Thursday, January 29, 2009
Velasquez: Daring the Impossible
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.