The Dallas Museum of Art is all stocked up for a great spring and summer. Abstract Impressionist Jackson Pollack’s Blind Spots will be on view until March 20, then on April 17th Irving Penn‘s iconic fashion photography will take center stage. The beautiful Spirit and Matter Exhibit from the Keir Collection of Islamic Art remains in place until the end of July. To complement the installation of a Rebecca Warren sculpture in the soon-to-be newly renovated Eagle Family Plaza, an exhibition of her work will be showing from March 13-July 17. The really big news, however, is a very small work currently on exhibit in the Focus II Gallery, the Dutch Master, Vermeer.
What Can You Say About Vermeer?
Though highly esteemed in the art world, the painter Vermeer is somewhat of a mystery, according to Olivier Meslay, Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs and co-curator of Vermeer Suite: Music in 17th-Century Dutch Painting. We don’t know who he studied with and we don’t know who he trained. We have a few details from his life, but they are mostly mundane data like who he married and how many children he had. Of course, since he had 12 children, that’s a pretty significant piece of data.
What’s more, only a handful of his works are known to exist. Did he paint very slowly? Or are there still Vermeers out there, hanging about in granny’s living room, which would thrill the art world, if only they knew the works existed. I’m all about granny’s living room. To feed 12 kids, this guy had to be a virtual factory. Though meticulously painted, all his works are very small and the subject matter is quite ordinary
The most famous painting by Vermeer was made that way by a novel, The Girl in the Pearl Earring. Vermeer’s painting titles are as everyday as their subject matter: A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, The Glass of Wine and A Lady Writing. Most have a gray wall, a piece of furniture and a woman in a room lit by a window. Sometimes the window is visible. Sometimes it is not. You can only see the effect of the light from it. There is nothing remarkable about his models or their costumes. It’s as if he were trying to be both invisible and anonymous.
In Spite of All This, He’s Famous!
There are however, two odd bits about him that make him quite memorable.
- The scarcity of his works inspired a famous forger, Han van Meegeren.
- Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) made a movie about him.
The van Meegeren episode started back in 1935 and ended in 1947, when the forger was sentenced to a year in jail. A review of the ensuing years reads like a mystery novel. For an entertaining afternoon distraction, start with the article I’ve linked to above and then google your way around the internet.
Penn Jillette’s contribution to the Vermeer story revolves around the question of whether or not the artist made use of a camera obscura. The question is more interesting than the mundane subjects Vermeer chose to paint – with or without a camera obscura. The movie, Tim’s Vermeer, is a good way to invest a couple of hours. When you’ve watched it, you can come to your own conclusions.
So What’s the Musical Connection?
All that being said, why is the name of the exhibit Vermeer Suite: Music in 17th-Century Dutch Painting? Well, with only a few Vermeers existing in the world, getting even one of them to visit your museum is quite the coup. Having landed a Vermeer, the DMA wanted to provide some kind of context for it to help the viewer appreciate what they are looking at. So, since it was unlikely they could get any other Vermeers, they rounded up a collection of similar paintings by his contemporaries and tied it up with a musical bow. They got the musical ribbon from the references to music in the other paintings.
Should you go to the exhibit? Well, I’m always for visiting a museum and the Irving Penn exhibition looks like it will be pretty wonderful. So, why don’t you plan on seeing the Vermeer when you go to Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty!