W hen in the early 1970s, John Berger developed a series of videos for the BBC in which he explained how the perception of the work of art depends on how we approach it, he was highlighting a facet of the work that, in occasions, we forget. Its interpretation from the context of its exhibition. That is, the staging. This last element was fundamental and fully assimilated by the Baroque, which sought the total artistic experience – and today we call it artistic immersion when relating it to contemporary art – in order to achieve an experience of the transcendent.
It is the moment of the gadgets that made divine exposition appear and disappear through complicated stages where the glow of the candles was reflected in the golden gleams of the motley interiors accentuating that transcendent sense. To this had to be added the music of the organ and the smell of incense. The disappearance of these spaces as they were conceived (the arrival of electric light, the change of the liturgy, etc.) means that works conceived for these places now hang in museums completely isolated from the space for which they were intended, altering, for both its vision and its final significance. For this reason, the Prado Museum has transformed the vision of one of Velázquez’s masterpieces, giving rise to a staging where the 21st century viewer finds the original format, or closer to the original, what is it? what is he really pretending? A better appreciation of the subject of the work as the painter had conceived it, may be the first answer to this question. This is explained by those responsible for the museum, and it is true that the composition fits much better.
However, we still lack context. The additions, now covered, were made in the 18th century to adapt it to the new space where it would be placed within the royal spaces. The way of seeing the work has changed. It is not better or worse than the previous one, but a form of recycling and, therefore, of subsistence. Well, that adaptation has allowed him to reach our days. This is something that was perfectly understood by seventeenth-century artists, who intervened in previous works to adapt them to the new spaces for which they had not been conceived. This is how we see it in the Prado museum itself with Rubens’ Immaculate Conception, made in a semicircular format and which, possibly, Velázquez himself altered to a quadrangular one. More interesting is the enlargement that Rubens himself made in 1628 of the Adoration of the Kings, a work that he had painted for one of the rooms of the Antwerp city hall, and that ended up in the Spanish royal collection, a place where the painter warns that he had lost all its meaning. By adding two stripes at the top and right, it achieves greater monumentality and a better perception of the work in its new context. There are many examples that we can cite of these adaptations to the new spaces that the works are having.
It is something that is part of their internal history, and that helps us historians to locate them in their spatial place in time, understanding why they were hung in a certain place and not another.
Museums are places of preservation and care of a material heritage of all and, of course, the best places for this legacy to be transmitted to the following generations, of that, there is no doubt. However, it is true that the public that comes to museums is very heterogeneous and, therefore, their experience of the work will be very different. In the same room, before the same work, the tradition and the personal baggage of the spectator will make the interpretations different. Adapting the looks to capture the first meaning that the artist has given it is an interesting task for a museum.
The exhibition proposal of the Fable of Arácne by Velázquez falls within this double intention, to bring the public closer to what would be the first conception of the Sevillian artist, at the same time as isolating the work from his past. The solution devised is good, because like a baroque drapery, the work can detach from its frame to show the passage of time, another version of itself, and, therefore, another perception.