Archive for April, 2013

Is Vermeer overrated? Part 1

April 29th, 2013
Looking at Vermeer's Lacemkaer and Astronomer

See part 2 and part 3.

Vermeer’s popularity has risen above fame and become mystique. An estimated 330,000 viewers braved freezing snow and 24-hour queues to catch a glimpse of 21 Vermeer paintings at the Washington National Gallery of Art. The miniscule Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (hardly a masterpiece by anyone’s estimate), was auctioned in 2005 for $30,000,000: buyer, Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas billionaire casino mogul known for his dabblings in the high end of art collecting (Wynn is remembered by art market elites for having accidentally punctured his $48,000,000 Picasso, Le Rêve, with an elbow). Vermeer devotees even get silly. A foremost art scholar and powerful dealer in Dutch art, whose life-long dream has been to uncover one of Vermeer’s lost cityscapes, drives his SUV around NYC sporting a customized “VERMEER” license plate.

While Vermeermania is a fact, not everyone is in love with the idea of being in love with this artist. His “hitherto dominant standing as one of the two premier Dutch painters, Rembrandt for drama and Vermeer for transcendence,”1 no longer goes publicly unchallenged. Lamenting the twentieth-century censure of Gabriel Metsu from the first-tier of Dutch painting masters, one critic wrote unapologetically, “the winner-takes-all syndrome operates as much in the arts as it does in business and politics, and no artist has benefited more than Johannes Vermeer” and “if you spend enough time with Metsu’s work, Vermeer’s accomplishment seems a little narrow, and the mechanics of art-world popularity even more arbitrary.”2 After a prolonged visit to eye-opening Gerrit ter Borch exhibition in Washington, another critic claimed, “Ter Borch is a greater, more important artist than Johannes Vermeer” and that the latter’s “eccentricities and weaknesses,” rather than intrinsic artistic worth, were the primary ingredients for the recipe that made him “the perfect” painter for the modern age.”3 Even the famous twentieth-century English painter Francis Bacon had once complained, “Everybody likes Vermeer, except me. He doesn’t mean anything, he has no significance.” While the most commonly attributes of his art— restraint, equilibrium, and a certain measure of mystery are not discounted, some serious art historians hold that the best works by Pieter de Hooch can stand comfortably next to the canvases of Vermeer, a high-treason proposition for any Vermeer devotee.

It may be that Vermeer’s super-star status has not only monopolized public interest and obscured other meritorious Dutch painters, but has drained already dwindling funds for alternative research and exhibitions for less glamorous artists. On the other hand, a temporary exhibition with a mediocre Vermeer and a fold-out brochure continues to guarantee the cash-strapped cultural institutions a dramatic increase in ticket sales. If three or four paintings, or a particularly likable work by Vermeer, can be leveraged for a temporary exhibition (with or without a worthwhile thematic agenda) the museum may have a major cultural event on its hands with winding queues, photo ops, banging museum shop cash registers and an increase of institutional prestige. Until Vermeer stops paying off, very few have a vested interest in tampering with his mystique.

1. Kennicott, Philip. “Gabriel Metsu at the National Gallery, out-Vermeering Vermeer.Washingtom Post. April 8, 2011.
2. Kennicott, Philip. 2011.
3. Gopnik, Blake, “Exquisiteness In Plain View.” Washington Post. November 7, 2004.

Vermeer gallery box preview

April 27th, 2013
Vermeer Gallery Box

Click here for a preview of the Vermeer gallery box that I have been working on for hat last week or so. It should be completely finished ready in a few days. You can slide through all 36 Vermeer paintings in four modes: in chronological order, with their frames, in scale and a detail of each work. It still loads slowly but I am working on that. Would enjoy hearing any comments or suggestions before I upload it to the Essential Vermeer.

Dranetting Vermeer

April 27th, 2013

Before the outbreak of World War I, Adolf Hitler was a practicing artist and on two occasions was denied admission to the Academy for Art Studies in Vienna. It is estimated that during WWII he had plundered over 750,000 artworks. Among his most prized possessions were Vermeer’s The Art of Painting and the Astronomer. Hitler had not only intended to display the stolen works of art in the monumental Führermuseum in the Austrian city of Linz, but to destroy all the “degenerate” works he despised. The Astonomer, which was meant to be the focal point of the Führermuseum, still bears a black swastika stamped on its back.

In a race against time, behind enemy lines, often unarmed, a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians, and others, called the Monuments Men, risked their lives scouring Europe to prevent the destruction of thousands of years of culture.

Dragnetting the web I came by the image above, which I had never seen before, of American soldiers recovering the Astronomer. For more information, read, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

Academy of Ancient Music puts Vermeer to music at the National Gallery

April 24th, 2013

drawn for the AAMM website:

Vermeer, Johannes	A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman ('The Music Lesson'). c.1662-1665. Oil on canvas, 73.3 x 64.5 cm.

The Academy of Ancient Music has announced it will be will be Resident Ensemble at the London National Gallery this summer and will perform at the Gallery on the hour, every hour on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays in conjunction with the exhibition Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure, which runs from 26 June to 8 September. The AAM will perform within the exhibition space itself, enhancing viewers’ appreciation of the art and recreating the sociable and informal atmosphere for which much of the music was written. A wide range of range of chamber and solo works, including music by Netherlandish composers such as Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck, Willem de Fesch and Johannes Florentius a Kempis, will be performed.

The AAM’s discography comprises over over 300 CDs features Brit- and Grammy-Award-winning recordings of masterworks from Purcell to Mozart and from Bach to Beethoven. The ensemble’s aim is to energize baroque and classical music returning to the style and spirit in which this music was first performed on old instruments—flutes made out of wood, trumpets without valves, strings woven from gut.

The exhibition will feature paintings by Johannes Vermeer, including the gallery’s A Lady Standing at a Virginal, A Lady Seated at a Virginal, The Guitar Player and the magnificent Music Lesson.

Click here for exhibition press release.

Milking Vermeer

April 23rd, 2013

A solemn oath to cover all Vermeer-related news requires me to report that sixteen iconic artworks from the Rijksmuseum will adorn millions of gallons of milk, cream and yogurt produced by the Albert Heijn dairy company. Six of the company’s one-liter packs features a colored Empire Stamp: save four and get 5 euro discount on a ticket to the Rijksmuseum. The image above is a screenshot from an Albert Heijn promo video having fun with Vermeer. There is no way to imagine how Vermeer would have reacted if he saw his Milkmaid reproduced on a milk carton, but there’s no doubt Jan Steen would have had a great big laugh.

Welcome home Mr. Vermeer

April 22nd, 2013

In December 2003, the main building of the Rijksmuseum was closed for a major renovation based on a design by Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz. Many of the old interior decorations were restored and the floors in the courtyards were removed. On 13 April 2013, the main building was reopened by Queen Beatrix.

During the ten year restoration, many of the musuem’s artworks were stored away, a few were kept on display but some (all four Vermeers)  were shipped all over the globe.

Vermeer’s Milkmaid made only one trip, to New York. The Little Street saw Tokyo and Rome. The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter saw Kyoto, Sendai, Tokyo, Shanghai, São Paulo and Los Angles. The smallish Love Letter, perhaps Vermeer’s least appreciated work for the general public, was shipped to Dublin, Greenwich (Connecticut), Frankfurt, Melbourne, Rome, Vancouver, Paris, Doha, St Petersburg and Istanbul.

No one really complained about this state of affairs: there, was after all, except for the paintings’ safety, less to be gained by keeping the paintings put in Amsterdam. On the other hand, from what one might imagine, millions of tickets, Vermeer posters, postcards, mugs, umbrellas, pencils, scarfs, notepads and refrigerator magnets were sold all around the world. Miles, tickets and heads can all be counted: what benefit all this brought to the millions who saw the paintings for a few moments is anybody’s guess.

In any case, welcome back to Amsterdam, Mr. Vermeer.

Vermeer going #1

April 17th, 2013

Although most would fault me for the dreadful photograph to the left, it does have the merit of conveying how if often feels to view a Vermeer at a blockbuster exhibition.

As I had promised in a post below to express some of my Vermeer-going experiences, here is one that deals with a Vermeer exhibition that took place a 35-minute walk from my house here in Rome last year. Perhaps a bit whiny for positivists (those who believe anything that promotes art is good…BTW, I don’t) but it is nonetheless an experience that many of us have shared at blockbuster exhibitions.

Considering their Girl with a Wineglass of great value, the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum demanded it be enclosed in an acclimatized case during its Rome sojourn. This meant that the thick protective glass of the box and the glass of the picture’s frame obediently reflected an “EXIT” sign, various overhead spotlights and a nearby gilt-framed De Hooch. There was really no way of eliminating the reflections unless once one stood obliquely to the side of the picture and danced a bit from left to right, the few times room for maneuvering was available.

The picture was so distant and so dimly lit that I was unable to show (off) to a fellow exhibition goer that in the miraculously depicted stained-glass window motif, Vermeer had represented a figure holding a bridle which, according to art historians, is the picture’s iconographical key. Although iconography is not a language that fires my imagination, the three curious ducks under the bridle do but were invisible as well. I shall spare you descriptions of the dots, dashes and flicks Vermeer’s majestic brushing that were impossible to make out.

Having been strapped before an easel and painted  for more than four decades, I feel safe to say that I can usually tell the difference between a painting and a reproduction. And yet, had I not knelt down in front of the Vermeer and seen the glare reveal the irregularities of the canvas weave near the borders of the painting, I would not have sworn that the it was the real Vermeer rather than a state-of-the-art preproduction. At this point, it does not seen whiny to ask why tens thousands of dollars for insurance should be spent and a pictures should undergoe travel risks in order to  exhibit  a picture that people can’t really see.

Mind you, the Anton Ulrich has every  right to protect their painting as they see fit, but paintings are usually better seen than taken on faith.

Vermeer’s ghost

April 16th, 2013

It is true, Vermeer had virtually no impact on his contemporaries and negligent impact (actually none) on the course of art after his death. None of his children were moved to carry on his profession and it is doubtful that he even had a single apprentice although he was well known within the environs of Delft during his lifetime.  Contemporary Dutch paintings that plainly show signs of his manner are fewer than twenty and most of them were produced by moderately-talented, provincial painters known only to well-informed Dutch art historians (e.g. Jacobus Vrel or Cornelis de Man). Michael van Musscher—an enterprising fellow who was able to recycle just about any motif he set his eyes on—did a relaxed remake of Vermeer’s solemn Art of Painting, hardly an event which drives forward the course of art. The more talented Gabriel Metsu painted two works that are clearly inspired by Vermeer, but it wasn’t much of a love affair: Metsu’s career is largely based on skilful makeovers of his contemporaries.

Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864 –1916),  Ida in an Interior with Piano, (1901)

Although Vermeer’s name has been continually associated with the values of modernism, there are exceeding few 19th- or 20th-century artworks that are recognizably inspired by the Delft master, except for forgeries which instead, abound.   Perhaps, Vermeer’s only legacy in modern times in the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864 –1916) whose Ida in an Interior with Piano, (1901) will be auctioned off at Sotheby’s on 23 May 2013.

Estimated price: £1,000,000-1,500,000.

Personally, Hammershøi is not my cup of tea. More than Vermeer emulations, his melancholic, bourgeoisie interiors seem  to be a modest prelude to the solitude of Edward Hopper’s offices and cinemas. Is £1,000,000 for a Hammershøi  sane? For some reason that escapes me, it is in this market.

The dangers and delights of traveling Vermeers

April 15th, 2013

Although after years of Vermeer-going I would love  to take a side once and for all, my feelings about traveling Vermeer exhibitions remains as ambivalent as ever. On one hand, I, and obviously millions of other worthy souls, would have never experienced certain Vermeers had they not been shipped closer to home. On the other hand, expenses and risks exist.

The possibility of a plane carrying the Girl with Pearl Earring to Japan might crash on Siberian permafrost, a terrorist attack  or some other unforeseeable event might occur while the painting is on tour cannot be ruled out. Don’t roll your eyes, an earthquake actually happened while Vermeer’s Geographer was hanging on a Tokyo museum wall and the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter escaped by a few months one of Japan’s greatest national tragedy, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The recently restored painting was, in fact,  headed to Sendai, one of the most damaged cities. The risks of fragile, centuries-old canvas being damaged through handling, climatic jumps or road bumps would appear relatively simple to evaluate, but as you would expect, there is great debate as to what really happens to globe-trotting canvases. It is rumored that some museums have declined reporting damages to loaned artworks. But things can surely go wrong at home as well, whether home be the tiny,  off-the-beaten-track Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum where Vermeer’s Girl with a Wineglass is permanently housed  or the Metropolitan Fortress of Art. The Love Letter was stolen, the Guitar Player was stolen, the Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid  was stolen and The Concert stolen and never recovered, all from the museums where the works are permanently housed.

Let’s get back to people who are looking at the paintings. Heads can be counted, what goes on inside them cannot. Is it more desirable that ten out of ten thousand  visitors have life-changing experiences while the others more or less forget and move along to the next blow-out exhibition or is it better if that the ten thousand might have a mildly significant experience but no one gets too riled up? And if just one lone visitor among the millions who have attended the last decades’ Vermeer exhibitions were to receive the inspiration to become the world’s next Vermeer?

In essence,  the problem boils down to opportunity. We must calculate the money spent (usually lots and lots), add to it the risks and compare that sum to the results of a rather bizarre average: the overall quality of visitor experience divided by the quantity of visitor experiences. If this isn’t  a pit of snakes….what is?

One thing is certain, the impossibility of evaluating with any objectivity what goes on inside heads of hundreds of thousands of traveling art exhibition visitors (and the effect that this cumulative experience might have on the common good) is a blessing to those who support the exhibitions (i.e. museums and their staff). It is, instead, a curse to the arguments of those who see in traveling exhibitions more potential for damage than good.

I will follow with a few posts on my variegated Vermeer going experiences hoping to give some color to the gray picture above.

Busting blockbusters?

April 14th, 2013

Although as early as 1930 (Italian Art 1200-1900, London) art exhibitions had begun to generate wide-reaching public acclaim, the term “blockbuster” became associated with special and spectacular exhibitions in a museum or art gallery in the 1980s.

Whether sanctified or demonized, blockbuster art exhibitions are not going to go away any time in the near future and will likewise become increasingly controversial among professionals in the field. Museums claim that despite their high costs and nightmarish organizational logistics, blockbusters bring the uninitiated public closer to the art experience, keep regulars coming back and gather critical finances necessary to keep them running. Detractors, who are routinely accused of snobbery, hold the blockbuster has more to do with fast food than haute cuisine and, in real measurable terms, do not benefit the public: on the contrary. In any case, some specialists have begun to hypothesize that the era of blockbuster shows is coming to an end if not for other than the for fact that the business model on which the are based may be ultimately unsustainable.

Here’s a brief rundown of the principal pros and cons of the blockbuster exhibiton and below a few intersting articles.


1.Blockbuster exhibitions draw an extraordinary number of visitors to art museums and greatly increase public appreciation of art.


1. The success of blockbusters lead to such congested viewing conditions that the visitor’s contact with unfamiliar works of art is actually impoverished. Overcrowding may force museums to limit admission. Blockbusters do not educate but lead to a “dumbing down” of the museum and its message. Artists become celebrities like sport and movie stars.

2. Visitors see many artworks that otherwise they would have never been able to have seen. Blockbusters, which generally display numerous works of art, are the best possible chance to understand a particular artist, group of artists or period in art.

2. Blockbusters discourage the public from actively seeking out art and developing strong individual points of view. Visitors accustomed to blockbusters wait passively for prepackaged experiences to be delivered to their door. Many blockbusters present so many works or art that viewers fall victim to accute exhibition fatigue after the first gallery rooms and thereby neglect considerable parts of the exhibition.

3. Blockbusters create a once in a lifetime, eye opening experiences.

3. Since blockbusters become “unmissable” social events, they increase expectations and lay the groundwork for disappointment. Blockbusters are received as events to be witnessed undermining the notion that art necessitates prolonged contemplation to be fully experienced. The sensationalizing the art exhibition distracts from the nature of the artwork itself.

4. Blockbusters attract new visitors, who then go on to visit the rest of the museum and return.

4. The low quality of viewing experience during blockbusters may actually dissuade repeat visits to the museum. After being fed on blockbuster exhibitions even museum members, who are more connected to museums’ permanent collections than the general public, wind up responding only “blockbuster” stimuli.

5. Blockbusters stimulate scholarly research and produce high quality art publications. Many blockbusters are accompanied by weighty catalogues that contain informative critical essays that are illustrated lavishly with hundreds of state-the-art reproductions.

5. Reliance on high-level sponsorship to finance pricey blockbusters acts as a form of censorship. Because not all themes will appeal to sponsors, the museum cannot afford to stray outside of certain subject boundaries which are acceptable to sponsors. In order to maintain a steady flow of exhibition which viewers come to expect, catalogues must be written by many specialists. This discourages coherent views, original research or the expression of controversial ideas. The great part of blockbusters souvenir catalogues are intelligible only to specialists and some are simply too costly for a substantial part of museum goers.

6. Blockbuster exhibitions allow curators to bring into focus important artists and art movements that have not previously receive sufficient attention.

6. Since many of the works requested art treasures, loans are frequently refused affecting the fundamental thesis of the exhibition even though the exhibition is always presented as a disinterested expression of an argument. Art historians are forced to cultivate business and administration skills as much as art expertise.

7. Blockbusters are able to convince visitors to pay sizable admission fees enabling the museum to improve the rest of its service.

7. The high ticket cost of blockbuster exhibitions penalize individual citizens and especially large families belonging to lower economic classes who could, after all, most benefit from contact with artworks.

8. Blockbusters generate media coverage and attract sponsors raising the profile of the museum. By being associated with global brands, museums receive huge marketing benefits.

8. Spectacular blockbuster successes may persuade public funding bodies to reduce their support. Museum are no longer perceived as custodians and promoters of visual arts culture but cogs in the exhibition-industrial complex. Oppositely, commercial enterprises greatly enhance the prestige of their brand by associating with high-brow cultural organizations.

9. Money earned by blockbusters can be used to conserve precious works of art in permanent collections.

9. Fragile works of art may be damaged or even lost during shipping.

Here are some interesting articles on the subject: