Still sexy after all these years

    A good example of his supremely manipulative intelligence at work is that notorious nude in the National Gallery, the sly back view of a voluptuous brunette whom we’ve taken to calling the Rokeby Venus. She’s Venus, all right. But nobody at Rokeby Park, where she lodged for a century, ever really owned her. She’s unownable. With this goddess, it’s the other way round. And her ability to get under the viewer’s skin was proved beyond reasonable doubt on March 10, 1914, when a demented suffragette called Mary “Slasher” Richardson set about her with a meat cleaver. Richardson hacked and hacked at Venus’s delicious back; if you look carefully, you can still see the scars.

    At the time, Richardson insisted that her attack was a political act; recently, the police had arrested Emmeline Pankhurst. “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history,” the Slasher raved. It was only in 1952 that she finally admitted a deeper reason for the meat cleaver. She’d attacked the picture, Richardson hissed, because she “didn’t like the way men visitors gaped at it all day long”. Richardson was jealous.

    And she had good reason to be. Velazquez set out to trigger wicked thoughts in his viewers. Making his Venus a back view was a stroke of genius. He knew what men liked.

    He knew that the sight of that long, naked back and the invitingly plump Spanish bottom would fire a live dart straight into the centre of every spectator’s erogenous zone. In the really wild ones, it would trigger rape fantasies. For the rest of us, there’s just that sexy promise of potential seduction. If Venus is as gorgeous as this from the back, imagine what awaits you at the front.

    But — and this is his second stroke of genius — the little Cupid on the bed, the attendant, the lapdog, is holding up a mirror in which Venus’s face is reflected. And if you can see her, then she can see you. She knows you’re watching. She knows you’re salivating. Of course men gawped at the Venus all day at the National Gallery. She was flirting with every single one of them.

    In 1800, the Venus was bought by Manuel de Godoy, the notorious chief minister of Charles IV of Spain. Godoy hung her next to two Goyas he had recently commissioned, the celebrated reclining Majas, one naked on the bed, giving you the come-on, the other clothed, but still giving you the come-on. What a boudoir that must have been. Godoy’s loins would have sizzled like the eggs frying in a Velazquez still life when he found himself alone in the afternoon with that lethal threesome of Spanish she-devils. Goya was a brave artist, too, and a genius, but without the example of Velazquez, he would never have dared imagine his home-wrecking Majas. Godoy commissioned him; Velazquez put him up to it.

    Look what he did, too, to our own Francis Bacon. I’m sorry, but when you first see Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, in Rome, you do not see a crazed, salivating, screaming pope of the sort Bacon painted over and over again in the 1950s, when he succumbed to the Velazquez disease. Velazquez’s pope is stern and tough. He locks you in a stare that tells you who’s boss. The original Innocent is surely innocent of dementia.

    However, let’s say you yourself have some madness in you. Say you’re Francis Bacon. Say you hate authority and popishness, and adore savagery and nihilistic disrespect. Say you’re a homosexual with violent lusts. And you look at this picture and, instead of a tough pope, you see a demented figurehead of a hated religion, an emotional lion caged on the throne of St Peter, a biblical anger trapped in its seat. In those circumstances, you might be encouraged to paint screaming popes.

    When David Sylvester asked Bacon if the open mouths of his popes are always meant to be screaming, Bacon replied: “Most of them, but not all. I’ve always been moved by the movement of the mouth and the shape of the mouth and the teeth. People say that these have all sorts of sexual implications, and I was always very obsessed by the actual appearance of the mouth and teeth.” Bacon’s popes aren’t merely screaming. They’re involved in some cosmic fellatio.

    Going back to Goya, who do you think it was who taught Goya how to satirise the Spanish royal family? Who, in portrait after portrait, has a go at Philip IV, with his blubbery, lipsticked lips and that camel’s head of his, which seems to have been squeezed in a vice? Who implies Philip’s stupidity without describing it? Who puts the idea into your mind that the Spanish royals were morons while never actually saying anything of the sort? That’s Velazquez.

    And when Manet painted his Olympia in 1863, and changed the course of modern art by provoking the mother of all art scandals with her, to whom was he paying homage? Manet’s Olympia is the Rokeby Venus brought up to date — a whore descended from a goddess. And you, sir, entering the picture from the front, seeing her stretched out naked before you, are her next client. Those are your flowers she’s receiving. Olympia accuses everyone who looks at her of being a kerb-crawler. No wonder she frightened them.

    But we’re confining Velazquez to the past, and that’s wrong. He was a player in the 20th century, and he’s a player now. The proof is Picasso. The same arrogant Picasso who was so habitually grudging in his praise of others never made a secret of his taste for the master of Seville. When the Spanish revolutionaries made Picasso the director of the Prado in 1936, they viewed it as a symbolic appointment; but Picasso did not. For Picasso, the falling into his hands of all those magnificent Velazquezes at the Prado was an act of magic entrustment. His famous quip — “All those artists finally belonged to me” — was not nearly as light-hearted in meaning as it now sounds.

    This summer, a thunderous show at the Prado celebrated Picasso’s debt to Velazquez. If you missed it, you missed an array of revelations. The highlight was the hanging of Picasso’s versions of Las Meninas next to Velazquez’s huge original. In the late 1950s, Picasso painted more than 40 versions of Velazquez’s most ambitious and greatest painting. He locked himself away in his studio in Cannes and, night after night, for month after month, he did battle with it. That superb Picasso biographer John Richardson has given us the details of the encounter. It was war. A campaign. An attempted conquest. And it failed. Picasso’s versions of Las Meninas are like Top Cat cartoons compared with Velazquez’s mighty painting of himself, the infanta, her maids, the dwarfs and the dog, waiting for the king and queen to enter.

    The finer fruits of Picasso’s obsession with Velazquez are found elsewhere. Let’s examine Guernica. The greatest war painting of the 20th century is inconceivable without the example of Velazquez. Its sheer black-and-whiteness is Velazquian in its stringency. That busy Velazquez war painting in the Prado, The Surrender of Breda, with its prickly spears and its frozen bellicosity, definitely brought something to Guernica. So did Las Meninas, because one of the things it is about is the exposure of fragile female innocence to mighty masculine darknesses. And what about those lusty cavaliers with Velazquez moustaches who flood Picasso’s late art? Whose moustache are they envying? Stare deeply enough into Picasso’s core and you’ll always find Velazquez.

    Which is not to say Velazquez’s skill at mind games is his only lasting legacy. He inspired tons of other projects. The famous dwarfs and cock-eyed buffoons he recorded in the Spanish court, the ones who stare so directly at you and dare you to laugh, were the first such misshapen taunters in art. Where would Diane Arbus have turned without those precursors? Lots of painters had painted ugliness. Most of them disapproved of it. Velazquez did not.

    Where did Lucian Freud learn to love grubby details and brazen stares? Where did Stanley Spencer find the succour he needed to record so unflinchingly his sagging nakedness, as well as that of Patricia Preece, then to compare the two of them to a leg of mutton? Who opened all of those eyes to the edgy vitality of sex-tinged obsession? Velazquez, of course. Who gets under your skin and remains, to this day, a very dangerous painter.