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.  

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