‘His faceless portraits ... are also a statement of his own art, free, joyfully crafted with a repeated emphasis on craftsmanship, which magically substitutes the more or less faithful reproduction of the model for a confident complacency with what is seen in his work once it is freed from the pretext’ (A. P. Sanchez, Manolo Valdes 1981-2006, exh. cat., Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid 2006, p. 41).
Painted in 1998, Personaje con panuelo rojo (Personage with a red handkerchief) is an outstanding example of Manolo Valdés’ painterly oeuvre. The composition and the subject of this painting convey a powerful Old Masterly feeling. Throughout his practice, Valdés continually paid homage to the work of artists of the Spanish Golden Age such as Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya, but also to his contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. Analysing the works of such artists, Valdés used them as a pretext to devise a completely new aesthetic through which he reflected on concepts of artistic appropriation and cultural legacy. Personaje con panuelo rojo is inspired by the iconic figures of Queen Mariana and Infanta Margarita in Diego Velázquez’s multifaceted masterpiece Las Meninas, executed in 1656. The work portrays a female figure dressed in Baroque clothes holding a red handkerchief in her left hand. The attention of the viewer is focused on the silhouette of the figure, which is created with a schematic preliminary drawing that aims at eliminating any decorative element including facial features. As the Spanish artist and writer Antonio Saura explained, ‘a broom has swept away all the features of the faces, preserving only sometimes the frame, on which he shapes the new skin after the vitriol has completed its erasure’ (A. Saura quoted in B. Akkoyunlu Ersoz, T. Bahar (ed.), Manolo Valdés: Paintings and Sculptures, exh. cat., Istanbul 2013, p.17). Valdés skilfully wipes out the face of his character, in order to focus the viewer’s attention exclusively on the solitary figure and abstract her from the historical context, eliminating every regal detail. For this reason, Personaje con panuelo rojo is not a sheer imitation of Velázquez’s figures, but rather a contemporary exploration and confrontation with them. Personaje con panuelo rojo has a highly textural surface, created by rugged burlap sacks and painted cloths. Valdés had previously experimented with such raw materials in the series of sculptures began in the early 1980s entitled Reina Mariana (Queen Mariana), evidently inspired by Velázquez’s Queen Mariana (1652-1653).
The title itself, Personaje con panuelo rojo (Personage with a red handkerchief), underlines Valdés’ contemporary approach to Velázquez’s Las Meninas; the figure has been decontextualized from her historical surroundings and has thus become a common individual, without an aristocratic title. Despite its monumental size, the work conveys a striking fragility that bears the marks of the agony of the 20th Century. By maximising the painting’s scale and erasing the character’s facial features, Valdés positions the female figure within a contemporary frame and thus distances her from the historic and artistic milieu of Velázquez.