Melodies unheard are sexier

Oliver Soden on “Vermeer and Music: the Art of Love and Leisure” at the National Gallery, London, until 8 September

Vermeer, The Guitar Player, around 1670-72

This exhibition is a triumph of lighting design – both inside and outside of the frames. Marjorie Wieseman has beautifully organised 25 pictures (chosen for their evocations of Dutch Golden Age musical culture) in four pleasingly dark rooms; the works glow in their frames and are carefully spotlit from above in such a way that they do not reflect a blinding dazzle. Similar spotlighting occurs within the paintings. Some musicians loom up out of the darkness, à la Caravaggio, huddled around a candle flame; others are cast in the beams from an open window. The shiny wood of musical instruments mirrors the arms of the players, whose opalescent skin (created, we learn, from an underlay of green beneath the flesh tones) seems itself to be a light source. The women wear exquisitely rendered skirts that catch both light and shadow in their folds.

Light and shadow make a neat metaphor for the different ways in which these painters paint music: a carousing, even intoxicating, activity akin to drinking and card-playing; a way in which two lovers might share what Wieseman calls an “intimate duet”; but also a reminder of something transient, intangible, extinguished – like life – in the puff of a candleflame. T. S. Eliot wrote

I know the voices dying with a dying fall

Beneath the music from a farther room…

Eliot’s dying has the double meaning of many of these paintings’ petites mortes: this exhibition’s music allows for death in orgasm and death in death. The portraits harness both the unavoidably feminine necks, waists and curves of the viols and violins (as if prefiguring Man Ray’s Le violon d’Ingres), but also the inescapably skull-like structure of the bridge—that often ornately decorated pedestal which raises the strings from the instrument and transfers the vibrations into the soundboard. Instruments are figures to be made love to (as in Jan Olis’s A Musical Party, 1633,in which a frilly-topped player straddles a viola da gamba), but also corpses laid out to rest: Carel Fabritius’s miniature View of Delft, 1652,makes us contemplate the painting through the eye sockets of the skull-like bridge (its shape symmetrically mirrored by the tiny arch-like bridge that stretches over the moat of Delft’s Nieuwe Kerk, recently made the burial-place of Holland’s Willem II). In a teasing transferred epithet, it is instruments rather than women that are plucked; they act as bridges, carrying the lovers’ emotional energy into their own soundboards, in affairs (and airs) that are not illicit so much as private. But two still-lifes, by Harmen Steenwyck and Jan Jansz. Treck respectively, pile instruments up on a table as memento mori, reminding us, as music does, of the transience of existence: shawms and lutes reflect pearly decaying skulls, or the unsettling afterglow of recently extinguished candles and pipes, still smouldering.

Many of these paintings are haunted by unplayed instruments, usually stringed and corporeal (Jan Miense Molenaer’s discarded cello even wears a hat at a jaunty angle), lying on the ground, or slouching up against a wall, as if just put aside, or ready to be taken up. The exhibition mirrors these by helpfully displaying instruments of the period (proving how accurately they were painted). These rooms emit a peculiarly silent music.

The interiors all seem to be “farther rooms”: often, they are revealed by drawing back a thick curtain, or opening a door, and we viewers interrupt the figures at their playing (both musical and otherwise). Listening to these pictures, we can only strain to hear the strains, catch the catches. Never is the notation of the sheet-music readable or visible: this is not so that we can fill in the gaps with music of our own imagination, but rather a visual evocation of what is happening audibly. Our eavesdropping ears fail to hear the notes, teasingly held just out of reach, in the same way that our eyes peer in vain at blurred dots on the painted page.

In room four, a much anticipated coda: the five still, even silent, pools of the Vermeer paintings, in a world of their own—A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, around 1670-72, and A Young Woman seated at a Virginal, around 1670-72, from the gallery's own collection; the recently authenticated Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, around 1670-72, from a New York private collection; The Guitar Player, loaned by the National Trust from Kenwood House; and The Music Lesson, around 1662-63, lent by Her Majesty The Queen. Of the previous artists, two seem most to have tried imitating Vermeer: Gabriel Metsu’s A Man and a Woman seated by a Virginal, around 1665, and Jacob Ochtervelt’s A Woman playing a Virginal, around 1675-80 – but Metsu lacks Vermeer’s stage management, and Ochtervelt lacks Vermeer’s extraordinary use (such as it has lasted) of colour. One of the exhibition’s great coups is the “art in the making” displays in a fifth room. Impressive blow-ups of tiny sections of canvas reveal Vermeer in all his infinitesimal working methods: filament-width dots, fingerprints, specks of gold and grit, layers of colour, the famous swathes of ultramarine, marks pressed into still-wet paint. Never has watching paint dry been so fascinating.

It is Vermeer who is most enigmatic, his paintings’ gazes and sounds as inscrutable as the expressions turned towards us by the female keyboard players – that is, when they deign to turn their faces at all, often remaining a eloquent Rückfiguren. We crane to see the face as much as we crane to hear the music. Details are astonishing, from the gold rivets on the blue chairs picked up in the speckled jewellery, to the lacy flicks of hairpieces, and the thick and heavy embroideries which cover tables, rooms, and windows. The acoustic of all these interiors is deeply muffled, and swallows sound. In Jan Steen’s A Young Woman playing a Harpsichord, around 1659, the lid of the harpsichord is opened so as to throw the sound away from the viewer, and also to point our attention to the bed which reminds us (and reminds the protagonists) that music-making might lead to love-making.

The title of the exhibition could just as well have been “The Art of Sex and Silence”. Lips part in lust and passion as well as in song and, other than in particularly revelrous paintings (Molenaer’s Young Man and Woman making Music, around 1630-32, for example), sound seems frozen at a still point where it has just been left off, and might again be picked up. Listening intently to these pictures, I could often make out nothing more than the voices from a farther room, which, when caught up with, snuffed out their music like a candle flame, leaving only an enquiring gaze, fingers paused above rather than on the keys, and the sound of silence.

The atmosphere of the exhibition is particular: very still, very beautiful. The opportunity to see and hear Vermeer and his contemporaries challenge, even tease us, by exploring the shadows and lights of one art form through another, is a delight.

Published Thu, 27 Jun 2013 16:55:00 GMT

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.



All reviews