Monday, January 18, 2010

The Optical Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer, Art of Painting, c.1666-67
canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

This is a response to Francesca's post about camera obscura used as a perspective aid in painting.

Vermeer is without doubt my favorite painter, having seen a very complete exhibition of most of his known paintings in Amsterdam, I can, without embarrassment, say that I had tears streaming down my eyes, caused by the enormous "aura" of his work. I mention aura as in Walter Benjamin seminal work The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction which you can (and should) read HERE.

I was not the only one, the exhibition was very crowded and many people had the same reaction as myself. One thing is to see (mechanical) reproductions of his, or any other artist's work, and another to be in the presence of the actual piece that contains in its very manufacturing and creation a substantial part of a genius life embedded in its pigment particles and jewel-like crystallized varnish, not to mention the time captured by the object itself.

If it is true that according to Benjamin, mechanical reproduction "frees" the work of art from place and ritual so that the masses could then benefit from its formal appearance, yet there is inevitably a great deal of loss for the viewer that does not have access to the original. There is a trade off here.

But this is about Vermeer's famous mastery of light and extraordinary quality of detail, that, when observed up close, reveal abstract patterns and dabs of paint that we would not, in isolation, consider realistic. However when seen in context, our modern eyes, cannot fail to see a modernity and exactitude of vision which would be hard to explain without the possibility that he used a camera obscura as an aid tool in deconstructing the elements of the scene.

Now, I know many artists that cringe at the idea that such a Master might have used such a trick. But ever since the discovery of perspective, everything we see is in fact aided by that "trick"without which we have a hard time making sense of space nowadays.

There are many studies however, that have carefully analysed his paintings according to optical laws and using actual reproductions of a camera obscura and sets replicating the conditions that Vermeer might have encountered in his paintings and from this studies one could conclude that Vermeer, might have indeed, like many of his contemporaries, used it as a compositional aid.

He of course, and this is clear in other careful analysis as well, used a variety of methods to achieve what he wanted, sometimes pinning strings to the wall and using them as a reference point, similar as the Dürer engraving of the early grid assisted perspective shows.

What is a question perhaps, is to think whether the use of the camera obscura influenced his artistic vision by showing optical artifacts that are not commonly perceived by the naked eye, such as glows around shiny objects, "circles of confusion", blurs and exaggerated scales in some cases.

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