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"

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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.

Play

SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.