The theme of Spring, 2001 here in New York has been Sublime and Ridiculous. Two shows dominate the season: 'The Producers' at the St James Theatre and 'Vermeer and the Delft School' at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So much has been written about both events that rather than add to the pile I ought to organize it, but I leave the interesting business of comparing and contrasting awestruck reviews and savory news items to more scholarly writers. I have been to the Vermeer show four times so far, and I have tickets to see 'The Producers' for the second time next week, so while I may not know what all the fuss is about, I can see why there's a lot of it.
We missed the big Vermeer show at the National Gallery in Washington in 1996, thanks to blizzards and Newt Gingrich. The Met owns five or six, however, and they're usually on display in the deserted old-master galleries. Three more hang at the Frick, making it easy to pay the frequent, attentive visits that develop what used to be called 'appreciation,' and still ought to be. I've liked Vermeer's painting for as long as I've known about it, just as I've never liked Rembrandt's. It's entirely a matter of light. Instead of light, Rembrandt paints an ugly murk. Too many of his figures look dirty - not just muddied but diseased. The good thing about disliking Rembrandt is that it's humbling.
Everything wrong with Rembrandt, Vermeer sets right. His painting is clear, even when it's mysterious. His people - women, for the most part - are attractive, and have the same interest of real people encountered by chance in quiet places. Imagine being so assured of yourself and of your right to walk down a hallway that when you meet a stranger in a doorway, instead of fumbling over introductions you looked at her with a calm regard and caught the distinctive note of her humanity. That is Vermeer's gaze. It is not the squint of a voyeur. If we stumble upon a private moment - a woman reading a letter, or appraising a string of pearls - it is not a moment that requires solitude, and when his figures look back at us, they engage us in the complications of life. Vermeer understands that it's the ordinary moments that determine the flavor of life, and he may have been the first European artist to do so.
The Met's show is something of an omnium gatherum. The curator's idea, that Delft made Vermeer, is given a very wide scope. Instead of surrounding Vermeer with the work of a few contemporaries and immediate predecessors, Walter Liedtke starts the show way back in the days of William the Silent, who was assassinated nearly a century before Vermeer's death. William's residence made Delft the capital of the breakaway Dutch Republic; when he died, that honor went to The Hague, seven miles away. But a colossal arsenal of gunpowder stayed behind, only to blow up accidentally in 1654, killing Carel Fabritius, perhaps the only painter represented in this show whose work stands up to Vermeer's company. The remainder of the 159 paintings, drawings, tapestries, and other objects listed in the catalogue cast little to no light on the startling emergence of the anything-but-prolific Vermeer. The painter whose influence is most obvious, Pieter de Hooch, comes off poorly in comparison. Like Fabritius and Vermeer, he can paint old plaster walls beguilingly, but when it comes to peopling his scenes, he betrays a complete lack of the authority with which they paint life itself. The stiff maladroitness of his figures suggests joints that don't quite bend and faces that can't relax. Worse, his paintings have the slightly saccharine illustrational quality of old-fashioned advertising photography.
But as there are only fifteen paintings by Vermeer on view - and paintings are all that Vermeer left; no drawings or prints or even sketchbooks - it's just as well that there are plenty of other things for the crowds to look at. I have a theory about these crowds: they've been drawn by the wide-selling novel, 'Girl with a Pearl Earring,' by Tracy Chevalier. Anthony Bailey mentions this novel, very briefly, in his new biography of Vermeer, but nowhere else in the reams of writing about this show have I come across a reference. Whether to attribute such silence to disingenuousness or to cluelessness, I haven't been able to decide. The picture from which Chevalier took her title did not make it to this show, but I've heard more than one visitor cry out "There she is!" upon seeing the somewhat similar 'Study of a Young Woman,' which the Met owns, hanging across the room.
Chevalier's novel makes brilliant use of the paucity of the historical record on Vermeer. The known facts of his life are soon told, and so thin that without further interpretation they tell us nothing. Whatever he was like to live with, Vermeer comes down to us as a strong, silent type - but not too strong or too silent. Imagine Gary Cooper - as played by William Hurt. Chevalier's Vermeer (whom I don't believe she ever names directly) may not say very much, but his every gesture is infused with intelligent appraisal, and in no time at all the narrator, a young woman named Griet, obliged by family misfortune to go into service as a maid in home of Vermeer's mother-in-law, falls completely under his spell. Chevalier has the painter put her to work grinding his colors, binding her to his work to an extent unreached by his querulous, forever-pregnant wife. What lifts the novel safely above the charge of bodice-ripping is Chevalier's intriguing gift for speculating about the setup of each of the pictures painted during Griet's stay in the house, and the impeccable timing with which she leads us to the rapturous revelation that the Girl with the Pearl Earring is Griet herself. No wonder every educated woman in America read and loved this book!
At the climax of the show, in the only room dominated by Vermeer, there hang two allegories. 'The Allegory of Faith' is not well regarded these days; like 'The Procuress,' painted at the beginning of Vermeer's career, it reminds us that Vermeer painted during the Baroque, and it gives us a frightening look at the kind of picture that Vermeer might have gone in for. I myself have always been put off by Faith's appearing to be half-dressed: from the waist up, she wears the good clothes of a matron of the 167os, but her skirt looks like a nightgown and her sandals resemble the sort of flip-flops that win disapproving stares in church. The other allegory, however, 'The Art of Painting,' is arguably Vermeer's masterpiece; Anthony Bailey suggests that it was intended as such. It is certainly a triumph of artful artlessness. Every detail clearly signifies something, even if we don't know what it is, and the composition has been planned down to the least scintilla, but any allusive reverberations have been harmonized with the straightforward portrait of an artist at work. That straightforwardness obtains even though the artist has turned his back to us, concealing his face while showing off his fancy slashed doublet and snazzy red hose, is a persistent characteristic of Vermeer's work. Almost everyone who writes about Vermeer feels obliged to explain it, but I don't think it can be reduced to words.
Hanging alongside the allegories are two late paintings featuring a keyboard instrument; in case you want to have a better look at this ancestor of the piano, the Met has dragged a so-called virginal out of its always-closed Musical Instruments collection and deposited it nearby. The two paintings, which both come from London's National Gallery, have come in for adverse criticism, but for the life of me the only explanation I can find for disapproval is the need that an otherwise ecstatic critic might have to temper his paeans with caustic. The seated girl simpers a bit, its true, but doesn't she seem to be uncomfortable with her dress and even with her pose - and hasn't Vermeer caught that discomfort with enormous tenderness? The standing woman, on the other hand, couldn't be more sure of herself: you can hear the ringing chord that she has just hammered home. The bold composition of this picture - the player's head abuts the lower corner of a large painting of a cupid (Vermeer's pictures are full of pictures) - recalls the Art 101 'experiment' of blurring the slide projector's focus to show a Vermeer while projecting a sharp Mondrian next to it on the screen. (Get it?) The shadows cast by the window frames are all the more astonishing for taking up a lot of prime square footage, and Vermeer proves that he can paint a satin dress as well as Gerard Ter Borch, only without making the dress the point of the picture. One's mind draws up the chair and sits down. (May 2001)
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