Jolted awake by a red hat.
A number of years ago while inching along the crowded galleries at the Metropolitan Museum’s Vermeer retrospective, I was feeling unusually blasé in the presence of his rare paintings. The chatty crowd was busy reading the labels, commenting on a shinny gold goblet, or guessing at the meaning of the model’s enigmatic look.
The scenarios he staged to illustrate the ideals of the mercantile class, always in the same corner of his studio and bathed in cool northern light were never convincing to me. They needed more than the expensive props he borrowed from his wealthy clients to get them over. They needed to be embellished, but Vermeer, the hybrid offspring of science and art, was not interested in theatrics. He was a painter devoted to the mechanics and poetry of light, not to the story. His paintings, unequaled for their beautiful rendition of pictorial space, light and surface, never sold very well in his lifetime because he was unwilling to idealize or embellish. To his prospective clients the girl in his painting was never more than a servant wearing someone else’s pearls; the suitor, just the butcher boy posing in a borrowed coat.
On that day I was not interested in the goblet, the ubiquitous map or the gossip about the true identity of the maid. I was interested in what Vermeer the painter could teach me. I was looking for something I could bring back to my studio. But as I crept from painting to painting I could not find an opening, one crack in their highly finished surface that I could peel back to get an idea of what was going on inside. I felt like I was in the presence of exquisite old clocks, too delicate to wind, unable to tick to our time and tell the painter’s story. Vermeer’s paintings were meaningful in his time partly because any depiction of two-dimensional reality was extremely rare. I couldn’t help but wonder how seriously a similar representation would be considered in a world flooded with cheap clocks and vivid, moving two-dimensional images as we have now. So why do I insist on working for months just to add another representational image to the flood of now devalued images? If the thing is to create a meaningful image, why not avail myself of the new technology. Why do I restrict myself to the clumsy brush and recalcitrant, sticky oil paint–the Luddite’s choice, when I could just push the button, download, modify and then print? At least I would save a lot of time on clean up.
Those thoughts were buzzing around my head when the crowd suddenly stopped in front a very small painting and we all leaned in as one. No one bothered to read the label and there were no sly remarks from the crowd about possible soap opera entanglements between the painter and the model wearing someone else’s red hat.
Jolted awake by the full strength vermillion disk of the hat, I flew past the blurry lion’s heads into the surprisingly vast space inside Vermeer’s fifty-four square inch glass room. The breathing closeness of her mouth, the immediacy of her blazing ivory collar, startled and amazed me. This was the opening I was looking for; this precious little clock was still ticking and I had to know why.
See Part Two
See Part Two