Thursday, January 29, 2009

Velasquez: Daring the Impossible

Diego Velazquez
Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650
Doria Pamphilj Gallery

Every great painting is a failure; and it is its failure that makes it great. More to the point, it is the artist’s recognition of the impossibility of success that separates a great painting from a facile, easily read one. This is a theme that merits exploring, and I’ll start with the magnificent Velasquez portrait of Pope Innocent X. Nowhere is the internal contradiction between success and failure more obvious than in portraits. We see portraits again and again that succeed in portraying their subject, but somehow fall short - even though possibly done with impressive technical skill - in truly engaging the viewer. The viewer is left wondering what is missing. It’s often said that the spark of life is missing, but I think it is more than that. I think what sets a great portrait apart is that in it we see the artist’s recognition that the task is impossible, that it is simply not possible to completely depict, and thus define, a human being, no matter what the means or medium.


Gail Sauter said...

Hi Ellie,
Great post - failure is such a useful tool in the artist's toolbox! It's taken me years to overcome the fear of failure (and, yes, the dragon still rears its head occaisionally) - But, now, I consciously use failure as a signpost of where to go next, how to proceed, or when to stop... what I mean is, while I'm painting, I'm aware of "no, that color/brushstroke/mark/value shift etc didn't work, so I'll try xyz"... and, at some point, the painting is finished ... and it's a failure in that it NEVER is as good as my original idea - but it is a success at the same time because it got part way there - and that is as much as any painting can hope to achieve!


Ellie Clemens said...

Yes! I think that not only is failure a tool in the toolbox, it's the only possible outcome if a painting is to be, paradoxically, a success. If we try to avoid the ways in which a painting does not live up to our expectations, we start cheating, pretending that we 'got it right'- and then the painting becomes a lie. I agree, part way there is all we can get to - but that's what makes painting so addictive!