I’ve just spent an agreeable, if challenging, discussion about the Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), with Professor Bryan Jay Wolf, whose academic affiliations include Yale and Stanford Universities. His book, Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing is essential reading for enthusiasts and scholars of Vermeer, and even to those who come to the painter by way of a recent series of motion pictures, including GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING and the amazing documentary, TIM’S VERMEER.
You cannot fail to be struck by Bryan’s opening words, a shot across our bow: “I take it as my task in this book, and as a task of criticism in general, to name what has gone unnamed in the construction of the work of art... that which the painting will not deliberately display..."
Be not deceived by Bryan’s rather bemused expression (see above). Once into the book, he is all business; and that business is to stand before what he describes as Vermeer’s “silences” and “strangeness.” Both a textual “reader” and an authoritative contextualist, he places Vermeer’s domestic images within what he calls post-Renaissance’s “discovery of the individual self” and reads the texts against the grain, setting “intended meanings against unintended ones.” Vermeer’s paintings “can’t stop talking,” he warns, “and they are not always, on the surface, at least, truthful.” At which point Bryan offers one of the best definitions of art I’ve ever encountered: “What is art if not a lump of history, uttered with precision, from the situated position of an author... a pointed and often polemic curse or blessing from within that history.”
17th-century Dutch painting, in general, was a “retinally-based way of seeing.” Painters like De Hooch, De Keyser, Steen, and Vermeer painted what they saw, pledging fidelity to the a world optically known , which differed from that prescribed by Italian art theory. Their paintings were “an activity of surfaces,” of everyday experiences transpiring outside the artist’s study, yet seen through a mediating lens, or window.
Yet, intriguingly, Bryan insists that Vermeer “problematizes” these domestic activities. His subjects may stay indoors, but they seek to know the world. What is really certain about these images; what do we really know? The women here possess secrets, “they dare not reveal.” Perspectives, architectural details, props elude our expectations; a suddenly turned head, an enigmatic anecdotal detail, an unexpected breaking of the fourth wall--all spin us off our accustomed orbit into “a disquietingly erotic space...”