The National Gallery of Ireland must be applauded for organizing and researching two such outstanding exhibitions. Framing an appropriate response to my visits to the NGI isn’t easy: how do you explain the bodily sensation, the sheer excitement of being there? In one of his nal pieces of writing, the stand-alone chapter ‘The Intertwining―The Chiasm’ (1964), Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls a chiasm an overlapping of subjective and objective experience. Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy makes me realize how dif cult it is not to judge before you have even begun to experience the phenomenal real, as if we weren’t embodied. As he puts it, in The Phenomenology of Perception, ‘The starting point for “explanations” is found in the thickness of the pre-objective present (l’épaisseur du present préobjectif)’. Writing these reviews (what Merleau-Ponty would call ‘a re- enactment’ of my perception) I nd it dif cult to keep in mind the entirely hand-made nature of these artefacts, in a world where photography has such an in uence on how we perceive, and even on how we make sense of what we perceive. One’s viewing experience, the viewing in time in the National Gallery of Ireland, occurs in the awareness of the remote viewing in time by patrons, for instance. That’s a matter of intention: despite the ‘thickness’ of these paintings, they were not intended for my eyes, but to draw in collectors, patrons, one of the painters’ contemporaries. To these overlapping dimensions of time, one must add a further dimension: the time enacted in the paintings themselves.
This sense of physical presence when face to face with so many artefacts – not glossy prints, postage stamps in a catalogue, but the full-sized originals – is not detached from the emotion of an encounter with the works and their ‘aura’, to use Walter Benjamin’s word. This constitutes an event which exceeds the remit of any art historical ekphrasis (the age-old work of translating into written text the language of visual art). To do it justice, what would be required is a phenomenological ekphrasis.
After Caravaggio brought together no fewer than forty-nine paintings (including works by Guido Reni, Orazio and Artemisia Gentilischi, Jusepe de Ribera, Mattia Preti, Georges de La Tour and six by Caravaggio). My general impression was that there is something distinctive about Caravaggio which few of his followers could really understand. Caravaggismo becomes more theatrical, an imitation of his maniera or style, creating a scene within a narrative and emphasizing it. What is lost in translation? His sense of time. His sense of urgency which de es time and forces upon the viewer his invented present. That is what I witnessed.
Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus (1601) is almost two metres wide and one metre fty high, and striking for its paradoxical unity of movement and stillness, as well as for its contrast of gesture and poise – the gesture of volition, and the gesture of surprise at the unveiling of Christ’s true identity. As the gospel story goes, two disciples meet Christ on the way to Emmaus. When he blesses the bread, they recognize him. In the painting one disciple leans forward, the other spreads his arms wide, while the innkeeper listens so intently that he frowns. There is an intensity about the discovery, evident in the responses. On this side of the picture plane we are presented with how surprise unfolds. But Christ’s gaze is turned inwards. His body is facing us, but he denies us his gaze. Indeed, none of the gures are looking at us. This is one meaning of the idea of ‘absorption’, as it appears in mimetic painting – thought, or what is invisible to the eye, somehow becoming visible.
In The Taking of Christ (1602) Caravaggio depicts the very moment Judas has betrayed Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas is singling him out with a kiss. Here too, emotion and stillness coexist. The gure on the far left marks the moment after the moment: calling out to spread the news. A sense of emotional compression is created by the cramped composition in which the gures crowd the shallow space. The description of objects creates a juxtaposition of the metallic sheen of the anonymous soldiers’ armour with the light skin tones of the other gures – visually emphasising the psychological contrast by reducing it at one level to a routine military procedure. There’s sound and agitation in the silence of the painted surface.
Among the many other works viewed in the esh, so to speak, was Artemisia Gentileschi’s moving Susanna and the Elders (1622), a portrayal of the Old Testament story of ogling old men scheming to seduce the young, married Susanna, who refuses their advances, despite their threats. Gentileschi’s Susanna is trapped. The presence of the male gaze (the ogling men) breaks the illusion of the ‘civilized’ tradition of the nude. The internal dynamic of male and female gazes produces a powerful scene. Her posture suggests a classical Venus, but with a hint of the iconography of the martyr Saint Sebastian, as she looks up to Heaven. There is something profoundly unsettling about the way her naked body is depicted, which confronts most of the Venus iconography with a portrayal of fear – something like Aby Warburg’s pathos formel, an element of the classical ideal rejected by Wincklemann’s and Lessing’s eighteenth century canons of beauty.
Her father’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c. 1620) could not be more different. Orazio Gentileschi’s large painting of the Holy Family as refugees on the run is a studio painting in which the life-drawn gures don’t break out of their separate worlds. Gentileschi achieves only bathos. So much of the canvas is taken up by a ruined wall parallel to the picture plane, acting as a backdrop. An unfair comparison would be Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1596-1597), not included in the exhibition, with its clever articulation of space, established by an angel standing in the middle of the canvas with his back to us, playing the violin to a music score held by Joseph, with Mary and Child resting in the background. Caravaggio’s poetry trans gures a refugee scene, while Gentileschi’s prose has the opposite effect.
Equally surprising to see is the extraordinary skill in the work of Cecco del Caravaggio, Caravaggio’s companion and model from an early age. In Cecco’s A Musician (c. 1615), what exactly is it about a young man sitting in a chair, wearing a feathered hat and playing a tambourine, while xing his gaze at the viewer, that commands one’s attention? Viewed at very close quarters, the sharpness of detail seems etched into the canvas. His mise-en-scéne suggests equipoise, as if it were a comment on the painting itself, dismissive of its skilful detail and composition.
Georges De La Tour’s Dice Players (c. 1650- 1651) is also stunning mimēsis, a trans guration of the gure using lighting, composition and colour, somehow creating an otherworldy effect. The game is everything. More signi cantly, the players’ absorption is what matters. One can also see how Northern artists transferred absorption and Caravaggio’s gravitas to scenes of everyday life in The Concert (c. 1626), by one of the Utrecht Caravaggists, by Hendrick ter Brugghen.
Especially in Caravaggio, history is reduced to an epiphanic event, rescued from the ow of time by Caravaggio’s choices. The heroic gures of epic painting are replaced by ordinary-looking people, and it was this dimension ‘of the event’, rather than a transferable style of tenebrismo, (which went viral across Europe) which truly captures the imagination. Few of Caravaggio’s followers seem to have learned this lesson.
In Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, it is precisely this same element, distilled, borrowed, or re-invented as it may have been, which is mesmerizing in Vermeer, while in his contemporaries it is not. It is organized around shared themes and shared iconographies – writing love letters, playing and listening to music, gazing out of a window, etc. The paradox is that these closely observed objects depicted in the minutest detail in these paintings belie the ction, the assemblage that is each painting, creating a private, autonomous world in which there is no poverty, no disease or death, only what appear to me as ghosts, idealized gures whose almost physical presence and facticity de es my judgement.
In addition to twelve Vermeers there were sixty-seven paintings by his contemporaries and precursors, including Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Nicolaes Maes, and others. The outcome of years of extensive research, the exhibition was coordinated by all three participating institutions. My impression is that Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting and its superb catalogue add signi cantly to what is known about Dutch painting. The Vermeers in the exhibition have no pride of place, but mingle with the other works, because Vermeer is not viewed as a genius working in isolation. Indeed, the exhibition arrived at new evaluations of the work of Vermeer’s contemporaries, by documenting the artistic community to which they all belonged. Gerrit Dou’s Astronomer by Candlelight (c. 1660) came to the fore, as did Frans van Mieris’s Woman before a Mirror (1662), which rivals Vermeer’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace (1662-1665) in composition. Much of this work is dedicated to the representation of banal, passing moments. Narratives are replaced by the visual rendering of a mood. These scenes take place behind closed doors. Thus, they don’t represent the public sphere of history painting or of generalized allegories of life. It is clear that History with a capital ‘H’, what François Lyotard called grand narrative, is reduced to the micro-history of what happens in everyday life. The moment, given its due respect, that is, recognised as the event, is presented for our undivided attention.
But what is it that draws my gaze back to Vermeer? It can’t be the rendering of silk, fur or satin. Is it the subtle way he constructs lighting?
Or is it the strangeness of his figures, who seem not to belong to the interiors they inhabit? Consider, for example, Vermeer’s Lady Writing (1665-1667) which owes much to Gabriel Metsu’s Woman Writing a Letter (c. 1662-1664). However, while Metsu’s creation is someone who is depicted as seen to be writing, as if she has been caught in a moment of surprise by the viewer whom she beckons with her gaze, Vermeer conjures up a ghostly presence, and an emotion. His gure is enigmatic, her glance poised and absent from her surroundings, as suggested by the sharp de nition of the chair back and table as opposed to the soft brushwork of her features. It is as if she were an outsider, an absentee in her own domestic space. Her painted likeness or corporeality is de ed by this ethereal presence. He has depicted absence. Instead of direct address, one is faced with an invitation to imagine. In Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664), it is the gure’s absorption in the moment in time, chosen by the painter as worthy of contemplation which I, the unintended posthumous viewer, nd trans xing, not the allegory conveyed by the act of measuring and by the Last Judgement of the background. By comparison, Pieter de Hooch’s Woman Weighing Coins (c. 1664), however masterfully rendered, draws attention to its constituent parts and the mercantile element of both remains such.
Michael Fried has written a great deal about the contemplative streak in the history of painting, and the works of Caravaggio and Vermeer (see The Moment of Caravaggio , for instance) gure prominently in this writing. Fried points out that absorption is conveyed by a particular moment in time, in which the activity of the mind is exposed to the viewer – a moment of cognition, of awareness, of realization. But I think that he has, in this way, limited himself to an exercise in art historical naming. One wonders if there is more to absorption than a visual rhetoric, in binary opposition to theatricality, for instance. The activity, of contemplating, thinking, etc., is not the point, it is what is suggested by its depiction that enthrals the viewer. In Caravaggio it is not mysterious, but part of a narrative – stilled, slowed down to the instant of climax – which is clear from knowing the religious context. In Vermeer, it is raised to a major theme, xing the viewer’s attention on attention itself and thus intensifying the experience of looking. The devotion to a moment in time does not equate with timelessness. Absorption invites a different kind of participation. The absorbative is an autonomous world. It resists us at the very same time as it ignores us. But of course, both are equally fictitious.
Beyond Caravaggio and Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting were both exhibited at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin 11 February 2017 – 14 May 2017 and 17 June- 17 September 2017, respectively.