The exhibition is exhaustive, except for one very obvious omission. You think it is possible to tell Velázquez’s story without his most famous masterpiece, Las Meninas?
Guillaume Kientz: I definitely didn’t want Las Meninas in there. The painting would have spoiled the show. Everybody would have rushed to it without looking at what went before or after it.
What I’m trying to show in the exhibition is that it’s possible to know another Velazquez to the one presented in the Prado. Velázquez is a genius but genius doesn’t grow up in a separate world. He was influenced by his masters, indebted to his contemporaries, working in a dialogue with many talents.
Wouldn’t you say he was a very inventive artist even as a teenager?
Velázquez’s originality as a young painter owes more to his handling of the paintbrush than his invention. His compositions to begin with are conventional. It’s with his technical ability to portray naturalism that he makes a difference first. Naturalism was the trend at the time but Velázquez’s naturalism was more efficient, more powerful. He begins to create complicated paintings later.
Diego Velázquez, Autoportrait, 1640-1650. Oil on canvas. © Museo de Bellas Artes, Valence
There are so many portraits in the show. What’s astonishing is that he didn’t idealise one of his sitters, even at court — not even the King’s children.
He was interested in human fault more than anything else. He wanted to show people, not just as they are, but where exactly the fault is in people.
After a few seconds looking at a Velázquez portrait you experience something very strange — that you’re not looking at a painting, but the painting is watching you. I think that’s what he was looking for.
Velazquez started service at King Philip IV’s court aged 23 and spent almost his entire career there. Do we know if there was a special relationship between him and the King that allowed him such creative freedom?
King Philip IV plays a very important role in the artist’s story. He loved art and he was able to recognise a talent when he met one. We can’t say that the King was his friend. The King was nobody’s friend; he was a demi-God and Velázquez was his servant. But we do know that the King took a great interest in his work, visiting Velázquez’s studio every day.
Diego Velázquez, Vénus au miroir, circa 1647-1651. Oil on canvas. © The National Gallery
What sort of man do you think Velázquez was?
I can tell you what sort of painter he was, but as a man? I imagine him silent, because his painting is silent.
In what way is his painting ‘silent’?
It’s very subtle. It’s like a good sentence — there is no word that is not serving the sentence in some way. He’s economical; everything is necessary. He never puts anything superficial or overflowing.
Velázquez’s The Toilet of Venus is described in the exhibition as ‘the most beautiful nude in the history of painting’. That’s quite a claim!
It’s a question of charm. It’s the most charming nude in the history of painting. The fascinating thing about the Venus is the enigma. We don’t know who she is — the image of her face in the mirror is totally blurred. We don’t even know if she had beautiful eyes, or even if she is looking at us. Velázquez is revealing things and hiding others. That’s the magic effect of the painting.
You have juxtaposed the Venus with a sculpture of a recumbent Roman hermaphrodite from the Louvre. Was that because he was interested in that sculpture?
We know that he ordered a copy of that sculpture and that he took a special interest in it. The two works have never been shown together like this before.
Diego Velázquez, Portrait du pape Innocent X, 1650. Oil on canvas. © Amministrazione Doria Pamphilj srl
In bringing so many works together from his early and late career, what’s been your most exciting discovery?
I wanted to show that the first naturalism in Velázquez’s painting — in his early bodegón paintings (tavern scenes) — actually came earlier than his discovery of Caravaggism. It wasn’t until the early 1620s, when Velázquez first went to Castile, that he discovered that style of Italian painting.
I’m also the first to draw attention to his skill as a landscapist. There is no tradition of landscape painting in Spain. Velázquez discovered it in Rome on his first day at the Papal court. It was the beginning of landscape painting’s triumph in Rome, a time when Poussin and Claude painted their first landscapes. For Velázquez it was a shock, and an important stage in his training. He practiced landscape painting in Rome. When you look for it in the show, you can really see how he develops. At times it’s magnificent.
Many argue Velázquez was trying through his art to assert the artist’s status at court. Do you agree?
It’s a misunderstanding. Velázquez didn’t do anything to improve the situation of painters in his lifetime. He was interested in his own social ascension. He was probably the only painter who could have persuaded the King to found an academy in Spain – but he did not.
Being a painter was not well considered at the time. Painters couldn’t be appointed to the Order of Santiago, for example. I don’t think he ever wanted to prove painting was a noble art. I’m sure he was convinced it was, but it was not his fight.
Main image: Vue de l’exposition Velázquez. Exhibition design Atelier Maciej Fiszer © Didier Plowy pour la Rmn-Grand Palais, Paris 2015
Velázquez is at the Grand Palais until 13 July
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