12 July 2011

Looking at Vermeer

I watched Girl with a Pearl Earring tonight, feeling a need to get away from the claustrophic mounds and stacks of books, articles, folders, refill pads, scraps of paper, printed pages, pens, pencils, and random bits of stationery that are currently cluttering and breeding on every horizontal surface in the house. It's a busy time.

I liked the film. It's beautifully shot, in a manner reminiscent of Vermeer's paintings, and is remarkably still, with Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson, and Tom Wilkinson all being excellent. Not a lot happens in it, and that which happens tends to happen in a restrained Merchant-Ivory kind of way, but somehow that seems fitting. Sure, it's mostly made up -- or, at any rate, the book on which it's based is mostly made up -- but then, given how little we know of Vermeer's life, this is hardly surprising. I have three books about him upstairs -- Wheelock's Vermeer: The Complete Works, Bailey's Vermeer: A View of Delft, and Gowing's Vermeer, the latter being widely regarded as one of the most profound pieces of art criticism ever written and being included in the Modern Library's 1999 list of the twentieth century's hundred greatest non-fiction books in English -- and yet none of them really tell us much about the man himself. We know hardly anything about him.

To be honest, I kind of like that ignorance. Vermeer epitomises the ideal artist as described by James Joyce -- or at least his youthful fictional alter-ego Stephen Dedalus -- in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
'The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.'
There's a distance and an anonymity in Vermeer's work, a serene perfection that doesn't lecture or lure; it merely invites us to watch, and to see the transcendent beauty in the ordinary.  I'm not sure there's even one painting out there, with the very possible exception of Seurat's Bathers at Asnieres, that I've spent as long looking at as Vermeer's Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid which is in Dublin, but I don't think I've ever spent as much time on one occasion just soaking up a single painting as I did back in March when I went to London's Dulwich Picture Gallery to see The Music Lesson.

Normally kept as part of the Queen's private collection, The Music Lesson was on loan to Dulwich as part of Dulwich's bicentennial celebrations. It's perfect, isn't it? The light, the shadows, the reflection, the detail, the colour, and perhaps above all that wonderfully geometric composition. I decided that day that I was going to try to see every Vermeer in the world before I die. I think I've only seen four so far, but I've plans for a fifth before the summer's out, and I'm already hoping to see at least another seven -- those in the Netherlands -- next year. 

With eight Vermeers in New York, and a further four in Washington, a trip to America will have to be on the agenda too. I guess I'd better start putting plans in motion.

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