The Vanishing Vermeer

We went to see the exhibit "Vermeer and the Delft Style" as mentioned in the post titled (oddly enough) "Vermeer and the Delft Style" , on August 15th. I had business in Tokyo and K came along so we could take in the art as well. It was hot and humid day that would seem normal in Fiji, but extreme in Japan. One of those days when you curse every square meter of concrete and macadam that was placed over what was once natural earth and greenery. (Pave paradise, put up a parking lot). Ueno station is air conditioned of course, but the stench of curry emanating from some restaurants (yes, I say "stench" - I happen to agree with Sherlock Holmes that curry is "horrible stuff") makes it a less than ideal environment in which to linger. K pointed out lines of people at a window selling tickets to the exhibit and I was grateful that she had bought ours online ahead of time. To get your tickets online and print them out at home, visit "Vermeer and the Delft Style".

We stopped at a cafeteria across the way to have a bit of lunch - udon noodles - before entering Ueno Park where the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum is located. The museum was pretty busy and signs along the way alerted visitors to the expected waiting time. Fifteen or twenty minutes to see an exhibit of Vermeer paintings and other Delft artists seemed nothing compared to the norm of two hours or more in lines at Disneyland to take a ride lasting a few minutes. Not sure what that means, but interesting contrast to ponder.

The exhibit was well laid out (of course it was, this is Japan) on three floors, the Vermeer works being saved for late in the order of paintings so that visitors would have learned something of Delft artists before seeing the main attractions.

Of the forty paintings, several were by Pieter de Hooch, who experimented with perspective to an extreme degree. Many of his works have multiple vanishing points and frankly I felt a bit queasy looking at some of them. It was like he was on a mild acid trip or something - not that I've ever experienced that. The distortions were so great in some of his works that he had to paint a large drape over one corner to hide areas where it got really out of whack. Often, one person in the scene would be in the foreground and would appear to be a giant compared to other people in the painting. Interesting stuff. Here's a sample, but trust me, the effect is much more striking in person.

Interior of the Burgomaster's Chamber (1663-65)

Another featured artist was Carel Fabritius. Few of his works survive as most of them, as well as poor Carel himself along with most of the city of Delft, were blown to smithereens on October 12, 1654 by an explosion of gunpowder (about 40 tonnes worth!) in a storage magazine in downtown Delft.

One of his paintings is "A View of Delft with a Musical Instrument Seller's Stall". It was done using a curved perspective and to see it properly, one must view it mounted on a curved surface using just one eye. In the museum, the original was displayed flat, but copies were mounted on curved surfaces so visitors could get the idea.

Some works by an artist with whom I was totally unfamiliar really caught my eye. They were painted by Johannes Verkolje. One was called "The Messenger" and shows a couple as a messenger hands the man (who is in the military) a notice to report for duty. At the time it was painted, 1674, France had just invaded Holland. Another that was painted in the same year, and which I liked even better, had more intriguing elements. A man seated by a virginal holds a woman's hand while pointing to his viola de gamba. The woman is holding another stringed instrument, a cittern. It is perhaps an invitation to play a duet. As in the previous painting, a dog watches them. To one side are an officer's hat and sword. Verkolje's works include elements that show his familiarity with the works of his contemporaries. It was fascinating to me to learn that and see how several Delft artists all worked on similar scenes in their own unique ways and even included elements that referenced each other's works.

Johannes Verkolje, "An Elegant Couple With Musical Instruments" 1674

The Vermeer works, were of course, the highlight of the show. His technique, interpretation of subjects, use of colors and light, details or lack thereof, was most unique.

Girl with a Glass of Wine - Vermeer circa 1659-1660

Check out the website "The Essential Vermeer" for everything you want to know about Vermeer but are afraid to ask.

When we got to the last few Vermeer works, we were expecting to see the painting featured in all the posters and ads - "The Art of Painting" . Okay, I'll admit it, it was K who noticed that it was missing. In its place was "Lady Writing a Letter with her Maidservant". A wonderful painting to be sure, but we were a bit let down at the absence of "The Art of Painting".

The subject of reading or writing letters was common then, though writing was less so. Letters were something of a fad in those days, much as email or text messaging on cell phones is for people today. This particular work is interesting because it is so balanced and lacks tension. The woman writing is totally engrossed in what she is doing, ignoring the maidservant who is waiting for her to finish and has nothing else to do but gaze out the window. The depiction of lighting is superb as usual for Vermeer.

So what had happened? Why the "switcheroo"? I don't know for sure, but I think it went something like this....

"The Art of Painting" now hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. When they started thinking of all the bad things that could happen to their painting if they sent it to Japan, (after all, it had already been one of 17 other paintings that were stolen from Sir Alfred Beit's collection at Russborough House near Dublin in May 1986 and not recovered until 1993) and considered how valuable it is to the museum, Austrian pride, the tourist industry, and the cost of insurance, they got uptight and abruptly changed their minds about it.

For the organizers, a last minute scramble, and after a quick call to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, (and a few Guinnesses later), the Irish agreed to lend "Lady Writing a Letter" in its place. Whew.

"I am Hans." "Und I am Franz." - "and we are here to tell you girlie men in Japan that if you want to see our Vermeer, you'll have to come to Austria!" Hans - "Ya, listen to me now and believe me later, you can't see this art work until you get pumped up, right Franz?" "Ya, that's right Hans. Japan doesn't have the pumpitude to protect our painting, so we won't trust them with it." Hans - "Ya, maybe if California wants to see it we'll loan it to them, because Governor Schwarzenegger is always pumped up. But in Japan, we were proved right when the wimpy girlie man Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda decided to quit after less than a year." Franz - "Ya, maybe he'll go home and cry to his mommy. But no way will we loan them our Vermeer."

On the way out of the museum and park we were entertained by a man playing beautiful songs on a saw with taped accompaniment and another making very complex balloon figures of Disney characters. Tokyo has a certification program of sorts for such people.

The exhibit will be on through December 14, so we will make a second visit. While I wouldn't describe it as crowded when we went, there were quite a few people, and we'd like it if we could take more time and not have to view the paintings elbow to elbow. Knowing which paintings we are most interested in ahead of time will also increase the enjoyment.

That night was to be Kashima's Furusato Matsuri (celebration - Bon Dance) but we were too tired to go and the next night's dance was rained out. Ah, well, there's always next year, and we had experienced plenty to think about and absorb.


ladybug said...

Wow! What a post..absolute fun! I love the photoshop of "Hans und Franz"...you captured their essence in words as well :P

All the perspective tricks are very interesting, I would have liked to see that curved painting...

Also found the Burgermeister (sp...) painting curious...when I visited Rubens house in Antwerp, it was so small!..(from a 20th century point of view-I think I was expecting a small castle or something)...no 12 foot ceilings there...but very sumptuous furnishings.

Pandabonium said...

Ladybug - glad you enjoyed it. Thanks.

There were also several paintings of Nieuwe Kerk where William the Silent is entombed. Some artists moved pillars around or used multiple vanishing points to emphasize the vaulted ceilings and/or allow more of the tomb to be seen than in real life. It was interesting to see how each artist approached it.

Burgermeister is correct German spelling. I used the English Burgomaster. In Dutch it is Burgemeester. We can hardly go wrong. :)

Anyway,the reason for the large room is because that painting depicts a chamber in the then new Town Hall of Amsterdam (now the Royal Palace). It was the largest building to be constructed in Europe to that time. de Hooch painted it after having left Delft for the "big city".

The Rubens house must have been fascinating - Antwerp in general for that matter.

Don Snabulus said...

I thought California was now known as Kah-lee-fornia in honor of Ah-nuld.

I learned a few more things in this post. Ladybug is much more of an art buff than I am, I can still appreciate it.

Pandabonium said...

Don - ya, but I didn't want to loose everyone in trying to add accents. :0

Good. I'm not terribly knowledgeable about art myself, but I think we can all get something from it.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Fun with perspectives...yay!

I don't think most people realize just how "modern" art could be back in the 17th century. Then again, music in that era got to be surprisingly exploratory, too.

I always like looking at those Vermeer works because they are so alive. Scenes like that girl holding a wine glass look like something you'd see in your local cafe...except for the costume, of course! (Then again...)

Pandabonium said...

Moody - we do tend to have a bias toward our own time I think. As if people in past ages weren't as smart, inquisitive, or creative.

Much of the work of the Delft artists focuses on daily life. The themes often have a religious message to them reflecting the Calvinist ideas of the time, but there is also the timeless ones of things people feel and do that we share in common with them even today.

Oscelot said...

Hi! Er.. I hope I'm not intruding. I've been reading your post for a few months on and off.. and it's quite delightful. I hope you won't mind me hanging around.

The first painting is interesting. I'm confused as to how the man in the foreground seems to only have 70% opacity on his right leg and thigh, though. The drape looks very unnatural.. It's nice in and of itself, but the lighting in the wrong direction to fit in with the lighting on the rest of the painting well. What I'm seeing is the light coming in sideways in the rest of the painting, when the curtain is being lit by something behind the viewer.. since we can't see what's lighting the drape, it just confuses the brain.

I'm entertained by where he curves stuff. So far I've noticed that the short side of the painting frame is straight, while the long side curves to the left.. It would be a pretty decent painting if it weren't for the freaky perspective etc.. and people's legs dissappearing.

The Fabritius is just fascinating. I get the feeling a LOT of Delftians were interested in persective.. Entertainingly, of all the things my eyes could drift to, I constantly end up on the mandolin. (at least I'm pretty sure that's a mandolin.).. The specular hilight on the back, and the way it shows on the slats of wood is fascinating. I also love the cello (or violin. or viola.. hard to tell). I have to wonder who's face that is nestled inbetween the mandolin and the cello/violin/etc. The most awesome spot in my opinion though, is the gorgeous job he did on texturing the wall the merchant has everything leaning against. Just gorgeous. The rest of the picture is intresting I'm sure, but I end up grabbing onto the wierdest things. Would have loved to see what this guy could do with some tubes of acrylics.

The dog seems to be jumping from painting to painting! I'm fascinated with the lighting in this one. It seems to me that they're about to play one last duet before he goes off to war in his incredibly frilly, highly visible outfit. I mean, really.. where they *trying* to get their people killed back then? But I digress...

There are just some paintings that you have to roll your eyes over and take every detail in.. In some ways this reminds me a lot of Waterhouse and Leighton's paintings. The lighting is just so soft and perfect. Okay, by now you're probably realizing how odd I am because I pay attention to lighting and not subject matter.. I really just don't have much to say on it. I do feel bad for them though. Well, the guy will most likely be dead shortly.. and the lady will sit there playing their duet quietly until she dies. Kind of the way things went back then. On a lighter note, the neighborhood cats may have stopped him by batting at his highly feathered outfit until his company left without him.. Hopefully the lady remembered to throw it through the catnip cycle.

Girl with a glass of wine:
I'm not sure wether or not to be afraid of, or bemused by the look on the girl's face. here's a larger version by the way: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1f/Jan_Vermeer_van_Delft_006.jpg

Also getting a laugh out of the two men. I can't help but think the one in the background is her father going "ugh.. not again..." The other guy is, of course, some manner of lecherous suitor. ;) most definately have to give him props on the girls skirt.. the insane amount of wrinkles/creases in it is.. well, insane. I know plenty of artists who can do faces and anatomy just fine, but when it comes to fabric, whoo boy.

I wholeheartedly agree with you about "Lady writing a letter with her Maidservant" (I would make fun of the name, but once you've finished a painting that huge and engrossing, you end up with no braincells left over to figure out an imaginative name.) I have to wonder what the background painting is..

"On the way out of the museum and park we were entertained by a man playing beautiful songs on a saw with taped accompaniment and another making very complex balloon figures of Disney characters. Tokyo has a certification program of sorts for such people."
Can't...resist... Where do I sign up? ;)

I hope everything I just said made sense, by the way. it IS almost 6 here, so I blame that. ;)

Pandabonium said...

Oscelot - thanks for dropping by. Glad you found the post of interest. You make some interesting observations.