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Review: Turning the mirror on Velazquez in ‘The Ladies In Waiting’

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This biography of 17th Century Spanish painter Diego Velazquez wraps itself around one work, in particular, Las Meninas, or The Ladies In Waiting, from which Santiago Garcia and Javier Olivares take their title.
The work itself is much lauded and examined in the history of western art, capturing various members of the court of King Philip IV, including his daughter Infanta Margaret Theresa and her entourage, including a dwarf and a dog.

Several aspects of the work have made it stand out, most notably its casual quality that stands in contrast to most official portraits. It humanizes its courtly subjects. Velazquez also features his patron, Philip IV, and the Queen, in a mirror, and even includes himself at the easel, which is unheard of in royal portraiture.
The thematic effect is to bring everyone pictured to somewhat the same level. Actually, not only is Velazquez made equal to the Infanta by his positioning, and by also giving the child a less than lofty presentation, but he is also presented as more prominent than the rulers of Spain. And the dog and dwarf grab your eyes more than anyone else in the image. It is an equalizing image, if not a downright revolutionary one.

As presented in The Ladies In Waiting, this equality was one of the primary goals in Velazquez’s life. Structured around an investigation set into motion by the king that would bring Velazquez into the nobility. This gives narrative reason to revisit various points of Velazquez’s life and examine his relationship with the king.

These sections are personable, filled with life and humor while still functioning as informational. They add a vivid aspect to the history and shape Velazquez as a multi-dimensional real human being, rather than the subject of a biography or even a slave to the analysis of his work.

But the graphic novel is also able to expand well beyond the confines of Velazquez’s immediate life, winding his impact into incidents in the lives of no less than Spanish painters like Dali and Picasso, and French writer/philosopher Michel Foucault, who has written about Las Meninas. So the headiness inherent in the work and the story is there in the biography, but it never collapses around the human story and crushes it under the weight.

Olivares’s art is a particular delight in this book. Partially pulling from Picasso’s cubist styles, but shifting aspects of it according to whatever the vignette might demand, he adds an otherworldly quality to the presentation that gives it further power. Velazquez becomes less a faithful rendition of his real self, but a shadow cartoon version of his own meaning, walking through a variety of presentations that offer multiple perspectives on one scenario, a man’s life, exactly as Las Meninas does in that room filled with the king’s court.

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