Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum (art exhibit 2/10/23 to 6/4/23)

Sheer Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer is Dutch painting's Yasujiro Ozu.

Okay gross oversimplification but think about it: both were reasonably successful practitioners in a small and specific genre, depicting women (as protagonist, as subject) immersed in domestic issues (money, marriage, death; missives, music, love), both set their work in select locations (Ozu around Tokyo and Kamakura, Vermeer in two rooms in his in-law's house in Delft), both made repeated use of similar if not same props (cups, teapots, sake bottles; wall maps, virginals, pearls). Both confined themselves within a set boundary, employing near-microscopic focus on details to evoke and meditate on a surprisingly wide range of human experience.

The Rijksmuseum's Vermeer exhibit opens with Vermeer's two exterior paintings-- his View of Delft (1660 - 1663, see above) and his The Little Street (1657 - 1661), and right away you're reminded of Ozu's pillow shots: those restful images of landscape or neighborhood that preface his films before diving into the story proper. One wonders about those pillow shots: page breaks? Palate cleansers? A way of pulling back to take in the wider view? A reminder that no matter how intimate we've become or invested we feel, the stories of these characters take place in a wider world? Did Vermeer also feel the need for pillow shots at some point in his career?

Staring at View of Delft one can accuse Vermeer of using a camera obscura to capture the scattered highlights of building and water and-- what of it? Like the new phenomenon of artificial intelligence, the camera obscura in the 17th century was one more tool to streamline the process, allowing Vermeer to trace a drawing straight into canvas (Vermeer was a notoriously slow worker, putting out an average two paintings a year; if he had refused to employ the camera we'd likely have less of him to track down). The camera would not have helped with composition, with framing the town as a narrow band against reaches of river and sky, the two city gates in shadow, the rooftops of Kethel Street and the (curiously empty) belltower of Nieuwe Kerk lit like a distant promise. Where most paintings of Delft showcase the town's architectural highlights Vermeer hid said highlights behind the gates and in the distance, using only sunlight to indicate where to look. 

The two outdoor masterpieces are followed by early works: Diana and her Companions (1653 - 1656), Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1654 - 1656, see above), and Saint Praxedis (1655, possibly not Vermeer). Of the three I thought Christ the most interesting: Martha's face half-lit as she complains about Mary, Christ leaning back as he addresses Martha's protests. Mary is subordinate in the composition with her shadowed face, upturned head, cheek propped up by palm; Christ's hand stretches out in Mary's direction, holding her up (so to speak) as an example ("Martha, Martha...there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away form her." The eye travels from Martha to Christ, down arm and hand to Mary, to come right back to Christ by way of Mary's gaze. Vermeer's colors and perspectives aren't quite there (he has trouble reconciling the floor to the room's left wall), but his gift for presenting an ostensible center of attention (Christ) while hinting at the real point elsewhere (Mary)-- of that he's already a master.

That hand, pinned to the painting's center-- you wonder if maybe Robert Bresson saw this and got to thinking about hands. 

In The Procuress (1656) again the focus is on a hand, only this time cupping a breast-- easily the most frankly erotic (perhaps only erotic) gesture in all of Vermeer (Imagine Ozu including such a moment in his pictures!). As far as Vermeers go this is early days; one assumes he was still exploring. Can also be argued that as far as paintings in the bordeeltje genre go this is tame: cleavage of modest size and covered, eyes downcast, smile slight and dreamy; her demeanor either made her more acceptable or more shocking-- wouldn't know. Interestingly Vermeer's Catholic mother-in-law owned one-- the genre is popular, depicting (in thorough detail) the debauchery one is meant to shun; that or the work is an interpretation of the biblical parable "The Prodigal Son," with emphasis on the son's prodigality. 

Finally-- Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657 - 1659). The woman, the window, the wall painting; the Vermeer we've come to know. His first attempt at a popular genre and immediately you're conscious of a few near-extraneous trappings: the green curtain to the right is a trompe l'oeil effect, complete with curtain rod stretching across the painting's upper border; the cupid (hidden by overpaint, restored in 2021) suggests the girl is reading a love letter (cupid grinds foot into head of snake, which in turn suggests any number of things). 

Vermeer added the green curtain to conceal a roemer glass, but also had the additional effect of implying an act of voyeurism-- as if we had snatched the curtain aside and caught the girl at her letter. The fact that the red curtain on the left hangs loosely from the wide-open pane implies (to me at least) that she yanked at the window without bothering to pull the cloth aside, perhaps because she's been waiting impatiently for the letter, and needed the light to read. 

As for the girl's expression-- Ozu didn't have a lot of letters in his films, neither the reading nor writing of them, but did have moments where the expression on a girl's face told the story. In Late Spring, for example, Noriko smiles at a fellow viewer while attending a Noh performance, recognizes the woman as her father's intended, lowers her head in despair-- no dialogue used, no dialogue needed. 

Mind you there's no overt emotion on either faces: what Vermeer and later Ozu capture aren't a woman revealing her emotions but hiding her emotions. It's in the effort at concealment and the details that betray that effort where both artists find the drama. 

Most mysterious detail of all in the painting is the off-kilter reflection of the girl in the window (she had been originally painted lower and closer, facing the window at a more direct angle)-- is the image (lower, closer, more frontal) a reflection of her earlier self? Her inner self? An entirely alternate self? What-- and it's Vermeer's achievement that he compels us to ask-- could possibly be in that letter that provokes her so?

The voyeurism, the yanked-open window, the girl's intent face framed by delicately curlicued tresses-- I've seen Vermeers online and in museums, have seen this Vermeer many times online, but standing in its presence for the first time I was caught off-balance, I was in love. 

Officer and Laughing Girl (1655 - 1660) Aside from the relative scarcity of soldiers calling on young women in Vermeer's work, and aside from the use of relative size (the soldier's shadow looming over the girl's smaller figure) to denote perspective (he's come a ways from Christ in the House of Martha and Mary) the most intriguing element in this painting is that window. For perhaps the only time in his career Vermeer gives us a glimpse of the world outside from within one of his interiors-- a reflection in one pane suggesting stone (wood?) archways; a splash of red through the other suggesting rooftops. If Vermeer reveals much within these intimate psychological portraits he also reveals (albeit more indirectly) a town, an entire environment surrounding these intricate miniatures, looked upon and lighting and otherwise linked by that window. We gaze and wonder: what's out there? The world of course. But isn't the painting itself a window looking into this room? And doesn't this painting contain the room that contains the window that contains that world? 

Hang on, haven't finished. That map of Holland on the wall-- doesn't that map contain the house that contains the room that contains that map? And doesn't the picture contain the map that contains the house that contains the room that contains the map that--? Better to focus on the soldier regarding his smiling host instead-- doing otherwise might induce vertigo. 

In The Milkmaid (1657 - 1661) Vermeer-- mercifully-- keeps the window shut, fills the room with gentle shadow (though there's a crack in one pane, allowing a bright spot). Time to make an iconic Dutch dish, the way one of Ozu's features revolved around the making of an equally iconic Japanese dish (The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice). 

The brown bread is crusty, the yellow chamois rough, the woman's face vague yet somehow arresting-- partly it's the eyes, downcast not out of modesty or embarrassment but concentration, pouring an exactly judged stream of milk-- not too thin as to drizzle, not too wide as to splash-- into the bowl to make bread pudding (a version of which I ate at the Rijksmuseum Cafe not a few hours later, sweetened with raisins and dried fruit). Partly it's that shaded domed forehead, free of wrinkles and by implication worries-- she's living in the moment, enjoying the sound of gurgling milk, the smoothness of the red clay pot, the radiance of the cold morning light. Alternate title: Zen and the Art of Milk-Pouring.

Vermeer's miniaturist's masterpiece: The Lacemaker (1669 - 1671). Seems appropriate that a craftswoman doing precise finicky work should be rendered in such a precise finicky manner, with heads of pins glittering (From all the angels gathered?), spiderwebs stretched between fingers, a startling spray of red thread spilling out to one side. No window, no maps in the wall behind, the better to allow us (and the lacemaker) to focus on those ultrafine near-invisible filigrees of gold. 

Vermeer's The Glass of Wine (1658 - 1661) has a young girl finishing her wine while a suitor-- lover?-- stands ready to pour another glass. Unlike in Officer and Laughing Girl she doesn't offer a welcoming smile; you wonder what's her story. Is it, as most art critics suppose, a belle resisting an insistent suitor? Would a suitor try get an unwilling girl drunk-- or is it because she's unwilling that he's trying to get her drunk? The darkened room (this isn't Vermeer's usual sunlit studio), that shadowed corner, the suitor's olive cloak flung across his shoulders Dick Dastardly style suggest malevolent intent, with only the girl's puckered lips round that glass signaling defiance. 

Or is it possible they're already lovers, he's come to tell her they're through (or that he's seeing someone else); she's thrown a fit, he's offered a glass to calm her down, is waiting to pour another? Overthinking much? But where's the fun in doing otherwise?

A word on the rendering: the glittery stitching on that red satin dress, the royal blue and deep wine red of the Turkish carpet on the table (too beautiful to lay on the floor), the exquisitely wrought stained-glass with girl and coat-of-arms, all the more difficult for being both translucent and in half-shadow. Robert Altman in Vincent and Theo theorized that a field of sunflowers would overwhelm Van Gogh-- too much riotous color; Van Gogh had to uproot a few blossoms and stick them in a vase in his room to get them under some kind of control. Likewise a cathedral window would be too much for Vermeer's precision approach-- he'd rather suggest the larger pane with this smaller.   

If I love Vermeer's The Love Letter (1667 - 1670) it's not because of the clever framing-- peering stealthily through an open doorway past pulled drapes into another room where a woman with a lute sits with her maid-- it's because of the maid's winking leer, the woman's comical look of dismay. Interestingly Vermeer captures the image after the maid hands the woman the letter; in today's police dramas this would be the moment the gang boss has accepted the incriminating disk drives in a hostage exchange, is therefore guilty of the crimes recorded in said drives. In other words: 'gotcha!'  

The woman's plump oval face would be a familiar type to many a movie audience, the wealthy housewife about to stumble into trouble. The maid however is the scene stealer: you imagine her drily played by Thelma Ritter or Hattie McDaniel in an Ernst Lubitsch production (never happened but one can always dream; likewise some of Ozu's best features are very funny). The plot has been set in motion and you're curious to know how everything plays out-- judging from the setup and  faces of those involved, this one's a doozy. 

Vermeer's earlier Mistress and Maid (1666 - 1668) covers the same territory as The Love Letter only without the comic tone: dramatic dark background surrounds two starkly lit figures. The maid's slightly open mouth suggests she's just announced the letter's arrival; the mistress is clearly concerned, even if her head is mostly turned away from us (the frozen pose as if interrupted in the act of writing, the fingers tentatively touching the chin, the aura of worry radiating from her smudge of a brow (clearly raised) and fetchingly sketched lashes). Opposing her alarm is the maid's honest reassuring face: she may not be educated or especially cunning, but her mistress can count on her loyalty. 

Note the yellow jacket with its sharp creases and luxuriously feathered ermine trim-- the fur is likely cat or squirrel with painted black dots, but Vermeer's realization is such that the coat looks and feels priceless. 

One of his latest works, Vermeer's A Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (1670 - 1671) with its intensely focused mistress and serenely distracted maid clearly tells a story, only what story isn't all that clear. The painting behind may or may not provide a clue: Peter Lely's Finding of Moses, where the Pharaoh's daughter plucks Moses from a basket of reeds floating down the river, and unknowingly hires Moses' mother (who has been following the basket) to act as nursemaid. Going out on a limb here, but the mistress (childless) might be informing her husband (a Dutch merchant out on a trading mission) by letter that she's decided to adopt a baby, who happens to be the maid's; the maid, reassured of her child's future, gazes contentedly out the window. 

Clever clever, only the radiance from one of Vermeer's inimitable windows adds gravity and grace to the scene, elevates the apparently sordid melodrama to Ibsen tragedy: the maid is happy, her worries allayed, her dearest desires granted. But what did Aesop have to say about wishes that come true?  

Vermeer's Woman with a Pearl Necklace (1662 - 1665) which I met for the first time because of the generosity of the Staatlitche Museen zu Berlin (thank you Berlin!) is a surprisingly moving piece. The popular interpretation: she's admiring the beauty of her pearls and how they enhance her not so extraordinary beauty, and this vanity throws shade on her character. I read the picture thusly: she's so close to salvation-- the heavenly radiance from yet another of Vermeer's divinely rendered windows falling O so gently on her-- but insists on focusing on her pearls. The difference between a plain face and a beauty, to paraphrase Ian Fleming, is a matter of millimeters; here the difference between fallen and redeemed is a matter of inches, to the right. Far away, so close.

My favorite of Vermeer's letter writers, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1662 - 1665) has Vermeer applying his trademark ultramarine-- a pigment made from ground lapus lazuli more expensive than gold-- in prodigious amounts, from the deep dark ball at the end of the map rod to the woman's ballooning azure satin dress to the wall's own whitewash (lending the room a bit of the window's cerulean radiance).

But more striking than all that blue is the simplicity and compact power of Vermeer's composition: the woman stands at painting's midpoint, the letter firmly but carefully held near the canvas' exact center (just a few inches to the left). The woman's eyes look down to focus, with a faint smile tucked into the corner of each cheek; the lips are parted as if to mouth the words, the teeth teasingly glimpsed.

Is the news so good she's ready to burst out laughing or so bad she's about to go into hysterics? Maybe both? A moment of breathless suspension, just a fraction of a second before all hell (or heaven) breaks loose. 

Vienna for whatever reason would not lend Vermeer's known masterpiece The Art of Painting (1662 -1668) so I hadn't the chance to see Vermeer at his most allegorical up close. Not a fan of his Allegory of Faith (1670 - 1674)-- the painting is an intricate visualization of Cesar Ripa's Iconologia, its glass orb is an amazing rendering of the entire room (complete with windows and highlighted tiles) as a translucent sphere, but emotionally it has all the impact of a dictionary.  

Much prefer this, one of Vermeer's domestic scenes: Woman Holding a Balance (1662 - 1665)-- and can I take a moment to note how Vermeer using the same basic image (a woman standing in a room facing a window) recalls Ozu directing films largely made up of one shot, positioned at the eye level of a man crosslegged on a tatami mat? I've mentioned miniaturists; must mention how Ozu and Vermeer anticipate the Minimalists in their attempt to pare away non-essentials, arrive at some kind of essence. 

Further note that Vermeer early on hit on a powerful image (the girl alone, reading a letter) that he repeated to lesser or greater effect throughout his career, the way Ozu made Late Spring (girl prodded into marriage by her father) and kept remaking it for the rest of his career (Late Autumn, only with a mother instead of father; An Autumn Afternoon, his last feature; as subplot in Summer Equinox). Why? Who knows-- was Ozu so dissatisfied he kept trying to improve on his first effort? Did he find the tale so fascinating he introduced additions, extensions, variations? Likewise with Vermeer-- did he find the image of a girl in a room reading a letter so compelling he had to revisit it again and again and again? 

The woman waits for the scales to balance out, standing in a room diagonally divided between light and shadow, with a painting of the Last Judgement glaring balefully from her upper right, a tableful of jewels gleaming seductively from her lower left. Caught between these opposing forces she's not asked to choose, exactly-- her face remains calm and thoughtful-- but does hold a scale in her hand, ready to weigh alternatives. All this-- the woman, the painting, the jewels, the shadows, the scale, the images, the allegory-- poised O so effortlessly on the palm of Vermeer's hand. 

And finally Vermeer's most famous work (1665 - 1667). The painting returned to The Hague on March 30 (I saw the show in May), so I paid the extra Euros to hop on a train and follow her home. 

While The Girl visited the Rijksmuseum, the Mauritshuis held a clever little contest: submit your own version of the Girl and a hundred and seventy of the best entries will hang in the same wall space during Her absence (some of the images-- everything from paint to watercolor to knitting to Lego bricks, all available on Instagram-- are actually quite brilliant). 

As for The Girl herself-- what's to say? Vermeer did a tronie, an idealization or rendition of a type, in this case an exotically dressed young Dutch girl, possible modeled after Vermeer's first daughter Maria, who would have been twelve or thirteen. Not sure the painter thought he was up to anything special-- it's a simple composition, executed quickly and economically: the blue turban is a band of wide aquamarine, the folds more suggested than defined; the chemisette is a shooting-star slash of white, pointing the eye towards the bright-yellow turban hanging like a ponytail; the heavy pearl is formed by two commas of paint, yin-yanging in a swirling orb. There's no hook for the pearl which hangs implausibly in shadow, nor does The Girl have a right nostril or even, disturbingly, brows-- Vermeer didn't see any need. 

The end result is of a girl, pretty not strikingly beautiful, looking over her shoulder as if just noticing you, full lips parted slightly in surprise. It's the combination of open curiosity, sudden intimacy, youthful innocence; of fantasy and a touch of psychological plausibility ("O-- yes sir? What is it?") that likely forms The Girl's allure, why she's remained so popular all these centuries and lives so in our imagination. 

And that was it, all the Vermeer in the world it was possible to see, only I'd like to point out one more thing Ozu and this painter have in common: the gift to take a simple thing-- a face, a letter, a pearl earring; a face, a vase, an apple peel-- and suggest worlds of suffering and joy behind them. As Walt Whitman put it: I am large, I contain multitudes. Here endeth the lesson.  

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