In 2009 El Corte Inglés, the biggest European department store chain based in Spain, reused Las Meninas, a masterful and seminal 1656 painting by Diego Velázquez, as an advertising poster within a commercial campaign directed by Jose Maria Cañas Maeso with Paco Navarro as fashion photographer. I am going to do a short semiotic analysis of both the original and the re-appropriated image, compare them and try to show the shift in meaning produced by the change of elements and context. In so doing I shall limit myself to consider Las Meninas only in relation to the poster, without any pretense to an exhaustive exploration of the visual and cultural complexities of this absolute masterpiece.
Las Meninas is a painting depicting the making of a painting. In a large and scarcely lit room, with the walls hung with framed works, Velázquez himself stands on the left in front of a big canvas, holding a brush and a palette and looking ahead towards where we, the viewers, stand. Moving to the right we see the delightful Infanta Margaret Theresa surrounded by her maids of honour, two dwarfs, a nun, a priest and a dog. On the end wall a mirror reflects the blurred images of Queen Mariana and King Philip IV of Spain, who are supposedly posing for a double portrait but stand outside the painting space (Palomino, 1724). Beside the mirror a chamberlain’s silhouette is back-lit in the doorway which is the vanishing point of the picture.
The artwork was produced for the private contemplation and pleasure of the monarchs and remained in the Alcazar Palace in Madrid as part of the royal collection until 1819 when it entered the Museo del Prado and became known as one of the most celebrated European paintings of all times (Konstantinidis, 2012).
On a careful examination, one becomes aware of a very complex play of gazes among the figures within the painting and outside it, as analysed in depth by Foucault (Foucault, 1966). The painter himself and most of the characters look outwards, beyond the picture space and towards the royal couple being portrayed and standing approximately where we, the beholders, are while watching the painting: the mirror at the back reflects the Queen and King and could theoretically reflect our image too. We observe the painter and the people in the painting, and are observed by them in return.
The fact that we look at the scene from the same position of the royal couple, that for a moment we are in their shoes, establishes a strong and contradictory relationship of participation and exclusion between the characters represented and us, the beholders. What we are watching is an intimate and private moment of the royal family life, which was exclusively meant for the royal gaze, not for us and certainly not for the crowds noisily assembling today in front of the painting in the Museo del Prado. Moreover we are only allowed to see the back of the canvas on which Velázquez is working and must limit ourselves to imagine the subject from a blurred reflection in the mirror, as if we were not admitted to a direct vision of the royals. So we see the scene as the sovereigns see it, briefly enjoying their royal point of view, but we are also intruders who may only have a glimpse of their indistinct features.
If I now turn my attention to the re-appropriated image of El Corte Inglés I see that many elements of the original have been maintained: the composition is fundamentally the same and so is the number of figures represented, their positions in space and postures are very similar, dog included, the colour scheme is slightly simplified with an intensification of tonal contrast, the sources of light have not been significantly altered.
On a closer look though the new image shows also substantial changes and substitutions: the middle-aged and self-conscious artist, intensively perusing the monarchs he is portraying, has been substituted for a young and canonically handsome photographer who passively holds a camera which he is not using, posing instead as a male model to be watched; the Infanta and her maids of honour are likewise transformed into fashion models; and models have become also the religious figures and the dwarfs, quite obviously eliminated as deemed unsuitable and even disturbing elements in a contemporary commercial context; the mirror at the back now reflects the images of two well-dressed people who seem to be observing the fashion shooting in the studio; the canvas, a meaning-charged feature in the original, is now a photographic umbrella, and the paintings on the walls are turned into empty frames.
Fig. 3. Comparison between details of Fig. 1 and 2
The re-appropriated image of El Corte Inglés, while paying a seemingly close tribute to many aspects of Las Meninas, also makes major changes to it, deliberately recasts its time and place frame from the XVII to the XXI century and from the Spanish royal castle to a photographic studio, and as a result it gives life to a new visual product that may perhaps look somewhat flat and unnaturally staged but that is well fit for its commercial purpose and context. In the process the exquisite richness and complexities of the original get intentionally lost since they are not functional to the task at hand, and only those elements that are useful to the intended persuasive message are retained while the others are dismissed as irrelevant or distracting. The original meaning and significance are emptied and replaced by new ones.
But the aura of the original is not dispersed, or better it is dispersed only in the poster while it gloriously lives on in the painting and this is so, I venture, because the two modes, that of high art and of visual culture, remain separate, and the concept of aura simply has no sense for the latter (Benjamin): the poster appropriates the cultural prestige and the iconic and internationally recognized qualities of Las Meninas and candidly transfers them to the department store and to its products, as stated by the caption ‘welcome where the fashion is art – bienvenido donde la moda es arte’. Interestingly English appears first and in big letters, showing that the message is specially aimed at tourists visiting Madrid and the Museo del Prado.
The department store becomes identified with a museum of high fashion – and fashion with art – as characteristically Spanish as Las Meninas, with its associated implication of excellence and splendid tradition, and the beholders/customers can rest assured that by making their purchases at El Corte Inglés they are not only buying the best quality, but also that in so doing they personally acquire distinction and become part of an aesthetically and culturally savvy élite.
List of illustrations
Figure 1. Las Meninas (1656) by Diego Velázquez [oil painting] At: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/V/velasquez/meninas.jpg.htlm (Accessed 17/03/2017)
Figure 2. Advertising poster (2009) of El Corte Inglés [poster] At: http://paconavarrophoto.com/the-art-of-fashion-el-corte-ingles (Accessed 17/03/2017)
Figure 3. Comparison between details of Fig. 1 and 2
Benjamin, W. ‘The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1932) [online] At: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf (Accessed 10/04/2017)
Foucault, M. (1966) ‘Las Meninas’ in The Order of Things : an Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon Books [online] At: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BysebiKtvtnWZGYzZjk0MzQtMDgzYi00YTFkLTk5NTYtYzE5NmNmYzBiNjU2/edit (Accessed 17/03/2017)
Konstantinidis, G. (2012) ‘Diego Velázquez – Las Meninas’ [online] At: http://www.velazquezlasmeninas.com/velazquez-las-meninas-analysis-and-interpretation-posters-prints.html (Accessed 17/03/2017)
Palomino, A. (1724) Vite degli eminenti pittori e scultori spagnoli. [online] At: http://www.marcomancin.com/art/documenti/Antonio_Palomino_Vite-degli-eminenti-artisti-Spagnoli_trad-Marco-Mancin.pdf (Accessed 17/03/2017)
The Khan Academy, ‘Las Meninas’. At: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/early-europe-and-colonial-americas/reformation-counter-reformation/v/vel-zquez-las-meninas-c-1656 (Accessed 17/03/2017)