Las Meninas dominated the space around it in much the same way as a bully dominates the school playground. Velazquez’s other masterworks displayed in the octagonal room seemed somehow diminished and beleaguered by its presence. Even at this relatively early hour, there were significant numbers of people milling around the painting. Some stood back, their mouths open, attempting to take in the scale and the unrelenting surprise of the work, while others could only deal with it in small doses, squinting at little areas of detail and shaking their heads in disbelief. Jacob moved further into the gallery. Avoiding eye contact with the painting, he focused on the shape and layout of the room, the distribution of light sources, and the interplay between the painting and the pattern on the gallery’s wooden floor. He positioned himself carefully at a point he believed to be the exact centre of the space. It had taken a number of minutes and carefully paced calculations to choose the right spot. He moved a few inches to the left and then back again to the right, adjusting his position. When he was sure he’d found the reference point, he was ready to look.
Instantly, the painting appeared to swell out and surge towards him like an impenetrable wave of darkness. The canvas pressed down into his face, forcing his eyeballs to rotate inside their sockets. Thick, tar-like fluid forced its way into his nose and mouth, down his throat and into his lungs. He couldn’t breathe. He began counting out his panic mantra in an attempt to offset the sensation of drowning.
“One – two – three – the air … four – five – six –”
But the sensorial assault persisted. He thought he was going to pass out and tried turning away, but his limbs refused to move. His lungs now felt as though they were about to burst through his rib cage. He began to lose consciousness and closed his eyes in preparation for the fall. But as he did so, normality returned. The weight of the invisible wave on his chest disappeared, the fluid receded and his airways cleared. He gulped in mouthfuls of oxygen until his heart rate slowed and he regained his senses. After a minute or so of controlled breathing, he had recovered sufficiently to open his eyes again. And this time, the painting remained where it should be and Jacob set to work.
Painting by Numbers – 06.08.12 – crookedcatbooks.com