Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez at the Museo del Prado in Madrid

What’s your problem?

Velazquez’s Las Meninas just might help.

Painting, or broadly creativity, is not only problem solving, but it’s also, and even mainly about, identifying and creating problems. And the type of problems we identify and create say just as much, if not more about us, as the solutions we arrive at.

For instance, Velasquez’s Las Meninas appears to me as an extravagant exploration of a curious problem. It appears the problem is how he might satiate his own artistic curiosity while creating a painting of the princess that doesn’t seem to be about her at all. The most interesting technical problems to figurative artists are often perspective, composition, subject matter, light, identity, and scale amongst many others. What more satisfying way to explore these elements than through misdirection, manipulation, and imagination? Particularly considering that he was painting at a very high technical level since he was a child, many of those technical queries which serve beginning artists as captivating problems such as anatomy, paint handling, etc…those most likely would not have been captivating for him at that point. So he would have continually, as all artists must, create ever increasing challenges for himself.

I’m citing Las Meninas because it is a highly venerated work with many theories surrounding its meaning. I suppose as an artist, I don’t find its meaning as compelling as its problem. In terms of meaning, it’s a work that I don’t respond to on an emotional level. It’s rigourous, in some ways I find it to be too much, I see insatiable curiosity and more than a pinch of hubris. But I don’t necessarily see the point of speculating over a concrete meaning as such, if there was meant to be one, then it would seem he failed to communicate it clearly. But, I find it hard to believe that an artist at his level would find himself unequal to the task of clear communication, as is evidenced in many of his other works.

I find it all the more captivating for its mystery. And that to me says that he identified a worthwhile problem. I’m not sure what that was, and I don’t need to know. It was his problem and his solution is wonderful to look at.

I find in it, not a meaning, but a method, one of seeing, asking, and solving. It’s how I like to think an equation might look if transposed into form - complex but succinctly ordered.

Naturally, in order to grow, it is necessary to solve problems that have been solved over and over again by multitudes of other artists. But, I think those artists who stand out and seek more than virtuosity, are those that have taken the time, energy, and creativity to identify a problem that is worth solving and of course, that their particular solution, is worth looking at.

Perhaps this is why Velasquez was not as prolific as might be expected. He was searching for the right problems, not spending his energy on problems already identified and solved by previous artists. And really, if you were the court artist for King Philip IV, it’d be a right waste of extravagance not to luxuriate in such an opportunity.

If you’d like to learn more about this painting than my biased musings, check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Meninas. There you’ll find an excellent high resolution image, history of the painting, and links to the many theories surrounding it.