At times, Jacobs’s speculations owe less to Professor Blunt than to Professor Robert Langdon: “Simultaneously I scribbled down random observations of possible bearing on the case: my sharing of a birthday with Foucault, Foucault’s death at the same age that Velázquez had begun the painting, the realisation that the word ‘meaning’ was nearly an anagram of Meninas.” Another near anagram is “insane”.The book, Everything is Happening, by Michael Jacobs, is a highly personal investigation into that much-investigated painting, "Las Meninas", by Velázquez. "Professor Blunt" is Anthony Blunt, art historian, Soviet spy, and the author's mentor; "Professor Robert Langdon" is, of course, the protagonist of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.
As well as being amused, however, I was also intrigued to read that the book had been completed after the author's death by journalist Ed Vulliamy. I happen to know Ed, in the sense that one "knows" someone briefly encountered at university forty years ago, in the heat of radical student politics. I don't suppose he'd remember me, now, any more than I'd recognise him in the street, looking at his byline photograph. How the years do change us. I wonder if he still wears a QPR scarf?
But then I found that Ed himself had written in July in the Observer about his friendship with Michael Jacobs, so I read what he had written there. It was both moving, and faintly annoying. Moving, because of the tragic, painful circumstances of the book's genesis, and the doomed flourishing of a late friendship. Annoying, because Ed is one of those well-connected, ambitious, and successful types you encounter at university, who seem destined to lead a life painted in more intense and vivid colours. It is always annoying to be reminded of the comparatively dull grisaille and uneventful introversion of one's own life. "There is a tide in the affairs of men", and all that. In compensation, it seems his mother is Shirley Hughes, which is highly amusing, if you've ever had to endure her "Alfie" books with your kids at bedtime. That "Ed is Alfie" gave me an even bigger laugh.
Vulliamy's article in turn linked to a further piece in the Observer by Jacobs himself describing his project, and its origin in a teasing communication from an old school friend, written on the back of a jigsaw puzzle of "Las Meninas". What he describes is fascinating, and "Las Meninas" is a compellingly strange painting to be sure, but I have become resistant, practically immune, to suggestions of hidden meanings in works of art. Sure, writers and artists may have embedded cryptograms and clues and meta-gestures ("art about art") in the works they create. But they may equally well have not. Even when they appear to be there.
For example, one of the best demonstrations of the futility of searching for cryptic messages in Shakepeare's plays is the astonishing fact that those famous words, "To be or not to be: that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" are -- allegedly, I haven't actually checked -- an anagram of "in one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero Hamlet queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten ..." Cripes, how did Shakespeare do that? Well, the fact is that he didn't, did he?
"Art about art" aside -- artists are permitted a certain reflexive fascination with their own mystery -- in the end I think we have to conclude that the Great Secret is, simply, that there is no great secret. Behind all the coded ciphers, mathematical puzzles, trails of clues, smoke and mirrors and distracting, abracadabratizing razzamatazz laid down before our very eyes by magicians of every kind, from high priests to David Blaine, there is ... nothing -- nothing beyond their manipulative desire to mystify or merely entertain, in response to our linked propensities for mystification and entertainment. Jacobs seems to divine his own imminent mortality in "Las Meninas" and, by god, he was right. Well, your turn to look in the mirror: what do you see in there?
By way of an oblique illustration: Recently, we were down by the Itchen Navigation, where a weirpool at an old lock forms a popular (if slightly risky) bathing pool. I took this shot quite casually as we passed by. People splashing about in the water on a hot August day. Something about the scene tweaked my attention. Click. Not really my thing, but why not?
Only later did I come to notice how everything in the bathers' body-language is pointing to some kind of disturbance. It's really quite theatrical. And only then did I notice ... whoah ... the apparently headless man wading purposefully towards some mysterious portal.
I don't think a Jeff Wall or a Gregory Crewdson could have arranged things better. I suppose, if it were a setup, I might have moved the foreground couple a bit nearer the camera? "Just two paces, darlings... Same positions... Hold it!" And I suppose I could actually remove the guy's head, too. But in the end it's just one of those uncanny games played by pure chance. I make no claims other than that I happened to be there to take the picture. It signifies much, and means nothing; but it certainly does gratify that desire to be mystified and entertained. I thank you; please put some money in my hat.
But, wait ... Never mind the headless man. What's that in the sky?