Secrets and Silence

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.

21 thoughts on “Secrets and Silence

  1. What a lovely post! I really enjoyed your article and photos of some of the works of the Dutch painters. I recently read Tracy Chevalier’s fictional novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring which of course raised Vermeer’s profile. I saw some of his work in the Musee des Beaux Arte, Lille.

  2. We’re off to the exhibition over the weekend so you’ve whetted my appetite even more. I’ve always loved the Dutch interior paintings so I know that I’m in for a real treat. Let’s hope the scary radio lady isn’t there again!

  3. Oh I wish I could, but you’ve laid parts of it out so nicely I feel like I got a little guided tour anyway. I wish we’d had you to go round the a recent showing of National Portrait Gallery prize winners, rather than the quite loud people who kept coming from room to room behind us (I know I’m terrible).

    My favourite is the second one, something about all that brick and paving, as well as the two different sets of framed people side by side. I like a painting with a definite claim on your eye.

  4. I will definitely be coming to see this as soon as I have time.

    As ever, your review illuminates some crucial aspects for me. Indeed, as a feminist, i might well be dubious about these paintings, but they are so profound and so profoundly beautiful that they take me to a place of dreamy, thoughtful pleasure and no doubt.

  5. What a wonderful exhibition! There is something magical about seeing well-known paintings in person. Seeing photos them does nothing to diminish their power. I think you are right to say they have charisma. Did you hear yourself on the radio? I bet you sounded brilliant🙂

  6. Love love love! I loved your post, and also love those Dutch masters… I got to see the Girl with the Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis in the Hague and it was so very special, in the way you captured in your first paragraph. I also like your mention of the use of light and the framing elements. Lovely.

  7. Oh my – I really wish I could visit this exhibition, instead I have to go to my books…
    Here are two recommendable ones on Domestic Life:
    1. Frances Borzello: “At Home. The domestic interior in art”, Thames & Hudson (2006)
    2. Aynsley & Grant: “Imagined Interiors. Representing the domestic interior since the renaissance”, V&A (2006)

  8. So. Totally. Jealous! What a fabulous exhibit–I want to go, but I live thousands of miles away! It reminds me of looking into various dollhouses. I loved dollhouses when I was a little girl, and I am still fascinated by their interiors because of the stories they can potentially tell. And I now see that there is something very intriguing about painting domestic intereriors. What a wonderful post!

  9. I would love to see this exhibition. I like the way they capture light. I must say I wouldn’t enjoy that someone sticks a microphone into my face like this. I find the comparison to the shot-gun quite apt. Not sure how I would have reacted.

  10. How wonderful! I wish I was there. I had that reaction when I first saw Monet’s originals. I thought, no wonder he’s famous. As for the microphone I usually just shake my head and move on.

  11. Not sure how I’d have felt about going to an exhibition called Vermeer’s Women and only seeing 4 paintings by Vermeer. But they are beautiful paintings, and sounds like a good experience. I’m useless at giving an opinion off the top of my head, even if it’s something I know about or have thought about. It’s why I always liked writing – I could get my thoughts straight first and express myself clearly! So I can sympathise with the shotgun experience. I used to be a journalist, and always felt bad putting people in that position. Did you listen to the radio, to find out if they used your quote?

  12. I love the paintings, and how you describe them. I’ve also found that seeing an original painting in the flesh is always a special experience, even if it’s very famous. And I sympathise with your fear of performing – if I’m put on the spot, my mind goes blank and I end up saying something ridiculous that seems to come from nowhere. I’m sure you were great on the radio, though!

  13. Lovely post, as always. I’m reading it under a tree in a tiny square park in our New Jersey town. The park is ringed by townhouses, I’m sure the scenes inside are not so different.
    My favorite Dutch painter is Frans Hals. Wonderful museum dedicated to his work in Haarlem.

  14. The exhibit sounds great! I love the idea of paintings having charisma. It’s wonderful to hear that all the reproductions don’t take away from their appeal. You make me want to go to a museum ASAP!

  15. I wish I could… Vermeer is one of my favorite artists. And what’s the Fitzwilliam Museum? I think of Darcy right away.😉 Anyway, for my “Vermeer experience”… I’ve seen the first one here in your post “The Lacemaker” at the Louvre, together with “The Astronomer”. You see, even the Louvre only carries two Vermeer. So you’re fortunate to have seen four at one location. The other time I saw an original Vermeer was in Vancouver when the whole show billing “Vermeer, Rembrandt, And the Golden Age of Dutch Art” had only one Vermeer: “The Love Letter”. So that’s great you can see four at one time! I love everything Vermeer, including the spin-offs like the book and film, “Girl With the Pearl Earring”. I have several Vermeer posts on my blog, including a popular one “Inspired by Vermeer” which I think you might be interested. (p.s. glad I came back to this post because I thought I’d left a comment here but guess I’d forgotten)

  16. Becca – Thank you! What a lovely comment.

    Booketta – thank you so much! I haven’t read that Tracey Chevalier novel but I’d like to. Funnily enough we caught Chevalier on the radio talking about the Vermeer exhibition at the Fitzwilliam – I guess she is so connected to that particular cover now. The Lacemaker is usually in the Louvre, so it seems like France must have quite a few of the Vermeers. I’d love to see more of them.

    Ms Thrifty – having seen you today, I’m glad your family enjoyed the exhibition but you were quite right to save it for a time when there are fewer crowds. They are paintings that reward a bit of space and peace to look at properly.

    Jodie – fab choice there, my friend. That second one was a delight in the… paint? In reality in any case. It was SO eye-catching and really beautiful. I actually ended up liking Pieter de Hooch more than Vermeer, on the whole. And I know just what you mean about having loud people behind you. I could never speak above a whisper in an art gallery, it’s like being in church. All wrong to intrude on other’s contemplation.

    Jean – I do hope you enjoy it. It’s such a riddle about domesticity. I feel the same way about George Sand’s pastoral novels about poor farming people. It wasn’t nobel and beautiful and dignified, it was cold and hard work and no one had a great time. But given that there were no other possibilities for women, the quality of appreciation in these paintings for the work they do is lovely in its way. Better half a loaf than none.

    Stefanie – aw you are too sweet. Mister Litlove was keen, but I had no idea really which programme it would be on, and I was sure most of what I said would be cut with just ‘lovely paintings!’ left in… so, no I didn’t listen out for it. But the paintings were gorgeous and I’m so glad you agree with the charisma theory!

    Julia – that is such a lovely comment, thank you! I’ve never really thought much about seeing famous paintings in the flesh, but I’ll be looking out for more exhibitions at the museum now because I did so enjoy this one.

    Sigrun – thank you for the recommendations! I have read very little art criticism and most of that has been theoretical (Griselda Pollock, mostly and Hal Foster). I’d love to look these books up.

    Ali – how I wish I could transport the whole exhibition over to you – just for an afternoon, say! I loved your comment about doll houses. I can see exactly what you mean. A friend of mine makes dolls houses – she has a Japanese one and a Rennie Mackintosh one, and oh loads of others. They are absolutely fascinating. I don’t have the patience or the skill for it, but there is something so dreamily contemplative about all those other interiors and the lives they could hold.

  17. Smithereens – I am completely in agreement – I ended up loving the de Hooch’s more than just about any of the others. He’s wonderful! Thank you for the link – I’ll be following that up.

    Caroline – the way the light is drawn is simply gorgeous. The microphone thing was alarming but funny (ultimately). I’m sure if it had happened to you, you would have come up with something appropriate to say – it sort of prods your brain into action!

    Lilian – it never even occurred to me to say no – what am I like? But the exhibition was lovely, and I do think that many, many years ago I saw original Monet’s in the National. It’s funny – I like art in small doses – too much and I can’t take it in, but one exhibition was just the right amount.

    Andrew – when I first walked in I felt very miffed about the small number of Vermeers. But by the time I was halfway round, I was finding so many paintings I liked, and the family ressemblance between them all was so strong, I didn’t mind at all. I know exactly what you mean about writing – I would rather send an email than talk on the phone, as I feel I have a better chance of saying the right thing. But no, I didn’t listen out for myself on the radio; I wasn’t sure what programme the recording was for and felt sure it would all end on the cutting room floor!

    Karen – I am so pleased to find other bloggers having similar experiences of charismatic paintings – that’s so cool! And oh yes, when I first saw the microphone I was afraid for a moment I would have nothing at all to say. I think that was why I was so clenched afterwards – I’d had to squeeze that comment out!🙂

    Melissa – that sounds like a lovely location to be in! And thank you for the recommendation of the artist – I’m into the Dutch school now and want to look him up online. I could use a good book on Dutch artists altogether and will have to look out for one. Thank you for the lovely comment.

    Squirrel – you hit the nail on the head there. Of course, it’s mindfulness that these paintings represent, and the serenity it gives both to the person who is mindful and the person who is with them. That’s it exactly.

    Rebecca – I haven’t been to a museum in years, and now this year I’ve been twice to the Fitzwilliam. I am a dreadful slouch normally and am content looking online at most things, but it’s been great to get out there and see the art and I hope I’ll do a bit more now!

    Arti – I found out later that there are only something like 37 Vermeers in existence, scattered about the world, and hence it’s hard to get any together at the same time. It was lovely to see them, and in the end, I found so many of the Dutch school paintings to be completely charming and hypnotic that I didn’t mind at all. I can see why people love Vermeer, though – the use of light is splendid. Thank you for the link to your post – I’ll follow that up! (and I checked the spam queue for your comment as bad things can happen but couldn’t find it – I’m very glad you came back!)

  18. And you write about painting beautifully, too!🙂 I sort of like the intimacy of looking at just a very few paintings. It feels sort of right considering the type of subjects the paintings are about. I love museums and these would be a thrill to see.

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