You have ten seconds to find the Vermeer below

November 18th, 2008
People and a Vermeer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The vast majority of European easel painting can no longer be viewed in its original context. This fact has advantages and disadvantages.

Even though I live in Rome I cannot say I have ever really seen Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew. It hangs in the the original, dim Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi where day in and day out the same pantomime consumes itself in near obscurity. Tourists uncomfortably eye each other attempting to guess who will capitulate and clink the coin into a metal box to trigger a few minutes of artificial light. Although the setting should guarantee a taste of bygone Baroque spirituality, you occasionaly get the same crowd density as you do at the MET at blockbuster exhibitions plus the chapel’s compact dimensions makes your angle of vision problematic.

On the other hand, if you are versed in the science of museum traffic, it is not impossible to be alone with a real Vermeer in a well lit, air-conditioned museum, but such a privilege is getting rarer. Overcrowded conditions are even more at odds with a Vermeer that they are for a Caravaggio which, after all, was meant to be on public display. Oppositely, Vermeer tooled his tiny masterpieces to function in the quiet of a private, cramped 17th Dutch century home. Such pictures demand a private dialogue: 10 people jockeying for a glimpse the pocket-sized Lacemaker makes me wonder.

Another scourge has come inflict itself on some Vermeer paintings: the ominous digital device. At a recent visit to the MET I noticed that the statistical majority of viewers had no qualms about poking digital cameras and cell phones in the face of the Study of a Young Woman without having much looked at the picture. She likely did not take offense; she knows there are worse fates.

The absolute low point of digital aggression took place at the funeral of Pope Giovanni Paolo II. Even though authorities repeatedly requested the public to refrain from taking snapshots of the dead Pope, some of the public repeatedly refused to refrain, held their arms up as the passed by and clicked away their hearts content. The media largely passed over this story.

2 Responses to “You have ten seconds to find the Vermeer below”

  1. ARech

    Viewing paintings in churches (or chapels) may not always be very comfortable, neither from space nor from lighting conditions. But viewing them in that original surrounding to which they were destined certainly adds considerably to our understanding of the period of their origin as well as to their specific meaning. Besides, we know today, that painters sometimes arranged the lighting of their composition according to the lighting conditions of the respective room or other surrounding the painting was intended for, as, for example, is probably the case with Vermeer’s ‘Guitar Player’. I could imagine that Caravaggio’s three ‘St. Matthew’ paintings in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi would look quite different, not to say: strange in the well-lit, comfortable surrounding of a museum. I guess they would lack some of their breathtaking atmosphere.

    The instant increase of overcrowded rooms even at major exhibitions and the thoughtless up to disrespectful behavior of a number of visitors will remain a serious problem, even for the security of the paintings, as long as exhibitions will be staged. To reduce these problems at least, it is the major task of the museum’s management to decree stricter rules for visits and get the visitors informed of these rules. The Mauritshuis in The Hague, for instance, did so, as the situation with the digital and cell phone armies became intolerable. Since autumn 2007 any photographing is strictly forbidden now, and the size of the bags carried with are reduced to the size of a normal handbag. Together with the ticket each visitor gets a sheet with a detailed list of the new, restricted rules. Well, only few will read them, but the guards can point to them at least, when a visitor doesn’t take care. The viewing situation now has become far more comfortable, far more quiet, and certainly more secure. Perhaps the MET-officials should spend some thoughts and do as well? But certainly not easy in the Land of (nearly unlimited) Freedom…

    As with regards to some quiet moments with a Vermeer or another precious painting: it is indeed still possible. I have developed my own strategy which, until now, worked quite well. Detailed information in advance about the museum’s locality and the collection it offers or the special exhibition to be visited, is of vital advantage and should be the norm today.
    An important point is to try and be the first in the museum, accepting the circumstance of waiting one or half an hour before the doors get open. But then one has c. one hour for a first, more or less calm, private study, before the mass of tourist-groups will capture the rooms. With this and some other little ‘tricks’ I have always been quite successful and had quite a lot of very moving, private moments with the Vermeers and even with Rembrandt’s overwhelming portrait of Jan Six, for the first time on public display in the recent ‘Dutch Portraits’-exhibition in Mauritshuis (naturally, causing long rows of visitors waiting patiently to get in…).


  2. angie duruma

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