eyes. Most of all, her mother – her desire is her mother’s desire; she desires to be desired by her mother and desires everything her mother desires. She loves her father because her mother does – she sees her image in the object her father is. Up until puberty, prior to social integration of symbolic fantasy, she lives in an imaginary world of indifference. That is how Velasquez does not paint her – that is what is lacking from all symbolic representation, the illusion of a unique self. Symbolic representation lacks the ability to articulate singular identity. At the core of all symbolic representation is an uncanny void that sets in motion our metonymic desire for symbolic wholeness – impossible as it is, we keep chasing after it. The aesthetic form of Las Meninas prolongs the chase, sustains our desire, and in the play of fantasy, satisfies us with aesthetic pleasure. That is how and why we keep on dangling around this uncanny painting.
Johannes Scott, November 2021.
Michel Foucault (1966), The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. transl. Les Mots et les choses, 1970. New York: Vintage Books.