Friday, February 11, 2005

Communion in common things

Tonight I watched several scenes from the film, Girl With A Pearl Earring. I wept. Natural Netherland light; the sound of objects moved with purpose in a quiet room; the harsh simplicity of living four hundred years ago. Yes, I wept. I wept in the recollection of my visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. They have a Vermeer there. A famous one.



Girl With A Pearl Earring is kept and displayed at Mauritshuis, in Den Haag, the Netherlands. It was painted by Johannes Vermeer between 1660 and 1665 and is but 19" x 16" in size. It is rather small for such a revered and now re-popularized painting. Such large emotions pour out of such small sources. In my readings about the history of the work, I came across a website that contained the following exact words: This painting doesn't have a deeper meaning, as far as we know.

No deeper meaning.

A stream that runs alone in some undiscovered wood has no deeper meaning either, unless you consider its source and its ultimate destination. That a man, a painter, spent some hours of his brief life procuring a young model's, and his own, place in history is deeper enough. The model is believed by some to be Vermeer's daughter, Maria. Others dispute this, citing a discrepency between the girl's age and the probable date the painting was rendered.

This painting is also believed by some to have been facilitated by the aided use of a camera obscura. There are several technical reasons for this theory, which I will not go into here, suffice it to say that it does not lessen the impact of the work in any manner and, therefore, but for some scholarly historical point of interest, matters not.




I think instead of the sacrifice an artist makes when he opts for the rich and expensive ultramarine pigment made from crushed lapis lazuli so that the blue blesses the beholding in a divine caress. Her eyes are moonly orbs bursting with luminescence that would peer into the very soul of the world. Her mouth, parted by the cherried season of her blossomed youth, the pink glisten in the left corner reflecting a wet spill of pale windowlight, remains undefiled by promises made four centuries ago. She knows everything about us. And we know nothing of her.

As I mentioned before, I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2002. It was my first trip to Europe. I was 49. It is a daunting place. Bigger than I imagined, packed with floors and rooms and stairs and the opulent loot of the centuries that more than adequately fill them. I had but a scant hour, or so, to gather whatever might stick to my bumbled graspers in a hapless pollen to be archived in braincells of honeyed memory.




So I gawked at Rembrandt's colossal, The Night Watch, like everyone does, listening to the docent's patented spiel, overwhelmed by the sheer size of the dark thing. It is remarkable, to be sure, with its blazingly lit figures afire in the foreground, every head nearly the same size as every other regardless of their perspective position in the scene. It was an affectation of the times that each person in a painting be made equally visible and recognizable, what with the advent of the camera and European Idol still a long, long way off.



Quickly ambling and meandering my way past gaudy furniture pieces, oddly shaped urns and vases, ornate lamps and tapestries, silverware and table settings, I somehow found my way into a small, rectangular room. At the far end, on a wall on the left side near the door, which led somehow back out into the grand room that contained the flagship Rembrandt, hung a quite small, but instantly recognizable piece.

It was Vermeer's, The Milkmaid. I approached transfixed. It's something in the light that immobilizes. It has valence and scent. Andrew Wyeth does the same thing to me. I am neutralized as if by some photon neurotoxin of envenomated beauty. I drew an audible breath. Thankfully, the morning room suddenly emptied and I was alone. I stood before her, an arrested complication of emotions straining to pour out of a simple pitcher in a milky undercurrent of awe and overwhelming. She was beautiful. Crossing my arms, I put my hand to my mouth. I whispered hello to her. I cherished her.




She was small, just 17 7/8" x 16", but her delicate grace was immeasurable. Simple upon simple. Nothing more important than pouring milk as if it were the very essence of her universe. It is. And for those few moments, it was mine, too. In angel ochre, terra cotta, rich lactate pearl and resurrection blue, I was crucified by her contentment.

As I have done many times with his painting The Lacemaker, of which I own a print, I listened to her. For several moments I tried to drink in all she might divulge in the few minutes I had left for our visit. She didn't disappoint. The fragile plurp of trickling liquid being revesseled in a still room told me that such thirsts thrived then as they do now. There were baskets to bread, bowls to refruit, windows to let birdsong drift through, floors from which to sweep the quiet measures of her chores. There was more than I had ears for.

There was sensual continuity between us. We were bound to one another across the gulf of our stilled senses as we communed in the common things that make life rich in the gathering of such moments. Her flesh incandesced from within. I wanted to kiss the backs of her hands, smooth her limbs with a cousinly caress, hum a fabric of loving psalm that I might slip it onto the empty nail above her saintly tilted head.

In this manner we held each other in a slow dance of light and quiet and unhurried embrace until a group of tourists clamored into the room. I turned from her as if in prayer, smiled one last time, stepped slowly out into the grand room past the cluttered and crowd-choked Nightwatch, spilled down some stairs and out into the busy, gray Amsterdam morning. I was as happy as milk.




And I was well cupped for what was to come as I headed for the Van Gogh Museum, which is located just down the straat from the Rijksmuseum. I had no real idea what lay ahead. There are crows in a wheat field that would scatter to emotionally exsanguinate me. But more on that tomorrow.

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