What we see, we see / and seeing is changing
-Planetarium (1968), Adrienne Rich
The first time José Almeida Pereira went to the Prado Museum, “It was maybe the first time I saw nothing,” he says. José describes seeing everything at a distance: he saw the works as pictures, not paintings. He asked himself, “Do I like these pieces because I saw them in art history books? How do I judge them?” I encountered José’s painting before I encountered the artist himself. When I saw his small painting of a bouquet of flowers in a glass vase, there was something familiar in José’s brushy strokes and bright colors. I later learned that the painting was made after an original by Édouard Manet from 1882. Manet was a dedicated follower of Diego Velázquez, who painted 200 years before him. And now, José tries on another, older hand; from Manet to Velázquez, the chain remains consistent. More than a ripple of recognition, José’s copies from other artists’ work confront the limits of space and time. His mimesis of master works is methodological and theoretical; beyond emulating the original painting’s content and technique, he explores the meanings we assign to the masterpiece as a historical concept.
Museums were once filled with artists who painted copies from the old masters. Édouard Manet met Edgar Degas at the Louvre in January 1862 when they both found themselves copying the same painting: Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of the Infanta Margarida (1653). Copying masterworks had been common practice long before their meeting, but the subject matter was fairly new. Spain had restricted the export of their masterworks until the Peninsular War (1808-1814) brought French invaders who seized hundreds of paintings by Murillo, Zurbarán, Velázquez, and other Spanish masters and installed them at the Louvre. After the Bourbon Restoration of 1815, France returned many of these paintings, a number of which became part of the Prado’s collection when the museum opened four years later. The French continued to admire Spanish painting throughout the 19th century. Between 1841 and 1880, for example, France’s Ministry of Public Instruction in Fine Arts acquired or commissioned 534 copies of the Spanish Golden Age paintings that still remained in the nation. No such practice based on the copy is in place today.
As their preference for Velázquez’s Infanta shows, Manet and Degas followed the French preoccupation with Spanish painting. On his first trip to the Prado in 1865, Manet wrote a letter to fellow painter Henri Fantin-Latour referring to Velázquez as “the painter of painters.” Degas amassed a sizeable private art collection including work by El Greco and other Spaniards using money from his family’s cotton trade in the Southern United States. He would later tell George Moore, “No art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, and temperament I know nothing” (Impressions and Opinions, 1891). For Manet and Degas, copying the old masters was more than a mimetic device. At the time he met Degas, Manet had just begun painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, and the following year he would complete Olympia. Manet developed his most iconic works alongside his copies, not separately. But can the copy be a masterwork in itself?
Degas’s and Manet’s Infantas share the same reference, but the artists’ renditions are distinct. In Manet’s picture, the girl faces left, and in Degas’s she faces right. She wears an expression of surprise in one and boredom in the other, and Manet’s firm, thick strokes are at odds with Degas’ lighter, cottony hand. The artists internalize and transmit their subject according to their own proclivities. This perspective is crucial in the copyist, but in this case it presents an interesting consequence. Both artists turned their drawings of the Infanta into etchings. Prints circulated faster and farther than the original in 19th century France, making their diverging versions more widely accessible to the public than Velázquez’s painting itself. José’s work is not for speed, but it cannot avoid pointing to our contemporary modes of copying and reproducing the image, too.
The word copy is connected to the way that humans produce and consume media through time. The Medieval Latin word copiare represents an era when information was spread by hand; it means to write an original text many times. After the printing press, the word copia came to mean abundance. Today, a copy is the thing and the action of making the thing (copying). Copying requires precision, but there is subtlety, too; we distinguish between the copier, which is always a machine, and the copyist, who is always a human. José is dedicated to painting as a craft and as a history. This makes his study of painting adulatory and impossible- materially, since the stuff of pigments and mediums have changed with time; technically, since the original artist’s hand and training cannot be cloned; and spiritually, since the socio-cultural milieu that produced the masterwork no longer exists. His paintings follow George Kubler’s description of copying in The Shape of Time (1962): “Copying is an hermeneutic task- understanding, understanding better than the original, understanding differently, or even demonstrating the impossibility of understanding.”
Unlike Degas and Manet, José’s work with masterpieces is done not at the museum, but through photographs. Photography threw figurative painting into crisis, but it also brought our eye closer to the surface of painting than ever before. Made by a copier (camera), not a copyist (human), the photos are extreme details, crisp and precise. They allow José to study and reconstruct the original work’s strokes and colors with accuracy. But he is a copyist, not a copier, and so his process is infused with a sense of wonder. In Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio (1817), Stendhal writes about how “the contemplation of sublime beauty” (seeing the masterworks of Western art history) inspires in him “celestial sensations” and “a fierce palpitation of the heart.” José describes being overcome by a similar Stendhal Syndrome when standing before a small Richter portrait, a still life by Van Gogh, or one of Goya’s Black Paintings. This mixture of analysis and reverence, pleasure and mystery, is at the core of José’s work.
While painting, José lives between past and present. Each piece is an apprenticeship between himself and the original work. His inquiry reanimates the source painting, and it speaks to him and us from far away. Kubler writes, “Knowing the past is as astonishing a performance as knowing the stars. Astronomers look only at old light. There is no other light for them to look at. This old light of dead or distant stars was emitted long ago and it reaches us only in the present. Many historical events, like astronomical bodies, also occur long before they appear, such as important works of art made for ruling personages. The physical substance of these documents often reaches observers only centuries or millennia after the event.” More than knowing the past, José enacts a physical engagement with it, retracing choices and compositions that were first made hundreds of years ago. When he places his new labor before us, he asks: What is the gap between knowing a masterpiece as an image and being in front of it as a real object?
We’ve seen José’s images on the internet, in a museum, or in the pages of a book. They are perennial, pervasive pictures, and we cannot avoid déjà vu. José’s paintings after Velázquez make us think of Velázquez himself, of the Spanish Golden Age when he worked, and of the artists who came before and after him. This chain of associations perfumes José’s paintings with the same ideas about museums, cultural patrimony, and western art history that his originals carry. But in José’s work there is the additional layer of the present moment. He catches us in actuality, what Kubler depicts as “A diamond with an infinitesimal perforation through which the ingots and billets of present possibility are drawn into past events.” In bright colors and fantastical flourishes, José infuses the masterpieces of Velázquez, Rembrandt, and others with mirages, holograms, and interferences that signal his presence, and our presence, in actuality.
José’s work is close to its reference pictorially, and far away temporally. We cannot know the original creators’ intentions, but José’s paintings make us keep asking. As W. H. Auden wrote in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts (1938), “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position; how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” So it is with Velázquez’s Bufones, a series of paintings which continue to be controversial. José was drawn to the pieces because of the figures’ gazes. Indeed, the faces of El Niño de Vallecas (1643), El Bufón Calabacillas (1639), and the others disconcert us. We become like the dwarf in Oscar Wilde’s The Birthday of the Infanta, who discovers the reality of his own reflection in a mirror for the first time: “He started, and taking from his breast the beautiful white rose, he turned round, and kissed it. The monster had a rose of its own, petal for petal the same! It kissed it with like kisses, and pressed it to its heart with horrible gestures.” Velázquez’s paintings break our hearts because we see ourselves in the bufones, but also because we will never be alike. The mirror reflects and deflects.
The court jester doesn’t belong in society; he is a freak. But the conditions that make him the subject of ridicule at court are also what give him a special power. As the embodiment of madness and impotence, the buffoon is given carte blanche to do and say whatever he wants. This is a freedom otherwise only felt by the king himself. The buffoon is absurd, the king is mighty. But as José says, “The buffoons are like mediums (mediúnicos); they know more than average people. They know what it means to be physically, and therefore spiritually, different. They are closer to the truth.” And there’s another carte blanche: the empty canvas before it’s touched. It could become anything; it could even become something that may already exist.
A couple of months ago, José sent me a photo from his studio. The photo showed the artist standing in front of two of his giant bufones canvases in progress. The paintings were far bigger than José himself. The artist was simultaneously inside of the paintings- encompassed and engulfed- as he was creating them- his paints and brushes nearby. Thanks to José’s paintings, these masterwork images are no longer kept away from our physical experience, confined to the pages of books or computer screens. They are made tangible because they are extensions of his hand. José gives us the gift of a work’s presence in our moment, in our actuality. Existing inside of the work while making it is a dichotomy. It could be seen as impossible; it could be like seeing nothing. But for José, it means seeing everything.