Interview: Javier Olivares on Las Meninas

Cropped image from Ladies-In-Waiting, art by Javier Olivares, Fantagraphics, 2017

After reading Las Meninas (translated as The Ladies-In-Waiting and published by Fantagraphics) by Santiago García and Javier Olivares, which I wrote about last year, I knew that I had to try and get an interview with one of the creators of the text to find out how they came up with the idea behind this brilliant work. One of the barriers that creators of Spanish language comics face is being interviewed for English language publications, which requires either a translator to work with the person being interviewed, or a translator to translate an interview conducted in Spanish to English in its entirety. I am fluent in Spanish, and so I asked Javier Olivares to be interviewed in Spanish, and then allow me to translate the interview into English. He agreed to be interviewed by email on April 4, 2020, and the interview below will be available in both Spanish and English language versions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you and Santiago García divide the work of writing/illustrating Las meninas?

The idea of making Las Meninas arose as a result of a comic competition, at the end of which we ended up not presenting. The night before the presentation, we realized the idea still had more life in it and we did not want to waste it doing it quickly on a job for a contest. So we decided to send it to Astiberri, as a project, and they enthusiastically accepted it. Santiago left for the United States, and I stayed in Spain. Santiago dedicated himself to reading all about the subject and to writing his own projects. During that time, I also worked on many books, for different newspapers, etc. Four years went by, and when the script for the book was ready, Santiago sent it to me, and I thought it was brilliant. So I began the work of illustrating it. Santiago and I have known each other for many years and that adds to our work because we have a lot of confidence in each other. In addition, we share the idea that the real work of collaboration consists in crossing those limits that are sometimes so marked between “artist” and “scriptwriter.” In reality, although it is true that he has written the script and I have done the artwork, during the whole production process of Las Meninas my style of sketching modified Santiago’s script many times, and he made many comments about my drawings that often times led me to make changes or clarify details. During the process of creating the book, Santiago and I shared ideas and information during all the stages – the storyboard, sketches, pencils, inks, and color [Interviewer’s note: I asked Olivares what he meant by this, i.e. did they share a workspace or did they discuss what pencils, inks, etc. to use? His response was “that although there were stages that correspond more to me, I communicated with Santiago at all times. I always send him a sketch, and if there is anything to touch up or clarify, we do it. And so that is how it is with each phase and each page of our books.”]. Up until the end, we tended to test ideas and change things that did not convince us. It is a very permeable process. And, if you look closely, on Las Meninas we do not appear as “scriptwriter” and “artist” but as authors of the book.

I call your text a “docu-drama” – a mix of a documentary and a drama. Do you think this would be a good name for what you have written? (Why or why not?) I have noted that in the end that what you both have written “is a work of fiction based on dates, facts, and history” and that you cite works where you have found historical information.

Yes, that would be a good definition. It actually is a work of fiction based on actual facts. It is not a history book, considering that, as narrators, we have taken many liberties to alter the facts and the dates, including to invent some facts that served us in telling the story that we wanted to tell. And it definitely also is not a biography of Veláquez. Rather, it would be a biography of his masterpiece. The structure of the book, episodic and very elliptical, also follows the structure of an essay more than that of a novel or a conventional narrative.

Is it on purpose that the colors and illustration style change when the year changes in the comic (for examples on pages 2-5, vs. pages 8-9, vs. pages 10-29, vs. pages 32-47, vs. pages 54-55, etc.)? How did you both arrive at the decision to do this? (By the way, it is a very clever technique.)

For us, all the tools that are used in a graphic novel have to be used to tell a story. Color is just one more. In this case, it is used in a totally narrative way. The book is structured into several narrative lines: the “present” of Velázquez, his “past,” and the interludes in which we see some of the famous artists who have been influenced in some way by Velázquez. We decided at the very beginning that the two principle narrative lines that correspond to the painter [Veláquez] were each going to have a distinctive color: blue for the present and yellow for the past. In this way, in addition to differentiating both periods immediately for the reader, and we save a lot of text of the type “Later” or “Years Later.”

How much research did you have to do to write this comic?

I know that Santiago did a lot of investigation to write the script during the years that he was in the United States. He told me that he read a lot of books about Velázquez, about the theory of art history, and about other materials that were related to the project. On my part, I also carried out an exhaustive visual investigation, consulting books and searching on the internet for paintings from the Spanish Golden Age, and all types of information about the era: how people dressed, what was the kind of life people led, the architecture of the period, etc… etc… All of this helped me greatly to internalize this time period to that I could then “forget it” at the moment of sketching it. I am not obsessed with being precise with the correct details (the appropriate candelabra or the exact type of chairs that they were using), but my way of reflecting that time period had much more to do with visually synthesizing the graphic keys that the Spanish Golden Age has to tell. In fact, I had a reproduction of Las Meninas in front of my work table, and the painting gave me many keys that I then threaded throughout the book – the way in which the light enters through the windows or the way in which the characters are posed. A key idea, as was the frontality of all the vignettes about Velázquez, I took directly from the painting. For me, that idea of composition (at the same time plastic and narrative) is also part of the documentation and explains the period almost better than any actual detail of the clothing or the architecture.

What is the proportion of fiction to history, would you say?

It is difficult to determine what proportion of the book is real is what is invented for narrative purposes, since most of the facts that are narrated are real, but the way in which we tell them may not be. In fact, there are many parts of Velázquez’s life that continue to be a mystery for historians today. Velázquez did not leave behind journals or letters, and what we know about his adventures and his life had been told by his contemporaries and by writers following his time. So the testimonies we have of him have probably also been modified by these narrators. The way in which art history is told (and probably history in general as well) is more similar to a wall of mirrors, in that what we see at the end is nothing but a reflection of the beginning.

I have read that Velázquez had a Roman son from an unknown mother. In the comic, there is an interaction with Flaminia that leads to a relationship and a son. I know that there are academics that think that this Roman son is from Flaminia Triva – because she was the model who posed nude for his Venus del espejo and she made a portrait of him. What are your reasons for including this relationship and son with her in the comic?

This is a question that is more for Santiago, I believe, but I imagine that there are various reasons why she appears in the book. One of those reasons was to show how Velázquez (who gained his fame more as an uninteresting painter, one with a tranquil and monotonous life as a servant of the King) had that moment of escape, of liberation from a very constrained Spain and its social customs and from the power of the Church, and he lived a new and exciting experience in the Italy of the time. And how probably that moment of freedom, he modified the painting perhaps much more than the contact he had with the Italian artists of the day. This episode also serves to show the close relationship he had with the king, who insistently demanded his presence at court, a return that Velázquez extended as long as he could. And the story of Flaminia in the book also helps us to comment on and portray the low weight and consideration that female painters had at that time.

There are other, let’s say, scandals included in the book (the murder of Cano’s wife and her torture, for example). Why do you believe it was important to include these events in a work about Velázquez and his masterpiece?

All of the episodes that we recount in the book are set with narrative intent, since we not only talk about Velázquez but also his contemporaries, and Alonso Cano was an important figure in his career path. Cano’s turbulent personality is something that has been thoroughly proven and it was inevitable that this would be emphasized, in order to contrast this with the moment in which he speaks with the knight of the Order of Santiago. In that period of time, his life was more relaxed, he painted altarpieces, and he worked for the Church.

Finally, for a comic that is called Las Meninas, really only a small portion deals with painting, the work itself, and the result of the masterpiece of Velázquez. Why is that? Why is there so much focus on all the other events and people in the life of Velázquez and only, more or less, 40 pages on the work itself?

I actually do not share that point of view. I believe that the whole work talks about Las Meninas, what is happening is that our work is not really dealing with how he [Velázquez] painted the work. In fact, we rarely see Velázquez on the pages as he faces the canvas and works on it. The book is used as a way to better explain how what we call his “masterpiece” came to be constructed that is Las Meninas or any other work designated as such, because our point of view is that the process is the same. A masterpiece is a social construction, more than a work of art. In fact, it begins to be built long before the artist believes it, because his life, his vicissitudes, his circumstances (even those previous to the present ones) form a part of that work. Once the work exists, it is society (other artists validate it or consider it, or it is critics, the public, all of us) and posterity that finally construct it, and then we consider it. Our book, Las Meninas, talks about this process, and it seems to us much more interesting.

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Kristin Kiely

Kristin Kiely

Kristin is a Spanish professor at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina. She received her BA in Spanish and Psychology from Miami University in 2001. (A university known for saying “We were a university before Florida was a state!” Stop confusing us with University of Miami, people.) She also received her MA from Miami University, specifically in Spanish sociolinguistics in 2003. Surprisingly, she moved to Florida to complete her doctorate. She studied the Spanish Civil War and literature during and after Franco’s dictatorship for her dissertation at Florida State University. She completed her Ph.D. in 2008. After a couple years, she realized that this was not her true passion. With the help of friends and colleague (who knew how much she loved films, especially horror films), they pushed her into the world of Spanish-language comics and graphic novels. She mostly studies those from Spain. Because it is still a vastly under-appreciated and little-studied field, she mostly does primary research (lucky her!). She has had the great honor of meeting many writers and illustrators for interviews, such as Sergio Sierra, Alex Sierra, Meritxell Rivas Puigmal, Tirso Cons, David Muñoz, Juan Díaz Canales, Paco Rocas, and Javier Olivares.