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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (17/4/2023)

(A review of Exhibition on Screen: Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition)

Although they have a fondness for the Impressionists, the good folk at Exhibition on Screen would have to make Johannes Vermeer their specialist subject. Having already produced Phil Grabsky and Ben Harding's Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure (2013) and David Bickerstaff's Girl With a Pearl Earring: And Other Treasures From the Mauritshuis (2015), EOS heads from The Hague to Amsterdam for Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition.

Afforded unique access over two days before the grand opening in February 2023, Bickerstaff and his camera crews do full justice to the headline-making Rijksmuseum show that was seven years in the making and gathers 28 of the world's known Vermeers (the experts seemingly can't decide whether there are 34 or 37). Moreover, they do so at a measured pace that allows the eye to wander, the mind to contemplate, and the spirit to soar.

According to Taco Dibbits, the General Director of the Rijksmuseum, the paintings of Johannes Vermeer makes us realise what it is to be human. Little is known of the painter's life, as he left no primary records and few sketches. Indeed, scholars are forced to speculate in order to deduce how he produced work of such consistently high quality. Pieter Roelofts, the museum's Head of Painting and Sculpture, notes the deliberation of each stroke, as Vermeer sought to involve or distance viewers from the subject. He also declares that he was unique in using light as colour and vice versa.

Also known as `The Little Street', `View of Houses in Delft' (c.1658-59) is described in poetic detail by Robert Lindsay from an uncited source. Critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston echoes the fact that the scene seems so ordinary, but is filled with detail and intrigue. Conservateur Anna Krekeler explains that the canvas was examined minutely to gauge how Vermeer developed his composition and she points out how the figures of the sewing woman and playing children were amended, while the red shutter was added late in the process.

Subtle effects overlay the changes on to an earlier version of the image to give the impression of the painting coming to life. Cutting to some red-brick Delft buildings as they look today, Roelofts surmises how Vermeer might have acquired a visual education from the pictures in his art dealer father's shop. He also suggests he attended a drawing school near his home on Voldersgracht, as the camera closes in on `View of Delft' (c.1660-61).

To Roelofts, this is the sight a traveller would see on arriving in the city, while Campbell-Johnston is drawn to the early morning quietude and the threat posed by a thundercloud that leaves a patch of distant sunlight in its wake. Roelofts highlights the importance of water and reflection in 17th-century Dutch art and compares Vermeer's technique of layering light and dark to that of a modern cinematographer. Dibbits discloses that the close scrutiny of the works on show has offered clues into how Vermeer started out using broad brush strokes before refining his images with what amounted to pointillist dots.

Before the focus drifts on to `Christ in the House of Mary and Martha' (c.1654-55), Gregor J.M. Weber, Head of Fine Arts at the Rijksmuseum, reveals that the Calvinist Vermeer came under the Catholic influence of wife Catharina Bolnes and mother-in-law Maria Thins. However, we move on to `Diana and Her Nymphs' (c.1655-56), `Saint Praxedis' (1655), and `The Procuress' (1656), as Weber claims that the young artist was experimenting with existing Flemish and Italian styles, as he sought to establish his own perspective.

As Lindsay retells the story of Martha and Mary, Weber and Campbell-Johnston dwell on choice of subjects in these early works, with the latter being puzzled by the image of St Praxedis wringing out a sponge after tending to the body of a martyr. She also highlights the glint of the gold coin being dropped into the palm the procured young woman in a painting that Roelofts avers was typical of the moralising aspect of art in the United Provinces. However, he also draws attention to the possible influence of Jan Steen, who told stories in works like `As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young' (c.1663-65). He also included himself in his images and Roelofts wonders if Vermeer is looking at us from the half-light left edge of `The Procuress'.

His style would soon change, however, to focus on interiors peopled with figures oblivious the viewer's presence. Dibbits sets the scene for `Girl Reading a Letter At an Open Window' (c.1657-58) and notes the tension we feel, as she might look up at any moment and see us. The subject of `The Milkmaid' (c.1658-59) is intent on her work, as she makes a bread pudding. Overlays show the basket and shelving that Vermeer removed to achieve the simplicity of the background that Krekeler notes allow him to make contrasts of light and shade to achieve depth. She also reveals that the original brushstrokes were coarser than the smooth perfection that even extends to the woman's rolled-up sleeve revealing a tan line on her arm.

Campbell-Johnston commends the mastery of the paint application and calls Vermeer a conjuror for his ability to produce such naturalism while hiding his technique. Dibbits suggests Vermeer made the everyday a religious experience for the burghers of a Protestant republic, who didn't want religious or regal representations. But he also made the scenes exciting, as with `Young Woman With a Lute' (c.1662-64), in which Dibbits suggests that someone has or is about to join the figure tuning her instrument to play a duet.

Roelofts asserts that Vermeer would have known what would appeal to collectors like Peter Van Ruijven and his wife, Maria de Knuijt, who were among his most reliable patrons. Campbell-Johnston notes the affluence of the setting in `Woman Writing a Letter With Her Maid' (c.1670-72), but she also unpicks its story elements through reference to crumpled notepaper, the stained glass coat of arms, the distracted gaze of the attendant maid, and the background image of the finding of Moses. It's a freeze frame of quotidian life that emphasises the fascination of what we could easily take for granted.

This mastery of time is complemented by his contrasts between the unseen exteriors and the interiority of the setting and the thoughts of the characters. Lindsay offers an interpretation of `Officer and Laughing Girl' (c.1667-68), pausing to admire the authenticity of the map on the wall. Dibbits claims that Vermeer's style is so discreet that the paint almost seems to melt away to leave the viewer in the room with the smiling woman and the red-tunic and brim-hatted soldier.

Weber and Dibbits discuss the use of focus and Vermeer's possible use of a device like a camera obscura in observing how clarity works while producing the likes of `The Lacemaker' (c.1666-68) and `Young Woman Seated at a Virginal' (c.1670-72). As we see `Girl With a Red Hat' and `Girl With a Flute' (both c.1664-67), Campbell-Johnston rather struggles to explain how Vermeer draws viewers into the sealed world of both the mise-en-scène and the sitter, so that our emotional experience of the situation becomes contiguous with theirs.

This brings us to `Girl With a Pearl Earring' (c.1664-67), which Dibbits extols for the simplicity of its beauty. He explains how the background was initially a dark green hanging that was replaced with blackness to concentrate the viewer's gaze on the use of light on the girl's skin, mouth, and earring. Her costume isn't contemporary, as this is a `tronie' or idealised representation designed more to show off the artist's use of light, colour, and expression than to capture an exact likeness. Such is the precision of the details in this picture that Dibbits is convinced that Vermeer observed the dispersion of light on a model's face. However, he can't say for sure whether the girl was a relative, servant, or neighbour.

As we see `Young Woman Standing At a Virginal' and `Young Woman Seated At a Virginal' (both c.1670-72), Roelofts mentions how Vermeer tried to appeal to several senses in his paintings. He also wonders whether he was musical himself and whistled while he worked. What emerges from such works is the evident pleasure that Vermeer took in his art and this perhaps explains why he only did a couple of canvases each year.

A rare example of the subject looking back at the viewer, `A Lady Writing' (c.1664-67) remarkably captures movement and stillness, as the woman pauses from a task she will resume once she has satisfied her curiosity. Campbell-Johnston marvels at the refinement of the brushwork, as, even in close-up, it's difficult to see. Such mastery makes Vermeer so revered and his paintings so iconic.

Lindsay describes the scene in `Mistress and Maid' (c.1664-67), as a letter is delivered. He notes that the ermine-trimmed yellow jacket features in five Vermeer paintings and implies that its striking colours enabled him to comment on social status as well as draw the eye. However, Dibbits is quick to state that Vermeer was a master of light and its reflection rather than of colour and credits him with using dots to create shimmering and focussing effects before anyone else.

Roelofts guides us to the light in the left-hand side of `The Love Letter' (c.1669-70) before suggesting that Vermeer almost pans the camera to draw us away from the brighter aspects of the composition into the other details that have been lit to set them apart. His insight is echoed by Campbell-Johnston, who explains that patrons would study the canvas once it was hanging on their wall, as it was their equivalent of a television set in reflecting the society around them and their own lives.

Conservateur Ige Verslype introduces us to `Woman in Blue Reading a Letter' (c.1662-64), which she had helped restore. She enthuses over the dress and how Vermeer had used different shades to get the effect of the light falling upon the material. Even after looking beneath the surface, however, she still couldn't definitively say how he achieved the illusion and reiterates the earlier contention that Vermeer was as much a magician as a genius.

As Lindsay describes the scene in `The Glass of Wine' (c.1659-61), Campbell-Johnston opines that this is a cautionary allegory rather than a courtship scene, as though Vermeer is warning young women about men plying them with drink during the day and imploring suitors not to take advantage of naive and vulnerable sweethearts. We see `Girl Interrupted At Her Music' (c.1659-61), as Weber speculates about why Vermeer painted so many women. He notes he had eight daughters and three sons, but concludes patrons preferred female figures, as they sold better. Roelofts adds that Vermeer stuck to simple subjects, as they depicted everyday activities that made them accessible and wrought a connection between subject and viewer.

Few of Vermeer's works are precisely dated, with two of the five being `The Astronomer' (1668) and `The Geographer' (1669). Dibbits claims they must have been commissions, as they are so specific in their content (which relate to Vermeer's interest in mathematics) and only show single male figures.

Weber explains the elements of `Allegory of the Catholic Faith' (c.1670-74), with the central female figure resting a foot on a globe while looking up at a glass orb, which was a Jesuit symbol for looking towards the light. Lindsay elucidates the symbolism of `Woman Holding a Balance' (c.1662-64), which shows a wealthy woman standing to the side of a table covered with jewellery and gold and in front of a painting of the Last Judgement. The message is clear, while the return to religious topics denotes that Vermeer was going through a period of self-reflection.

Campbell-Johnston attributes this to the influence of the Jesuits on Vermeer's life and work, with concept of imaginative contemplation being central to pictures like `Woman With a Pearl Necklace' (c.1662-64), whose immersive qualities coincide with St Ignatius of Loyola's ideas on prayer. In addition to marrying into a new faith, Vermeer also became part of a wealth family. At the time of his death at the age of 43 in December 1675, however, he was stricken by money troubles, as the market had collapsed after the Dutch Republic went to war with Louis XIV's France.

Over a final montage, Dibbits lauds Vermeer for showing us ourselves in creating scenes that made the clock stop ticking. That is the sense one gets when one looks at them today and Bickerstaff conveys it admirably in permitting us to share in both the intimacy of the exhibition and the ingenuity of Vermeer's artistry. Together with cinematographer Jorne Tielemans, he uses mid-shots to present the pictures in their frames before moving in for intricate details that are always filmed with exquisite fidelity and juxtaposed with a judicious mix of dissolves and cuts. Given how quickly the tickets sold out, this is film-making as an essential cultural service for all those who missed out.

As always, Asa Bennett's tinkly, largely piano-led score concentrates the mind on the imagery, while the contributions of the Rijksmuseum quintet are couched in a reverential enthusiasm that makes their scholarship seem chattily accessible. Robert Lindsay delivers his spiels well enough, but they lack authorial specificity, especially as EOS voiceovers are usually gleaned from authoritative tomes. Consequently, they feel nebulously expository and distract viewers from the pleasurable task of discovering things for themselves.

It's also not clear whether the film's ordering of the paintings is prompted by the exhibition, as it becomes achronological after the focus switches to the genre paintings. Consequently, it's difficult to follow his stylistic and technical evolution. As audiences will keenly anticipate the masterworks, it's wise not to keep them waiting too long. But this does mean that the tour rather peters out, with less eye-catching works depicting scientific bods and worthy Catholic allegories feeling a big tagged on.

These are mere quibbles, though, as this typically accomplished documentary compellingly shows how timeless beauty came about through the methodical application of the mechanics of perception.

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