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I serendipitously discovered my favourite painting in Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado last week. I’d been told the art museum was just full of ‘old paintings’ and wasn’t worth my time, but it was a beautiful building and, with a day to kill in the city following the opening of Johnnie Walker’s new whisky store on Calle Serrano, I didn’t see the harm. Culture is good for the soul, after all.
Two things surprised me that day. Firstly, the discovery of Diego Velázquez’s towering seminal work, Las Meninas, hanging in the Prado’s lofty labyrinthine halls. The second was how much the discovery reminded me of a scene in Bean: The Movie (no, I didn’t sneeze on the painting!).
Depicting the young Princess Margarita Theresa being tended to by her babysitters as Velázquez himself looks on, Las Meninas has been described as one of the most important paintings in the history of Western art, and even as embodying the ‘theology of painting’.
The babysitters: Velázquez’s royal portrait (left) has been adapted multiple times by others, including Picasso (right)
The 1656 work has been studied, critiqued and even mimicked and explored by a string of artists since, most notably by Pablo Picasso, who painted 58 recreations of Las Meninas and its characters in 1957 alone. They now reside in Barcelona’s Museu Picasso, if you’re interested.
But it wasn’t the painting’s importance in the sinews of art history that drew me in. Not Velázquez’s delicate brushstrokes, the princess’ doll-like stature, nor the fact this work is considered a ‘Master’. I just like it. It spoke to me. And that was enough to keep me enthralled until a soft, authoritative (English) voice broke me out of my trance.
Narrating the painting’s importance to a crowd of tourists all sporting earphones, the guide explained: ‘See how the composition of the characters and the way they interact with one another, and even ourselves as viewers, makes us question the relationship between illusion and reality. But the true meaning of Las Meninas has eluded scholars until this day.’
Naturally, the elusiveness of meaning invites curiosity, as the tireless reproductions of the work can attest. According to Velázquez expert Jonathan Brown, who studied Las Meninas meticulously, ‘few paintings in the history of art have generated so many and varied interpretations as this’.
But Brown also added during a lecture in 2014: ‘I feel in my bones that I may be suffering from the early stages of LMFS – Las Meninas Fatigue Syndrome.’ Scholars could study and study one of the greatest pieces of art the world has known and still be none the wiser as to its meaning. The devoted, magnified study of a single subject without any meaningful conclusion is endless, ineffective and ultimately exhausting. Something that was once loved so affectionately becomes tiresome to embrace.
Look closer?: Mr Bean’s appreciation of art [here with Whistler’s Mother] exists on a basic level, but it’s appreciation nonetheless
It was this sentiment that reminded me of an exchange in Bean: The Movie. The haphazard Mr Bean, an incompetent art gallery security guard who continuously falls asleep on the job, is mistaken for an eminent art professor on a visit to the fictional Grierson Art Gallery in Los Angeles, much to Bean’s obliviousness.
Curator: ‘Tell me, Dr, what exactly is your position at the gallery?’
Bean: ‘Well I sit in the corner, and look at the paintings.’
Curator: ‘Ugh, that is brilliant. If only more scholars would do that – you know, just sit and look. Not lecture and write and argue. Just sit and look at the paintings themselves.’
Sometimes, all that’s needed is a simple reminder of what’s important. The same sentiment is true of whisky. How often has a cult bottling been dissected, analysed, tasted, reviewed and scored, discussed, debated and argued over to the point that we have lost sight of what its purpose is in the first place? Like art, whisky is there to be enjoyed.
The whisky world is throbbing with the noise of so many critical voices and opinions. We’re so busy arguing whether whisky should be chill-filtered, if malts from the ’60s are unparalleled, or drilling down into the intricacies of flavour creation that we stop appreciating whisky for the sake of pure enjoyment. How many of us have felt early-onset WFS – Whisky Fatigue Syndrome – settle in?
Ultimately, whisky’s meaning lies in our enjoyment of what’s in our glass. It’s time we were all a little bit more Bean, and took a step back to just enjoy the beauty in front of us.
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