Searching for Velázquez

He was born in Seville in 1599.  This is when our Shakespeare was gearing up for Hamlet. Both looking for the authentic, the ‘being’, the sense that real life could be gathered up as in a net and placed, shimmering and lucent, so that the hearer and viewer saw existence distilled. The art work and tradition had moved on; public performance had attracted thousands to the stage and the canvas of representation had started to gather complexity. To be or not to be. Representation, realism, was beginning to focus through the prism of demand, supply; genius rose to the task.

Seville. A fineness. A gathering of verticals in stone and stucco. Renaissance, the Arabic, the dance of light, the flickering of red on the streetside trees; the unripe oranges. The stepping out of people, well-dressed, proud, full of style and energy; a survived people, not drawn down by numbers and mass entertainment; familes, the children out late, a dusk of charcoal against the glowing sky. Darkness of oil. Faces catching life.

We arrived at Malag, gave the name of the hotel and were directed to the C1 bus. We asked the driver to let us off at the hotel. The bus travelled and travelled. The driver had forgotton. We got off at a dark old suburb and waited for another bus. A few people crossed the road; faded yellow corners of old buildings spoke of long domestic use. We were left out there; the bus mission a failure. We were alone, outside society, a metaphor of loss. Finally a bus came and, much relieved, we were deposited at the hotel. But an emptiness had been;  we had been stripped of the ordinary and expected. Being was emerging.

Perversely, it happened again in Seville. We asked the driver to let us off at the Plaza de Espana but the bus went on and on. A long tour brought in the city’s extensions, leaving behind the fine architecture; here was boring reality, no prettiness. ‘Look for the two towers of the Plaza, on the right’ spoke a young lady, noting our exasperation. We saw the towers, blamed the driver who shook his arms in apology, and stepped out. Again we had not found it directly, our destination, and again the trip took us away from the expected.

The tour bus took us to the Plaza de la Victoria where El Corte Ingles have stores on three sides and the Derby Hotel displays a scene of the great horserace behind Reception. In the centre on a great pillar stands an effigy of Velázquez, the local boy, all cocky with his palette in his left hand, drawn back, his painting brush in his raised right hand, an image of presence and confidence: his head held high, his goatee beard well-trimmed.

‘Where can I see pictures by Velázquez?’ I asked at our hotel reception desk, of a young man who said he was studying for a degree in Hospitality and Hotel Management. ‘Very good,’ he replied as if he was an art critic, ‘at the Museo de Bellas Artes. Take the tour bus.’ So we did and found ourselves in cobbled alleyways, suddenly turning in to a glorious square, all morning sunlight, full of tented pathways displaying pictures by amateur artists and artisans selling cheap jewellery. A man sat intently, playing a guitar in the Spanish style, all energy and provocations. We entered the museum and  discovered we did not have to pay. It had cool courtyards, pillars and arches. ‘Where are the great pictures?’ we asked ourselves. We toured the upper floor, full of ecclesiastical canvases, peering at the identification plaques. We came down to the first floor. ‘Where are the Velázquez?’ I asked an attendant; he pointed to a gallery. He raised two fingers. ‘Only two’ I reflected. We found them. One was on the far wall. Two yards of vertical canvas, mostly black, showing a man from the side, overwhelmed by the huge cloak. The other picture was much smaller, on the left-hand wall. From a distance, the face modelling looked convincing, but as I approached, it became a series of mid-brown blotches. I went very close it and found that under one eye there was a peculiar thin line in black, making an oval, as if a child had picked up a nib, dipped it in black paint, and tried to represent a tear. I stepped back, in disappointment. The face in the picture did not come alive. It remained flat and dead. The body, so to speak, did not step out of the frame. No human life came before me. This was paint only.

As we stepped out of the Museum, the courtyard – it was now 2.30pm – had emptied entirely. The trees and stone seats were without the bustle of life, stripped, with no music and no sparkle of humanity. There was the Spanish afternoon quiet for siesta.

Seville continued its charm. The sun was very hot. Visitors streamed here and there. Horses, carefully groomed, drew their gleaming carriages, glossy black doors and yellow wheels. Display figured; the beautiful buildings were carefully presented. A pride in place predominated. But the talented young man who went on to the court of Philip IV in Madrid and was given a room in the royal palace was not well represented in his home city. We shall have to find him somewhere else.

We have taken a trip; taken a number of sideways movements; we have had our being, mostly unexpected; but the glow of life from Velázquez has escaped us. We shall have to keep looking. And as Hamlet stands on the stage, reciting, his bewilderment spinning through words, the reality of things lies beyond our grasp, undiscovered except for glimpses during unexpected trips to the unwanted suburbs.