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The Handheld Vermeer


In ‘Vermeer: Master of Light’ (2001), a documentary that reviews and explores Johannes Vermeer’s life and paintings, there is this segment that presents a number of means in which the viewers perceive this specific painting as they watch the documentary:



Fig.3: Arthur Wheelock talking about Vermeer's 'Girl in the Red Hat' (1666) in ‘Vermeer: Master of Light’ (2001)

(32 mins)



“When you’re able to hold the ‘Girl with the Red Hat’ in your hands, that’s a very special feeling, and doing that you really sense the artist at work, there’s a whole different relationship, and at that time, little things that are hard to pick up in the gallery, for example (...)” - Arthur Wheelock (2001, 32mins).


The curator, Arthur Wheelock is in an Art conservation centre, possibly in the back of the gallery, or perhaps in an entirely different building. This is a very specific place to be that requires certain access to be allowed in. It is where paintings are very carefully looked after and examined in order to extend their lifespan and to improve their aesthetic to be less aged and more accurate to how they looked at the time they were painted.

Wheelock describes a very rare encounter with a Vermeer painting, The Girl in The Red Hat (1666), in which he holds it, without the frame and with his bare hands. The viewers are subject to a secondary rendition of a very personal experience he is having, as he tries to make the viewer empathise with him and his much advantaged situation. As inaccessible as this is for the public watching the documentary to experience at first hand, they are actually gifted a distant yet romantically opinionated adoration for the painting as it’s in his hands. He speaks of it being a completely different relationship to having seen it in a gallery, coming from his perspective the viewers get an almost biased “special feeling” where “you really sense the artist at work”.

 It must be realised that this iteration of Wheelock’s experience of The Girl in The Red Hat is recorded on a camera, and is relayed back through a two dimensional screen. Therefore viewing the painting at that time through the documentary is restricted by the framing and focus of the recorded video. Which is rather distanced, and even skews the painting itself. It is then he goes on to say:


“(…) Vermeer gives this radiance of her vision with this little turquoise highlight that he puts in her eye, and these little pink highlights in the mouth, just little accents like that, that make it come alive, and a kind of vivid quality”. – Wheelock (2001) (32mins)


Fig.4: Screenshot of 'Vermeer: Master of Light' (2001) (close-up of 'Girl with the Red Hat' (1666)) (32 mins)



Here the documentary’s picture changes, it fades into this very close up photograph of the girl’s eyes within the painting. As seen in the first shot, the painting itself is a very small panel painting, 23cm by 18cm. So this framed zoom of the painting must be showing no more than about 3cm by 6cm at frontal view. Regardless of what screen this documentary was viewed on, even if viewed on a mobile phone, it is still an enlargement compared to how the painting would be seen in a gallery or at all in real-life. The zoom is an attempt to elevate the viewer to that position of having it in their hands, with the ability to study it without the restriction of the gallery space. On the other hand, it still creates problems in terms of framing and not just in the shot itself, it is also framed by Wheelock’s description. He tells the viewers to look at the single turquoise mark in the right eye of the girl in the painting, he does the same with the details in the mouth in the next image, this is guiding people away from having the total freedom of self-assessment we would have if they really had it in their hands.

It should also be recognised that the idea of seeing the minute brush marks of The Girl in The Red Hat on a screen, played through either a film or a digital medium, is a much altered experience to seeing it directly from the human eye. The edges of the brush marks, the edges of the colours and the actual pigment’s vibrancy and tone itself, are all warped, albeit slightly, by the film grain or the digital pixels. This is because they have certain traits and ways of translating pictorial data that are very different to the physicality of painted pigment on a panel. Grain and pixels have a very uniform system in terms of their collation and distribution of colour, which restricts the depiction of painting as the paint in real life on the other hand, has an infinite degree of space and direction to appear and exist in. The image of the painting is also transformed by the format of being produced by light in a screen or a projector; rather than reflecting the light as actual pigment would, it projects its own light onto the viewer’s eye.

Conversely, it can certainly be argued that Wheelock’s description and the footage seen of the painting are a gift to the viewer, as in most cases the viewers would only ever be able to see the painting in the gallery, if not at all. The information fed in the documentary about the painting (and others) is also a gift that should not be looked over, helping to understand and contextualise a painting that was made many, many years apart from our contemporary time; delivering quite the informed perspective. This situation could be described as a distant, yet virtually close, breaking of the traditional rules within a gallery; putting viewers in a position where there are no velvet ropes to stop them getting close to the details of this particular Vermeer, but there is nevertheless: a screen.

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