The Freakish Light of Velázquez's "Las meninas"

by on Oct.22, 2012

I am drawn today to “Las meninas,” surely one of the most mystifying leertexts of the Western canon.  I’m thinking about a standard interpretation of this painting:  how it registers, absorbs, and destroys itself as well as the viewer, who is figured as the king in the doorway, the “Master” of the gaze.

Then there are the girls aglow beneath all that empty dark space.  Isn’t their gaze at least as penetrating as the painter’s?

If the painting occupies us like a phallus as it closes the distance between viewer and canvas, I’m tempted to ask,

but what about the children? 

For me, the girls are the excessive remainder of the image.  They are the violent birthing of  seedlings commanded by the sun, or perhaps a fluorescent bulb.   As Genet wrote, “the violence of a bud bursting forth–against all expectation and against every impediment–always moves us.”  Having already decentered all adults within the frame, men and women alike, the girls and their dog thus radiate a frightening possibility.  What if their gaze were about to break off; what if their secretive canine-child alliance were pregnant with us as its commandments.  Guided only by the misty promise of emergence and incipience, of a feeling of suspension at the cusp of revelation, we are lucky to embody such birth again and again without ever growing up.  This is, I think, the call of arrested development.  As the painting devours me, must I not always push out of its belly/doorway, compelled to ‘throw shade’ back at its gaze by emitting my own optic blast: 

an artful, freakish, embryonic light.

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