On Writing – V is for Velázquez and Las Meninas

One of the central characters in my novel is not a person at all, but a painting. To paraphrase my book, Las Meninas dominates my narrative like a bully dominates a school playground. Las Meninas has to be one of the strangest, most enigmatic and  paradigm-shifting works of art ever created. Completed in 1656 by the Spanish grand master, Diego Velásques, Las Meninas was his finest moment (and that’s saying something because there are so many to choose from); an ironic, two finger salute to the establishment,  and creative artifice. The painting is a magnificent mind f**k on a grand scale, and the intensity of the viewing  experience can leave you disorientated and breathless. There are countless stories of visitors collapsing in front of the work, completely overwhelmed by its sensorial assault.

Throughout the centuries, Las Meninas has continued to mesmerise, delight, frustrate, enrage and baffle, and the mysteries and riddles that encircle the work and its artist serve to perpetuate and extend its legend.

Las Meninas wrestles conventions to the ground and offers a revolutionary take on art and our perceptions of the artist. The painting predicts modernity, the birth of photography and cinema, existentialism, psychology, celebrity culture, post-modernism – the list goes on and on. It is such a radical work, it took the rest of the world about 300 years to catch up.

When I started writng PBN, it was quite a challenge to find the best way to incorporate such an iconic and overpowering work of art within the narrative. I tried various methods, but the only one that seemed to make sense was to funnel its domineering presence through the filter of my central protagonist’s increasingly disorientated  mind. And as Jacob’s story unravels, Las Meninas. comes to symbolise his struggle to find meaning and understanding of the world within and around him.

So the next time you are in Madrid. I urge you to visit  El Museo del Prado, fight through the crowds and go see Las Meninas. I guarantee it will change the way you look out at the world forever.. ..and you might even write a book about it.

An extract from Painting by Numbers: Jacob’s first encounter with the  composition.

Las Meninas dominated the space around it in much the same way as a bully dominates the school playground. Velázquez’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 felt he had recovered sufficiently to open his eyes again. This time, the painting remained where it should be, and he set to work.


FINALIST – THE PEOPLE’S BOOK PRIZE - PAINTING BY NUMBERS – Tom Gillespie’s critically acclaimed, surreal thriller is available in digital and printed formats from    Amazon UK/Amazon US and all good online stores.

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2 Responses to On Writing – V is for Velázquez and Las Meninas

  1. Pamela Kelt says:

    Smashing. I did Spanish at Uni and loved 17th-century stuff. Quevedo was my favourite. He was a very rude man in silly spectacles but I liked his stuff because his books (mainly) were shorter than those of Cervantes and deeply sardonic. Cerv was a lovely man, by all accounts, but didn’t know when to stop (sorry, don’t like Don Quijote however you choose to spell it). My flatmates all did history of art and they LOVED Velazquez (can’t do accent, soz). Even though our course was pretty crusty, we even had lectures about the painting and the theories about the figure in the doorway, so I could contribute. I filled in some gaps about Felipe Segundo when they had essays to write, and they told me what they thought the painting was about. We wrangled. Fantastic.

    On a personal note, my daughter is doing History of Art at Edinburgh, and I suspect I’m enjoying it as much as she is.

    Apologies for late response tonight. We were buying the Interrail pass for this summer. Envious much. And she’s going to Spain, by the way.

  2. I loved the parts where the painting had physical effects on him.
    You wrote those scenes so well Tom!

    Only time I’ve ever ‘seen’ anything like that is in the first Matrix film when Neo takes the pill and goes ‘down the rabbit hole’ for the first time…

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