From Chapter 16 of the memoir Compass Points

[In our Washington DC posting] one artist in particular left an indelible impression, and that was the Dutch 17th century painter Vermeer. Washington’s National Gallery had four Vermeers, although one has more recently had its attribution questioned. These included the superb Girl with a Red Hat and Woman Holding a Balance.

Since there were only 34 Vermeers in existence, or thereabouts because of uncertain attributions, it seemed a plausible aspiration to see them all. I later read that John Updike set out to do the same, as no doubt have many others. An almost lifelong quest began.

The next six were easy, just up the road in New York: four at the Met and two at the Frick. These included the outstanding Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, which only served to reinforce Vermeer’s pulling power. It is luminous with light and realistic beyond realism at the same time. Much later I found that a professional reviewer, Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker, has a similar but more elegantly expressed response to this painting: ‘But a little patch of lapis-lazuli tinted white, describing backlit linen in the head scarf … would have killed me a long time ago, if paint could … The entering sunlight sustains all manner of ravishing adventures, throughout the picture … [It] is a Sermon on the Mount of aesthetic value.’ (21 September 2009)

But thereafter it was a long and tortuous assignment. There was one other (excluding the more recently attributed but still contested work in New Jersey) in North America, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but we didn’t get to Boston on our posting. That was not particularly troubling, there was plenty of time, but before it happened an audacious art theft spirited that Vermeer and some other gems away, never to this point to be seen again in public. Maybe there is still time for it to be found or returned, and to pay a flying visit, but I’m not holding my breath.

The next most accessible were in Europe. The embassy in Washington was next door to the British embassy and they were kind enough to include our staff in a number of their activities. A notice arrived one day saying they were arranging a charter flight for their staff to go back to London, seats were available, would anyone at our place like to come. We thought, since we are so close, just across the Atlantic, we ought to pop over, it would never be cheaper, the timing fitted with work, and so we purchased the five seats we needed.

The charter was to return exactly after a fortnight and so we had no flexibility with dates. The trip was planned with military precision — one week in the United Kingdom and one for Europe. The week in Britain was split, three and a half days in London, staying with David and Jan McDowell in St John’s Wood, and the other half driving through the Lake Country to Scotland. We then flew to Amsterdam, and our first three and a half days in Europe were in Holland, Germany and France, and the second half in Paris with Barry and Joan Brooks. This holiday like all others had its own richness of stories, but to get back to the chase, in London we saw the two Vermeers at the National Gallery and in Paris set out to see the two at the Louvre. There were Vermeers to see in Holland but timing that day precluded museum visits.

Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker c.1669-1671

One at the Louvre was The Astronomer, which was easy enough, but the other, the most admired The Lacemaker, was nowhere to be seen, although postcards of it were plentifully on sale. So we made do with three more achieved on that trip before we returned to Washington and eventually to Wellington.

Two years later, in 1973, we set off for Rome. No Vermeers there, but there was another trip to Paris and still no The Lacemaker. On our third trip to Paris in the late ’70s or 1980s, our determination levels were rather high. It was still not on display so we asked the nearest guard how could we see it. There was one of those great Gallic shrugs. So we let it all pour out: ‘We have come all the way from New Zealand, three times, three times around the world, to see the Louvre’s famous The Lacemaker, and we must see it this time …’ Wearily — even wearily is done with French élan — he said that his duty ended at 2 p.m. and if we came back then, when his replacement was there, he would take us to see it.

Rachel said, ‘I don’t believe him, we’ll get back and he’ll be gone. We must get there at 20 to two.’ I said ‘Yes, you may be right, we should get there at 10 to two at the latest.’ Rachel said ‘No, 20 to two, if not half past one.’

So we arrived there around 20 minutes to two, and sure enough he was about to disappear. His crestfallen look when he saw us was not so rich with French flair, it could have been just an ordinary Anglo-Saxon look of disappointment. But we didn’t care. Resigned, he took out a huge jailer’s ring of keys and said ‘Follow me.’ Doors were opened, stairs descended, metal grilles unlocked, more corridors and grilles, and in one small basement room he pulled out a rack and there it was. And he was gracious, and didn’t mind how closely we looked and how long we took. It was a little treasure, as near to breath taking as a small painting could be.

We have seen it once since, finally upstairs on public display, but on our last visit (2009) the spot where it should have been was marked by a sign saying it was on loan to a museum in Tokyo. Do not have high expectations of seeing The Lacemaker when visiting the Louvre.

I’m not sure just what took us to The Hague, where we stayed with Ken and Marjorie Cunningham, and to Amsterdam, but when it happened in the 1980s we were able to see another seven, a representation of Vermeer’s art that included his best known The Milkmaid and The Girl with a Pearl Earring, and his stunning landscape View of Delft, the painting that left John Updike saying, ‘Vermeer could paint anything.’ Others have claimed it is the best painting ever done.

A major tourism marketing tour of European centres enabled me to dash in and see The Geographer at Frankfurt and two others in Berlin. Rachel was with me on the Berlin leg. At that time, the Gemaldegalerie was in the outer suburb of Dahlem in temporary buildings put up after the Second World War. It was a long day to find how to get there, make the journey in a train, find the museum from the station and find the paintings, but worth it. On the way home from Berlin we stopped at Vienna and saw The Art of Painting, bringing our total to the upper twenties.

Visits to Britain in the 1980s enabled the Vermeers in the Kenwood and the Royal Collection to be ticked off on our file, and Scotland’s too. The search was almost complete, with only three to go, but they were rather out of the way: one in Brunswick and two in Dresden. Improbably it was travel in the interests of sorting climate change that provided the opportunity to end finally three decades of hunting — a conference in Berlin 1995 that lasted a full fortnight, which meant two weekends. I went to the hotel counter on Saturday morning: ‘I want to go to a town,’ I said, ‘but I’m sorry I only know it by its English name, Brunswick.’ The man and woman looked at each other and then realisation dawned on them. ‘Oh it is Braunschweig,’ they said. ‘That is easy, tram number X to railway station Y, and the trains go every hour and it is a two-hour journey.’ Soon I was relaxing on the way to the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in Braunschweig to see the rather funny, and I don’t mean peculiar, Girl with a Wine Glass.

The following weekend I sought no guidance, knowing that Dresden was Dresden in both languages, and found the right train station, only to be stumped to find that seemingly identical trains went to both Dresden and Leipzig. The trains to each city shared a common track for half the route which then forked and neither by looking nor asking was I able to see which train would take the right fork (actually the left fork). With one about to depart I purchased a ticket … and sure enough found myself in Leipzig. Nice railway station. A ticket back to the halfway point, then a short wait for a train taking the other fork, and all was well. A few hours later than planned I was at the Gemaldergalerie Alte Meister, looking at The Procuress and Girl at a Window Reading a Letter.

I felt a deep, quiet satisfaction, and also a tinge of regret, that the mission was accomplished. I knew there was still the stolen one, if that ever reappeared, and that there was one other, unseen, tucked away in a private collection in Ireland. But my sense at the time was of completion. In fact Ireland’s is now waiting at the National Gallery in Dublin, and its number will come up in good time.

There is nothing exotic about falling in love with the work of Vermeer. Most people like it, and when exhibitions are drawn together, all too rarely, they are hugely popular. By one argument he had, because of a story by Proust, displaced Raphael as ‘Europe’s cynosure of artistic perfection’ in the early twentieth century. Hundreds of books and articles have been written about him, often with thirty or forty pages devoted to one painting, and various interpretations advanced trying to explain his near magical appeal.

Many art historians attribute this to the mood created in the paintings. ‘Serenity prevails … a unique intimacy’ (Bailey); ‘The fascination is in the poetic ways his images are portrayed … the moods are unique, and it is virtually impossible to explain their derivation.’ (Wheelock); ‘… always with Vermeer it is the silence of the moment, suspended forever, that holds us’ (Wollschlager). And many others.

The other most popular explanation is Vermeer’s use of light. ‘He was, above all, an unsurpassed painter of light … a luminous world … sight has taken over from narrative.’ (Hughes.) Vermeer’s mastery of light ‘resolves tension between light and dark not by exaggerating darkness — think Rembrandt, Caravaggio — (but by) incredibly fine modulations of colour …’ (Koning.)

For most reviewers the two perceptions are intertwined. While Vermeer’s mastery of light is a standout feature in its own right, it is also a key component of creating the mood. It is a ‘private view of his world, illuminated by an uncanny clarity of light and colour, that distinguishes the Master of Delft.’ (Koning.) ‘The light is a kind of benediction … the moods … are ambiguous … their meaning enigmatic.’ (Jenkins.)

Then there is all the analysis of Vermeer’s ‘extraordinary command of perspective’ (Thore) that everyone agrees upon. Some recent reviewers say they look 3-dimensional in the manner of a video picture, and there is much debate over whether he used a camera obscura. There are apparent foreshortenings and distortions which seem only to reinforce his mastery. This too is absorbing both in itself and as a vehicle for creating the moods.

Some say it’s the women, not quite as in ‘wine, women and song’ but with hints of that. Certainly they are Vermeer’s predominant subject matter. His art is devoted to ‘the delicacy and mystery … of a woman … He was engrossed in the simple fact of her existence’ (Gowing). I must say I never remotely thought of Vermeer’s women as predominant because they were women, much less sexy, until Wheelock produced his book with a close-up of the Woman in a Red Hat on the cover, clearly focusing on her moist, parted lips. And since then it becomes more obvious that other female subjects are similarly shown. Some go further: ‘A speck in the corner of her mouth indicates she has just licked her lips’ (Wollschlager). Whether glistening, parted lips had in Vermeer’s days some of the connotations placed around them these days I have no idea.

Clearly his command of mood, light and perspective are all significant, but it seems to me that the story in each painting has its own compulsion. He captures a moment of stillness that is the culmination of events leading to that point. His women reading letters are not just doing that, superbly painted and portrayed: they are at that moment reading the central point of the letter’s message; their absorption is complete and we wonder what the contents might be and their effect on the reader. The art critic who, noting the maps in the background, says the viewer is enticed to speculate where the letters might have come from, and presumably from afar, has missed the point, even if the presence of the maps was intended to convey that.

The male in The Glass of Wine is transfixed as the woman drinks from it — will the wine have its desired effect? In The Milkmaid she is absorbed with, Have I poured enough or does it need another drop or two? In Woman Holding a Balance it is, Yes, that is exactly right. And so on.

For others, the central figure turns straight to the viewer and engages you in the story. A slightly worried, is this all right? (Girl Interrupted at her Music); yes, you can guess who I’m writing to and why (A Lady Writing); you are not who I was expecting (Girl with a Red Hat). The expressions of the woman and of the second man in the background of The Girl with Two Men are much discussed, but to my simple mind that second man is not dejected because of rejection, nor drunk: he is — to get vernacular — pissed off. Do I have to sit through all this again, he thinks, referring to his friend’s crass attempt at seduction. And the girl: don’t think I’m going to fall for this idiot, if I appear to be enjoying this I’m just having him on.

But the direct gaze of The Girl with the Pearl Earring is more enigmatic and open to a wider range of interpretations than the Mona Lisa.

The choice of a moment in a story of the imagination does not relate only to Vermeer’s figures. In the View of Delft he ‘chose a specific moment … [a] day of cool air and alternating cloud and sunlight. The air is not quite still as the water trembles in the slight breeze’ (Wright).

No one matches him. There is a painting called The Astronomer by the famous Italian artist Tiepolo in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, in concept somewhat similar to Vermeer’s, but in comparison it is exaggerated, unsubtle, as though the subject is self-importantly conscious of his status.

I had a quite extraordinary experience one day in London in 1993 when I visited an exhibition of modern American painting at the Royal Academy of Art on Piccadilly which included a number of works by Hopper, familiar and new. I was so struck by similarities with Vermeer, and by the fact that I’d never thought or read of this before, that, unusually, I scratched my thoughts down and kept the note. It reads:

‘Well, here I am looking at five Edward Hoppers, for the umpteenth time, and suddenly like a revelation for the first time I see Vermeer. I see light coming through windows on the side of the painting, lighting and playing on walls. I see people framed by and absorbed in light — the white shirt in Room in New York is the blouse in blue-white of the Young Woman with a Jug in the Met. I see paintings with just one solitary person, preoccupied as in Automat, or two people — Hotel by a Railroad, Room in New York, or three — Conference at Night. Of course they’re different. Vermeer’s people are pre-occupied with their culture — playing piano, drinking wine, preening, weighing gold, sewing … not too much wrong with their lives. Hopper’s are preoccupied with loneliness, isolation, detachment.’

I felt many more comparisons and contrasts could be made. Despite pouting lips, or in Hopper’s case, nudity, the women that dominate in both Vermeer and Hopper are not erotic. They and their settings seem not only to be central in their own right, but vehicles for the artist’s vision of painting, which makes them first and foremost Vermeers or Hoppers.

Eight years later I was reading my favourite monthly journal, which helped sustain me for nearly thirty years, a publication from the United States embassy that summarises a wide range of the best articles from American magazines, and found a reference to one from Art in America by an eminent art writer Philip Leider linking Hopper and Vermeer. I asked for the full text and found a rich and detailed analysis that argued for more conscious linkages than I had any basis for suspecting, Leider being of the view that Hopper was fully aware of the relationship between his work and Vermeer’s and engaged in a sustained dialogue with Vermeer.

Leider uses one word in his article that is particularly problematic — he describes Vermeer’s subjects as ‘frozen.’ That is a word I would use when a painter or photographer captures something moving, and freezes one instant of the movement, say a dancer leaping above the ground. But Vermeer’s subjects are not moving when he paints them; they are already very still, absorbed — he has not frozen them. One or two other critics use that word, but most avoid it, preferring ‘suspended time’, ‘still serenity’ and such phrases.

My end-note on Vermeer is a short poem by Wishlawa Szymborska (translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak):
    So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
    in painted quiet and concentration
    keeps pouring milk day after day
    from the pitcher to the bowl
    the World hasn’t earned the world’s end.

Another footnote to Vermeer, nothing to do with him or his art, but of interest to those concerned with public policy, is set out in one of the books about him, A View of Delft by Anthony Bailey. It describes the response of the citizens to a huge explosion that wrecked much of Delft, in 1654, during Vermeer’s time there. The wealthy bought thousands of roof tiles and gave them to the needy. The government gave a grant of 100,000 guilders to help pay for repairs and a tax holiday on property taxes of up to 25 years for the worst affected. Pensions and other compensation were paid. It seems a remarkably well-considered recovery programme. Do we react so well to a disaster today?

Visiting the world’s great art galleries does not lead to looking only at Vermeers. I was once struck by the painting in the Mauritshuis, The Hague, by Holbein of Robert Cheseman, a British courtier in the 1530s and have always been on the lookout for Holbeins ever since. It is hard to tell with portraits whether you are mainly impressed with the quality of painting or the quality of the person portrayed. With Holbein you get plenty of both, with his superb technique matched by his tough-minded subjects who convey — or about whom Holbein conveys — the impression of huge competency.

In the mid-’90s I had a weekend traveling from a meeting in Germany to another in Brussels, and took the opportunity to see the marvellous city of Bruges. This was a serious introduction to what was not long ago called the Flemish Primitives, but is now more politely called the Netherlandish School. Whatever, I liked them far more than I had expected, since I’m not too much into very fine and formal detailing. But I came away much taken by Rogier van der Weyden, Jan Van Eyck, Hans Memling, Gerard David and the others of that group.

One work there was more unnerving than any other painting I have seen — Judgement of Cambyses comprising two paintings by David, dated 1498. Cambyses was a judge and the punishment for a judge found guilty of corruption was flaying, which means skinning alive. The Judgement first shows him at the point the guilty verdict is given, while the second painting shows him tied to an outdoors bed actually being skinned.

The second is horrifying, but no more so than many paintings of that and earlier times showing all sorts of tortures and mutilations. The first, though, captures Cambyses’ face as he hears the ruling and knows what is in store for him. It kept me awake at nights as no other painted image has done.

There are many moments like these in great galleries. Another was at the Courtauld in London, where I came across a late medieval painting of the disciple of Jesus we normally call Doubting Thomas. But this was called The Incredulity of Thomas. If Thomas was incredulous rather than doubting then hundreds of thousands of Sunday School pupils over many years have been taught about him to his grave disservice. I have since found other material that suggests ‘incredulous’ may be the better translation, but he could have been both — doubting when he was first told of the resurrection and incredulous when he found it to be true. So the choice of word may just depend on which of Thomas’s experiences is portrayed.

I have concluded over many years that I particularly like paintings that are portraits or have very few people in them. I can concentrate on and manage those. And that I like the works of the northern renaissance, and its forbears and aftermath, Foquet, the Netherlandish School, Dürer, Cranach, Bruegel, Holbein and others through to Rembrandt and Vermeer, easily tiring of cherubs, cupids, angels, diaphanous veils and such subjects found more frequently further south.

And that there is more merit in relatively unadorned rather than heavily adorned art, and in architecture too. Perhaps there is a history of art that starts with a simple style, say Romanesque, and then get increasingly decorative — through Gothic and High Gothic — then reverts in the Renaissance to classical simplicity, which then starts again to get more adorned through the periods of the baroque, high baroque and mannerism, reverting perhaps to a form of simplicity with the impressionists, and certainly with modern minimalism. It probably does not hold up, and if it did it would be written up by someone else more coherently than this.

Regardless, I am caught by styles of art and architecture that are simple and clean, and especially the Romanesque churches and the Cistercian abbeys of the early Middle Ages. Maybe I just like round arches more than pointy ones. Our warm friends Cree and Michael invited us to stay with them once in their house in Provence, which was not far from a superb example of a Cistercian abbey, Le Thoronet. The pale yellow stone and simple beauty of this church and its surrounding buildings almost defy description.

And so we made detours all over France in search of them and pore over books about them. These all describe each Cistercian building and its context in much detail, and usually relate their simplicity to the lifestyle of the order, but are unhelpful about the origins of the architectural style. But a book on Selcuk architecture in Turkey and thereabouts claims the answer to that. It draws the relationship of Cistercian architecture to the caravanserais of Armenia and parts of Turkey in the Selcuk period around the 9th to 11th centuries, and notes the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 led to Armenian builders and tradesmen of that time and place fleeing westward, and ending up in France, at Cluny.

But for all of this I also stand in awe of Gothic cathedrals, Botticelli paintings and baroque sculptures, and we go out of our way to see these too. If I don’t much go in for ornamentation nor do I reject it all and often ponder on how the mind draws distinctions about this. Maybe the ornamentation that appeals is purposeful, such as gargoyles which are rain spouts on a medieval cathedral, and not present just for decorative effect. For whatever reason, some art styles cause goose-bumps more than others. Years ago I found in an architectural journal a statement that seems to get close: ‘Tough art, which does not ingratiate with accessibility or prettiness.’ How do I reconcile that with the argument that public art, at least, must be accessible? Accessibility is to be achieved by means other than ingratiating, and that is not so difficult. You might argue that Vermeer is not tough, and is very accessible, but he has an underlying firmness which is different from prettiness or cutesiness and he is not seeking appeal through techniques that are obviously ingratiating.

At this point of writing a friend of Rachel’s gives her an article from the Spectator. ‘Learning to find favourites, not just gathering a string of visually aided facts, is perhaps the most important art history lesson of all,’ say Olivia Cole, coming to my rescue.

Contemporary art is another subject and these days takes much more time than does Vermeer, Holbein or Hopper. It is hard not to develop a love-hate relationship with it. Much of it is stimulating and much incomprehensible. There was a long day at the Venice Biennale, probably 2005 — the year Et Al represented New Zealand — from which I came away feeling that I did not like or understand probably 80 percent of it, that a few pieces were stunning and invoked something like awe, and that overall, despite the imbalance in that ratio, it was a hugely stimulating and rewarding day. It was exhausting too and we returned to our little hotel in a converted monastery fully content.

Once, in despair, and after seeing many buildings and bridges that I thought were outstanding, I concluded that contemporary art had lost its way while contemporary architecture had found its deserved day in the sun. This happens if you go, say, from the Saatchi and Saatchi Gallery in London (with yes, Tracy Emin’s unmade bed and Damien Hirst’s cow carcass in formaldehyde) to the Frank Gehry Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. These days we ensure that our travels take us to see the marvels of modern architecture just as much as to the wondrous worlds of contemporary and traditional art.

One of the difficulties with contemporary art is not so much the works themselves, which usually capture your attention and are sometimes amazing, as all the stuff that hangs off it. The writings about these works are so often overblown and disingenuous. For example, on the matter of how a sculpture or work of installation art impacts on the space it occupies and the landscape around it, an arts appraisal never sees this in terms of the normal language that a landscape architect or an informed layperson might use, discussing scale, compatibility or contrast and such considerations. Instead the artwork will be deemed to ‘interrogate’ the space, without ever citing what the process of interrogation is, nor the conclusions of such interrogation. Interpretations that weigh down the art object can be found in every catalogue.

Another disjunct is about traditional standards of art and its purpose. The notion of beauty, for example, is not in evidence in most current writings on contemporary art, but a public lagging behind is still attached to the concept. The topic of what is art and the idea of beauty was discussed in two books I read in 2009. One was Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct, arguing that similar values and standards of beauty can be found underpinning most cultures, suggesting that an outcome of evolutionary biology is a pan-cultural human perspective. He places some significance to the famous but contrived painting America’s Most Wanted, painted by two Russian researchers/artists to capture the result of a study of what people liked in a painting. It showed scenery with a lake and river, a mix of open land and forest, a few people in it and also a hippopotamus. Dutton notes that, give or take small details, it relates as well to the Kenyan Highlands as to the United States — the Hudson River school I would add.

Michael Kimmelman, art critic of the New York Times, in his book The Accidental Masterpiece, engages in the same subject with the opposite conclusion: beauty cannot be reduced to a common denominator. He dismisses the Russian composite work as kitsch and predictably awful — but he misses the point that the purpose of the artists was not to create a good artwork, but to capture and portray the universal and popular concept of beauty in art.

Today’s genetics might shed some light. There is a study that shows that most people’s brains light up most when shown an artwork which has about a 20% variation from reality. I take that to mean the straight photo-realism appeals less, that most viewers expect some interpretation, but if you go beyond 20% away from reality in the direction of greater abstraction or disguising of the object, you will further lose viewer attention. I can apply something like that to my understanding of the popular response to the various art works the Sculpture Trust has installed.

Another study tends to reinforce this view of popular attitudes to abstraction. Apparently the pupils of our eyes expand when we see something appealing, such as an attractive person, and contract when we see something we view negatively, such as a shark. For most people, the study claims, our pupils contract on seeing abstract art!

Art will continue to reach towards new horizons. I’ve been lucky to be able to go along for the ride for a few decades now.