Every autumn since 2018, the streets of Madrid are littered with sculptures in the shape of Baroque painter Diego de Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas (1656). The yearly event, a private initiative devised by artist Antonio Azzato, sees comedians, models, television presenters, bullfighters, and other celebrities paint a three-dimensional Menina.
Las Meninas, Velázquez’s portrait of Philip IV’s family, is one of the most copied and imitated works in the history of art. Richard Hamilton, Salvador Dalí, Joel-Peter Witkin, Fernando Botero, Eve Sussman and Pablo Picasso have all created works reinterpreting it. The artwork is so popular that it threatens to rival the bull, the flamenco dancer, and the paella as Spanish icons.
But, for many Madrid residents, the yearly project is a source for near ubiquitous scorn. “How scary”, “A disgrace”, “Please, someone start burning them”, “What need is there to do so much visual damage”, “I won’t buy it unless it is to replace my garden gnomes”, and a deluge of vomiting emoticons are just some of the reactions on social media.
Spanish cultural figures too have heaped criticism on the project.
“Those of us who are involved in culture put our heads in our hands, share critical viewpoints, arrive at a kind of collective judgment, and laugh heartily at this bizarre phenomenon,” art critic Carlos Delgado told ARTnews in an email. “Then, the following year, the sculptures are reinstalled. The hope is that, at some point, someone with some discretion manages to stop such embarrassment.”
Critic Elena Vozmediano, who writes for El Cutural, a supplement to newspaper El Español, has lamented the commercializing of Madrid’s public spaces, saying that it takes “the conception of the city as a company to the extreme.”
“The association of fashion, fame, and a pop format is hollow and banal, but it is very colorful and a sure hit … this has nothing to do with Velázquez,” she told ARTnews.
While Meninas Madrid Gallery, as it is officially known, always draws criticism, this year’s edition is by far its most controversial due to the fact that nearly every sculpture is sponsored by a private company. Those that aren’t were created by artists who are advertising theatrical shows.
The fifty figures scattered throughout the city include a Menina Wonder Woman, a military Menina, a Menina painted with skulls, another wrapped in aluminum, another adorned with the Visa logo, and still another representing carmaker Volvo. Azzato, the project’s founder, sells miniature versions of the sculptures on his website.
In addition, this year’s street offerings have been “augmented” by the Velázquez Tech Museum, a producer of immersive experiences that projects images onto figures used in previous editions produced by Meninas Madrid Gallery.
Meninas Madrid Gallery is promoted by Acotex, Madrid Capital de Moda and the marketing agency MKTG Spain. After each campaign, many of the figures are auctioned for charity.
This proliferation of commercial interests and, in the eyes of many, bad taste has unleashed the ire of some politicians on Madrid’s city council, which officially collaborates on the project. Andrea Levy, head of the city’s Department of Culture, Tourism and Sport, has been one of the most vocal critics.
“We are no longer talking about a cultural initiative,” Levy told ARTnews, noting that the project relies on public funding from the city government’s Department of Economy, Innovation and Employment. “This support is intended for advertising creatives or well-known people. Its purpose is to stimulate trade.”
Besides receiving public criticism, the initiative has also been subject to culture jamming. During the 2018 edition, an Instagram account with the handle “Stop Meninas” was created by protesting curators and critics who have threatened a mass anti-Meninas demonstration. The account regularly posts photos of vandalism against the sculptures. In one post, a Meninas appears destroyed in a foundation; in another, several people covered in sheets pretend to kidnap a sculpture.
“Our platform respects all kinds of cultural and artistic expression but we position ourselves against the occupation of public space.” an administrator for the account told ARTnews over Instagram direct message.
The administrator defended the “non-degrading use of the figure of La Menina as artistic and historical heritage,” but said that the artworks produced by Meninas Madrid Gallery “are very ugly.”
Not even one of the world’s foremost Velázquez specialists is a fan. Art historian Fernando Marías told ARTnews that he does not believe that the sculptures “attract viewers to the painting or contribute to its knowledge …”
The Las Meninas sculptures will remain on the streets of Madrid until the end of this week. Then, presumably, next autumn, they will return.