SUB­LIME POET OF THE BA­NAL

Vermeer: The Golden Cen­tury of Dutch Art

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

Scud­erie del Quiri­nale, Rome, un­til Jan­uary 20

TO­WARDS the end of Proust’s Re­mem­brance of Things Past, and be­fore the fi­nal rev­e­la­tion ex­pe­ri­enced by the nar­ra­tor, which turns out to be the ful­fil­ment of the truth glimpsed in the fa­mous episode of the madeleine, there is an­other pas­sage of em­blem­atic sig­nif­i­cance for the vo­ca­tion of the artist. It con­cerns the death of the nov­el­ist Ber­gotte, one of the many characters in the im­mensely long book and in­evitably a par­tial al­ter ego of the au­thor.

Although ill, Ber­gotte has in­sisted on vis­it­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion of Dutch paint­ing to see Vermeer’s View of Delft, in­trigued by a critic’s ref­er­ence to a beau­ti­ful pas­sage that he did not re­call: a lit­tle bit of yel­low wall, painted as finely as a pre­cious Chi­nese work of art. As he con­tem­plates the petit pan de mur jaune, its hum­ble but mys­te­ri­ous beauty leads him to a pro­found ques­tion: what is it that com­pels the artist to take such care, to pay such at­ten­tion a de­tail that might seem in­signif­i­cant to the ca­sual observer?

It is as though the painter were act­ing un­der the com­pul­sion of a higher or­der of val­ues, for there is no rea­son in this world, Ber­gotte re­flects, to ded­i­cate one­self in such a way to the pur­suit of beauty, of good­ness, or even of sim­ple courtesy. There must be an­other realm in which th­ese things ex­ist and mat­ter, and to which we are con­nected when­ever we ded­i­cate our­selves to some­thing be­yond the self. It is in the midst of th­ese re­flec­tions that Ber­gotte suf­fers a fa­tal stroke, so that epiphany co­in­cides with ex­tinc­tion of con­scious­ness.

Th­ese few but in­tensely mem­o­rable pages, which, as Jacques Der­rida ob­served, in some sense re­flect or con­tain the whole of Proust’s novel in the same way that the lit­tle patch of wall con­tains the whole of the View of Delft, also rep­re­sent a cen­tral moment in the mod­ern crit­i­cal for­tune of Jo­hannes Vermeer (1632-75). We know tan­ta­lis­ingly lit­tle of his life and ca­reer, and we are not even sure for whom he painted the very small num­ber of works he pro­duced — prob­a­bly fewer than 50, of which be­tween 30 and 40 sur­vive to­day, de­pend­ing on whether one ac­cepts cer­tain at­tri­bu­tions or not.

Although we know Vermeer in­her­ited his fa­ther’s busi­ness as an art dealer, we are not sure whether he painted his pic­tures to sell on the open mar­ket or on com­mis­sion from a wealthy col­lec­tor. The ex­tra­or­di­nary care and re­fine­ment with which they are ex­e­cuted has been taken as sup­port­ing the lat­ter hy­poth­e­sis, but the ev­i­dence is scant and in­con­clu­sive.

In any case, while Vermeer was held in high re­gard in his life­time, ap­pre­ci­a­tion of his few pic­tures was con­fined to Dutch con­nois­seurs for al­most two cen­turies af­ter his death. As far as the wider world was con­cerned, he was re­dis­cov­ered by Theophile Thore-Burger, a French critic, in the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury. By the time Proust was writ­ing, in the first two decades of the 20th, his work was fa­mil­iar to a cul­ti­vated au­di­ence. In the 1930s, Sal­vador Dali based pic­tures on Vermeer, and dur­ing the 30s and 40s he be­came the ob­ject of the most no­to­ri­ous case of paint­ing forgery in mod­ern his­tory, when Han van Meegeren pro­duced a se­ries of fakes that were ini­tially taken se­ri­ously; in­deed the van Meegeren af­fair is an in­trigu­ing story in its own right.

The aes­thetic qual­i­ties rep­re­sented by Vermeer’s work seem com­pletely at odds with the con­sumer cul­ture of noise and dis­trac­tion that evolved in the post-war years, and yet by the end of the cen­tury, thanks in par­tic­u­lar to the novel (1999) and then film (2003) of Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring, Vermeer be­came a house­hold name to ri­val Rem­brandt in the minds of the pub­lic. Such fame has made it harder for mu­se­ums to lend his works, which are of­ten among the main at­trac­tions for vis­i­tors, but in spite of th­ese dif­fi­cul­ties, the Fitzwilliam in Cam­bridge held Vermeer’s Women: Se­crets and Si­lence in 2011-12, and the Na­tional Gallery in Lon­don will open Vermeer and Mu­sic in late June next year.

The present Vermeer ex­hi­bi­tion at the Scud­erie del Quiri­nale is not only a sub­stan­tial sur­vey of the artist and his con­tem­po­raries, but also prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant ex­hi­bi­tion in Rome for read­ers vis­it­ing the city in the next few months. It is ac­com­pa­nied by a fine cat­a­logue in­clud­ing es­says by sev­eral cu­ra­tors, to whose sum­mary of re­cent schol­ar­ship some of the com­ments above are in­debted.

Even to speak of Vermeer and Rome in the same breath is to evoke a col­li­sion of worlds: 17th-cen­tury Hol­land, bour­geois, pros­per­ous and pre­dom­i­nantly Protes­tant (though Vermeer was part of the Catholic mi­nor­ity), was a so­ci­ety of re­spectable mar­ried house­holds; Rome, dra­matic and glo­ri­ous, was po­larised be­tween the celibacy of the in­nu­mer­able clergy and the un­do­mes­ti­cated car­nal re­la­tions of sol­diers, bravi and whores.

But the con­trast is a telling one, not merely ad­ven­ti­tious. Both so­ci­eties were in love with paint­ing in their dif­fer­ent ways: Dutch houses, as we see from records of con­tem­po­rary in­te­ri­ors, were full of pic­tures, but they were mostly mod­est in size and ei­ther land­scapes or still lifes. In Rome, although pri­vate col­lect­ing was also im­por­tant, paint­ing was most con­spic­u­ously pub­lic, on a larger scale and in the more am­bi­tious gen­res of his­tory paint­ing and al­le­gory.

Artists, ac­cord­ingly, were taken more se­ri­ously and their lives and works were recorded in bi­ogra­phies. Had Vermeer lived in Rome, we would al­most cer­tainly have a writ­ten record of his life, he would un­doubt­edly have been sup­ported by one or more im­por­tant pa­trons, but his artis­tic tra­jec­tory might have been very dif­fer­ent. The par­tic­u­lar and ret­i­cent mys­tery that we ad­mire in his works could per­haps only

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