A really stunning succession of books are arriving from Yale University Press at the moment, the art books in particular unsurpassed in their quality, so I will try and share one every so often over the next few weeks. Production values are always high with a Yale edition and that is often reflected in the price of the books, but at £20 in hardback Vermeer's Women - Secrets and Silence feels like exceptionally good value if you like your art. The reproductions of the paintings are sensational for their detail and colours and Marjorie E. Wieseman's text is facinating and highly informative.
Bookhound and I went to the last Vermeer exhibition in London back in 2001 as did everyone else I suspect. It was staggeringly popular selling ten thousand advance tickets and I think the other 9,998 people were there the day we went too because we couldn't get near the paintings let alone spend time looking at them. The atmosphere of quiet contemplation that the National Gallery had hoped for by limiting visitors to a total of 270,000 during the exhibition's three month run sadly wasn't to be found on the day that we piled in. I had also gone armed with little foreknowledge beyond the fact that there are only about thirty four known paintings by Vermeer, most of them would be here and it seemed like a rare chance to see them all at once.
So I was delighted when Vermeer's Women - Secrets and Silence arrived, published to coincide with a new exhibition of Vermeer's paintings currently running at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge until Sunday 15th January 2012. If you can get there don't miss it.
The exhibition has been built around the loan of Johannes Vermeer's The Lacemaker, the cover art for this volume, the painting on loan from the Musee du Louvre, and with its focus on the theme of Secrets and Silence, and immediately the forward to the book tells me something new... that the longer I look at the lacemaker the more I will see that her wrapt concentration evades any attempt I may try to make to know more about her. Her gaze won't meet mine and all amidst Vermeer's characteristic and deliberate blurring of fine details. Timothy Potts, Director of the Fitzwilliam goes on to elaborate on the cohesive factors surrounding these paintings...women in domestic surroundings, engaged in light household chores, or playing music whilst offering only a 'tantalizing glimpse' of the subjects and giving the sense that the beholder has inadvertently wandered into the room.
'Vermeer's clear intention is to intrigue us with presences unseen - the things and identities just outside the picture or shielded from view, but alluded to by glance or gesture, or an open door.'
Other Dutch artists also feature in this exhibition and as I'm unlikely to get there, this book is the very next best thing, arming me with sufficient information to at least start appreciating more fully what I am looking at, whilst the essays it contains will expand on that understanding.
I did a year of Art History as part of my OU English Literature degree in the way that you can with the Open University. In fact that year proved that I knew even less about art than I thought when at the first tutorial I was asked to list my three favourite artists and I couldn't even think of three, let alone my three favourites. Shocking and I ended up having to read twice as much than in any literature year, but Bookhound and I went to masses of exhibitions and have done ever since.
So I don't feel quite as a clueless as I might have done when opening a book like this which may well be doubtless gracing plenty of coffee tables this year and I hope is read too, because the commentary and the essays look fascinating.
I'm finding my eye is particularly drawn to the textiles in the paintings too, something I may not have taken in when seeing these paintings separately before, and certainly not on that London exhibition visit. But gathered together in this way it's possible to focus on themes of my own and follow them through... the curtains, the bed drapes, the tableclothes, the clothes and the casually placed shawl and the richness of colour and detail in the rugs and carpets.
The description and explanation of this picture A Maid Asleep, painted in or around 1656, Vermeer's first painting of a domestic interior and a woman alone, and the story that all the elements reveal is utterly fascinating. The maid dressed as well as her employers, and asleep where she shouldn't have been and in combination with the objects on the table could be interpreted as a
'housemaid who has succumbed to the sloth and melancholy brought on by lovesickness whether from unrequited love or just plain lust,'
Technical analysis reveals that a man and a dog had originally stood in the doorway but had been painted over, and it is this in depth detail, the sort of thing you would probably get on the guided tour headphones that you can hire and which I never do, which is making my sedentary visit to this exhibition so appealing.
Vermeer uses a particularly pleasing shade of ultramarine blue... would that have been lapis lazuli I wonder?? And I'm off looking for answers...yes it was and Vermeer uses it in copious quantities.
The Lacemaker herself is wonderfully analysed in the commentary... the quiet concentration giving rise to a beautiful product, but women's work all the same and therefore considered less of a craft or skill than that of the artist's. By privileging his subject perhaps Vermeer is giving her work and herself credence and respect.
Much more to see and read so whilst the book will be on the coffee table, I'll be reading it on those lovely winter afternoons when the fire is lit and I fancy a wander around the Vermeer exhibition.
And now you are all going to ask and I might as well tell you...no I haven't read Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracey Chevalier, I really should have done by now shouldn't I.