It all started with Arthur Mee. The great artists, the great pictures. Most of the reproductions were sepia, which didn’t help, but there they were, The Monarch of the Glen, The Laughing Cavalier, The Mona Lisa. One was great and two not so great; it was not difficult to be swept away by the Leonardo obsession. But there is a test for great art, quite a simple one. Deface a great artwork and you look weak. Deface a weak artwork and reveal its weakness. By this test the Mona Lisa fails. The painting calls out for a moustache, and often gets one. Imagine doing the same thing to a van Gogh, a Turner, or a Raphael. You would not know where to start. So is the Mona Lisa a great painting? I still don’t know.
Are there any paintings that deserve to be called great, and what is the quality of their greatness. For many reasons the works of Velazquez are most open to this analysis by being apparently traditionally representational. But more so than any other paintings, they have poetry. The poet-
The feast of Bacchus is a masterwork. It raises humour to a rarely attained level. Here we have seven distinct characters and two background figures. The central enigma is Bacchus himself. Is his attention elsewhere? Something is being done and he is the one doing it, but what is he looking at? Is he looking at anything and what does this look, with its complete lack of attention, tell us about the nature of what is going on. Does he see, but not comprehend the place where the other gods exist? All we can say is that if those eyes were looking in any other direction the flavour of the painting would be very different.
Beside him are the seven other figures and with these Velazquez foresees and, dare we say it, transcends Picasso. He has fragmented the drinker into seven different aspects, but unlike later painters his fragmentation does not shout at us. It is so perfectly melded that we may not even see that it is there. The subject is wine, but it is not the wine of Omar Khayyam the
and yet in all I only cared to know
was never deep in anything but wine’.
This is the wine we do know. Here is the figure confident that he is a long way along the road to wisdom. There is the man who does not care to know anything. There is the one who has long forgotten why he is there. What is the supplicant thinking of? Maybe the man on the right is explaining it to the new arrival, but probably not. Of course there is more to say. As with all of masterworks, the more you look, the more you see. But what does the painter think about it all? If we knew that, we might know what Bacchus is looking at, but we never will!
but I know what I like!