Jul 24, 2020 in Art
Julie Mehretu and Diego Velázquez

As an artist, I am deeply interested in the ways employed to show the nuances and elements of human identity. Unfortunately, very often I see the paintings that depict a person, but, in fact, they tell nothing about a person’s emotions, inner life, and many other important things. The portraits of this type are only the technical rendition of the person’s appearance and the artists do not manage to include anything else. I have always been impressed by the paintings created by Velázquez, as I consider him one of the best European portrait artists. Therefore, it was very interesting for me to watch the video, where Julie Mehretu discusses Velázquez’s works and discusses many aspects that I have overlooked earlier. This video reveals the deep connections between the artistic principles and ideology of these two painters, but, at the same time, it shows that the ways in which artists interpret the theme of human identity are quite different.

Diego Velázquez was a Spanish painter who, for most of his life, worked for King Philip IV. Nowadays, Velázquez is especially famous for his portraits, such as Philip IV in Brown and Silver (1632), Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650), Las Meninas (1656) and others. His oeuvre belongs to the period that is usually called the Spanish Golden Age when this state enjoyed probably the biggest power in the world and was considered to be the most significant political and economic player (Schreffler 12). Juan de Pareja, whose portrait is analyzed in the video, was a slave whom Velázquez inherited from his parents and, at the same time, his assistant in the studio. Juan de Pareja accompanied Velázquez to Italy and, there in Rome, the artist painted the portrait of his slave and exhibited it later at an Italian exhibition.

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Julie Mehretu, who is discussing the work of Velázquez in the video, was born in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia in 1970 (Julie Mehretu on Velázquez). She earned a BA degree from Kalamazoo College, Michigan (1992), and an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design (1997). Mehretu is mostly famous for her large-scale abstract paintings, such as, for instance, Stadia I, (ink and acrylic on canvas, 2004) that measures 271 × 355 cm (Julie Mehretu on Velázquez). The works of Julie Mehretu are usually exhibited in public halls of large buildings and they wonderfully integrate the different elements of architectural design into their structure. Due to their size Mehretu’s paintings are constructed in the way to be seen from different perspectives – from the ground level, from above, and etc. The complexity of her paintings reflects social and cultural processes that are taking place in the modern world.

The reasons why Julie Mehretu has chosen this painting by Velázquez may be quite numerous. Although, she does not directly mention these reasons in the video, it is possible to suggest that her choice may be explained by the connections between her and the person depicted by Velázquez. As it has already been mentioned, the portrayed man was a slave owned by the painter. He was of a mixed origin, as his mother was a Moor and his father was Spanish. Mehretu’s parents also belong to different ethnic groups – her father was an Ethiopian college professor and her mother was a white American teacher. Therefore, I believe that the theme of mixed origins should be interesting and close for Mehretu. Moreover, this painting is, to a certain extent, related to the country, where she was born – Ethiopia. This country was one of the main sources of slaves who were transported to America and other parts of the world, so the story told by Velázquez may sound in a unison with the social history of Mehretu’s motherland. Juan de Pareja was born as a slave, but later he was freed and became a painter in his own right (Fracchia 26). One can find many parallels between this story and the development of Ethiopia, in particular, and Africa, in general.

Both artists often worked on commission. Velázquez was the painter of the royal court that stipulated the nature of his works. The fact that Mehretu, nowadays, works mostly creating the paintings commissioned by influential companies and corporations can be explained mainly by two reasons. Firstly, her works are very large and they need very spacious specific places to be exhibited, so mostly only the large offices and halls possess the facilities to place such a painting. Secondly, she is quite a popular artist and patrons like the idea of having one of her works. However, the portrait Mehretu discusses in the video is one of the few exceptions in Velázquez’s oeuvre that was not made on commission. Therefore, it is possible to suggest that Velázquez was freer in expressing his artistic ideology, as he did not have to take into account the tastes of the patron and other aspects of commissioned work (Fracchia 30).

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A very important common theme that can be actually traced, while comparing this painting by Velázquez and Mehretu’s works, is globalization and its impact on the society. Although the artistic methods and principles used by these two painters are completely different, as Velázquez relies on exceptionally realistic manner of portraying people, whereas Mehretu works in the sphere of abstract art, the theme of globalization is evident in the oeuvre of both artists. The portrait of Juan de Pareja was created circa 1650, a period when European had already managed to establish many colonies in America and Asia (Goodwin 51). The world was getting increasingly closer and different countries become more interconnected and interdependent. As a result, mixing of origins in various senses of this word-combination becomes quite common (Goodwin 56). The people like Juan de Pareja were not rare in the seventeenth century and they faced probably the same problems as people face nowadays. It is quite difficult to define which world you belong to, how to harmonize different aspects of one’s identity that are likely to come to clashes, etc. These aspects are probably familiar to Julie Mehretu, but she treats the problem of globalization and mixed identity in a different way. In her abstract works, she often used a number of different visual layers that are supposed “to build a different kind of dimension of space and time into the narratives” (Binkley and Katchka). Whereas, Velázquez faced the first stages of globalization, Mehredy lives in a different world where globalization is one of the primary characteristics of the society, so her “dynamic compositions have been lauded for their capacity to convey the energy, chaos and urgency of our globalized world” (Julie Mehredu: The Artist). The processes of globalization have never stopped, but rather they grew more intense. Therefore, although both Velázquez and Mehretu spoke about various aspects of globalization in their works, they did it in different ways, both in terms of the artistic methods and expressive means.

To conclude, the comparison and analysis of themes in Mehretu and Velázquez’s works revealed many similarities between these artists even despite the different historic contexts. They both explore the nature of human identity and study the concept of mixed backgrounds. In addition, although absolutely different in terms of artistic styles and movements, The Portrait of Juan de Pareja by Velázquez and Mehredu’s paintings touch upon the common theme of globalization and its impact on the society and the individual. I believe the ideas that I adopted from this video and the study of these artists’ oeuvre can be used in my future works, as I would like to deeper explore the role of the individual in the modern globalized world.

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