Friday, 22 June 2012

Johannes Vermeer, 1632 - 1675

  Girl with a Pearl Earring, Mauritshuis, The Hague 

The paintings of Johannes Vermeer have fascinated me ever since I was a child. I suppose that back then I was primarily drawn to them by the quietude and peace they exuded as well as, of course, by their sheer beauty. Moreover, I was quite simply awestruck by the way Vermeer managed to make his paintings look real, to the point where it became well nigh impossible to tell whether they're paintings or photographs. Photography, of course, had yet to be invented; nevertheless the fact that Vermeer in his paintings excelled at imitating reality and came as close to photography as anyone could get in the 17th century, surely is part of their attraction - then and now. 

  A Lady Writing a Letter, National Gallery, Washington 

Years ago, I embarked on several trips around the world to see those of Vermeer's paintings that I hadn't yet seen. Since there are a mere 36 paintings of his that have survived, all in various museums spread across exactly 13 cities in 6 countries (USA: New York, Washington, Princeton; France: Paris; UK: London, Edinburgh; Ireland: Dublin; The Netherlands: Amsterdam, The Hague; Germany: Frankfurt, Brunswick, Berlin, Dresden), the term around the world is, I suppose a slight exaggeration. But it was nonetheless nothing short of a revelation to finally lay eyes on each and every actual painting of his instead of just looking at their reproductions.

  A Lady Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Gemaeldegalerie, Dresden 

A revelation indeed - for looking at Vermeer's paintings up-close (or as up-close as museum security will let you), what becomes evident is that the effect of imitating reality and making his painting look like a photograph (though they wouldn't of course have called it that, since photography hadn't yet been invented) is one that is only discernible at a certain distance. If scrutinised, his paintings will appear pixelised, so to speak, with their true and intended effect best coming across when stepping back a foot or two. According to Anthony Bailey's intriguing study on Vermeer - A View of Delft, Vermeer Then and Now - decades later, the technique Vermeer used would be admired and emulated by the Impressionists. Interestingly, one of Vermeer's contemporaries, Diego Velazquez, would also influence the Impressionists, particularly Edouard Manet, though Vermeer and Velazquez apparently never met, nor did they use the same technique. 

  The Lacemaker, Louvre, Paris 

However, Vermeer's paintings recall photographs on another level, inasmuch as virtually all of them show people - mostly women - in motion, as it were, in the middle of doing something, such as weighing pearls, putting on a necklace, reading or writing a letter, and so on. Ad such, his paintings are not unlike snapshots, or put differently, they are the 17th century equivalent of a snapshot. While painting his subjects once the deed was done (meaning, after the pitcher had been put down, the pearls put on, etc.) would seem the obvious thing to do, Vermeer practically always chose to paint them as they were in the process of finishing a task. Doing the opposite, I guess, would have made his paintings quite simply portraits, which is what many - though by no means all - of his contemporaries tended to do. Even what, perhaps, may be called his most famous painting - Girl with a Pearl Earring - the one that comes closest to be classified as a portrait, rather than simply looking straight at the viewer, the girl is also seen in motion as she seems to turn around, looking over her left shoulder.

  The Love Letter, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 

Vermeer was what I'd call an economic painter, a master of composition. Besides his subjects, the objects that surround them are few and, I would argue, carefully chosen. And while their arrangement looks ever so haphazard, I'm sure Vermeer took great care arranging them the way they best fitted the composition he had in mind. A far cry from the - often very cluttered - paintings of some of his peers, Vermeer's seem downright empty. Yet it is this purity and clarity that make his paintings so elegant. That, and the exquisite use of colours. Again, I am convinced that what seems to random and incidental was, in fact, the result of careful deliberation on his part. But it's not just the way he used colours, it is also the colours themselves - especially the blues and the yellows - that are so much more alive, and so much more intense, than the same (or rather: similar) colours in the paintings by his peers. 

  Woman with a Pearl Necklace, Gemaeldegalerie, Berlin 

Part of our ongoing fascination with Vermeer's work is the fact that so little is known about him or the women in his paintings. Who were they? Why did he paint them? Were the paintings commissioned? Much of Vermeer's background and the genesis of his paintings is shrouded in mystery. This, needless to say, contributes not a little to why we're so captivated by them. This paucity of information regarding Vermeer's life and work has also inspired a great deal of speculation, resulting in a number of novels, and even films. The best known example may be Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, in which she cleverly traces - or rather: imagines - the genesis of this, Vermeer's most famous painting. In so doing, Chevalier, also goes into much detail concerning the paint Vermeer used and in everything she describes, including Vermeer's studio, his patrons, and his family life, it is obvious that she did her homework, immersing herself in 17th century Dutch history, resulting in a meticulously woven and carefully constructed story that is as compelling to read as it is instructive. 

 A Woman with a Water Pitcher, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

As with every bestseller, this one, too, was soon picked up by a film studio, though as with most great books, they usually turn into bad films. Or rather, get turned into bad films. But bad is perhaps too strong a word. Peter Webber's film isn't bad, it's just uninspired and inconsequential, and a far cry from being as spellbinding as the book it is based on. Let alone the painting!


For those about to head for Tokyo, visiting the exhibition From Renaissance to Rococo - Four Centuries of European Drawing, Painting and Sculpture currently shown at Tokyo's National Museum Of Western Art, is a great opportunity to see a few of Vermeers paintings, among them Woman with a pearl Necklace, on loan from Berlin's Gemaeldegalerie.  

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Fashioning Fashion


Fashioning Fashion is an exhibition on European fashions between 1700 and 1915.

The exhibition has been jointly put together by the Los Angeles County Museum and Berlin's German Historical Museum, which runs a series of films to accompany the show.

Its subtitle - European fashion between 1700 and 1915 - is rather a misnomer for what it actually does show, are French and English fashions of that period as the overwhelming majority of exhibits are from those two countries, begging the question if Italian, Swedish, Austrian or German women went naked ... Well, they didn't, of course, and my guess is, that because the influence and power wielded by those two countries was so strong that the rest of Europe also looked to them with regard to everything concerning etiquette, architecture - and apparel, and giving the visitor some background information and historical insight to that end, including a word about the choice of dresses, certainly would have benefited the exhibition.

For as I said, this is merely my guess, for let's not forget that Austria was a very powerful country, too, at the time, and so were a handful of other European nations, which is why putting the exhibition in some basic historical context would have been helpful, if not fundamental. And even though France and England may have been the countries everybody else took their cue from, it still might have been interesting to see some examples of dresses from other (European) countries, if only to identify variations in craftsmanship or national adaptations and modifications, if indeed there were any.

It may well be that period dresses from countries other than France and England weren't available or the respective museums unwilling to loan them out, in which case this information should have been passed on to the visitors.


That said, the exhibition itself has been beautifully put together by Belgian scenographer Bob Verhelst, who was in charge of the overall look, such as the the colour scheme and the design, of the show. However, to make the show more dynamic and to put the garments into a historical and cultural context, including paintings, drawings and sketches pertaining to the fashions of that time and period, might have helped. As it is, there are simply the - albeit beautifully dressed - mannequins and next to them explanations as to the fabric, trims, and tailoring of the dresses and suits on show. 

And there are, of course, the films

There, one wonders what Gone With the Wind is doing in the film section (entitled costume films) of an exhibition that's supposed to be about European fashions while, for instance, any version of Dangerous Liaisons is sadly missing. It's a bit of a random mix that includes films like Room With a View as well as, believe it or not, Muenchhausen.

A(ny) link between the selection of films and the actual exhibition would certainly have been beneficial.

Also missing is an explanation of the genre of the costume film - if indeed it is one - and defining of what makes a film a costume film - is it just the fact that a film's costumes are fancy? Or because it's a period drama? 

Regardless of all that, it nonetheless is a delight to be able to see Gone With the Wind on the big screen again! 

Saturday, 9 June 2012

AFI Life Achievement Award For Shirley MacLaine

Last night, Shirley MacLaine was the 40th recipient of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.

In a glamorous gala ceremony at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, Maclaine was seated amidst Julia Roberts and previous Life Achievement Award recipient, Meryl Streep, who later bestowed the award upon MacLaine.

Other presenters included MacLaine's brother, Warren Beatty, her sister-in-law, Annette Bening, and her co-star in the film that won her the Academy Award for Best Actress, Jack Nicholson, who played her love interest in Terms Of Endearment (James Brooks, US 1983).

Looking at MacLaine's recent output it's easy to forget that she participated in a number of milestones in cinema history, for instance Being There, Hal Ashby's much underrated masterpiece from 1980, Sweet Charity, or Vincente Minnelli's best film, Some Came Running, from 1960.

She was fortunate enough to collaborate with Hitchcock, who offered her her first part in movies, in his black comedy, The Trouble with Harry, back in 1955. MacLaine arrived in Hollywood at the cusp when the studio system was about to disintegrate, yet the so-called New Hollywood that would soon emerge, had little to offer her, perhaps because she was still somehow identified with the old system. As a result, directors like Alan J. Pakula, Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola or Sydney Lumet seemed to have little use for her - with the exception of Hal Ashby, who, however, recognised Maclaine outstanding comic talent which substantially contributed to make Being There the hilarious, dark, way-before-its-time, media satire that it actually is.

That MacLaine isn't identified with a specific era in film history may be part of the reason that she's had such a long and successful career, avoiding the fate of so many actresses who, for instance, rose to fame in the 1970s, collaborated on a number of New Hollywood movies - only to subsequently disappear into oblivion. Think of Jane Alexander, Karen Black, Katherine Ross, or Genevieve Bujold, to name but a few.

Other reasons are her staying power and - quite simply - her talent. Difficult to label or classify as she's as convincing in musicals as she is in comedies or dramas, Maclaine, now pushing eighty, is still regularly offered work. One of her upcoming appearances include the part of  Elizabeth McGovern's wealthy  mother in the British television series, Downton Abbey. Rumour has it, that her scenes with Maggie Smith are bringing a new meaning to the word hilarious, something which I can easily believe.

Congratulations, Shirley!