The subtle modesty of Vermeer

The charm of Vermeer is at once obvious and elusive, says Craig Raine. The pull of his paintings are apparent to most, but their precise qualities are almost impossible to explain.

The charm of Vermeer is at once obvious and elusive. Everyone feels the pull of these paintings. No one can quite say how they exercise their magnetism, their unique beauty, their compelling mood. When people attempt to define the paintings, they often speak of Vermeer’s “poetry”. If you are a poet, you wonder what they mean by this. After all, there are many kinds of poetry, as Auden noted in “Letter to Lord Byron”: “By all means let us touch our humble caps to/La poésie pure, the epic narrative;/But comedy shall get its round of claps, too.”

On 20 June, in his Guardian blog, Jonathan Jones talked about “the camera-crisp art of Vermeer”. Which is exactly wrong. Crisp. The paintings are clear, yes, but with a faint, phantom nimbus, much subtler than Man Ray’s photographic solarisations, where the image is surrounded by an edge of fierce light like an eclipse of the sun. Vermeer’s images are as if magnified. They have that shimmering granular quality you experience looking through binoculars. There is an indefinite surrounding glow, an almost infinitesimal tremor of light, common to the face of his ermine-clad female guitar player, the city of Delft and a milkmaid pouring from a jug, wearing coarse workaday cloth next to her white skin and the dark russet-pink of her hands.

These are modest paintings, confident in their calmness. They are composed. And their composition is part of their subtle allure. The Little Street is unpretentious. You can see it in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It shows us a sewing woman, the backs of two children playing a game together, whose nature and outcome we will never know, a woman with two brooms down an alley. It is a painting that, as it were, turns its back on us. It is absorbed in itself, the private place of family life, fortified against politics, against the larger world of telegrams and anger. “Fortified” is the mot juste because the form of this picture is crenellation. The top of the brick house is candidly, deeply crenellated, in three U shapes. At the bottom of the painting, we have a pseudo-crenellation of thick whitewash, of protective Potmolen.

We can see the dirty marks left by the bodies of people who have sat on the bench outside the house. One of the strange pleasures of this picture is that, in it, paint represents paint. And this isn’t an accident. The line of whitewash makes an inverted set of crenellations as it goes round the doorway, the archway, and under the sun-faded, green-shuttered windows. The top of the house is mirrored in the bottom of the house, like two facing mirrors in a railway compartment. The form tells us that this is a world which is self-contained, rapt in its own reflection, satisfied, complete in itself.

There are five Vermeers in the current National Gallery exhibition, “Vermeer and Music”, one of which is, I think, a fake. It is privately owned and sometimes said to be by the circle of Vermeer. It shows a woman at a clavichord, whose mouth is taken from the National’s own A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (circa 1670-72). Its title and dates are identical but it is inert and strangely denuded. The wall behind the woman playing is empty, an uncharacteristic void. Vermeer knows that walls are for paintings and even his milkmaid has a hanging wicker basket, an ember carrier, a nail and the shadow cast by the nail. Compare this dull vacuum with the greatest painting on show here – and one of Vermeer’s absolutely greatest paintings – and the difference is at once apparent.

The Music Lesson (circa 1662-65) is from the Royal Collection. At some distance from the viewer, at the “end” of the picture, a woman with her back to us is standing, playing the muselar virginal. Her face is only visible in the mirror above the instrument – tantalising, readable, but not quite accessible. To her right is a long-haired man in black, with a sash, large starched white bands at his neck and white billowing sleeves like something from a lava lamp. His right hand is resting on the virginal, his left poised on a cane. It is a painting of propriety. It is also a picture of courtship, a painting of overlap.

In his great monologue, Playing Sandwiches, Alan Bennett manages to show us, sympathetically, the inner workings of a paedophile. Graham loves little children as well as desiring them. The crucial, the fatal moment comes when he is playing a game with his victim, playing sandwiches – where one person puts a hand over the other person’s hand, one after another, taking the hand from the bottom of the heap and putting it on the top. At some stage in the game, he closes his hand and says “there’s nothing there for you” – and the little girl worms her finger into his closed fist, an action he interprets as a signal, the semiology of sex.

In The Music Lesson, we see a similar process at work, a series of overlaps. Vermeer is playing sandwiches with his viewer. The left foreground is an expanse of black and white marble tiles like a checker board. To the right is first a magnificently painted carpet over a high table in the Dutch manner. On it, there is a metal tray, on which rests an elegant white porcelain jug with a hinged metal lid. The carpet is extraordinary. It takes up nearly a quarter of the painting. The carpet is thicker than usual, its two folds stiffer, twofold like the roots, the bole of a great tree. In the absolute foreground, the greenish carpet fringe frays on the floor like the ragged wash of a wave.

Immediately behind the carpet is one of Vermeer’s characteristic ultramarine chairs of studded velvet. Where the table is completely occluded by the carpet, the chair is a threequarter view. Immediately behind that is a partial sighting of a viola da gamba, supine on the floor, on its back, its strings on view, its neck occluded. Then we see the woman at the virginal, which has a partially obscured Latin motto: MUSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S MEDICINA DOLOR[UM], “music is the companion of joy, the medicine of sorrow”.

Vermeer has painted the dance of courtship, the steps, the gradualism, the ritual of wooing, its obstacles, its hesitations, its loaded obliquities, its indirections – like the woman’s face seen only in a glass darkly.

The other three genuine Vermeers on show at the National Gallery are good but they come nowhere near this quietly spectacular masterpiece. In his perfectionism, Vermeer painted only 34 pictures in his short life before he vanished from view for more than 125 years, thanks to his omission from Arnold Houbraken’s lexicon of Dutch painters, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen (1718-21). (He seems, like Shakespeare, not to have been much prized by his contemporaries.) Within this tiny oeuvre there are miracles and there are lesser miracles and the merely good. Compare, for example, The Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis, in The Hague, and The Guitar Player borrowed from Kenwood House for this exhibition.

The Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of Vermeer’s miracles. The girl is virtually without eyebrows. Her half-open mouth is one of many great Vermeer mouths. No painter captures oral liquidity better. Her look, sideways yet direct, holds us. She may be about to speak – words that will never reach us. But it is the form, so subtle, so firm, that contributes crucially to the painting’s eternal eye contact. The earring catches the light like a nearly new moon, a crescent of brightness, lit from the left. This is echoed in her lovely, left-looking eyes, which are like moons in wane, the whites and the dark irises, as she turns to hold our gaze.

But this is a painting of suspended verticals also. Her turban has a hanging train, which mirrors her nose – a nose not unrelated to those wedge noses in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignonand suspended from those almost non-existent eyebrows. The mouth is suspended from the nose . . . as the earring is suspended from the ear lobe. It is a composition of great harmony.

The Guitar Player (circa 1672) has its own set of internal echoes. The woman’s yellow satin jacket has beautifully rendered ermine trim at the lapels and the cuffs. This picks up the ebony and ivory trim of her guitar, just as the intricate fingering is mirrored in her plait and Elizabeth Barrett Browning ringlets in triplicate. The folds of her dress are splashed with shadow, freely and convincingly. Every ermine spot is differentiated, without fuss or pedantry. Her face is brightly lit and boldly shadowed. She is manifestly happy, with a high colour to her cheek. What makes this excellent painting fall short of Vermeer’s greatest work? It is, I think, the face, which is inclined to the rudimentary. It isn’t simplified, but it is a close thing.

This absorbing show has a factitious quality. How to create an exhibition around only four Vermeers? Answer: all four conveniently ready-to-hand Vermeers include musical instruments, so use the theme of music to eke out the show with a display of instruments – violas da gamba, lutes, guitars – and contemporaneous Dutch painting by Jan Steen, Carel Fabritius, Pieter de Hooch, Jan Jansz, Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gabriël Metsu.

Some of these are interesting painters. The Fabritius, for example, shows a seller of musical instruments – a lute and a viol da gamba painted from an unusual and testing angle athwart the canvas – while there is a neat miniaturised Nieuwe Kerk in the background. The viol is on its back, so you can see the suspension bridge of its strings – claiming kin with two bridges in the townscape, as well as the rising approach to a third bridge seen head-on. The lute’s “broken” neck is paralleled by the seller’s hand with its open thumb. Behind the stall is an exquisitely dirty wall that was well worth painting. A View of Delft, with a Musical Instrument Seller’s Stall (1652) is a charming picture but it does not come within a mile of the Vermeers. The other artists are by no means negligible but neither are they great.

One marvellous feature of this exhibition is the final room where the wall notices are given over to photomicrographs – images of the Vermeers taken through a microscope. Alas, this fascinating material – a bit like the tutorial on fresco painting that accompanied the long-ago “Frescoes from Florence” – isn’t reproduced in the catalogue. For example, we learn about Vermeer’s preference for ultramarine (expensive, ground lapis lazuli) and the way he used it unadulterated in those blue chairs and mixed it with browns in the ceiling of The Music Lesson. You can see it, too, in the thick carpet where it faces the viewer full-on. There is much to be learned about his use of thin paint to let undercolours show through.

In The Music Lesson, the micrograph shows that in the underdrawing the man was originally leaning forward much more. But red chalk underdrawing is invisible to infrared imaging. Perhaps the most interesting wall note concerns Vermeer’s characteristic granular surface. We are told this “has sometimes been interpreted as a deliberate painting technique”. Which is my view. However, the note continues: “under magnification the effect is shown to be the result of lumpy particles protruding through the paint surface. These particles, known as soaps, are an alteration product caused by chemical interaction between lead (in pigments such as lead-tin yellow and red lead) and the oil binding medium”. Science. Science blinded by science?

“Vermeer and Music: the Art of Love and Leisure” is at the National Gallery, London WC2, until 8 September

Vermeer's paintings are clear but not "crisp". They contain a phantom nimbus, much subtler than May Ray's photographic solarisations. Above: a detail from "The Music Lesson".

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES, CARDIFF
Show Hide image

Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution