Aoife Rosenmeyer, 05.05.2023

Before Time Runs Out: the Critical View of Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Writing, 1664-67, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer Jr., in memory of their father, Horace Havemeyer

The Rijksmuseum’s Vermeer exhibition doesn’t need a title, and thus it swaggered into the arts pages back in February. It’s very, very good, all the critics agree. And newsworthy too, as publications across the western world hurried to give the painter and the show exceptionally long column inches. It’s «one of the most thrilling exhibitions ever conceived» according to Laura Cumming for the Observer, while Philip Meier calls it a «Blockbuster-Ausstellung der Superlative» (A superlative blockbuster exhibition) in the NZZ.

Nearly every journalist praises the hang: «Wo gibt es so etwas in einem Museum? Ein Raum für ein einziges Bild» (Where else can you find this in a museum? A room for a single picture) writes Philip Meier. In the Guardian, Adrian Searle remarks that «The last big Vermeer show, in The Hague, was a febrile, crowded experience. Here, the art has room to breathe.» (Both the Guardian and Observer newspapers, from the same stable, sent a critic to the Netherlands, though as both also awarded the exhibition five stars, one might ask why.) For artnet Vivienne Chow has her head quite turned by the interiors: «Galleries are decorated with classy floor-to-ceiling velvet curtains in different colors to separate the show’s themes.» Hyperallergic’s Natasha Seaman’s prose has more élan: «as few as one [painting] to a room, each snug behind its own rigid half circle of velvet-covered railing.»

What few can escape mentioning is the weight of research that bolsters the exhibition, and with which the curators justify their focus on Jan Vermeer’s religion. «His paintings are careful, complex constructions. Their meticulously crafted artifice is all fiction and allusion, tempered by both worldliness, curiosity and the Catholic faith to which he converted on his marriage» writes Searle, as if the thought had just occurred to him. In the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott maintains some independent perspective: «despite new insights and smart curation – Rijksmuseum co-curators Gregor J.M. Weber and Pieter Roelofs foreground Vermeer’s Catholic faith, his association with the Jesuits and the Jesuits’ interest in optical science – this is not a scholar’s show.»

Vermeer exhibition. Photo: Rijksmuseum / Henk Wildschut

But this is all framing, and what truly makes critics drool are the works – 28 of 35 known Vermeer paintings, though the Girl with a Pearl Earring returned home to the Maurithuis after eight weeks. One after another, writers search for words with which to adequately describe their lasting appeal. Natasha Seaman does the most thorough analysis of painting technique in her relatively late review, while most others gloss over the by now familiar subject. «How can Johannes Vermeer’s painting be so infinitely more beautiful than the scene it depicts?» asks Cumming – the question of Vermeer’s adherence or diversion from realism arises routinely. «One of the first works you’ll encounter is Woman Holding a Balance, a characteristic Vermeer where the light streams in from the window to capture a beautiful moment of pause and reflection» writes AX Mina for Hyperallergic (one of at least five articles to date about the show on that platform), and Vermeer’s stillness captivates the observers from the unstill present. Ultimately, his motives and his subjects remain mysterious, which some find entrancing and others, like Mina, regard with ambivalence. «We are free to project whatever we’d like onto his life and work. He can be a hero for depicting women’s interiority or a creep for mostly painting physically attractive ones. He can be a devoted Catholic showing the light of God or a skilled student of optical science. He can be an introverted painter or a wheeling-dealing art dealer.»

Vermeer exhibition. Photo Rijksmuseum / Henk Wildschut

In the scattergun survey you find yourself reading, one writer gives the exhibition the review it deserves, breaking free of the Rijksmuseum’s steer and even-handedly challenging the show, not just point scoring. In the Washington Post Kennicott grapples with the timeliness or anachronism of the exhibition. The blockbuster model is outdated, inexcusable perhaps, yet the content so compelling. Vermeer has lasting appeal, though now Kennicott finds a charged, post-colonial reading. «His most admired figures are all young, and beautiful, avatars of the golden age of being upper-middle-class (a new era of prosperity fueled by colonialism, capitalism and the enslavement of others).» This is much like the content of social media and also akin to our contemporary talent for celebrating appearance and consumption while Rome burns. «Today’s bourgeoisie – the audience for exhibitions like this one – lives in the dilapidated and disappearing remnants of Vermeer’s idealized, mercantile milieu. […] The cost of perpetuating that world is an atmosphere clogged with greenhouse gases and weather on the boil.» (The author does recognise the irony of an American journalist flying over the make that statement.) And still the paintings are irresistible: «Nothing I say about Vermeer can compare with the inexhaustibility of Vermeer himself. I went in thinking I had already seen these paintings, or at least that I knew them […]. But I was wrong, and I was deeply moved. And now I want to go back and see them one more time, perhaps for the last time, before time runs out.»

Adrian Searle may call the exhibition «unmissable», yet most readers will miss it. Nearly every review mentions how tickets sold out within a few days; thankfully Mina at least highlights the online experience on offer for an unlimited audience, as long as they can bear Stephen Fry’s narration. Meanwhile, in the mercantile world, Hakim Bishara of Hyperallergic reports at the end of March how Vermeer tickets have sold for thousands on eBay. Thankfully that is a superlative too, for a handful of tickets are currently on offer for a lot less.

«Vermeer», Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 10. February-4. June