Friday, April 18, 2014

Vermeer at home in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

About as good as art gets. (Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam/Getty Images)
Johannes Vermeer,  Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, 1663-64
Last weekend was my first time in Amsterdam since the ten year renovations to the Rijksmuseum were completed. The renovations are impressive, with the Gallery of Honour and that designed specifically to showcase the museum’s most prized possession — Rembrandt's The Night Watch — particularly resplendent. The restored passage that connects the two sides of the Atrium through which visitors enter gives priority to bicycles like the rest of the city. I must say, however, I was a little disappointed that the two inner courtyards, enclosed by the Atrium, into which passersby are invited to look, lack the drama and fascination of the Cours Marly and Puget in the Louvre. On one side of the Rijksmuseum’s Atrium we look into the restaurant, and on the other, empty exhibition spaces. 

Crowds flocking to catch a glimpse of Vermeer's lovely ladies
With all the publicity surrounding the renovations, I anticipated a very different Rijksmuseum, so I was a little surprised to see that the highlights of my visit were the exact same paintings that have always drawn me to Amsterdam. With or without renovations the Rembrandts and the Vermeers remain the most compelling examples of Northern painting, and the primary attractions of the Rijksmuseum. The Vermeers, including The Love Letter, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter are unlike any other paintings, ever painted. I have seen Vermeer paintings over the years, many times, but experiencing these treasures lined up together along one wall was a special experience. As I stood there, seeing in Vermeer’s intimate and delicate paintings, things I hadn’t previously noticed, I was reminded of why the paintings are great. When the revelations continue, even in paintings I have seen many times before, when I see them as if for the first time, I have no doubt that they are extraordinary.
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Johannes Vermeer, The Love Letter, 1669

As the curtain is pulled back on an intimate scene in what looks to be a washing room in The Love Letter, we understand we are peering into a private moment, perhaps even catching the lady of the house unawares as she receives the letter from the servant. This is a domestic scene in an otherwise hidden space, raising more questions than answers. The scene has an ambiguity so typical of what brings us back to the Rijksmuseum again and again to see Vermeer’s work. We are led inside worlds we are not really allowed to be witnessing, and then we are teased: whose are the slippers in the foreground of The Love Letter? And why is the woman receiving a love letter when she is presumably the lady of this house in which there are men’s slippers? And what do we make of the expression of the maid? Why is the woman playing the lute in a space that appears to be the washing room?
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Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1660
The delicate, yet muted, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter depicts a woman who we wonder, like critics before us: is she pregnant? A little girl was looking at the painting at the same moment as I was being swept away by the hazy luminosity of the painted woman’s blue dress. The young girl immediately noticed the woman’s shape and announced to her mother: “she’s having a baby”. Her mother was very quick to dismiss it: “no, that’s just the way they painted in those days,” as though affirmation of her daughter’s eye for detail would expose the woman in blue’s illicit escapades and corrupt the child. The applause for Vermeer’s realism from generations of critics was silenced in seconds by a mother made awkward by the inexplicable size of Vermeer’s woman’s belly. Such discomfort in the face of a 17th century painting in which an unmarried woman, apparently pregnant, reads a letter assumed to be from her lover, speaks Vermeer’s achievement: almost four hundred years later, this tiny painting still has the power to invigorate conflictual emotions in a mother and child.
Johannes Vermeer, View of Houses in Delft, date unknown
Most wonderful of all is, as everyone sees and says over and over again, the light. A friend who lives in Amsterdam, but is not from there, tells me that the quality of the light in Amsterdam is very special, it has something to do with the fact that the sea is just there. The city is placed on a marsh that is not meant to be inhabited, and what makes Vermeer so special is that he captures that very light, inseparable from the water that gives Amsterdam its identity and personality. As I looked at these paintings, their delicacy seemed to be given them by a number of factors: by the crowd that huddled around them, overwhelming them, weighing down on them, by the paintings that sit on the next wall, such as de Hooch’s A Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair known as a Mother’s Duty. The contrast is astounding: the silence, luminosity, privacy of Vermeer’s paintings are nowhere to be found in de Hooch’s nevertheless famous picture.
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Pieter de Hooch, A Mother Delousing her Child's Hair,
Known as Mother's Day, 1660
Vermeer’s women sit in small, closed, tight, often impossibly claustrophobic spaces. The spaces are closed down, especially the one in Woman Reading a Letter. And yet, the space she occupies is simultaneously opened out by the light falling through the window. There is a clarity of vision that enables this simultaneous opening out and closing down of space, through light. It is often remarked that Vermeer is a progenitor of the cinema. It’s not only his use of light to bring an image alive that binds Vermeer to the cinema, but his creation of spaces that both close in on the characters and open out to bring possibility is translated by a director such as Hitchock who simultaneously pulls focus and tracking out to give the cinematic equivalent of this impossible effect in Vertigo.

Lastly, I have to say, I couldn’t quite get over the crowds in the Rijksmuseum. Not that I didn’t expect crowds around the Rembrandts, Vermeers and van Gogh’s, but everywhere, throughout the museum, the visitors were three deep. This is partly to do with the time of the year, but there is something pokey about the rooms even in their restored state. It’s only as I was bathed in the light and details of Vermeer’s exquisite paintings, that there was any possibility of seeing beyond the feelings of enclosure.  

Jeff Wall: Tableaux, Pictures Photographs @ Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

<i>Summer Afternoons</i>, 2013 (detail) Image
Jeff Wall, Summer Afternoons, 2013, detail

Jeff Wall has to be one of the most interesting and important photographers working today. His photography always features in scholarly attempts to theorize photography, to articulate its ontology, to remind us of why it matters. Given this importance, I was disappointed by this exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The works were hung, loosely chronologically, with no attempt to contextualize through the presentation. There was next to no text to give insight into what is happening in the images. So I kept wondering, well, what is Wall doing now that he wasn’t doing when I saw the retrospective at the Tate in 2005? Where is his work going, how is he using the medium in new and exciting ways? Maybe he isn’t, maybe that’s the point, that he hasn’t moved forward in his thinking about photography over the past ten years. But instinctively, I want to blame the museum, not the artist for lacking creativity in this exhibition.
Detail Image
Jeff Wall, Summer Afternoons, 2013, detail
One recurring theme that is never mentioned in the presentation by the Stedelijk Museum is the references to the history of painting, references that underline so much of his best work. In one of two new works on display here, I saw Edward Hopper everywhere. In Summer Afternoons (2013), we are struck by the isolation of the naked woman on a divan, the sun shining on the wall and the end of the divan, the seemingly vast yellow wall, her blond hair, perfectly pink cushions. Is the woman in reflection, is she bored? Is she waiting for her next customer or anticipating her last? When we see her next to the photograph of the man, on the floor, possibly masturbating, across the diptych, the narrative changes. Perhaps she did not satisfy him? But then again, maybe they have nothing to do with each other. She has, after all, left the sofa by the time the left hand side of the diptych is arranged. Or perhaps the woman arrives afterwards. The man, his back turned to us, complicates the image of the woman who was, for me, the focus of the diptych. The colours of the room make it uncomfortable. As do the poses: his pose is the classical female nude with his back turned to us, removed from our gaze. The woman is content, reflective, perhaps following sexual intercourse, perhaps awaiting it. We don’t know, and our ignorance is what makes this and other of Wall’s photographs resemble Hopper’s paintings.
Jeff Wall, In Front of a Nightclub, 2006
 Wall’s images have become increasingly violent over the years, though the violence is always suggestive. There’s never blood spilt, and there is always the chance that we see the opposite of what is in the photograph. Take any of the images, they are all ambiguous. In front of A Nightclub, 2006, the first thought that comes to mind is drugs and prostitution, and it is not just the woman with the gold shoes, and the black man who is partly obscured that make us think this. The woman on the left, with a strapless top is provocative, made more so by the question of who is that man next to her, or maybe he is with her? Or are they not related, just happen to be walking alongside each other? The low lighting is also suggestive.
Siphoning fuel - Jeff Wall - 2008 - 28327
Jeff Wall, Siphoning Fuel, 2008
In another image that is unsettling because of its ambiguity, Siphoning Fuel, 2008 the cars are old, the man looks poor, though he might also just be dressed in old and casual clothes. The little girl isn’t dirty – but then again, maybe she’s not with him? Her stance is suspiciously like a gypsy girl, she may just happen to be sharing the space in front of the cars. Is the man siphoning fuel from his own car? Stealing it?  In  typical Wall style, these questions are never answered.

Jeff Wall, Men Waiting, 2006
Monologue, 2013 is another very odd photograph, at first glance because of its setting – a dark forest, that might also be a suburban backyard, in the night side of dusk or perhaps the sky is obscured by the trees? One man sits on a period chair in this forest space? Who is giving the monologue? Is it the man standing up? Is it the one talking? And what is the monologue about? Who are they? What are they doing here? They could be practicing their lines in rehearsal for a performance, or just as easily, they could be gangsters hatching a plan.

Often the titles are very prosaic and almost obvious. Yet the images are so ambiguous that the titles become unclear, destabilized. Men Waiting, 2006 represents what it claims to: men waiting. The image is black and white so the world represented is cold and dark and clouded. One review I read claims that the men are waiting for Godot, but to my eye the men are more like zombies in a science fiction world, standing still against their will, having been hit by some inexplicable, inter-galactic visitation.
Vancouver, 7 Dec. 2009. Ivan Sayers, costume historian, lectures at the University Women's Club. Virginia Newton-Moss wears a British ensemble c. 1910, from Sayers' collection. - Jeff Wall - 2009 - 34523
Jeff Wall, Ivan Sayers, Costume Historian Lectures at the
University Women's Club. Virginia Newton-Moss wears a British
Ensemble c. 1910 from Sayers' collection,
7 December 2009
Ivan Sayers, Costume Historian 2009. must be giving a lecture on the woman accompanying him. I thought at first glance they were in a museum and the man was delivering the lecture to the woman, describing an exhibit. This is an image in which the placement of the spectator becomes the subject matter. An audience within the image who we do not identify with – they are listening to the man lecture, while we are looking at Jeff Wall’s (re)staging of the event. Plus, the audience in the image are mirrored in the door panels. Usually an audience within the image are placed for the identification of the audience of the image. There is a line, a separation between audiences in and of the image: the one is only a reflection, the other watches the reflection, from afar. This line is fascinating, because it is always there, made more or less obvious, in all of his photographs. Something separates us from the photographs, the figures represented from each other, from the worlds they happen to find themselves in, the photographs from each other.

The dividing line in Wall’s photographs might be seen to underline their most powerful thematic element: they are all about isolation. The isolation of the figures in the images is returned to the photograph itself: there is no relationship between each photograph across his oeuvre. His work is not about continuity and yet the Stedelijk museum establishes continuity by arranging the works chronologically, if only roughly. So much more could have been done to elaborate on the forms and themes of Wall’s photographs. Then again, this may be just the point, further alienating us from the photographs so we experience their discontinutity and impossibilities at an even deeper level.

All images courtesy the artist

Friday, April 4, 2014

London's East End: Too Cool for School

Do I celebrate or commiserate the extraordinary changes that continue to take place in London's East End? When I lived in London in the 1980s, I went to the East End for one reason only: to visit the Whitechapel Gallery. Places like Bethnal Green were where the cab drivers lived and spoke a language I didn't understand. Shoreditch didn't really exist as a location on anyone's map, and Hoxton Square was so radical that those who lived there were at best scarey, at worst, outright dangerous. Today, I could barely breathe for the effort made to be fashionable, edgy and consciously cool.

Fully veiled women, drug dealers, young couples eating scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and home made bread jostle for space on the pavement on Bethnal Green Road. Pink hair and piercings are more than a regular sight; they are de rigeur. Even the graffiti is made to order for the trend seekers in Shoreditch. Apparently, Banksy was commissioned to decorate the wall opposite Shoreditch House, a private members club only for those cool and trendy enough to be nominated. French, German, Polish and Russian are heard on the streets, mixing with dialects of all descriptions from the Indian sub-continent. Art in its most experimental and nascent forms and media springs up all over the place, changing the faces of walls by the day. This aspect of the East End is definitely to be celebrated.

In the early 2000s I went with one of my London friends who knew the hottest, coolest and trendiest spots that London had to offer. We walked down to Spitalfields, browsed through the racks of the interesting and absurd clothes of young designers, had "real coffee" - unheard of in most other parts of London outside Old Compton Street until five years later — and a bowl of noodles for £5. We sat on old wooden benches, the kind found on the streets of Bangkok as a place to sit while eating street food. Spitalfields is now unrecognizeable: the architecturally redesigned roof structure covers the wares of immigrant vendors, surrounded by chain stores, and there's even a website. There's no trace of the hustle and bustle, the smells and the disarray of the old fruit and veg market.

Crowds to compete with Ginza
The crowds in and around Spitalfields, Brick Lane, Shoreditch High Street are deep and the neighborhood more a place to be seen than somewhere to go for serious shopping. I don't doubt that there are boutique stores to visit, and restaurants with a reputation, coffee so good it's written up in Time Out, but there's no discovering unknown corners, or bargains to be stumbled upon in these parts. Don't get me wrong, this London is better than the one I knew in the 1980s; when the book of English cuisine was a very slim volume, homosexual activities could be a criminal offence, when there was no such thing as public life, and I was told by everyone I met "you're not from round here," as if I hadn't realized I was a foreigner. London today is appealing and open on many levels. But as is often the way, "gentrification" — even of the carefully crafted "I am cool and creative" variety — brings with it hoards of people, inflated prices, the loss of local traditions and cultural flavours.

London's East End is changing so rapidly that I am sure it's only a matter of time before the investment bankers, corporate millionaires and off-shore speculators move in and buy up. Why not? They have purchased and homogenized most of the rest of London. I am sure that it won't be too long before I am bemoaning the extinction of the "too cool for school" who colour these streets.