Book review

This graphic novel is the biography of a painting. But perhaps it’s really about reality

Santiago Garcia and Javier Olivares’s ‘The Ladies-In-Waiting’ tries to lift the veil of mystery over Velázquez’s famous work ‘Las Meninas’.

A fictional account of a mysterious and famous painting and a fragmented history of its birth add up to make for an unusual subject for a graphic novel. Santiago Garcia and Javier Olivares’s The Ladies-In-Waiting is an attempt to unveil the mystery shrouding Spanish painter Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez’s famous work Las Meninas, while meditating about the Spaniard’s life. A postmodern novel with a touch of pastiche, an absence of verifiable facts, and accounts of events by unreliable witnesses, this graphic narrative is a smörgåsbord of ideas with broad flatline German Expressionist style illustrations.

In Prado Museum, where Las Meninas is housed, the guides tell a popular story: Velázquez was jealous of the celebrity status of the Italian sculptors and tried to attain the same level of respect and social status as a painter. He did this by painting Las Meninas. It is probably his most famous work, with the king’s daughter as the subject. The other children in the painting are dwarves, the “living playmates” of the princess. Apocryphal as the story may be, it finds a place in this graphic narrative as Garcia and Olivares search for other “such” histories, much like detectives looking for clues.

Mystery lies at the heart of the work. The central theme of the graphic novel follows the testimonials given to an official who is leading the investigation into the life of Velázquez to determine if the court painter of Felipe IV is fit to receive the Order of Santiago. The conversations, punctuated by several intrusions in the form of subplots and other interesting digressions adding to the intrigue, unveil the life story of the Spaniard. The reliability of these accounts can be questioned, but that should be the preoccupation of an information digger. The portrait of the artist that emerges is one of a conformist rebel. And the painting in question represents the finishing line of a race against time by Velázquez, who seeks to go beyond the usual meaning of art.

"Las Meninas"
"Las Meninas"

The biography and the painting of Las Meninas is only part of the story. The creators’ clever use of history as meta-fiction – with many touch points across several generations of painters, art critics, intellectuals, and others – is startling. This serves as bridge to other periods, with the painting remaining the point of reference.

Many of the people fascinated by Las Meninas feature in the novel: French philosopher Michel Foucault, artists Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dalí, playwright Antonio Buero Vallejo, and even the little-known American painter William Merrit. These characters appear suddenly, disrupting the narrative flow. Olivares’s use of different styles and colours are a bit shocking at times, as in the case of his depiction of Foucault, for instance. It appears to be a deliberate effort to capture an era through its dominant art style, albeit improvised.

The aspect of meta-fiction also looks for the meaning of art. It is a reflection on the role of the artist, the search for the ideal, and the concept of painting, where we find that through Las Meninas the writers try to talk about art as a whole, and, one suspects, about comics too. Can art be as an industry, with paintings, sculpture, poetry, comic books, and so on as its products? Or is art a creation that aspires to live in a pristine world untainted by commercial concerns?

“Diego, painting is an industry,” says an ageing Rubens to Velázquez in the novel. The Dutch master makes it clear that one has to paint what the public wants because this is what helps an artist to live a wealthy life. He fails to impress Velázquez, who is looking for something that goes beyond these considerations. He does not want to sell his art, partly because the Catholic European mentality of his time made manual labour incompatible with ennoblement, but also because he knows that it gave him a freedom that Rubens does not have.

The art in this book is stunning. Garcia’s use of the mirror – Las Meninas has a mirror with the image of the king partially visible – as a metaphor for history that, like the painting, hides more than it reveals is captured by Olivares through brilliant use of chiaroscuro. Velázquez in the novel is often seen partially in the dark, his wide eyes burning with passion. The few panels depicting the Spanish painter’s second meeting with a dying Jose Ribera in Naples are extraordinary. Ribera’s feeble body, in a state of delirium, etched out in stark white against a pitch black background is striking. Olivares’s art is busy in this work, trying to capture Velázquez’s state of mind of as he fervently looks for a way to capture the world as yet unknown to painting.

Does Las Meninas represent reality itself? When Velázquez painted in the seventeenth century, all paintings were supposed to be “representing reality”. In the novel, the painter says, “I only reveal truth.” Still, the work records a process which is an abstraction itself. The painting becomes a representation of reality and which in turn is equivalent to the representation of the representation of reality. It is like entering a hall of mirrors where one can see an infinite number of images of oneself. And optics tells us that none of these is a real one.

The Ladies-In-Waiting, Santiago Garcia and Javier Olivares, Fantagraphics Books.

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