The inscrutable Johannes Vermeer – a limited number of photo-realistic paintings, not a great deal of information available about the painter himself (at a time when artists tended to be very proud of the CVs), x-rayed works that show no sketches on the canvas meaning he worked without an outline, and an ongoing furor over his works – and techniques – more than 300 years after his death.
I’ve had a whole lot of Vermeer synergy happening lately – he’s popping up everywhere, it seems, and here are a couple of things that I’d recommend to anyone interested in his work and, almost more intriguingly – the interest that others have in his work.
The Bakelite Masterpiece
Tarragon Extraspace (30 Bridgman Avenue)
runs to November 30th; no shows on Mondays
Based on the true story of the Dutch artist Han van Meegeren, The Bakelite Masterpiece tells of a Vermeer forgery so exquisite, it fooled the Nazis. van Meergeren made a rather large income painting in Vermeer’s style and selling the works as “lost and newly discovered”. After WWII, he is charged with conspiracy for selling a painting to German Reichsmarshall Herman Goering and has to prove how he forged the paintings – using the traditional paint pigments and the modern plastic bakelite to simulate the 300-year-old paint – by creating a new “Vermeer” painting – in jail. As the charge for collaborating with the Nazis was death, his life very much depended on it.
In Kate Cayley’s Tarragon production, van Meergeren is played by Geordie Johnson, who portrays the artist as a drunk, addicted to morphine pills, fumbling, desperate to convince his jailer that he should be considered a hero for making fools of the Nazis, not a criminal.
His foil, Captain Geert Piller (Irene Poole), becomes the subject of his last painting, as he attempts to prove his claim. In real life Piller was a man, and the final painting, Jesus among the Doctors, was created over some 6 months, in front of reporters and witnesses, but Cayley’s artistic license with the plot allows for romantic tension between Han and Geert, and permits their philosophical debates about art, forgeries, patriotism and beauty.
A lot of the dialogue focuses on what makes a Vermeer a “Vermeer” – not just the techniques unique to this particular artist, but the emotions conjured by viewing his fantastic work.
available on Netflix
Technique and emotion are also the focus of the film Tim’s Vermeer in which inventor Tim Jenison spends over 2 years working out Vermeer’s photographic technique. With quantities of both time and money to spend on the project, Tim builds a set recreating Vermeer’s The Music Lesson and using optics and a camera obscura recreates what he believes must have been Vermeer’s technique – remember x-rays show Vermeer did not sketch the scene onto the canvas beforehand, and no other painter of the time ever demonstrated the ability to capture light in the same way Vermeer did.
Art critics and historians seem mostly to accept Tim’s theory (there is a fun scene in which I think he is able to offer conclusive proof of the tools and techniques Vermeer used) and his final finished work does look like the original.
But is it a Vermeer? No more than van Meergeren’s works were Vermeers, so not at all. Tim’s Vermeer got criticism for this fact, but that really wasn’t the point of the film, which was to prove the artist used a particular technique that was coming into fashion during Vermeer’s time (David Hockney has written a whole book about the use of mirrors and other technology used by artists in the 1600s), and to prove that someone with little artistic training could create a reasonable work of art with enough time and patience using this technique.
For neither Jenison or van Meergeren had Vermeer’s eye. They could paint well enough to copy the work, to product acceptable forgeries, but by all accounts, both the inventor attempting to prove a scientific hypothesis and the trained artist looking to produce a saleable forgery could not create a painting with the soul and energy of the original artist.