Yesterday I went to the new exhibition at the Fitzwilliam museum – Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence. In fact there are only 4 Vermeers displayed (he was not a prolific painter) but there was an abundance of Dutch art from the same era. This was the painting I most wanted to see: The Lacemaker. There’s something about an original, when it’s been reproduced a thousand times in prints and postcards and on the covers of books. I wondered whether all those hungry gazes through the years had sucked something out of the painting, left it dry and brittle. But the opposite turned out to be true. The picture had absorbed something vital from its spectators, it drew the gaze, and emanated the lustre of importance. I learned something: famous paintings have charisma.
The exhibition was all about domestic interiors, and the secret life contained within them. This was a beauty from Pieter de Hooch – on the wall it glowed with colour and the brick paving made a dizzying perspective that drew in the eye. All the pictures slyly suggested a narrative, or the structure of one, even if not the conclusion. Here we ask ourselves, what is the relation between the figures in the painting, in particular, the woman whose back is turned? On one side an open story – mother and child on the way to market; on the other side, an enigma.
Another interior by Jan Steen, this one tempting and teasing as the woman undresses. You get the feeling that these male artists are peeking into an intimate, enclosed world where they have no business. The use of framing devices, archways and doorways, gives us a through-the-keyhole feel. Typical Dutch mama here, pink and soft and fleshy, a plain face wrapped about with a white headcloth, wispy curls. If you look closely, she’s looking back at you. She’s a bold one.
For the most part, though, the women had their heads down, engaged in a domestic chore in the manner of Vermeer’s lacemaker. Look at the way the light falls so sumptuously here, even though we can’t see its source. It falls in the manner of a benediction, a blessing on the head of the servant girl, ennobling her ordinary task. This was the secret in many of the paintings – how to understand the profound engagement of the woman with her work? There’s a peace and harmony here that makes us crave some similar satisfaction. But that light is also a spotlight, a blast of pure theatre that makes these people little dramas in themselves, idealising and elevating the normal and the everyday. It’s beautiful and sublime because the painter makes it so. Hardly feminist, hardly socially aware, but rather lovely in its way.
And here’s another one I loved by Jacobus Vrel. The elderly woman sitting in this bare, blank room is signalling to a small child outside the window. The child has a transparent, ghosty look, in contrast to the woman’s vivid presence. What fascinated the painters about this domestic world was, I think, how little they understood it. The silence that encases the figures is broken only occasionally by moments of enigmatic communication like this one. What transactions were occuring in the domestic sphere? What did women and children whisper to one another? I don’t think they had any idea.
I had left the exhibition and was looking at the display of books and catalogues and postcards when a voice behind me said, ‘Excuse me?’ I turned around and a young woman stood there, thrusting a microphone in my face. She was taking people’s reactions to the paintings for the local radio station. Well, I’d been thinking about this post and I gave a garbled version of the above. She seemed pleased and said goodbye, and I turned back to the postcards, feeling every single nerve in my body unclench. She may as well have been pointing a double-barrelled shotgun at me, and I do wonder when I will finally free myself of this fear of performing. It’s ludicrous to be anxious about something I can do perfectly well. But it made me think back to the paintings again: serenity, congruence, harmony. These qualities simply are enigmatic, because how you acquire them and hold onto them is one of the great secrets of living. If you’re near Cambridge come and see the exhibition; it’s gorgeous.