Art vs. Art: Everything is Happening by Michael Jacobs and Painting and Experience in 15th Century…
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Near the end of his life, travel writer and art historian Michael Jacobs received a mysterious envelope in the mail — inside he found nothing but the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Even in pieces, he recognized it to be Velázquez’s Las Meninas. He assembled the familiar figures — “I knew the painting so well that I felt now almost extraneous to its reassembly. As if I was just a spectator watching a group of actors silently taking up their positions at the start of a play: the painter behind his easel, the child princess center stage…” With the puzzle put together, he recognized the signature of the sender. It was from a man he had known when they were boys at school. At that time, the other boy had teased Jacobs about his passion for Velázquez’s masterpiece and suggested he should go get a girlfriend, get out into the sunlight and enjoy life. Jacobs ultimately took plenty of that advice, though he also studied art history at the Courtauld Institute in London. He made his career writing about both art and travel. In declining health, the old friend had gotten back in touch to say he had become obsessed with Las Meninas himself, lived in an apartment near the Prado and visited it most days. He wanted to meet Jacobs again and discuss the painting.
Why this painting? Why did it matter so much to them? Jacobs set out to write Everything is Happening to share his life-long attachment to Las Meninas in anecdotes like puzzle pieces that are intended to bring us into the painting’s mystery ourselves.
He uses the word “mystery” and occasionally “magic” but those words are not quite right. They only make sense if you already see what he’s describing. It’s the paradoxical sense of excitement, pleasure and ignorance found in art the viewer understands well, but not to the point of boredom — at one point he calls the Mona Lisa “a desiccated mummy” for having exhausted all the mystery he ever found in it.
Jacobs acknowledges that real ignorance is no help to mystery either. He is cross about viewing his favorite painting alongside “the school children who were wondering when their ordeal would be over” — however much artists praise the innocent eye of a child, most of them also know that children’s taste is often terrible. They like simple and obvious stuff because they haven’t had enough experience to know better. If a viewer looks at a painting knowing nothing about it, having no education in its culture or tradition — she almost isn’t seeing it as art at all, but just as a thing, an artifact. There’s something more we need to know before we can make an aesthetic judgment, and beyond that, find the unexplainable. That’s the question behind the “mystery” — what do we need to know to hear the distant bell inside the image?
Jacobs spends some of his memoir on the technical details — how Velázquez has constructed the illusion of space inside the painting with a mixture of perspective lines. Some of the people are painted very precisely and others, particularly the man climbing the stairs in the back of the room, are painted with expressive departures from realism and almost slapdash brushwork. Jacobs goes into the most detail with the painting’s greatest formal puzzle: the mirror.
Near the center of Las Meninas, a painted mirror reflects the people who would be standing exactly in the space the viewer occupies. In the mirror, those appear to be the King and Queen of Spain — Phillip IV and Mariana of Austria — the parents of Infanta Margaret Theresa, who is the ostensible subject of the portrait. All the figures in the painting are looking at, or covertly reacting to, these reflected people. We viewers are not only having a moment’s eye contact with people from the distant past, we are playing the role of the parents in an active family drama.
Jacobs died of liver cancer when he had only written half the book, so what we have is sadly filled with absences. He never does meet the friend who sent the puzzle in the mail — they come very close but a small accident of health is enough for them both to apparently give up trying. After a long digression about train tickets and weather, Jacobs writes that Foucault cites Borges’s writing on Las Meninas. What did Borges say? What’s the connection to Foucault? Presumably Jacobs would have filled us in more thoroughly if he had been strong enough to do so.
I found the passage he’s talking about — it’s from an essay called “When Fiction Lives in Fiction” in which Borges gathers examples of infinite regression in art — the tales of Arabian Nights, the play within a play in Hamlet, and Las Meninas. There isn’t an explicit regression in the painting; the observation is about how the painting was hung in the Prado. Across from the painting, the Prado had a real mirror to match the painted mirror, so the viewer could see himself reflected back inside the painting, which has the mirror image of the King and Queen inside it. This is the regression that interested Borges: “Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that dreaming and wakefulness are the pages of a single book, and that to read them in order is to live, and to leave through them at random, to dream. Paintings within paintings and books that branch into other books help us sense this oneness.” — a koan-like description of the mystery that interested Foucault and Jacobs as well.
Jacobs’s work ends on a cliffhanger. His friend Ed Vuillamy takes over: “We will never know what Michael Jacobs found when he returned — as he prepares to do in the last paragraph he ever wrote — to the room in the Royal Palace of Madrid in which Las Meninas had been ‘propped up against a wall for more than seventy-five years.’”
Vuillamy has a stab at describing Jacobs’s quest for the mystery of the painting — but the closer he gets to the center, the shorter his words fall. “The painting which to Michael represented not only an allegory of life, but also its essence.” This kind of description, like mine with the sound of a distant bell, is only helpful if you already feel it. It doesn’t teach us how to find it for the first time. Otherwise, Vuillamy’s introduction and coda ably fill in many of the gaps Jacobs left, and his tributes to his friend are moving. He describes the passages from Foucault’s Order of Things that informed Jacobs’s views the most — how Foucault saw Las Meninas as a shift from the values of the Renaissance — a single point of perspective and a single idealized imitation of nature — to the modern era where the lines of perspective and human nature itself may be mixed up and uncertain.
True to its title, Everything is Happening is rambling and untidy. The book is full of anecdotes — about the painting being dragged across a muddy bridge during the Spanish Civil War, and descriptions of Jacobs’s train trips and big lunches. Jacobs is vociferous in his dislike of art historians who obsess over evidence for claims and fail to look with the eyes of love. At the age of seventy-six, Picasso painted fifty-eight interpretations of Las Meninas from memory. He hadn’t seen the painting in decades. Jacobs notices that in Picasso’s work, the images have a strong bright light coming from the lefthand side, unlike in Velazquez’s original. In the course of his conversations in Everything is Happening, Jacobs discovers that the painting was displayed in a room with bright natural light shining from the right side when Picasso was young, an impression the painter had carried with him through decades of exile. This kind of insight and discovery is where Jacobs succeeds most sublimely.
At the opposite pole from Jacobs’s and Vuillamy’s expansive anecdotal style is Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy, which has been in print since 1972 — a small, precise book that never claims more than is richly supported in evidence. Instead of the far-reaching personal journey, Baxandall focuses on the question of what changed in the culture of fifteenth century Italy such that there was an audience for a Renaissance. What did the great early Renaissance paintings look like to the people who first saw them? Every page is full of neatly explained circumstances that show not only how the artists would have had the education in, say, geometry to make lines of perspective, but how they could have been supported and appreciated by their contemporaries when the techniques of perspective and naturalism were so new.
For example — the receipts artists wrote up for patrons detailing commissions show a change as a generation of merchants began to consider themselves Old Money and wanted to differentiate themselves from the newly successful. The patrons slowly stopped asking artists to display wealth and piety by painting with the most expensive colors, gold leaf and ultramarine blue, in the center of the paintings — on Jesus’s halo and his sleeve or on Mary’s mantle. The receipts show that the patrons began to haggle for certain figures to be painted by the top artists, to show the subtlety of the patrons’ taste. The lesser figures and backgrounds would be painted by apprentices. As more people could afford a painting set with jewels and gold leaf, the status indicator was hiring Botticelli to paint the figure of Christ on the altar piece.
Baxandall shows how the religious texts of the time taught the emotions Mary felt at the annunciation. As a metaphor for every Christian’s accepting Christ into his heart, the moment had special spiritual significance. The five emotions she felt are called the Five Laudable Conditions of the Blessed Virgin: 1. Disquiet, 2. Reflection, 3. Inquiry, 4. Submission, and 5. Merit. The painters would be rated according to the subtlety of these expressions. The audiences were adept at interpreting the painted faces and postures. A Mary could be painted mostly 2 and somewhat 4 and 5, which would be as significant to the audience as the details of modern comic book movies are to modern viewers.
Baxandall isn’t explicitly guiding us toward a mystery inside these paintings, but while I was taking long looks at Mary’s face and hands in familiar works, the images were fresh to me the way Jacobs describes, going back to Las Meninas. There’s something new to see. Even though Baxandall mostly describes concrete things; the position of the hands that mime “shame,” “blessing” and “welcome,” the reader can find a new connection to something just outside comprehension: the beauty of the work, the mystery.
Both Jacobs and Baxandall have an undercurrent of real bile against the people who approach paintings the wrong way. Jacobs rages against the sunless rooms of academia where paintings are either taken without context or dissected for Marxist significance of Spain’s colonial wealth — he will quote the findings but is often frustrated with their limitations. The fact that even Baxandall audibly grinds his teeth about people expecting a code in the colors of Italian paintings shows how important it is to both authors that we viewers bring the right knowledge or attitude to the paintings. The stakes are high, and each author believes it’s possible to get it very wrong.
The mystery eludes the direct descriptions of Jacobs, Vuillamy, and even Borges, so it’s possible that the antagonism is necessary and each author is defending a unique aesthetic connection — that we really will see a different beauty in a painting while we’re thinking about it being dragged across a bridge, or while we’re reading disquiet and inquiry in Mary’s face. The lens of each author may introduce us to a different painting, in a way. I think I understand why they each defend their specific ground, but I am glad to have access to both. Both of these books brought me back to paintings so familiar I am rarely able to really see them anymore.
by Michael Jacobs
by Michael Baxandall