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A Poetics of Time and Space: Ekphrasis and the Modern Vision in Azorn and Velzquez

Author(s): Gayana Jurkevich


Source: MLN, Vol. 110, No. 2, Hispanic Issue (Mar., 1995), pp. 284-301
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3251105
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A Poetics of Time and Space:


Ekphrasis and the Modern Vision
in Azorin and Velazquez
Gayana Jurkevich

In 1917 Jose Ortega y Gasset observed that Jos6 Martinez Ruiz


(Azorin) was at his best when writing with a rare book, the memory
of an architectural monument, a deceased historical personage, or
tarnished painting before him (2:164). Critics have long appreciated Azorin's literary intertextuality and his ability, in Harold
Bloom's sense of the word, to "veer" away from a precursor text
(always scrupulously identified), in order to create a thoroughly
original work of his own. While commentary on the influence of
painting on Azorin, his literary allusions to historical and fictional
works of art, and the painterly quality of his prose have become
topoi in the critical canon, a thorough study of the extent to which
the visual arts constitute the "other" text which informs and contextualizes Azorin's thematics, style, and the structure of individual
works is still to be had.1
In his MemoriasinmemorialesAzorin tells us that he never thought
of himself as a writer, but rather as a painter, and that when he sat at
the typewriter, he imagined himself with palette and brush in hand
(8:441). In point of fact, Azorin had a wide-ranging knowledge of
1 A notable exception to this plethora of superficial commentary is Inman Fox's
edition of La voluntad which, although it does not always consider the hermeneutic
intent of the artwork chosen by Azorin to elucidate aspects of his novel, does provide
meticulous notes that locate and date paintings, and includes biographical information on individual artists.
MLN, 110 (1995): 284-301 ? 1995 by The Johns Hopkins University Press
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the visual arts, and wrote critically on both classic and contemporary
art forms; he was an inveterate visitor of museums, well-versed in the
history and theory of art, and he counted among his personal
friends the contemporary painters Zuloaga, Beruete, and Vaizquez
Diaz. It is commonplace to attribute to Azorin, and especially to
Baroja, the modern rehabilitation of El Greco whose portrait of the
Caballerode la mano al pechobecame an iconographic symbol of the
Spanish Generation of 1898: reproductions of the painting graced
the studies of many of its members. However, according to Gaspar
G6mez de la Serna, the name of Velazquez, the other Spanish classical painter of note, is practically absent from the literature of the
Generation (42). G6mez de la Serna attributes this neglect of Velazquez to the unbridgeable spiritual gulf between the "aesthetes" of
the Generation of 1898 who identified more easily with the refined
and elegant distortions of El Greco than with the human realism of
Velazquez (43). Velazquez's name is likewise absent from Antonio
Risco's list of painters favored by Azorin (240), the member of the
Generation of 1898 most consistently attuned to the visual arts
throughout a career that spanned nearly 70 years. The truth of the
matter, however, is quite different from what Gomez de la Serna,
and others, would have us believe. It is my intent to dispel the
notion that Velazquez had no appeal for the Generation of 1898 and
to query the intellectual and aesthetic interstices which account for
Azorin inferring in Velazquez a kindred spirit. Through his absorption with Velazquean techniques that today we have come to identify
as modern concepts of representation, Azorin, anticipating Ortega
and Foucault, saw in the master's work a contemporary phenomenology of vision. I will consider the story "Lacasa cerrada" (Castilla)
as an example of the way in which Azorin engages a painting by
Velazquez in dialogue, utilizing the work of art as a visual referent
for what is, in reality, an essay that interrogates the dialectical relations between word and image, and the displacement of painting,
an art of natural signs, by literature, an art of arbitrary, linguistic
signs, in the creation of visual reality. In so doing, Azorin gives the
traditional topos of ekphrasis a decidedly modern turn by asserting
the priority and supremacy of language.
The year 1899 coincided with the third centenary of Velazquez's
birth, commemorated in Spain by the organization of a "SalaVelazquez" at the Prado Museum, and the publication in France of the
first modern catalogueraisonneof the master's work by Aureliano de
Beruete, a landscape painter who, in addition to supervising the

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Vel6azquezactivities at the Prado, was closely allied intellectually and


aesthetically with the Generation of 1898 writers, and to whom
Azorin would dedicate Castilla, his seminal book of essays, in 1912.
Perhaps because of his friendship with Beruete, Azorin took an early
and profound interest in the work of Velazquez. He was familiar
with contemporary bibliography on the painter, including not only
Beruete's impeccable contribution to Velazquez scholarship, but
also those of the French painter-art critics Aman-Jean and Rafaelli
(7:237-40). In Azorin's view there was no painter more modern or
more universal than Velazquez (7:237), and it is not reproductions
of El Greco's Caballerowhich hang in the studies of Azorin's "fictional" protagonists, but "grandes fotografias de cuadros de Velazquez" (2:94). Citations of Velazquez appear again and again in
Azorin's work, whether in the form of references to actual paintings,
or as mere pictorial metaphor such as the invocation of royal princesses with their "pafiuelos de batista en la mano, como en los
retratos de Velaizquez,"a metaphor with many avatars which Azorin
recalled whenever he needed to evoke the atmosphere of classical
Spain.2
Of all Velazquez paintings, however, it is Las Meninas which seems
to have had an ineffable magnetism for Azorin, clearly enjoying a
position of privilege in his intellectual and aesthetic views. The
painting has many different functional values in the writer's work,
ranging from purely decorative intent, such as the carefully lit reproduction of Las Meninas in the study of Antonio Azorin in the
eponymous novel (1:1009); ajournalistic essay condemning the disfiguring coat of varnish applied to the painting in 1903 (Pintar como
querer12); an essay/short story devoted to Jose Nieto, the small
figure on the background steps of the painting (2:467-69); an imaginary visit to Velazquez's studio in which a discussion of perspective
in Las Meninas takes place (5:977-7); not to mention the photograph of a middle-aged Azorin standing in front of a reproduction
of Las Meninas which appears on the back cover of Juan Manuel
Rozas's edition of Castilla.
Velazquez was an intertextual painter. His canvasses, including
2 Whether
alluding to Velazquez or not, Azorin's art metaphors are often synecdochic in the sense that they frequently refer only to a small portion of a painting or
to a painter's general style. In such cases, delivery of the metaphor's full symbolic
impact presupposes a reader's familiarity with the painting, series of paintings, or
artistic movement inferred by the writer. All citations from Castilla refer to Inman
Fox's 1991 Austral edition and will be included parenthetically in the text.

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Las Meninas, often duplicate either his own work or that of other
painters and, in some cases, as Ortega pointed out, the master recasts ancient mythology in modern, irreverent terms. Azorin's special fondness for the Meninas can be accounted for by his own
predilection for the self-reflexive: in literature we have only to mention the triumphant, late novel Dona Ines, replete with Velazquean
structures of self-referential works of plastic art. There is evidence,
as far as painting is concerned, that Azorin was fond of the Flemish
masters so proficient in the games of visual embedding that we know
today as mise en abyme:considering Azorin's citations of Memling,
van Eyck (La voluntad 109) and Petrus Christus (Pintar como querer
65), it is safe to assume that he must have known reproductions of
the classic WeddingPortrait of Giovanni Arnolfini by van Eyck with its
reflecting mirror strategically placed in the background, or Memling's Martin van Nieuwenhovediptych in which a convex mirror
placed behind the back of the madonna in the left-hand panel
reflects not only her back, but also the donor van Nieuwenhove,
depicted in prayer in the right-hand panel of the diptych. The Petrus Christus Saint Eligius has a convex mirror which reflects a street
and two passersby located outside the frame of the painting, and it is
also quite possible that Azorin may have known Quintin Matsys's The
Banker and His Wife, housed in the Louvre, in which the crucial
mirror is placed at an angle facing the spectator and reflects not
only the space represented, but also a figure and a street scene
painted in perspective within the mirror, a technique anticipating
the controversial mirror and interior canvas Velazquez placed at an
angle in Las Meninas.3 Azorin's interest in the Flemish school may
perhaps also be attributed to what Giner de los Rios noted was van
Eyck's, Memling's, and Matsys's "extremada conciencia en apurar
los pormenores del natural" and their human subjects "que respiran
de una verdad extraordinaria, carecen de aquel amaneramiento y
aquella afectaci6n que por entonces privaba" (20:271-72). Wellknown is Azorin's own attention to naturalistic detail, especially the
mundane aspects of rural life-the "primores de lo vulgar" made
famous by Ortega who likewise argued that Velazquez was the first
3
Although Azorin visited Paris in 1905 and again in 1918, he never went to the
Louvre until his exile to Paris during the Spanish Civil War. In his memoirs, however,
the writer does say that before actually setting foot in the museum, he knew its
contents quite well: "por libros, fotografias, por postales, por reproducciones varias,
conocia yo estas obras" (5:853). For discussion of Memling and Van Eyck, see Dallenbach (10-11); for Petrus Christus, see Risco (69 n26); also Maravall (109).

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modern painter to depict objects not in their idealistic, generic


forms, but as displaying their quotidian and prosaic idiosyncrasies
(8:523).
In his study of Velazquez, Ortega dates the beginning of modern
painting to the conscious attempt made by the artist to introduce
the temporal element into a normally spatial medium. According to
Ortega, painters before Velazquez avoided the temporal, while the
great discovery of the Spanish master was that of "freezing the instant": "Eso es lo que eterniza [Velazquez] y esa es, seguin 61el,la
mision de la pintura: dar eternidad precisamente al instante"
(8:487). Critics from Ortega to Foucault have invariably cited Las
Meninas as the painting most exemplary of Velazquez's desire to
arrest time, to detain movement in space.4 In Las MeninasVelazquez
shows not only himself standing before a canvas, brush in hand,
poised to begin his task, but also Jose Nieto with one leg raised,
clearly about to step through the back door and out of the room,
and the Infanta with her meninas appearing as if surprised by the
arrival of something or someone else located outside the frame of
the painting.
Velazquez's meditation on the nature of time and his personal
desire to attenuate its chronological sequentiality was also a concern
of Azorin. As he describes it, Azorin's "dolorido sentir" consisted in
the fact that all his life the writer was obsessed with "esa sensaci6n
vaga ... del tiempo y de las cosas que pasan en una corriente
vertiginosa y formidable" (2:90). Azorin's attempts at preserving, or
reliving time thematically in his creative work, his revival and restitution of the Spanish classics in his essays on literary history, and his
penchant for the use of the present perfect or historical present
tense throughout his work, are all instances of what Ortega so perceptively called an "ensayo de salvar . . . al mundo inquieto que
properante va hacia su propia destrucci6n" (2:174).
In his desire to surprise and to suspend the present moment on
its flight into history, Azorin engaged in the same kind of exercise,
albeit for different personal reasons, as did Velazquez. In separate
essays on painter and writer, this similarity of intent was noticed by
the cultural historian, Jose Antonio Maravall. In his monographic
study of the painter, Maravall notes that Velazquez tries to petrify
instances of existence: "trata de captar el objeto individual en el
momento en que este pasa por dentro de el ... en un instante
4 See Foucault 3, Maravall 80-82,
Ortega 8:486-87, and Searle 248.

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plenamente individualizado" (80). Writing on the idea of microhistory in Azorin, Maravall observes the manner in which quantum
theory revolutionized the modern conception of time, suggesting
that Azorin thought of time as consisting of fundamentally discrete
units. Maravall's assessment of the writer's preoccupation with temporality is nearly identical to his appraisal of Velazquez when he
alludes to "Esos 'momentos'-quanta de significaci6n, los hemos
llamado-que trata de captar Azorin con su observaci6n . . ." (53).
By representing physical movement frozen in time, Velazquez introduced the issue of temporality and implied the notion of narrative sequence in painting, inherently a spatial form of art. Azorin,
on the other hand, frequently attempts to suspend the inherent
temporality of narrative through the spatializing poetics of
ekphrasis: a topos which subverts the diachronicity of literature by
verbally recreating within the parameters of language art forms, the
synchronic and spatial/visual qualities of the plastic arts. Perhaps
unbeknown to himself, Ortega perceived Azorin's ekphrastic imperative in his 1912 review of Lecturas espanolas, a review which also
happens to adumbrate similar observations Ortega would make
about Velazquez:
El arte de Azorin consiste en suspender el movimiento de las cosas haciendo que la posturaen que las sorprendese perpetue.... De este modo,
se desvirt6ael poder corruptordel tiempo. Se trata,pues, de un artificio
analogo al de la pintura. (1:239)
Ortega's comment infers the debate between the "sister arts" originated by the Greeks and taken up in neo-classical aesthetics by
Lessing in the Laocodn (1766), a work in which the philosopher
pretends to distinguish painting from poetry by contrasting the
temporal nature of literature with the spatial characteristics of
painting.
Azorin himself was aware of the time/ space controversy involving
literature and art, and he addressed the "discrepancias que habian
surgido en torno a los limites de la pintura y la poesia" in a chapter
of Capricho,titled "Elcritico de arte" (6:915). Thinly disguised as the
art critic, Azorin recalls "los razonamientos de Lessing en su Laocoonte"as he considers whether painting can truly be said to portray
a single, discrete moment apprehended synchronically by the human eye, and literature a series of moments meant to be understood
in diachronic progression.
Although most students of the ekphrastic impulse in literature

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acknowledge that the verbal and visual arts can never entirely replace one another, and therefore maintain a perpetually dialogic
relationship, the verbally created plastic object is, nevertheless, frequently interpolated into a literary work in an attempt to retard its
linear movement. Because the plastic arts are essentially timeless
and their "temporality" follows a circular, or repetitive pattern, superimposing the "frozen, stilled world of plastic relationships" upon
literature has the effect, as Murray Krieger expressed it in his classic
essay on the subject, of stilling "literature's turning world" (Ekphrasis
265-66) .5

The ekphrastic moment is therefore a conflictive one since it


impels the work of verbal art to accommodate the inserted, generic
"other" by temporarily suspending its internal laws of linear succession. The final intent of such literary mimesis is to coax the language art into imitating as closely as possible the style and technique
of the visual arts. Literature is thereby empowered with the unique
capability of reproducing the atemporal simultaneity of painting,
sculpture or even architectonic configurations within the confines
of its own chronological irreversibility, although, as Krieger remarks, this type of literature shall always be accompanied by an
"archetypal principle of repetition, of eternal return" ("Still Movement" 125).
Given Azorin's life-long obsession with the notion of eternal return and his attempts to sabotage the forward march of time, it is
not surprising that he would make extensive use of the ekphrastic
imperative in his work. That he should also empathize with Velazquez, a painter intent on capturing the instantaneity of a scene or
passing moment, is also understandable. Azorin surely recognized
in the painter's work parallels to his own: Velazquez's experiments
with the introduction of temporality into the "stilled" movement of
painting complement Azorin's resolve to delay the chronology in5
Joseph Frank was the first to study the subversion of narrative linearity via the
spatializing effects of the ekphrastic impulse in his ground-breaking "SpatialForm in
Modern Literature" (1945). Although unrelated to the intrusion of verbally generated works of art into literature, similar displacements of narrative linearity were
noted by Gerard Genette who classified the techniques through which an author
might induce conflict between story (histoire) and the manner in which that story is
told (discours). Azorin's "La casa cerrada" is a case in point: the protagonist's blindness, information which logically should be given at the beginning of the essay, is
only fully revealed analeptically; that is, the reader is provided information with
which to decode the narrative long after its most propitious moment.

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herent in narrative by introducing into the arts of the word, the


circular, self-reflexive movement connotative of the visual arts.6
Although a number of paintings by Velazquez engage in the exercise of freezing an instant of physical activity-Ortega mentions Los
borrachosand Las lanzas as two examples (8:486) -it is Las Meninas
which takes this Velazquean theme to its limits as it portrays not one
discrete action, but, as we have seen, that of many. Referring to Las
Meninas Foucault observed the circular pattern of movement to
which the painting compels a spectator's eye (13), and the figure of
Velazquez himself "caught in a moment of stillness, at the neutral
centre of this oscillation" (3). For these, and many other reasons
that will become apparent, Azorin chose Las Meninas as the structural axis and visual emblem for his essay "Lacasa cerrada" (Castilla,
1912).7

On first consideration "La casa cerrada" appears to be a simple


narrative about two men who return after a considerable absence to
the home where one of them had lived as a child. In true Azorinian
fashion, despite the passage of time and an important physiological
change wrought in the protagonist, there have been no major transformations within or without the walls of the house: "todo estai lo
mismo que hace quince anos." Neither the family portraits nor the
photograph of Las Meninas in the study has become discolored; the
dining room, too, appears as if dinner had been served there just
the evening before.8 While mention of Las Meninas in this essay
seems rather casual and purely decorative, it is tempting to ask why
Azorin chose to place this particular painting in this particular narrative, and why the protagonist would say that the figure of don Jose
6 The art historian Enrique Lafuente Ferrari notes that one of Velazquez's greatest achievements was to "realizar en la pintura, arte espacial, la captaci6n del tiempo" (131).
7 Another favorite painting of Azorin's was Rembrandt's San Mateo, most likely
because he saw in it another instance in which a painter arrested his subject in
motion: "veia al retradado con la pluma en alto . . . abstraido, pensando en lo que
iba a escribir" (8:352).
8 The return to a closed or abandoned home is a symbol Azorin favored to represent "time capsule" effects. "La lucecita roja" (Castilla), "La casa vieja" and "La casa
abandonada" (Leyendo a los cldsicos) recapitulate similar themes. Murray Krieger
remarked that circular structure narratives which find their ends in their beginnings
are "spots of time" demonstrating a conflation of time and space (qtd in Kestner 77).
Inman Fox proposes that in his battle against the clock, Azorin conflates time and
space purposefully in order to nullify time's destructive power and to create a new
reality in which past and present coexist ("Lectura y literatura" 154).

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Nieto always had a profoundly suggestive influence upon him (203).


We note, first, thatJose Nieto is portrayed arrested in the motion of
drawing back a curtain, "con un pie en un escalon y otro pie en
otro" about to exit the room (202). Second, the protagonist speaks
of Nieto as "ese hombre lejano-lejano en ese fondo del cuadro y
en el tiempo" (203)-a figure remote both in time and in the manner in which Velaizquez has placed him within the painting. Thus
Las Meninas conflates the representation of time and space that so
interested Azorin.9 In the same way that Las Meninas preserves the
"stilled movement" of a group of people as they were caught at a
specific moment inside Velizquez's palace studio, Azorin's "Lacasa
cerrada" is modelled along the lines of a "time capsule" which has
just been re-opened, disclosing its contents to the spectator/reader.
Upon closer scrutiny, Azorin's verbal homage to the perspectival
schematics which "frame"Jose Nieto in the doorway is not sui generis, but one in a congeries of frames, mirrors, windows, and paintings within Las Meninas, all of them bespeaking the structural organization of Azorin's essay. From the outset, "La casa cerrada" is
situated within the paradigm of the visual arts through Azorin's
constant use of frames and framing devices which tend to convert
what is seen through them into a "picture." As in several of his
essays, Azorin begins "La casa" with the ascent of the protagonist to
high ground, in this case to a mountain pass, from which the valley
and town below can be apprehended in bird's eye perspective. The
view described is seen through the window of the carruajein which
the men travel, its borders marking off the interior of the vehicle
from the scene beyond, effectively transforming the valley into a
landscape framed by the carriage window.10?
Once Azorin's travelling companions enter the home they repeat
the ascensional movement which opened the essay, this time to a
second-floor gallery from whose windows the protagonist remem9 Las Meninas and the background doorway where Jose Nieto stands and beyond
whom a brightly lit corridor recedes even further into the distance is recreated again
in "Las nubes" (Castilla) where Azorin recalls a "puertecilla de cuarterones en el
fondo-como
en Las Meninas, de Velazquez-deja ver un pedazo de luminoso patio" (159).
10 Mary Ann Caws mentions that placing a protagonist or an action at an unusual
height or "enclosed in a noticeable set of limits and openings," contributes to the
creation of a framing effect (22). In his "Meditaci6n del marco," Ortega argues that
the window frame as a compositional structure is similar to a picture frame since
both isolate their contents from the reality which surrounds them, moving what is
seen through either picture or window frame closer toward the aesthetic-ideal
(2:311).

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bers he liked to contemplate "el panorama de la vega" (201). The


gallery windows, like the windows of the carriage, transform the
view described into another framed landscape. Proceeding to the library, the protagonist asks about the portraits which hang on its
walls. Assured that neither moisture nor time has harmed them, the
protagonist asks they be taken down so that he can run his hands
over the paintings which he differentiates by their frames: "los distingo por sus marcos" (201). It is at this moment that Azorin makes
two analeptic revelations: first, he confirms the reader's growing
suspicion that the protagonist may be blind; therefore, the reader
becomes aware that the narrative is experienced not through the
protagonist's eyes, but through those of his companion who becomes metonymic not only for the protagonist's vision, but also for
the eyes of the reader. What is "seen" is thereby doubly framed by
the companion's eyes which themselves must peer through many
different types of "frames"as they apprehend the narrative scene.11
The framed family portraits of "La casa cerrada" appropriate
greater significance when the reader is able to recognize them as
belonging to the larger series of verbally framed pictures and landscapes which materialize within Azorin's discourse. As a structural
device narrative frames possess greatest importance when they juxtapose a narrating present with a narrated past, leading a reader or
fictional character to a "retrospective vision as an occasion for assessing the past and measuring one's present against it" (Dittmar
192). In the case of "La casa cerrada," the analeptic revelation of
the protagonist's present blindness, emphasized when he must feel
the portraits of his ancestors with his hands, confronts not only the
man's past and present, but also functions as a narrative frame that
establishes a considerably altered manner and scale of values by
which to engage the essay in a second reading.
Additionally, the two family portraits of "La casa," visual representations embedded within the representational medium of literature,
mimic the two pictures Velazquez painted on the rear wall of Las
Meninas, itself a painting encompassing a myriad of portraits.
Through these background pictures, identified as paintings after
sketches by Rubens, an artist twenty-two years older than Velaizquez
11 Cf. Caws (262 and 28-29) on the metonymic function of an included observer
and the framing technique of "seeing an observer see." Viola Hopkins suggests that it
is at moments where sight (in Azorin's case, the lack of sight) merges with insight
(the reader's awareness of Azorin's visual games as fundamental elements of plot,
theme, and stucture) that the framing device is used to greatest effect (563).

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whom the Spanish painter came to know rather well during


Rubens's eight-month stay in Madrid (1628), Velazquez measures
the present of his own career against the legacy of a precursor
artist.12 Just as Azorin introduces spatial qualities into his essay
through the use of both figurative (narrative) frames and literal
(picture) frames, conflating time and space into one discrete, sensory experience, so Velazquez, as he responds both to the work of
Rubens and del Mazo in his own painting, permits the entry of
narrative chronology into a spatial form of art.
From the portraits in the library, the nameless protagonist of "La
casa cerrada" and his equally nameless companion ascend to the
highest level of the home where the blind man's study was located.
In the study, the protagonist immediately proceeds to a window
from which he tells us he liked to observe "los huertos de la vega"
(202), often drawing the landscape closer to his eyes by using a pair
of binoculars, creating another of the many "dual frame" structures
which pervade the essay. It is in this room, above the desk, that the
protagonist hung a framed reproduction of Velazquez's Las Meninas, its very status as a photographic duplicate an adroit restatement of the self-reflexive nature of the original with its infinite
regress of frames.13 In the same way that Velazquez creates the
illusion of space and volume in his painting by situating frames
within frames drawn in increasingly deepening perspective, Azorin
invokes the literary frame in order to create a comparable illusion
of space and perspective in "Lacasa cerrada." He further reinforces
12 Nina Ayala Mallory identifies the two paintings as copies made by Juan Bautista
del Mazo (Velazquez's son-in-law) of Rubens's Minervay Aracneand Jordaen's Apoloy
Marsias (162). Reproducing these art works in Las Meninas allows Velazquez a paratactic evaluation of his own work against that of the precursor Rubens as well as that
of the younger, less-talented pupil and "heir," del Mazo. Eric Rabkin notes the
modernist use of parataxis to promote a "dialectic between the synchronic and the
diachronic aspects of reading to retrieve a coherent value system . .." (270). Velazquez's modernity, unappreciated until his "rediscovery" by Manet and the impressionists, is manifest in paintings such as Las Meninas which represents three generations of painters, a diachronicity which the spectator, nevertheless, must grasp
synchronically. The inclusion of works by contemporary artists in Las Meninas leads
the intertextuality and perspective embedding of Velazquez's painting to even greater depths, taking the number of framed pictures in the masterpiece to an unprecedented level of complication.
13 Don Jose Nieto framed in the doorway and the framed interior paintings are
reiterated by the heavy, protruding window frame in the right-hand side of the
painting (revealed only by the light which streams through it into the studio), the
framed canvas on which Velazquez is about to begin painting and, finally, the framed
mirror which, in turn, frames the indistinct visages of Felipe IV and Queen Mariana.

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its frames and spatial qualities by inserting three paintings-one


historical, two fictional-inside his narrative. Ultimately, however, it
is the verbal art which implodes the still, circular movement of the
ekphrases, framing them within the boundaries of the essay's dominant, linear progression.
In his study of Velazquez, Jose Antonio Maravall suggests that a
mirror, a window, or an open door such as those which appear in Las
Meninas are frequently placed in a painting to make visible and to
accommodate within the picture spaces or vistas that would otherwise remain outside the purview of the work of art (110). While for
the Flemish masters who first explored self-reflexive painting, and
whose work is the intertext for both Velaizquez and Azorin, mirrors
usually played no role other than to duplicate in perfect mise en
abymethe contents of the picture within which they were placed
(Foucault 7), the mirror of Las Meninas makes visible a scene located outside the parameters of the painting.14 As the spectator's
eye attempts to decide whether the subject of the picture is the
Infanta and her entourage located within the painting, or Felipe IV
and Queen Mariana located outside the picture frame but made
visible by the mirror, the spectator's eye is lured into an oscillatory
dialogue between the interior and exterior contents of the painting.
A similar kind of dialogic exchange between the inner and the
outer, the visible and the invisible occurs in "Lacasa cerrada" as the
reader's eye moves continuously between the inner spaces of vehicle
and home to the exterior views of plain and town, doubly framed by
the eyes of the protagonist's companion and the carriage, gallery,
attic windows and picture frames through which he sees. In the
same way that Velazquez positioned himself at an interstitial location within his own painting; that is, as one who sees and is himself
part of the scene, forming an axis between the inner and outer
worlds of his painting, so in "La casa" the blind man's companion
functions as a point of exchange between the "seen" world of the
essay as apprehended by the reader and the scene as he describes or
helps to reconstruct it for the protagonist. As the mirror restores
visibility to the "other" in Velaizquez's painting, so, too, the controlling eyes of the companion in Azorin's essay restore vision to the
blind man and to the reader.
14 The
mirror, in fact, may not be reflecting the King and Queen in the flesh at all,
but their portraits which Velazquez is painting on the angled canvas within Las
Meninas. Cf. Buero Vallejo ("Acerca" 2).

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In "La casa cerrada" the illusion of an eyewitness account given by


the protagonist is induced by his constant use of verbs of perception: divisar, contemplar, ver, mirar, leer occur several times on each
page of this short narrative. The paradox, of course, is that the
eye(I)witness is blind and sees nothing at all. The physiological act
of vision is therefore reconstructed through language; more specifically, through a rhetorical pattern of questions posed by the protagonist based on his surroundings as remembered by his "mind's
eye" and detailed, descriptive responses offered by the companion
who confirms or completes the blind man's recollections:
-Dime, ise ve a la derecha . una casa blanca que apenas asoma entre
los arboles?
-Si, ahora parece que refulge al sol un cristal de una ventanita que estai
en lo alto. (199)
--Pasamos por la plaza ahora? jC6mo me hartaria yo de ver esta plaza
ancha ... !
-Alli esta todavia, han abierto algunas tiendas nuevas. En el centro de la
plaza han hecho un jardincillo. (200)
-mEsto sera un paquetito de cartas? Aqui debe haber tambien un retrato
mio a los ocho afnos.
-Si, este es, esti casi descolorido. (202)15
The entire visually perceptible reality in "La casa cerrada"-the
town, its landscape, the interior of the house and the works of art it
contains-is
recreated through language; more precisely, through a
series of speech acts emanating from the protagonist and his friend
who, together, verbally conjure the visual reality of the essay.
Focalization is equally problematic in Las Meninas and "La casa
cerrada." Velaizquez does not execute his painting from the customary artist's point of view at a location outside the picture. Rather he
cedes that privilege to someone else by placing himself inside Las
15 The same technique of evoking visual reality through a pattern of questions and
answers is used by Antonio Machado in the poem "AJose Maria Palacio" (Camposde
Castilla). The poet, like Azorin, also employs the future of probability to confirm a
visual memory of place:
JTienen los viejos olmos
algunashojas nuevas?
Aun las acaciasestarandesnudas
dHayzarzasflorecidas
entre las grises penias,
(...)

Por esos campanarios


(187)
ya habranido llegandolas cigfiuenfias.

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Meninas, and portraying himself as painting the very same scene as


observed by the spectator or possible model who now occupies the
overdetermined "point of view."Vision resides with whomever occupies that position, perhaps the King and Queen who observe Velazquez observing and painting them while they observe their daughter and her ladies who, in turn, observe the royal couple. Similarly
in "La casa," the privilege of sight does not reside with Azorin's
protagonist, but with the reader who "observes" the companion
observing for his friend (and the reader).
In Las Meninas the images of visibility and non-visibility are so
numerous and overlapping that, in the final analysis, they displace
the intended subject of the painting. The royal couple, because of
their location outside the picture frame, are seen only as indistinct
images reflected in the mirror on the back wall of Velazquez's studio. As Foucault points out, the paradox of Las Meninas is that the
royal couple is neither "in" the picture, nor are they depicted
clearly, and no one "in" the picture is looking at the framed mirror
which attests to their presence (7). Thus the ostensible subject of
the painting is relegated to the status of object and the abstract
notion of point of view replaces Felipe IV and Mariana as the intended protagonists of Las Meninas (Searle 257).16 As the subject of
both essay and painting slip out of focus, Azorin and Velazquez are
able to create for themselves greater latitude in which to study the
epistemology of vision.
Foucault proposes that the mirror in Las Meninas-and I would
add, the entire painting-"provides a metathesis of visibility" (8).
Ortega also concluded that Velazquez's masterpiece reached the
pinnacle of what the visual arts could achieve: "la retracci6n de la
pintura a la visualidad pura. Las Meninas vienen a ser algo asi como
la critica de la pura retina" (8:477). Indeed, another Spaniard, Antonio Buero Vallejo, a painter before winning international recognition as a playwright, made a similar determination in two critical
essays on Velazquez's painting, as well as the drama titled Las Meninas. In the play, Buero portrays the painter's chief intellectual and
technical pursuits as those of representing sight and the dynamics
of vision in his work. Responding to jealous accusations levelled
against him by inferior palace artists, the character Diego Velazquez
16 Foucault attributes this
dynamics to the impossibility of portraying both artist
and King as having equal importance in the same painting. As the intended subject
of Las Meninas is elided, "representation freed finally from the relation that was
impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form" (16).

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retorts, "Vos creeis que hay que pintar las cosas. Yo pinto el ver"
(275).
Azorin's familiarity with critical literature on Velaizquez, his special love for Las Meninas, and his invocation of the painting by a
blind man in "La casa cerrada" is by no means without ulterior
motive. Rather, the painting serves a hermeneutic purpose, embodying semiotic information the reader must have in order to
grasp the deep structure of the text. As Velazquez's painting assumes dimensions other than those of a royal portrait, so "La casa
cerrada" becomes Azorin's own "metathesis of visibility."The images
of sight, its lack, who sees, how they see, and what they see are the
true subjects of both essay and painting.
A visual emblem instigates philosophical reflection "whenever the
nature of images becomes linked with an account of the nature of
man" (Mitchell 158). W. J. T. Mitchell designates a visual image
which provokes speculation of this kind a "hypericon," and adduces
Foucault's Las Meninas as precisely the kind of visual emblem that
possesses an ontology beyond its status as a museum piece. For
Michel Foucault, perhaps even for Velazquez himself, Las Meninas
was not a a royal portrait at all, but a (re)presentation of representation, a painting whose subject is vision itself. For Azorin, too, Las
Meninas became a "hypericon" which he used to challenge Velazquez on his own ground, questioning the efficacy of the natural sign
as the sole determinant of what the "mind's eye" could recognize
and accept as visibly "real.'17
Throughout his long career Azorin seems to have considered Las
Meninas a painting which engaged him in dialogue not only on the
nature of representation but also on the nature of man. The blind
protagonist of "La casa cerrada" is especially interested in whether
or not the figure of Jose Nieto is still visible in his copy of the
painting. Nieto has always seemed extraordinarily real to him, simultaneously alive and eternal as are "heroes or geniuses," and he recalls whiling away many hours of conversation with Nieto in the
solitude of his study (203). Thirty years after publishing the essays of
Castilla, Azorin invoked an imaginary visit to Velazquez's studio in
Pensando en Espana. In the essay Velazquez confides that the greatest
issue to confront painters is that of perspective, of which there are
17 This is the entire
point of the ekphrastic impulse: to imitate the spatial and
visual qualities of a work of plastic art with such vividness that the visual image is
recreated in all its volume and solidity before the eyes of the reader. Krieger refers to
this aspect of ekphrasis as enargeia (Ekphrasis68, 126).

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two kinds: physical and metaphysical. Velazquez then inquires of his


visitor whether he has not been successful in achieving both types of
perspective in the small figure ofJose Nieto portrayed at nearly the
innermost point of the deeply receding perspective in Las Meninas.
For the fictional Velazquez, the figure of Nieto positioned on the
rear steps leading to the famous puertecita de cuarteronesand the
blaze of light in the corridor beyond, speaks of hopes and joys we do
not know, pain which we have yet to experience, of destiny itself
(5:977-78). In short, he is a personage which engages "VelazquezAzorin" in the same kind of meditation as he did the protagonist of
"La casa cerrada."
Because of its status as a canonical work, the "hypericon" may,
with time, shift from an image which stimulates discussion to that of
a reified sign (Mitchell 158). As Mitchell observes, one of the aims
of literary iconology is to "breathe new life" into visual emblems
reified by time and commercial or intellectual exploitation
(158-59). In his use of the Meninas as an iconographic metaphor
and visual referent designed to unveil beneath the exquisite narrative "miniature" of "La casa cerrada," a debate on natural and arbitrary signs, Azorin reveals himself as a true literary modern, taking
up the enterprise of pouring new wine into old wineskins recommended by Mitchell.18
In a penetrating essay on modern and post-modern art, Charles
Newman referred to Ortega's metaphor of the window and the
garden (The Dehumanizationof Art), to illustrate the differences between nineteenth and twentieth century approaches to the perception of reality. While naturalism and realism assumed that the window glass was perfectly transparent, offering unobstructed views of
the world, in the twentieth century the window of perception becomes "fogged with authorial breath as much as nature's mist." For
Newman the twentieth century metaphor for language is a cognitive
process in which both observer and observed are dependent upon
each other. "The window of language is no longer in fact a window,
but its own autotelic agency: Opacity as Reality" (66-67). This di18 In his
study of Ortega's identification with Velazquez as exemplary of the "modern," Thomas Mermall argues that what concerned Ortega most were the "historial
variations of the subject as creator of meaning" (240). In "La casa cerrada" Azorin
appears to suggest a comparable idea: one who controls the verbal sign has the
capacity not only to create meaning, but to create meaningful visual reality through
language alone. Eric Rabkin adds that the tendency to spatialize narrative is characteristic of the modern imperative to revitalize literary forms (270).

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vorce of the arbitrary sign from the natural sign which Newman sees
at the core of modernist aesthetics is also the keystone of Azorin's
"La casa cerrada." The windows, literal and figurative, through
which Azorin's reader "sees" are made possible by the protagonist's
opacity; that is, his inability to see. If the reader perceives anything
at all of the blindman's surroundings, it is due to the ability of
language to reproduce a visibly lived reality. And so well does the
linguistic sign recreate the perceptibly real, that the protagonist's
blindness never impedes understanding; in fact, it is not even confirmed until the essay's close.
I suggest that Azorin chose Las Meninas to contextualize a reading
of "Lacasa cerrada" because he clearly understood Velazquez's masterpiece to be a painting about the dynamics of vision. In Azorin's
view, then, apprehension of the visibly real, generally associated
with the natural signs of plastic arts, could be fashioned with equal
validity through purely linguistic means. Language, because of its
autotelic nature, could displace, perhaps even supersede, vision. For
Azorin writing had-as Francoise Meltzer put it-finally "replaced
the portrait" (137).
Baruch College,CUNY

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