Pablo Picasso. Las Meninas. After Velázquez

Imagine a fourteen-year old aspiring artist quizzically examining an incredibly life-like painting that once had the foreboding inscription below it – “Obra culminate de la pintura universal,” which in English translates to “the culminating work of world art.” This is how Pablo Picasso was introduced to one of the most influential paintings in the world, Diego Velázquez´s Las Meninas (Maids of Honor). In numerous works of Picasso, remnants of ideas from Velázquez’s Las Meninas can be found. Picasso even devoted an entire series of paintings to variations of Las Meninas and its central characters in the late 1950s. To better understand the effect of Las Meninas on Pablo Picasso, we must first place the original Velázquez painting in an historical context as Picasso might have seen it. We must also examine the events surrounding and effecting the Las Meninas variations. Once that foundation is completed, we can then examine the message that Picasso tried to convey in these variations. After all, Las Meninas was the focus of Picasso´s works sixty years after his original viewing of the masterpiece. It must have made quite an impact on this fourteen-year-old aspiring artist.

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Las Meninas did not only have an impact on little Pablo Picasso, but on the entire art world. Over the three hundred and fifty years since its painting, many different schools of thought regarding art have come and gone, yet they all proclaim Las Meninas as a masterpiece. A realist proclaims the painting because of its stark depiction of reality. A critic stares at the painting and can uncover new details that were previously overlooked. A deconstructionist examines the unending levels of meaning encountered in Las Meninas, and is overcome by the painting’s complexity. The Marxist loves the painting because of its subtle contrasts between rich and poor. The feminist praises the painting because of its depiction of female power residing in the infanta. Las Meninas is a painting for everyone – especially for the greatest Spanish painter of our time – Pablo Picasso. Who knows what he thought?

Las Meninas was first viewed by Pablo Picasso when he was fourteen years old. This was a pivotal time in his life – he was still seeking purpose as well as feeling out his artistic boundaries. A few months after seeing Las Meninas, his seven-year old blond sister María de la Concepción died from diphtheria. Picasso and his family (especially his father) never really recovered from their loss. This loss would follow Picasso for the rest of his life. In 1897, at the age of 16 – less than a year after the death of his sister, he produced his first sketch concerning Las Meninas characters – María Agustina (the head maid) and María Margarita (the infanta). It is no coincidence that both the infanta and his sister were blond. Yet, his greatest works directly concerning the infanta and Las Meninas were decades away.

When Picasso started to produce serious reproductions of Velázquez´s work, he was seventy-five years old. Picasso was distant to some in the art world because of the fame of his earlier works. Contemporaries were accusing Picasso of losing his touch – he was no longer the great Spanish painter that everyone had once thought him to be. These critics claimed he was merely a great painter who had left his best years behind. In the art world, it is not uncommon for a great master to be reviled in later stages of their lives. One critic summed up the situation by saying, “The late works of great masters, which come about at the period style of a subsequent generation, tower over the flow of history as solitudes, inaccessible to the context of time.” But, Picasso still had something to prove. In his early years, Picasso was uncomfortable taking on such a “lofty” Spanish painter as Velázquez. As he approached old age, he decided to go down that road.

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After he completed the first and most widely recognized variation of Las Meninas (which has been discussed in a previous essay by this author), Picasso turned his gaze towards María Margarita, the infanta. This fixation was not chosen lightly. The age of seventy-five was a symbolically important one for Picasso because Picasso’s father had died at the age of seventy-five. This period of Picasso´s life brought back visions of his own mortality, which inevitably evoked memories of his sister´s death. By looking at the Velázquez variations of the late 1950s, the imagery of his young blond sister is clearly contained within the imagery of the blond infanta. There is yet another figure evoked by this infanta imagery – Picasso´s daughter Paloma, who was roughly the same age as both his late sister and the infanta at the time these paintings were conceived. Over a span of two furious weeks in late 1957, Picasso devoted fifteen separate paintings to this infanta image. Picasso depicted the infanta in a variety of ways – each vastly different from all of the others. After concluding these works, Picasso briefly turned his artistic attention to an entirely different subject – pigeons.

Pigeons. What a curious diversion. When Picasso donated his entire Las Meninas series to the Museu Barcelona in 1971, he included this series of paintings and mandated that they be shown with the rest of the Velázquez variations. For a period of about a week, Picasso painted the pigeons outside his studio porch with the same zeal he had when he depicted the infanta. Several corollaries arise between the Velázquez variations and the pigeon imagery – that of Picasso´s distortion of reality and the imagery of a window separating segments of the painting. Because Picasso was focusing solely on the infanta for the prior two weeks, he had disregarded the window and light sources so prevalent in Las Meninas. In these pigeon pictures, Picasso focused on the pigeons gathered outside his studio window. A case can be made that the window motif is Picasso´s distinction between here and there (and hence the distortion of reality) – “Here, I am painting an image – there, these creatures are going on with their merry lives unaware of what I am doing.” This same analysis can be made with Las Meninas – Velázquez painted the royal family and their maids, but the other figures in the painting are seemingly oblivious to Velázquez´s presence. After concluding this seemingly incongruous series of paintings, Picasso returned his main focus to Velázquez and Las Meninas.

After his brief diversion with the pigeons, Picasso painted one final image of the infanta by herself – full of rich colors and an amalgam of the previous three weeks´ exploration. Picasso then returned his focus to the entirety of Las Meninas. The infanta remains the central image in these works, but a mix of the other Las Meninas characters now surrounds her. Picasso painted six more canvases of Las Meninas variations in the next two weeks. Each of these canvases was approximately 50″ by 60″ in size – an incredible output for such a short span of time. Within these variations, some characters from the Velázquez original are omitted. On others, the characters are moved or emphasized in a decidedly un-Velázquez-like manner. The full cast of characters is present in one of the works, but the entire background takes on a radically different Cubist style. On yet another, the background changes to a fusion of colors and shapes to create yet another perspective on the work. Picasso´s interpretations of this work were seemingly endless. But at this point, Picasso gradually began the process of concluding his Las Meninas variations.

After these large paintings were completed, Picasso´s interest with Las Meninas subsided. Over the next few months, he painted another twenty-four paintings related to Las Meninas, but none were of the evident passion of these previous works. When he concluded the series, Pablo Picasso had painted approximately fifty-eight paintings concerning Velázquez´s Las Meninas. By creating so many variations of a single work, Picasso let us, his audience, glimpse into the workings of his inner mind. By way of Picasso´s variations, we can see how he interpreted Las Meninas.

By examining these variations in detail (especially the imagery containing the infanta), a central theme arises – innocence. Innocence is one of those weird catch-all phrases that defies interpretation. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition defines innocence as:

1. The state, quality, or virtue of being innocent, as:
1. Freedom from sin, moral wrong, or guilt through lack of knowledge of evil.
2. Guiltlessness of a specific legal crime or offense.
3. Freedom from guile, cunning, or deceit; simplicity or artlessness.
4. Lack of worldliness or sophistication; naiveté.
5. Lack of knowledge or understanding; ignorance.
6. Freedom from harmfulness; inoffensiveness.
2. One that is innocent.
3. Botany. See blue-eyed Mary (a type of flower).

It is no wonder that Pablo Picasso had such a hard time dealing with this notion of innocence in his works. The dictionary claims eight possible meanings for this one word. How could he possibly handle all of these meanings in one painting? The answer was that he could not – remember that Picasso painted almost fifteen paintings of the infanta. He was looking for something that he could not easily define. However, in a greater sense, all of these definitions do in fact define the numerous images of the infanta. She is free from sin. She knows no wrong. She lacks cunning. She is ignorant of her world. Those who love her shelter her. But, above all, the infanta epitomizes the notion of innocence. There is no better ideal of the word innocent than Picasso´s depictions of the infanta.

However, we must be reminded that it is futile to believe that this innocence can last. And, this is the reason for the image of the child. The image of the infanta in a plain white dress expressly provokes this sense of innocence and purity. We must recall that childhood is that precious time before our innocence is taken away by society. Children can not perform any wrong. They are perfect. And, it is the dream of all parents for their children to remain that way throughout time immemorial. Yet, it is only a mirage. Something happens to the children – they grow up and mature. The children gain something even more precious than innocence – life. And, another issue arises – the inevitable cessation of life – death. This was as much a central idea to Picasso in these Las Meninas variations as was innocence.

When Picasso created these works, he was constantly being reminded of his own mortality, and, hence, of his sister´s death. Picasso also had the benefit of wisdom and experience, something he lacked when he first saw Las Meninas as a child. It was this experience which finally allowed him to begin to discover his meaning of the original Velázquez work. For a period of a few months, he was compelled to create images of Velázquez´s infanta. He was obsessed by it. This obsession overcame Picasso. Some inner forced him to draw these paintings. In this way, his personal interpretations finally came to light. But, Picasso knew that his life was only temporary, so he put his ideas on canvas so that others in the future could examine his ideas. Through these variations, Picasso has preserved the infanta and his notion of innocence and purity forever. It was his legacy – his crowning masterpiece. It could never grow old unlike its flawed creator.

The question remains as to why Picasso created so many different versions of the infanta. The answer lies in Picasso´s quest for the perfect innocent child. When he started, he did not know exactly what that singular perfect image was, but he had a starting point with Velázquez´s infanta mixed in with his visualization of his sister. Picasso began to search for the perfect image through his work. This is where the relationship between the pigeon series and the infanta imagery becomes clear. When Picasso painted the pigeon imagery, he had already discovered what he was searching for. Instead of immediately concluding the infanta imagery, he took a brief break from his obsession of the infanta, and later returned to create that one final image of the infanta encompassing his idea of perfection and innocence. After that point, he did not paint the infanta by herself again, but went on to create variations of Las Meninas, which incorporated his ideal infanta into the larger piece. After so many years, Pablo Picasso had finally begun to understand Las Meninas and was able to express it in his works.

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Brett Whiteley

Brett Whiteley

Brett Whiteley (7 April 1939 – 15 June 1992) was an Australian artist. One of the most well known Australian painters of the 20th century, he is collected in most Australian galleries. He had many shows in his career, and travelled extensively.

Career

Early years

Whiteley was born in Sydney, where he started drawing very early in his life. While a teenager, he painted on weekends at Bathurst and Sydney with such works as The Soup Kitchen which he did in 1958. In 1960, Whiteley won a Travelling Scholarship from the Italian Government, and moved to London. One of the works he submitted to win the scholarship was done in images which were slightly abstracted in brownish colours called Sofala; he had painted this in 1956. After winning the scholarship he travelled around Europe, visiting Italy, France and England. He arrived in London at a time when many Australian artists were becoming popular in England. During this period, there was a fascination with Australian art there. Australian artists Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale had become well known and were exhibiting in London, as well as many other Australian artists who were also there. It helped him that Australian artists were looked on favourably at this time by the English public. After meeting the director of the Whitechapel gallery, he was included in the group show ‘Survey of Recent Australian Painting’ where his Untitled Red painting was bought by the Tate gallery. This made him the youngest artist to have ever been bought by the Tate, and it was this fact which helped him to have even more success, such as when he won the first prize for Australia at the Biennale de la Jeunesse in Paris. During the next few years he had much contact with artists in London and in travels to other parts of the world, and it was these friendships and contacts which helped him to become an accepted artist.

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New York

In 1967 Whiteley won a scholarship to study and work in New York. He won this Harkness Foundation Scholarship to New York, and while there he met other artists and musicians while he stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. His first impression of New York was shown in the painting First Sensation of New York City which showed streets with fast moving cars, street signs, hot dog vendors, and tall buildings. He was very much influenced by the peace movement at the time and came to believe that if he painted one huge painting which would advocate peace, then the Americans would withdraw their troops from Vietnam. It was an extremely ambitious aim, to change the opinion of an entire nation based on one picture. But still fairly young, Whiteley was idealistic and caught up in the great peace movements of the sixties, with the protests against America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam. The work was called The American Dream, and was an enormous work comprising many panels, and using painting and collage and anything else he could find to put on the panels. One way that America influenced him is the scale of the works. The large size of artworks painted by contemporary America artists there possibly made Whiteley wish to paint enormous works such as this one. It took up a great deal of his time and effort to paint, taking up about a year of working on it full time. It consisted of eighteen wooden panels, with a series which started with a peaceful dreamlike serene ocean scene on one side, that worked its way to destruction and chaos in a mass of lighting, red colours and explosions on the other side. It was his comment on the direction the world would be headed and his response to a seemingly pointless war which could end in a nuclear holocaust. Many of the ideas from the work may have come from his experiences with alcohol, marijuana and other drugs. During this time, like many others, Whiteley experimented with drugs. He believes that many of his ideas have come from these experiences, and he often used drugs as a way of bringing the ideas from his subconscious. He sometimes took more than his body could handle, and had to be admitted to hospital for alcohol poisoning twice. Around him at the Chelsea Hotel, other artists and musicians took heroin, which Whiteley did not take at that time. The painting which was finally produced was made of many different elements, using collage, photography and even flashing lights, with a total length of nearly 22 metres. However Marlborough-Gerson, his gallery, refused to show this work which he had been working on for about a year, and he was so distraught that he decided to leave New York, and he ‘fled’ to Fiji in the South Pacific, similar to how the last panel of the end of The American Dream showed an island paradise, Whiteley would now seek refuge in one himself.

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Fiji

Whiteley made paintings in Fiji of the people, similar to the way that Gauguin had travelled to Tahiti to paint native people and culture in the nineteenth century. Whiteley painted the native people of Fiji, such as in Fiji Head – to a creole lady which incorporates text as well as a downward looking portrait. During his time in Fiji, he started painting birds, which were a source of great beauty for him which he enjoyed painting. The birds which he painted could represent a way of escaping from sometimes violent feelings. He had a violent nature that others noticed. Whiteley had experience in painting animals from his zoo series in London. A stylised image of a bird he painted in Orange Fruit Dove Fiji which shows the bird looking towards fruit on a plant, while it is sitting on its nest with eggs shown below. The bird is bright and striking, with red which could represent blood shown on its body and on its beak. He must have been thinking about Gauguin’s experience in Tahiti, for he painted Gauguin which showed an image of a daydreaming Gauguin against a backdrop of island scenery. He later developed further works based on the art of other artists. In the early 1970s he returned to Australia, an established and collected artist.

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Appropriations

Whiteley experimented with styles based around the art of Van Gogh, using portraits based on Vincent Van Gogh’s self portraits, such as Vincent. After Whiteley found a book about Van Gogh on the floor of the church in Bathurst when he was very young, it changed his perception of the world around him. One image which uses Van Gogh’s style in a unique way is Night Cafe. He has taken the Van Gogh painting and stretched the lines of the room to a single vanishing point, creating an image which appears fast moving and extremely vibrant and dynamic. Another work where imagery is borrowed from the art of another artist is in Rembrandt, where he painted a large somewhat gloomy looking portrait of the Dutch master.

Alchemy

Part of his work Alchemy was featured on the cover of the Dire Straits live album Alchemy although it had the addition of a guitar with lips held by a hand. The original painting, done between 1972 and 1973 was composed of many different elements and on many different panels, similar to The American Dream. While the idea of the massive work on many different panels had developed in America, this new work was Australian. It had many curved and illustrious shapes, sexual imagery and giant letters IT on one of the panels. Just looking at the elements from which he composed the work shows the wide variety in materials he used; everything from feathers and part of a birds nest to a glass eye, shell, plugs and ‘brain’. It has been regarded as a self-portrait, a giant outpouring of energy and ideas brought forth over a long period of time. He did not even know what it would look like when it was finished. Many of the panels are golden, referring to the process of alchemy. Others are full of tiny drawings and little details showing forms, many of which are based on the human figure, such as ears, hands, body parts and sexual imagery. The work refers to transformation, such as with the mythical transformation of ordinary metal to gold, Whiteley is possibly trying to say something about his personality, that he wanted to change away from various addictions, but was not able to. He is also talking about looking at what does not exist.

Sydney harbour and landscapes

Whiteley loved painting Sydney Harbour views in the 1970s such in his painting Interior with time past, which shows an interior and exterior view starting with a room that leads through open windows to the harbour full of boats outside. The table in the front of the room close to the viewer has minutely decorated vases and small objects, while a drawing on the left and a sculpture to the extreme right show how Whiteley often used erotic images in his works. He painted a view of his friend Patrick White as a rock or a headland in Headland, because he had told Whiteley that in the next life he would like to come back as a rock. Whiteley painted other images of the Australian landscape, including a view of the south coast of New South Wales after it had been raining called South Coast After the Rain. He did paintings of the area around Bathurst, Oberon and also Marulan, all in New South Wales. He painted abstracted images of bush scenes such as The Bush and also images which resulted from experimentation with various drugs, such as alcohol in the humorous Self Portrait after three bottles of wine.

Success with Archibald and other prizes

In the late seventies Brett Whiteley had great success with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, winning all of their major prizes twice. These were the Archibald Prize, Wynne Prize and Sulman Prizes, considered some of the most prestigious, if not the most prestigious art prizes in Australia.

His wins were:

1976

1. Archibald Prize: Self Portrait in the Studio

2. Sulman Prize: Interior with Time Past

1977

Wynne Prize: The Jacaranda Tree (On Sydney Harbour)

1978

1. Archibald Prize: Art, Life and the other thing

2. Sulman Prize: Yellow Nude

3. Wynne Prize: Summer at Carcoar

1978 was the only time that all three prizes have gone to the same person, so this was quite an achievement. He was at the peak of his career. His first Archibald win, Self Portrait in the Studio shows a view of his studio at Lavender Bay overlooking the harbour, with his reflection in a mirror shown at the bottom of the picture, while the painting is primarily a look at his studio, shown in deep, bluish tones. As with many of his works, the viewer is led deeper into the picture with minute detail, and a view of Sydney harbour is on the left which establishes the location of the picture. These paintings along with some of the other works, show Whiteley’s love for ultramarine blue and for collecting objects and for wide expanse of harbour. His second Archibald win, Art, Life and the other thing, again shows his willingness to experiment with different mediums such as photography and collage, and his respect for art history, including an image of the famous 1943 William Dobell portrait of Joshua Smith, which won a court case against people who claimed it was a caricature, not a portrait. He also experiments with warping and manipulating a straight self portrait and altering and distorting the image. He later won the Wynne Prize again, in 1984 with The South Coast After Rain

Difficult pleasure

He was the subject of a hour long ABC television documentary called Difficult Pleasure directed by Don Featherstone in 1989, which showed him talking about many of his main works, and his recent works such as ones done on a month long trip to Paris, one of his last overseas trips. He also showed his large T-shirt collection, and talks about his sculpture, which he said is an aspect that many people do not take seriously about his work. Difficult pleasure is how he describes painting, or creating art: Art is an argument between what a thing looks like and what it means.

Later years

Whiteley became increasingly dependent on alcohol and became addicted to heroin leading to bouts of schizophrenia.Whiteley’s work output began a steep decline, although its market value continued to climb. He made several attempts to dry out and get off drugs completely, all ultimately unsuccessful. In 1989, he divorced Wendy, whom he had always credited as his ‘muse’, and on June 15, 1992 he died of a heroin overdose alone in a motel in Thirroul, north of Wollongong, New South Wales.

In 1999 Brett Whiteley’s painting The Jacaranda Tree (1977) which had won the Wynne Prize, sold for $1,982,000, a record for a modern Australian painter. Before this, his previous highest selling work was The Pond at Bundanon for $649,500

The paintings are the excellent portrayal of the events and scenes that we see around us. The painters are the best cameras of the world. They reproduce many different types of pictures. They even draw imaginary pictures that do not exist in this world. We tend to use both thinned oil paints and dense oil paints. Masterpieces can be dyed more than once, but each time it may be different from the existing paintings

Christo Vladimirov Javacheff

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon respectively, are a married couple who collaborate in creating environmental installation art. Their works, all credited under the name Christo and Jeanne-Claude, are massive and visually magnificent projects.

Although their art is largely controversial due to their size and scale, Christo and Jeanne-Claude insist that their art does not contain a hidden message or agenda. Their aim for their art, they said, is to present a different way of looking at landscapes that have become familiar to the general populace, as well as to make the world look more beautiful. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work was described by art critic David Bourdon as “revelation through concealment.”

The first project undertaken by the couple was Dockside Packages, done at Cologne Harbor in 1961. It was a temporary artwork that involved stacking barrels and covering them with cloth. The exhibition of Dockside Packages lasted for two weeks and happened simultaneously with an exhibition at Haro Lauhus Gallery, also in Cologne.

After Dockside Packages, Christo and Jeanne-Claude became involved in various outdoor wrapping projects. Among these notable projects are:

The Air Package they created for Documenta 4 in Kassel, Germany in 1968, which is an inflated structure erected without a skeleton. It was the largest structure ever created thus.


The Running Fence, a 40-kilometer veiled fence constructed from steel posts and steel cables. The veiled fence ran across the landscape of the Sonoma and Marin Counties in California and led to the sea.
The veiling of the Reichstag, the seat of the German Parliament, in 1995. The project was viewed by more than five million people before the building was unveiled.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude met in 1958, when Christo was commissioned to do a portrait of Jeanne-Claude’s mother, who was the wife of the influential General Jacques de Guillebon. The two share a birthday, June 13, 1935. It was described that in the partnership of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Jeanne-Claude handles the publicity and the logistics of their projects while Christo makes the final decisions in the creative department.

Photos of other Christo works

Julian Opie

Well, yet another artist I have discovered, Julian Opie. I really enjoyed browsing his website and looking at the simplicity of his work. You can have some fun with some screensaver downloads he lets you take and if you are interested in seeing his works on exhibition then he will be showing in the following:

Lisson Gallery
London 15 Oct – 14 Nov 2008 Solo Show
MAK
Vienna, Austria 11 June – 21 Sept 2008 Solo Show
Mito Tower
Tokyo, Japan 19 July – 5 Oct 2008 Solo Show
Mie Prefecture Museum
Japan 14 Feb – 13 April 2008 Still Motion Touring Group Show
National Museum of Art Osaka
Osaka, Japan 29 April – 15 June 2008 Still Motion Touring Group Show
Tokyo Metropolitan
Tokyo, Japan 23 Aug – 12 Oct 2008 Still Motion Touring Group Show 2007
Phoenix Museum of Art
Arizona, US Permanent Installation Julian & Suzanne walking, 2007

Article provided by Grove Art Online www.groveart.com

English sculptor, painter, printmaker and installation artist. He studied at Goldsmiths‘ College (1979–82) under Michael Craig-Martin, for whom he briefly worked as an assistant, and emerged as an influential figure on the British art scene in the 1980s, with a highly inventive series of painted metal sculptures. These humorous and playful sculptures combined a loosely painted imagery with steel shapes, as in the case of This One Took Ages to Make (1983; New York, Mr and Mrs A. Safir priv. col., see 1994 exh. cat., p.15), representing a red typewriter supported by the loose pages that fall from it. Towards the end of the 1980s his sculptures became larger, more austere and minimal, and were often based on a relationship between art and architecture. As his work developed it dealt increasingly with the exploration of visual and spatial experience, often with reference to digital simulation. Imagine You are Walking (1–18) (acrylic on wood, 1993; London, Lisson Gal., see 1994 exh. cat., pp. 96–7), comprises 18 neutrally painted images of the interior of a computer-generated maze. The title invites the viewer to project himself into the various configurations, in themselves an approximation of basic cognitive processes. In a related series, Imagine You are Driving (acrylic on wood, glass and aluminium, 12 parts, 1993; London, Lisson Gal., see 1994 exh. cat., pp. 106–9), images simulate the bland, hypnotic experience of motorway driving. An autonomous, purified idealism is underlined by alienation, suggesting a dystopic side of modernist architecture and planning and the human failure of a technological modelling of experience. Opie’s exploration of cognition also takes the form of architectural model-making, in which he constructs bland generic models of building typologies, such as castles or churches. These were intended to reflect a disengaged and superficial emotional response to the outside world; such a response could equally be one of numb indifference or innocent wonder. In 1995 Opie was awarded the Sargent Fellowship at the British School in Rome.