This resplendent 1991 film, directed by Didier Baussy-Oulianoff, begins at the opening of a major show of Diego Velazquez’ work at the Museo del Prado in Madrid. The camera follows the enormous queue of gallery-goers waiting for the show to open, immediately confronting the viewer with the immense resonance and importance of this 17th century painter from Seville. This is followed by a detailed examination of his most famous painting, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour) from 1656.
Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) was court painter and favourite of the Spanish King Phillip IV, rising to prominence as one of the foremost portrait painters in Europe. He painted every kind of person, from the lowliest ‘picaros’ and ‘borrachos’, rogues and drunkards, from his hometown and the tales of Miguel de Cervantes, to the highest echelons of the Hapsburg court and the Spanish Royal Family. Yet, famously, all his subjects are treated with the same incisive, humanising realism.
As the leading painter at court many of Velazquez’ paintings have a political slant, particularly those of eminent generals and politicians, as the film makes clear. Intriguingly, Velazquez had a burning ambition, at a time when artists were often viewed as little better than carpenters, to join the ranks of the Spanish nobility. He was desperate to become part of the world he had spent his life immortalising. This was finally achieved when he was appointed to the rank of hidalgo two years before his death, although this had necessitated the intervention of the Pope on the painter’s behalf.
The film also discusses the influence that Velazquez has had on many of the artists who followed him, including Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon. Francis Bacon was particularly obsessed with his Portrait of Pope Innocent X, incidentally the same Pope Innocent who had been instrumental in gaining what Velazquez regarded as his crowning achievement, his place among the aristocracy.
Art Lives, from Arthaus, is a powerful and arresting series of documentaries on artists and art movements released for the first time on DVD in the English language.