Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dutch painting from the golden age

Via Gaetano Sacchi, January 22, 2013—
THE MOST MEMORABLE paintings, it seems to me, are like voicemail messages left by dear distant friends, full of substance, some conveyed literally, more by expression and association: the familiar voice, the shared experiences. Even the implied though mute acceptance of a momentarily awkward situation: you can receive the message, but you're not allowed to return the communication. Your response is for yourself alone.

Unless, of course, you're looking at the paintings with a friend intimate enough to share your enthusiasm, your unspoken responses.

Paintings can have one big advantage over voicemail: in an intelligent installation they can seem to have their own conversations, among themselves, repeating and adding to one another. The right paintings emerge from the confines of their frames, step away from the walls on which they hang, expand into the added dimensions of time and awareness. And having seen this occur, having participated in this gavotte of calm, methodical, deep, and graceful presences, one continues to profit long after leaving the exhibition. The most ordinary wall glows with unfamiliar luminosity; mundane corners become geometrical truths; colors usually overlooked glow with secret vitality.

The most recent exhibition to trigger these thoughts was Vermeer. Il secolo d’oro dell’arte olandese, which we saw Sunday at the Scuderie Quirinale here, on the last day of its run. (It had suggested an earlier flight here than otherwise planned, losing two days from our stay in Netherlands — regretted, but worth it.) We were afraid the show would be crowded, but it wasn't so bad: with very few exceptions we were able to have our own private minutes in front of every painting. (All but one: the "theme painting," Girl with the red hat, reproduced on the exhibition poster: a painting so energetic yet mute, so striking and memorable though small, that it hardly needed close inspection.)

In truth there were not as many Vermeers as one would like, and not all of them were really splendid examples of this (to me) greatest of easel painters. That girl in her red hat, and the equally celebrated The little street, were the two indisputable masterpieces: others paintings seemed too early or too late, too over-cleaned or left too unfinished, to quite hold their own with them.

But the company! Rarely does an installation so expertly and so enterprisingly assemble a collection of painterly semblables, paintings whose shared technique, palette, subject matter, and human insight greatly informs and expands your understanding of the issues involved, sometimes through similarities, at other times through contrasts.

At the beginning, for example, The little street hung in a small room with Jan van der Heyden's monumental The Amsterdam town hall with the dam, a striking study in forced angular perspective, suggesting that the Stadhuis, for all its imposing size, is justified by the great expanse of the city-state surrounding it. Vermeer's view of a quiet corner in Delft is about entirely different matters: the propriety of small spaces as they sit within public space; the sobriety of daily-life activities, the silence of occupation and contemplation.

If The little street contrasts with the nearby Amsterdam town hall, it speaks across several galleries to Pieter de Hooch's The bedroom, whose interior spaces are distributed in so similar a manner, with recession to a more distant background on the left, into a closer but reserved interior on the right. And again it's contrast of masonry, flat surfaces, oddly tilted planes, near shadow and distant light that suggests this invisible affinity.

Always the first things to hit me, in Vermeer's most impressive work, are the light and the geometry. Here, the empty rectangle of the upper left, where the white grey clouds somehow keep their place in the background, perhaps pushed back by the whiter whites of the masonry. In Vermeer the painting so often seems to mirror the apparent subject of the painting; the act of painting, slow, thoughtful, methodical, mirrors the contemplation of the subject, the wringing-out of the cloth in an alley sink, the embroidery being done in a doorway, even the manufacture, conveyance, and patient assembly of the thousands of bricks — by invisible bricklayers, and by the invisible Vermeer.

It's his invisibility draws me to Vermeer, makes him a more engaging, therefor more persuasive artist than, for example, van der Heyden or Rembrandt; just as I prefer Fitzgerald to Hemingway, Mozart to Beethoven, Austen to Dickens, Webern to Berg. Vermeer is not the only "invisible" painter of his time and place to haunt me: at their best, de Hooch, Metsu, ter Borch, and van Mieris almost keep abreast of him in their mastery of form, color, light, and human insight.

This conversation among invisible painters, through the expressive voices of their paintings, extends across galleries. Look for example at the affinity with The little street of Pieter de Hooch's The bedroom: the recession into deep distance on the left, nearer yet more obscure distance on the right; the curiously frozen poses of the figures, arrested in simple daily motion; the contrast of light at the back and from the side with dark seen from in front; the division of the picture into rectangles whose unseen centers seem to lie on a smooth invisible spiral.

You begin to feel you know some of the figures in these pictures.

The woman in the fur-trimmed red jacket, feeding her parrot, in Frans van Mieris's marvelously meticulous painting, shows up later wearing the same jacket, perhaps pregnant, perhaps lovesick, perhaps both, in his The doctor's visit. She is the same woman, but having seen the second painting, her portrait in the other is more revealing. You look more deeply into her profiled face; you read more significance (likely too much more) into her carefully positioned left arm.

So you begin to look more closely at everything. The family in de Hooch's Portrait of a family in a Delft courtyard, for example: the preening couple at the left; the stolid younger sons at and on the staircase; the mother of the family, looking with some concern at her aging husband seated at the right—a man who has seen more than he cares, at this point, to express, I think. The exhibition booklet helpfully informs us that the steeple of the Nieuwe Kerk, center background, is there to reveal the piety and law-abiding sobriety of this family: but I wonder if the odd placement of the group of figures higher in the picture plane that one might expect — with a greater expanse of brick in the foreground than absolutely necessary — doesn't suggest otherwise.

There's an X across this picture plane, the sky and two diagonals of foliage above reflected as bricks and two diagonals of figures below. Ultimately the painting, even this painting, on first sight so "about" its figures, is in fact about light and space and the gradation of permanence within light and space: foliage, flesh, carpentry, and brick describe an arc of vulnerability to a Time only apparently stopped for the moment. You can hardly help lingering over these paintings, and when you reluctantly move on to the next, the one you've been gazing at — observing; contemplating — seems somehow to have changed, almost visibly changed.

1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...

I wrote a very successful undergraduate art class essay on the Vermeer painting of the brick facade and alley-way.

I got very clearly the connection between order, the division of labor, and the organization of space--all interlocked in a jigsawn mosaic of mathematical space.

This rage for order is always complacently quiet and unchallenged in Dutch painting. Art as contemplation and recognition. Life as having set tasks and preordained identities and functions. Even the dirt has a purpose. Which is to sweep it up and to accept this as one's fate--to move dust around and keep white things white, and brown things brown.

In Dutch art, what you see is what you get. No ambiguity. No wrong turns. No unanswered questions. Everything in the clear light of revealed truth. The cliché that proves the clidhé.