Thursday, September 27, 2012

Vermeer in Rome

Girl in a red hat, Johannes Vermeer, 1665-67, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

It’s officially exhibit season in Rome! Are you as excited as I am? Yesterday I wrote about the fabulous Italy as seen from the world exhibit at the Ara Pacis, but today even more thrilling things are in store! But first, a disclaimer:

As I've mentioned more than once on this blog, a little trick curators here in Rome often indulge in is the creative naming of their exhibits. They come up with fabulous names, but they are often misleading, dropping in big names like Caravaggio and Botticelli to sell more tickets. I don't mean to disappoint you, dear bloglings, but this is one of those exhibits.

Now, let me start off by saying, the exhibit is indeed excellent. The Scuderie knows how to put on a show. Just don't get your hopes up that you are about to fulfill your lifelong dream of seeing dozens of Vermeer masterworks in one go.

However, this should not reflect poorly on the exhibit’s organizers (just on the ones who chose the name). Vermeer paintings are frustratingly difficult to scrape together, and even harder to move from place to place. Only 34 paintings can absolutely be attributed to him and of these, only 26, conserved in 15 different collections, can be moved. Not a single one belongs to an Italian collection. In fact, this is only the fifth exhibit in a century, and the first in Italy, to reunite more than four of Vermeer’s masterpieces.

All things considered, 8 works is quite impressive, although I would have chosen a more honest name for the exhibit, such as A handful of paintings by Vermeer and about 50 others by his contemporaries which you might not be that interested in seeing. Hm, that’s a little long. How about Vermeer, de Hooch, Metsu and the Golden Century of Dutch Art. Perfect.

Lute Player, Johannes Vermeer,1662/3, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This is probably my favorite work in the exhibit. While at first glance, it appears to be a girl playing a lute, she is actually tuning it. Her left hand on a tuning peg, her right plucking a string, her ear lowered over the instrument and her gaze unfocused as she concentrates on her task. An exquisite moment captured brilliantly.

Young woman seated at a virginal, Johannes Vermeer, 1670-72, private collection

As I have never had any shame in admitting, I know next to nothing about any work of art not painted by an Italian. But next to nothing is not nothing, and I am a quick learner, so I was a happy coincidence when I bumped into* one of the world’s leading experts on Vermeer, Arthur K. Wheelock, curator of Northern Baroque Paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He illuminated me on some of the finer points of Vermeer's genius and career. What luck! These kind of serendipitous meetings always seem to happen whenever I go to an exhibit! And a good thing too, because otherwise I’d have to do my own research, and you know what a bother that can be!

*he was giving an interview and I was listening in

Young woman standing at a virginal, Johannes Vermeer, 1670-73, National Gallery, London
But seriously.

Vermeer's innate ability to capture the elegance and richness of everyday moments is what he is most remembered for. A glimpse into the quotidian life of the artist, his home, his family his friends, ordinary people in ordinary situations. For me art, as with opera, is more meaningful when I can relate to it. The Triumphal March of Aida is mesmerizing and overwhelming, but the four artist friends trying to get out of paying their rent, or the young couple trying to decide whether to break up or stay together (Bohème, of course) is so much truer and more beautiful to me, because I can relate to it. And so with Vermeer.

Those simple yet profound moments, pockets of time that can go unnoticed if you're not paying attention: those are the moments where the real beauty and eloquence can be found. Like when you are fastening a necklace as you look out the window, distracted, bemused, and suddenly you realize that in that one moment at least, life is perfect and beautiful. Vermeer found art in the everyday, the bourgeois, the unremarkable, and that is why his work is so universally loved.

Saint Praxedes, Johannes Vermeer (disputed), 1655, The Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection Foundation

This is one of Vermeer's earliest masterpieces. So different from the scenes he created during the height of his career, I doubt I would have recognized it as such. It was displayed alongside an almost identical work of the same subject by Felice Ficherelli (also called Il Riposo).

Woman reading a letter, Gabriel Metsu, 1664-66, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
This was one of my favorite non-Vermeer works in the exhibit. The women have the same simple elegance and easy grace of Vermeer's subjects, but the work lacks the brilliant use of diffused light and richness of color that set Vermeer above his contemporaries.

Young woman with a glass of wine, Johannes Vermeer, 1659-60, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museu, Braunschweig
I imagine you are positively itching to get to this exhibit. Try to wait at least one more week, as the above painting has not yet arrived. It should be on display by 4 October. For practical info on visiting, check out my exhibits calendar.

All images provided courtesy of Azienda Speciale Palaexpo and MondoMostre.

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