Raoul Middleman, Recent sketch

The Pandemic has shut down museums and for the time being we’ve lost that kind of first hand visceral experience we get looking at art. I already miss the oomph and goop of oil paint escaping from the pores of the canvas: brushed, knifed, scraped, mixed, layered or smoothed out into tropes of sensual compliance.

Raoul Middleman, Recent sketch

Perhaps as a consequence of that dearth, I’ve lately been jolted from my sleep by images both sinister and absurd. Dreams are the fodder for of my narrative drawings and gouaches as they morph into sagas of ambition, beauty and eccentricity — even vulgarity — for my sequestered amusement during the pandemic. The confines of my studio are the presumptive stage for these oddities: floozies surrounded by a funky slew of sidekicks, barkers and the ever-lurking licentious monster of autrefois.

I can no longer hire models, so everything must be made up. In a semiconscious state, I let my pen amble along at will. The imagery it comes up with is often chimerical and dreamlike.

Raoul Middleman, Recent sketch

A French poet, Rene Char, once said that he used to go to dreamland to escape from life, whereas now he goes there to live. An uncanny compilation of fact and fiction, the peerless 1656 masterpiece, “Las Meninas” is perhaps Velazquez’s most idiosyncratic painting, a sly insubordinate dream of revenge against those who would keep him down as lowly craftsman of the mechanical art of painting, a mere flunky in service to the Royal establishment.

Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez, 1656, Oil on canvas, 125.2 x 108.7 inches,  Museo del Prado Madrid

This painting is full of non-sequiturs. Does the mirror on the back wall reflect what is painted on the canvas or the real life posing of the King and Queen? It’s an ontological question that probes the subtle divide between fiction and reality. Taking place in the artist’s studio at the Royal Alcazar with the King and Queen as ostensible subjects, the real focus and center of the canvas is the 5 year old Infanta Margaret Theresa. The fresh and spontaneous brushwork of flesh, hair and garment makes for a miraculous glow of silver and gold.

The surrounding entourage includes, on either side of the Infanta, two curtseying ladies in waiting, plus a dwarf and a little person whose foot stirs the slumbers of a sleeping mastiff —all approximately of the same height. Velazquez beside his canvas, towers above the phalanx with proud resolve. What all these attendees have in common is a lack of freedom to be other than what destiny has in store for them. All of them, even the Princess, are imprisoned from birth. On the other hand, the painter, as the emblem of a red cross on his chest testifies, is free to transcend his plebian origins.

In The Critique of Judgment Immanuel Kant attempted to rationalize aesthetic judgment. He concluded that great art couldn’t be reduced to a concept.

Raoul Middleman, Recent sketch

Now with no museums, no galleries, no critics to hobnob with, the practice of art conforms most to Kant’s purposeless purpose, and freedom becomes pure galactic play.

(Excerpted from Raoul Middleman: “Velazquez at the Picadilly Club”)

Raoul Middleman is recently retired after 58 years of teaching at MICA, allowing him to wake up everyday early enough to paint the sunrise over the Baltimore Harbor, and then go back to bed.