Vermeer Centre Delft

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coot nesting on a canal in Delft

One wanders from the station through the old town of Delft past churches along canals.

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The Vermeer Centre and former Guild of Saint Luke

The Vermeer Centre is housed in a building that was the place where the painter’s guild Vermeer headed was based. There is of course a shop selling the predictable bric a brac as well as books.

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view of Delft on stairs

I hire an audio-guide and wander downstairs, admiring a large reproduction of “View of Delft” on the way. The view is barely unrecognisable now, much having changed since the 17th century when Delft was considered one of the most beautiful townscapes of its time.

On entering the basement level, there is a short video playing on a loupe, Dutch and English. It recreates the historical setting, what the town looked like then and the influence of the Dutch East Indian Company. It also recounts the fatal explosion of 1654.

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early paintings

Vermeer’s first three paintings were biblically and mythologically inspired. Caravaggio can be seen as an influence but it is not known who his teachers actually were. Leonaert Bramer is one suggestion. Vermeer’s father was an art dealer and weaver. There were many talented artists living and working in the city. Copying or being directly inspired by other artists was a recognised practice.

reflection in window

in close up one can see the reflection of the woman in the window pane

Although the paintings are only reproductions, one can see details I had not noticed before such as in “A girl reading a letter by an open window” in which her face is reflected in the window giving a different albeit vague view of her face. In “woman holding a balance” it can be seen that the woman is pregnant, a taboo subject at that time.

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a pregnant woman was considered a taboo subject at that time

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The Little Street is full of detail and the commentary argues against the likelihood of camera intervention because of the composition although the very isolation of this part of the street does to me suggest a camera as in a narrow confine photographs often have no option but to reveal a cropped scene. It seems likely that Vermeer added details to The Little Street since the street scene bears characteristics not likely to have existed in Delft at that time. The location was finally rediscovered in 2015!

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“The Little Street” as it is today; part of the original painting has been inserted!

The Milkmaid stands out from other works as it features someone of more humble origins.

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The Milkmaid

Wine and pewter jugs are a repeating detail; as in “The Glass of Wine”.

pregnant woman

The Glass of Wine

sky detail

Vermeer’s skill in reproducing light is evident in the view of Delft where the clouds come under scrutiny. This appears to have been a time when the Dutch were not only discovering and exploiting the outside world they were also becoming more conscious of the interiors of their homes and placed a high value on family life.

There is mention of Vermeer’s friend, it is assumed, van Leeuwenhoek who was a contemporary of Vermeer (they were born a few days apart in the same area of Delft) and pursued the science of that time. However, no mention of van Leeuwenhoek’s interest in and acquisition of optics and the likelihood of Vermeer becoming interested in using the camera obscura as a result!

Art of Painting

“The Art of Painting” Vermeer

“The Art of Painting” (see above) has a special place in the work of Vermeer. It was never sold and on his death, documentation reveals it was passed by his widow to a close relative. It is now in Vienna. No evidence of any use of optics here!

Girl with Pearl Earing

“Girl with a Pearl Earing” Vermeer

“Girl with a Pearl Earing” has achieved iconic status; it suggests a young woman on the edge of adulthood!?

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“The Guitar Player” Vermeer

The “guitar player” is a personal favourite which I have tried to recreate on more than one occasion. She is described by the Vermeer Centre as “not being disturbed in her playing” and that “it is perhaps Vermeer’s most cheerful painting”. The landscape painting in the background might be significant.

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Vermeer made a number of paintings featuring women and music. His last three covered this subject! Earlier works include “The Music Lesson” and “The Lute Player” also “The Concert” and “The Love Letter” in which a woman holds what appears to be a lute.

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last three “known” paintings by Vermeer

On the second floor, one is invited to unlock the secrets of Vermeer’s paintings. What Vermeer saw and what he showed us were two different things!

1-observation

The first part of this floor is dedicated to Vermeer’s application of light; we are asked to believe that “Vermeer is light!” I think that elevating Vermeer to the level of Christ is misleading but analysis of his approach to light interesting.

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Clear and Bright” coming from one side hence directional. Initially more important and striking than subject matter.

Light on light” so that there can be different tones of white some of which can be altered with additional blue. Figures have white backgrounds whereas Rembrandt often employed black backgrounds.

Falling light” is never harsh often being broken by window panes, curtains etc Different intensities with different effects.

Mirror images” is another device Vermeer uses and reflected light plays an important part in some paintings. Of course, the reflected images may be manipulated by Vermeer into enlargening the narrative of his paintings!

High light” refers not to the fact that the light is coming from above although this is sometimes the case owing to high windows, but to the specular highlights that feature in his work and are illustrated with a blob of white paint.

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view of different kinds of light from The Light Studio at The Vermeer Centre

All these kinds of light are actually illustrated by light falling on to a wall in a cubicle.  An outstanding piece of museum creatorship in my view.

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Details of the colours used by Vermeer. To a photographer these are of interest as Photoshop allows for refinement of colour either for effect or correction. The main colours he used in varying intensity are blue, red and yellow; a CMYK view rather than RGB. His tools however are not so appealing to the photographer !

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camera obscure by a window; one could see people moving outside on the street

The museum contains a working camera obscura through which one can see the street outside. The curator however questions whether Vermeer actually used one as there is no piece of hard evidence to suggest he did. Experts however do agree that Vermeer did; the question is as to the manner and extent of that use. What Vermeer was good at was his handling of space; quiet encounters in constructed spaces.

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It seems he did use a technique of the time which involved stretching string across the canvases to aid in creating perspective as in the floor tiles. X rays of paintings show holes to the edges where pins were placed to support this practice. Another argument against extensive use of the camera obscura which the Vermeer Centre does not encourage very much.

8-restoration work

details about the restoration of The Woman in Blue

There is a fascinating film about restoration work carried out at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam of Woman in blue reading a letter. Various levels were encountered in the surface of paint and different kinds of photography were used to decipher the original. The restoration made the original size of the painting visible as well as the original blue!

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photographing myself with an iPhone to create a kind of Vermeer selfie !

There is also an intriguing setup to allow one to make a Vermeer selfie.

On the top floor, an exhibition space explores the different kinds of love found in Vermeer’s paintings. The Romantic with allusions to landscape and music as in The Concert also A lady seated at a Virginal and a Lady Standing at a Virginal, the last containing Cupid images; Seductive Love in which a glass of wine featured also fruit and musical scores as in The girl with a wine glass and the Wine Glass as well as Officer and Laughing Girl; Paid Love is the subject of The Procuress; Unattainable Love is the subject of The Love Letter in which various symbols are evident including a musical instrument, slippers, a broom, a ship and a figure walking away.

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Vermeer’s first home to the left; guild of St.Lucas centre background.

After visiting the Vermeer Centre, I walk around the town of Delft, visiting some of the spots associated with Vermeer. There is the place of his birth near the Vermeer Centre which was formerly The Guild of Saint Luke of which Vermeer was a member and twice head. The New Church (a few hundred years old) is a significant landmark nearby.

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New Church Delft

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The “view of Delft” today; the New Church spire (centre right) is the only recognisable landmark.

There is also the place where he painted his view of Delft although little of the original view remains however. One of the old city gates still exists but elsewhere.

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The Eastern Gate Delft

I spend a whole day in Delft and arrive back in The Hague at nightfall, feeling somewhat exhausted … too much culture perhaps … yet it is good to get a clearer understanding of Vermeer … there is so much to Dutch painting from the 17th century and yet one can not know it all … a taste helps!

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Fotomuseum The Hague Holland 21.07.2017

When I stumbled upon the Fotomuseum in The Hague, I was put off by the name; museum suggests the past, the old, the forgotten and I was not encouraged by the possibility of such immersion. However, as I walked by the gallery I was struck by the fact there were three exhibitions showing and realised this was the chance to see new and different work. None of the names meant anything to me yet obviously these were highly competent photographers, ones that had found their way to Holland rather than the United Kingdom.

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Fotomuseum The Hague

When I stumbled upon the Fotomuseum in The Hague, I was put off by the name; museum suggests the past, the old, the forgotten and I was not encouraged by the possibility of such immersion. However, as I walked by the gallery I was struck by the fact there were three exhibitions showing and realised this was the chance to see new and different work. None of the names meant anything to me yet obviously these were highly competent photographers, ones that had found their way to Holland rather than the United Kingdom.

I excuse myself from the friends I am spending the weekend with and walk to the Fotomuseum which I chanced upon yesterday. The building is smart with a colourful exterior, brick and glass. There are a few books and cards on sale in the foyer where one can purchase a ticket.

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The first exhibition I am directed to is by Gerard Petrus Fieret, a photographer I have never heard of but described as the most “quirky and eccentric” of the 20th century. In fact, he only really photographed for about ten years between 1965 to 1975 yet built up a huge body of work during this time photographing anything and everything. The exhibition is titled “There are no failed photographs”.

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Fieret lived from 1924 to 2009 and appears to have been eccentric adopting a polarised attitude towards the Gemeentemuseum that eventually acquired his estate in 2010. Presumably he was Dutch; he lived and worked in The Hague as well as Leiden where he studied briefly. A statement of his intent reads “What I am looking for in photography is anarchy: in the context of conservative society,  my photographs are aggressive. An intense life full of passion – a sound passion for life, that’s what they’re about.

The black and white prints are not well made in the technical sense and the subject matter is often banal yet there is wonderful variety. A video about Fieret is shown in the gallery and this gives a good insight into the way he worked which was very playfully, an untutored haphazard approach yet celebrating life. He often photographed women during which time they would take their clothes off for him while he danced around. Much of his work consists of self-portraiture, an attempt to discover himself; “Who am I?” was his mantra yet he only ever encountered the external form.

The video is effective in showing him as a human rather than a deranged artist. However, Fieret did suffer from psychiatric problems and needed caring for towards the end of his life. One can’t help feeling this manic quality in his work and yet it provides a fantastic insight into bohemian life at an interesting time.

Fieret claimed “I am not a photographer; I am not even an artist … I am a visual art maker. I find the word ‘artist’ a bit too restrictive.

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The exhibition ends with touching portraits of Fieret by other photographers. He does not look deranged rather wise even if there is sadness in his eyes.

In addition to work held at the Fotomuseum in The Hague there is also an archive in Leiden University; it is considered his work will last much longer than that of his more well to do contemporaries. A sleeved photo book is on sale in the foyer and I purchase the French-English edition, a chance to reflect further on the work. The book seems poorly printed and hence probably not worth the cost which is much higher than one might expect for such a publication; an art book that will increase in value? I like the essays at the end that might point out something one has missed or just give a more considered insight into the work. Fieret’ book Le Monde Entier is probably the photo book of his work that defines him rather than a catalogue he had nothing to do with constructing.

Fieret had friends and supporters who not only allowed him to create a striking body of work but also preserved it. His brief training in art meant that he could work meaningfully as well as abstractly. There was a method to his madness!

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Peter Hujar self portrait

After a light lunch, the next exhibition I see is The Speed of Life by Peter Hujar. Like the Fieret exhibition, this is largely a retrospective and in black and white.

From the first two photographs, a gay theme is evident. A naked self-portrait of the photographer running followed by an image of a gay pride march allude to the identity of Hujar who operated at a time when the gay scene was not as open as it is now.

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Susan Sontag portrait (with gallery reflections!)

The photographs are beautifully made and well composed. The first one to really strike me is of Susan Sontag whose books I have read such as “On Photography” The image of her is well focused, the background allowed to blur slightly with the texture of her jumper, hair and face in good focus. The side view of Sontag has caught something of her character that a straightforward image might not; she appears to us as vulnerable in her prone position but in no way penetrable. The photograph was made in 1975 and is a gelatin silver print like most of the others here. A lot of the photographs are of people I have not heard of yet presumably important in their day. Hujar was associated for awhile with Warhol’s Factory. There is a list of people who were photographed and a brief description of them.

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I find the photographer’s biography outside the entrance to the gallery. Hujar was from New Jersey and he worked mostly for art’s sake though he did have a brief period of success in fashion which lead him to decide “it wasn’t right for me!” He accepted financial hardship for a life of creative freedom.

There are quite a few images of animals and nature such as water surfaces. The severed head of a cow is not typical and hence striking as is a snake hanging from a branch.

Hujar died in 1987 from AIDS. There is one monograph of his work from 1976 called Portraits in Life and Death while the catalogue to the exhibition is published by Aperture and simply called Peter Hujar. It seems that like Fieret, he was not an easy person to relate to. Joel Smith writes in the introduction that Hujar was “… difficult to know closely, to convince or dissuade. Difficult to save from his solitude, passing euphorias, self-castigation, fatalism, rage.” As Hujar said of himself, “I can express myself only through photography.”

Both these exhibitions are of late artists of a somewhat eccentric turn who seemed to have fallen on their swords to make art. As Kafka wrote, “In art one must throw one’s life away in order to gain it.”

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There are another few rooms of Hujar’s work to see, this time with white rather than grey walls. As a whole, the work does not inspire me yet there are many well made images. One wall I like shows an older man apparently in meditation while beside it is another Hudson River close up. Perhaps Hujar knew something of peace yet overall the portfolio suggests misery albeit human.

Recalling the first exhibition by Fieret, I sense a certain energy, a dynamism. Perhaps Hujar needs more attention but I have seen enough for one day.