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

MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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