Vermeer On Video
In addition to the many recent books, articles, and exhibition catalogues converging on the life and art of Johannes Vermeer, two video productions merit special mention. Vermeer was perhaps the most cinematic of all painters, with his mise-en-scène presentations perfectly toned in modern optical images. These videos showcase his art with appropriate cinematic force while providing knowledgeable commentary throughout.
Of the two the most visually compelling is Light, Love, and Silence (RM Arts), written, produced and directed by Michael Gill in time for the 1995-1996 Washington-The Hague exhibition. Here Vermeer’s paintings are presented in vibrant color and convincing depth. Arthur Wheelock, Jr. and Jorgen Wadum provide excellent insights as they examine such works as The Milkmaid, View of Delft, The Little Street, and the Girl with a Pearl Earring, while the camera illustrates their remarks with breathtaking images. Wheelock gives a wonderful coda to the video with a brief discussion about the merits of one of Vermeer’s late works, The Guitar Player. Other experts contribute telling details about Dutch history, the camera obscura, and the work of Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, Vermeer’s near neighbor. Using The Music Lesson, Wadum explains how Vermeer augmented his perspective scheme with pins and strings stretched from the central vanishing point of the painting.
Several charmingly erudite discussions ensue between the British dramaturge, Jonathon Miller, and the art/intellectual historian, Svetlana Alpers, excellent bridges connecting and helping focus the many elements of the production. Alpers talks about the importance of maps to the Dutch culture while Miller probes some of the psychological implications of Vermeer’s studies. Their banter exemplifies an enlightened conviviality worthy of the master, made even more meaningful because of the way the camera cuts away to show relevant images of the paintings under discussion.
Edited and narrated by Melvyn Bragg, the production maintains a kinetic quality during its 52 minutes, always on the move, each scene gradually poised to flow naturally into the next. One can’t emphasize enough how beautiful and vivid the paintings appear – much more so than any photographic reproduction. These images alone more than justify the modest cost of the video. The narrative is resolute and usually clear, with only one questionable comment: In a discussion about the Dutch desire for privacy, Bragg recounts how a French dignitary (the Baron de Monconys) had visited Vermeer’s studio to see some of the artist’s paintings, only to be informed there were none to see, when in fact “he had a roomful next door.” This last statement seems in error, for while Vermeer’s patron (Pieter van Ruijven) doubtless had a roomful of the artist’s paintings at the time of the incident (1663), his house was not in Vermeer’s immediate neighborhood.
Light, Love, and Silence belongs in every art lover’s library to be enjoyed for itself and to complement other, more traditional sources of information. It is also a fitting prelude to the video which the National Gallery of Art in Washington released last year (2002): Vermeer, Master of Light, narrated by Mary Streep and directed by Joseph J. Krakora. Vermeer, Master of Light opens to the peeling carillons of the New Church at dawn over Delft as the camera pans scenes of the city given form by the spreading light. Streep’s familiar voice moderates the commentary interspersed throughout the 57 minute production. As the curator of Northern Baroque Art at the National Gallery, Arthur Wheelock anchors the expert analysis, while the museum’s senior consultant for conservation, David Bull, highlights the importance of conservation/restoration methods and techniques as tools for upholding Vermeer’s artistic intentions. Harvard’s venerable Seymour Slive rounds out this pundit trio, probing the special qualities of Vermeer’s oeuvre. Together the scholars, using sophisticated computer enhancements, examine a number of the artist’s works in detail, reviewing Vermeer’s painting techniques and compositions, then demonstrating how particular paintings were crafted.
Wheelock is splendid as he talks about the Woman Holding a Balance, the Woman in Blue Reading, A Lady Writing. One of the delights of the video is to see Wheelock actually holding the unframed original of the Girl with the Red Hat. Streep’s narratives on The Music Lesson and the Girl with the Red Hat form the centerpiece of this production. Here Vermeer’s artistry is investigated in a step-by-step account of each painting in ways which allow the viewer to understand at least some of Vermeer’s expressive accomplishments. This is art history at its best, marred only by a rather misinformed attempt in The Music Lesson to explain background shadows in the painting as the consequence of artistic license rather than a rather straightforward depiction of the actual shadows created by north light from the windows.
This video is suffused with a reverential tone, perhaps too much so. Slive’s remarks in particular seem defensive as he clearly seeks to protect his own special version of Vermeer. In a rather considered effort to disparage the idea that Vermeer relied heavily upon the camera obscura, even to the point of projecting scenes he orchestrated in the camera lens directly onto his canvas, Slive plangently argues that Vermeer “is not an ape of nature.” He points to the “missing” left easel leg in the Art of Painting and the “great vault” of sky in the View of Delft as examples of Vermeer’s independence from what could be seen through a camera obscura. He infers from the artist’s paintings that “Vermeer is a man of great dignity.”
But the research of people like Philip Steadman cannot be so easily dismissed. For at least six of Vermeer’s paintings, Steadman has demonstrated that the master did in fact trace what he saw projected through the camera’s lens, certainly to establish the basic compositional template as well as the essential tonal grid. However, no one, Steadman least of all, has suggested that Vermeer did not emend what he saw in front of him in pursuit of artistic expressiveness. The clouds, the shadows in the harbor, and above all the lighting schema throughout the city in the View of Delft were definitely created for artistic effect; but they appear nonetheless forged from the foundation seen in his camera. The “missing” easel leg in the Art of Painting, moreover, is not really missing; it is hidden behind the artist’s left leg and his stool.
Vermeer may have indeed been dignified, but it is unlikely he was stuffy. As the son of an innkeeper/tavern owner who himself doubtless helped his mother run the tavern throughout much of his adult life and who was married at twenty, fathering fifteen children in twenty-two years of marriage, it is difficult to believe Vermeer was a strait-laced gentleman. The man who likely painted himself in such a bawdy pose in The Procuress; who, as Walter Liedtke has noted, painted The Milkmaid with suggestive innuendo; who gave the world the Officer and Laughing Girl, The Glass of Wine, The Girl with the Wineglass, and the Girl with a Pearl Earring; who, in the Art of Painting, presented an allegory of the artist with drooping drawers and a manuscript hand fondling his backside – this was a man whose art transcends moral pigeonholing. Like Shakespeare, Vermeer’s sensibility is richly protean, malleable, and complex.
With notable exceptions, there was a general lack of vivacity in this film, at least by contrast with the earlier video. The View of Delft had a distinct yellowish tinge, as did the Woman in Blue Reading, while the close-ups of the Girl with the Red Hat made the painting appear flat and listless. Vermeer, Master of Light would have benefited from the camera work which brought Light, Love, and Silence to life.
These quibbles aside, the National Gallery production is a desideratum for anyone interested in art and the creative process. It is an expressive companion to Michael Gill’s video; but it also achieves very ambitious goals for itself. Wheelock’s analysis, along with Bull’s clarifying comments – and even Slive’s passionate admiration – shed considerable light on Vermeer’s genius.
Arthur Wheelock is clearly the guiding intelligence behind both these extraordinary offerings. For nearly three decades, this scholar has perhaps done more than any other to bring Vermeer and his art to the attention of the world. His lectures and writings, his curatorial skills, including the incredible exhibit in 1995, and his exhibition catalogues have reached and influenced millions of people, enlarging their knowledge of Vermeer in particular and the arts generally. With these videos, we continue to reap the generous harvest he sows.
August 6, 2003