a few movements, a flick, a flourish


If there’s one thing I know, it’s that Old Master paintings don’t go anywhere. They stay flat against the wall in their black and gold frames, or pinned like butterflies as reproductions in books. Yet here I am in the National Gallery, watching some of the greatest works of art in the world bounce up and down, dance from one room to the next, shift this way and that, as couriers, handlers, registrars and curators remove gods and monarchs from their packing cases.

Nearly four centuries ago, Diego Velázquez painted the gods of the classical world as if they were real people. He portrayed Mars, god of war, Venus, the goddess who loved him, and Vulcan, her cuckolded husband, as if they were characters in a tragicomic novel, with compassion for their foibles. Perhaps his ability to imagine so acutely the failures of divinities came about because, as painter to the king of Spain, he lived close to the melancholy and ironies of royal existence. His portraits of Philip IV and his minister Olivares, of infantas and dwarves, see a weakness in royal and humble faces alike, a humanity and a pathos that have rightly made Velázquez one of the most honoured of all artists.

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