A Note on Vermeer

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Recently I watched the Peter Greenaway film A Zed & Two Noughts, over the course of which I learnt that in Vermeer, you never see a woman’s legs. Most of his women are depicted sitting down, but even if they are standing up, their legs are covered by long skirts such that they cannot even be discerned. One of the characters in the film is a surgeon (named van Meegeren, and a relative of the famous forger) who is obsessed with recreating Vermeer paintings, as well as amputating women’s legs. Meanwhile the two central characters, twin brothers who lose their wives in the same car accident and who have a mutual affair with the woman who was driving the car (who loses her leg in the crash, and eventually has the second amputated by the aforementioned Vermeer-obsessive van Meegeren), embark upon a quest to record the decay of every animal up the evolutionary ladder and the food chain, starting with worms and prawns before moving on to things like a flamingo, a tiger, and eventually, of course, a human being.

The whole film is shot as a tribute to Vermeer, and is really about Vermeer, and it taught me an important truth about Vermeer, that maybe gets missed by most people who engage with him, even people who like his work a lot, and it was something that became very clearly, disturbingly apparent to me the other day, when I visited the Gemaldesgalerie in Berlin and saw the two Vermeers they have there (‘Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace’ and ‘The Wine Glass’). It is that Vermeer is, perhaps, the most violent painter who ever lived.

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What you normally hear about Vermeer is that his paintings are so ‘true to reality’. The question people seem to be most interested in, as regards Vermeer, is that of whether or not he used a camera obscura when he was painting, in order to obtain what is apparently the photorealistic effect of his works. I think that this sort of response to Vermeer is, frankly, insane. I don’t know how anyone can look at these paintings and think they look like reality. They are so utterly still, so devoid of life, of movement. The figures in his paintings are perfect in a way, but frozen, like stuffed animals or flowers pressed under glass. When you look at a Vermeer you get the sense of a mind that wanted to suck all of the life out of the world, to kill it. His paintings are little anticipations of the sort of apocalypse that is mooted in The Lego Movie (yes a kid’s film, yes a feature-length advert for lego; but also, incidentally, the most politically radical film made perhaps ever, and maybe the only film that truly understands the insights of the early Marx): a world where everything has been fixed forever with superglue and everyone is trapped like that, still conscious but unable to move, to engage with their surroundings in any way.

Why would anyone ever think this looked like a photograph? He might manage to get the light and the colour exactly right, but a photograph of a domestic interior typically depicts people who live there, and are alive. But the scientific image of the world, that of course emerged in mature form roughly contemporaneous with Vermeer, has always had trouble with growth and change, the sort of dynamic involvement with the world that is needed for life. The Newtonian model of the universe can’t incorporate any principle of motion that isn’t determined in all its particulars from the start; hence why determinism (the denial of free will) looks to many philosophers (despite their own actual, lived experience) like it is simple common sense. But a universe where everything is determined is, in a certain sense, one where everything has already happened: the process was finished as soon as it was ‘written in the stars’, what is happening now is just our living through it passively. Of course, if you think that what reality ‘actually’, ‘objectively’ is, is what can be described using the terminology of modern natural science, then you are going to think that reality ‘actually’, ‘objectively’, is like this dead thing that Vermeer depicts. But if we look at his paintings with the right eyes, I think we can see just how terribly disturbing, how morbid, how violent towards actual, living life, the scientific worldview is.

There are of course two possibilities. The first is that Vermeer is a great genius who is able to communicate this fact to us indirectly. The other is that Vermeer is exactly what his admirers take him to be, and is therefore a dangerous man, whose work should rightly repulse us. But I don’t think that, for understanding Vermeer, the truth of either option particularly matters.

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