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John Berger's recent publications include Meanwhile (Drawbridge Books) and From A to X: A Story in Letters (Verso).

Through the peephole of eternity

The Prado in Madrid is unique as a meeting place. The galleries are like streets, crowded with the living (the visitors) and the dead (the painted). But the dead have not departed; the "present" in which they were painted, the present invented by their painters, is as vivid and inhabited as the lived present of the moment. Occasionally more vivid. The inhabitants of those painted moments mingle with the evening's visitors and together, the dead and the living, they transform the galleries into a Ramblas.

I go in the evening to find the portraits of the buffoons painted by Velázquez. They have a secret which it has taken me years to fathom and which maybe still escapes me. Velázquez painted these men with the same technique and the same sceptical but uncritical eye as he painted the Infantas, the kings, courtiers, serving maids, cooks, ambassadors. Yet between him and the buffoons there was something different, something conspiratorial. And their discreet unspoken conspiracy concerned, I believe, appearances - that's to say, in this context, what people look like. Neither they nor he were the dupes or slaves of appearances; instead they played with them – Velázquez as a master-conjurer, they as jesters.

Of the seven court-jesters of whom Velázquez painted close-up portraits, three were dwarfs, one was boss-eyed, and two were rigged out in absurd costumes. Only one looked relatively normal – Pablo of Valladolid.

Their job was to distract from time to time the royal court and those who carried the burden of ruling. For this the buffoons of course developed and used the talents of clowns. Yet the abnormalities of their own appearances also played an important role in the amusement they offered. They were grotesque freaks who demonstrated by contrast the finesse and nobility of those watching them. Their deformities confirmed the elegance and stature of their masters. Their masters and the children of their masters were Nature's prodigies; they were Nature's comic mistakes.

The buffoons themselves were well aware of this. They were Nature's jokes, but they took over the laughter. Jokes can joke back at the laughter they provoke, and then those laughing become the funny ones – all prodigious circus clowns play upon this seesaw.

The Spanish buffoons' private joke was that what anyone looks like is a passing affair. Not an illusion, but something temporary, both for the prodigies and the mistakes. (Transience is a joke too: look at the way great comics make their exits.)

The buffoon I love most is Juan Calabazas: Juan the Pumpkin. He's not one of the dwarfs; he's the one who squints. There are two portraits of him. In one he's standing, and holding at arm's length, mockingly, a painted, miniature medallion portrait, whilst in his other hand he's holding a mysterious object which commentators haven't exactly identified – it's thought to be part of some kind of grinding machine and is probably an allusion (like "with a screw loose") to his being a simpleton, as was also, of course, his nickname Pumpkin. In this canvas Velázquez, the master conjurer and portrait painter, colludes with the Pumpkin's joke: how long do you really think looks last?

In the second, later portrait of Juan the Pumpkin, he's squatting on the floor so he's the height of a dwarf and he is laughing and speaking and his hands are eloquent. I look into his eyes. They are unexpectedly still. His whole face is flickering with laughter – either his own or the laughter he's provoking, but in his eyes there's no flicker, they are impassive and still. And this isn't the consequence of his squint because the gaze of the other buffoons, I suddenly realize, is similar. The various expressions of their eyes all contain a surprising stillness. This might suggest a profound solitude, but not with the buffoons. The mad can have a fixed look in their eyes because they are lost in time, unable to recognize any reference point. Géricault, in his piteous portrait of the madwoman in the Paris hospital of La Salpêtrière (painted 1819 or 1820), revealed this haggard look of absence, the gaze of someone banished from duration.

The buffoons painted by Velázquez are as far away as the woman in La Salpêtrière from the normal portraits of honour and rank; but they are different, for they are not lost and they have not been banished. They simply find themselves – after the laughter – beyond the transient.

Juan the Pumpkin's still eyes look at the parade of life and at us through a peephole from eternity. This is the secret that a meeting in the Ramblas suggested to me.

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