The Best Painting in the World?

Guernica by Pablo Picasso
Guernica by Pablo Picasso

At the end of teaching a week-long workshop in Spain, my wife and I had decided to stay on a little longer and cross a couple of things off my bucket list. I wanted to pay a visit to Madrid and see two paintings that had haunted my imagination for many years, one in the Prado, the other across the street in the Reina Sofia. We began in the Reina Sofia, with Picasso’s Guernica, the powerful, towering indictment of fascism he painted for the 1937 World’ Fair in Paris. Familiar from countless books and television documentaries, endlessly celebrated and discussed, heralded as one of the artists’ greatest works and lauded as one of the strongest anti-war statements ever made, the picture is both what you thought you knew and yet powerfully more when you are confronted with the enormity of the original.

It’s sheer vigor, inventiveness and emotional clout overwhelm. It is both horrifying and wonderful. Immediately comprehensible, universally understandable and yet in a language all Picasso’s own. If he had made nothing else, it would have established him as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. You need to see it to believe it. Truly. That 10-inch-wide print in your art history book doesn’t even begin to do it justice. Whether you are in love with the Modern or abhor it, the sheer audacity of inventing an entirely new visual language takes your breath away. It is a stunning achievement.

I’ll admit I find the apparent cruelty of many of Picasso’s works difficult (he said, himself, that life was cruel and his work was at least honest – Art being the lie that tells the truth). I don’t always like his technique or his palette and I find myself thinking he perhaps repeated himself too often – that less might have been more – but I cannot think of anyone else who so commandingly seized his chosen mode of expression and changed it so totally. He sits astride 20th century painting like a Colossus, his presence as belligerent as the bull, or Minotaur, he used so often as a motif, his visual voice echoing across much of what followed.

But I still had to see what is often hailed as “the best painting in the world”, Las Meninas, by Velazquez, in the calmer halls of the Prado, a block or two away.

What does an epithet like that even mean? “The best”? The greatest of all pictures among millions? Is it even Velazquez’s best? What about his stunning portrait of Pope Innocent the 10th? Many artists and critics hail that as the finest portrait ever painted. Or his profoundly moving portraits of the Court dwarves and jester that give these people back the dignity and humanity their positions seemed destined to deny them? These moved me to tears.

Las Meninas by Velazquez
Las Meninas by Velasquez

Well, it certainly commands the room, and there, in black, his doublet adorned with a red cross, controlling the paintings’ enigmatically engineered space and his cast of characters, is Velazquez himself. Ostensibly a portrait of the young princess and her attendants visiting the studio to view the enormous canvas we tantalizing see the edge of in the foreground, it is also a puzzle. What is the subject of the painting we don’t see? Is it the Infanta herself? Or her parents, the King and Queen, glimpsed dimly in the mirror at the back of the room – surely too far away to be a true reflection of someone standing where we are? And who is the courtier in the doorway and what message does he bring? We can identify all the players, but are left with the mystery of the play.

Of course, the King rules all he surveys, his daughter is a figure of authority, the courtier in the background and the Royal retinue are all important – but who is in command here? It is Velazquez, admiring his own handiwork with a certain swagger, who is at center stage, elevating his own status with assured confidence. They may all be royalty and he a mere employee, but here he reins supreme, creating an undoubted masterpiece. I am properly awed.

So, is it the best painting in the world? I have no idea, but standing in front of it is an awesome and humbling experience – the draftsmanship, the confidence in the brushwork, the bold deft looseness that surprises up close, the sheer audacity of the concept are all breathtaking – so at that moment it just might be. Whatever, it’s damn good. And like the Picasso we saw earlier, it demands to be seen in person – at just over 10 feet tall and 9 wide, it’s full majesty cannot be condensed into a book, nor experienced in a film.

That both these paintings are by Spanish artists and in the same city is remarkable and well worth the trip. Now, let’s see.. how can I afford to go again?

What do you want to be…

What do you want to be when you grow up?

An engine driver. Everyone wanted to be an engine driver. Back then, we had steam trains and if you’d ever seen a steam train you’d want to drive one too. Diesels’, when they replaced steam, just didn’t cut it and my ambitions shifted to naval hero, England goal keeper, explorer, and then, post-Beatles, rock star and romantic poet. All along I was drawing these fantasies, and my real skill was staring me in the face, but drawing was just something I did, like a nervous habit, it didn’t occur to me it could be an ambition. And then I saw Rembrandt.

Self portrait by Rembrandt age 63
Self portrait by Rembrandt age 63

I was 15, visiting the National Gallery with my parents, and we walked into the room featuring the Dutch Master. There was his extraordinary self-portrait, aged 63, the resigned yet defiant face looking at itself for signs of affirmation, for the memory of all he had been, yet also looking at me- the viewer- and challenging me to know him and to attempt to make something that lived out of paint. 

Old Man in an Armchair by Rembrandt
Old Man in an Armchair by Rembrandt

There too, was Old Man in an Armchair, a care-worn, balding, white-bearded figure with his head resting on one hand, painted in deft, bold, masterful strokes. I looked at the portrait and saw the man my father would become as he aged, and thought, that’s what I want to do, I want to paint, I want to be able to paint my Dad like that when becomes that man. It was an epiphany. A certainty was born in me that somehow, someday, I would paint portraits. I knew finally, in that moment, what I really wanted to do when I grew up.

Of course, I didn’t grow up to be Rembrandt- part of growing up is the realization that no one grows up to be someone else, you can only grow into yourself and make the best of what you have been given, but the idea that I might make people that have life in them, people you might want to know, out of paint has been my sustaining vision, as it was his. And I have discovered, as he did, that this life isn’t always easy, that there are disappointments as well as wonderful highs in the life of an artist , that each day brings fresh challenges and new discoveries.