13 March 2011

Vermeer's Pearl

An immensely talented writer shared a soon to be published novel ostensibly about painting something the casual hobbyist might consider to be technically difficult to paint.

One realizes the challenge for the novel's protagonist executing his painting is not technical, rather it's the requisite journey he must make to arrive where perception and experience come together. A space and time that makes that painting possible.

Charlatan painting instructors on PBS television demonstrate painting tips like rendering reflections with feathered spikes of titanium white, or having cotton balls handy to daub on clouds. It is the kind of instruction that makes television-viewing chumps like me feel cheap because it is impossible to look away. Slack-jawed, I watch clouds deftly daubed on canvas.

Yet something so difficult should never be so easy. Further, the notion of painting instruction is both shallow and absurd.
Just hit it with your blending brush, guys
~Gary Jenkins
Professional painting huckster Gary Jenkins advises his television viewers to “work as much as you can from real flowers”. In the next breath, Mr. Jenkins back-pedals by saying fake flowers are just fine too, acknowledging how realistic silk flowers have become -- as if the realistic anatomy of ersatz flowers renders them less tawdry.

Such tricks of technique attract and repel thoughtful people. Watching the charlatan television painting instructor ply his trade is like watching David Copperfield materialize albino rock pigeons. With such painting instruction, we are attracted by the sleight of hand -- the purposeful intent of each stroke of the blending brush.

When the charlatan television painting instructor finishes, we are repelled by proficiently arranged pigments that, in toto, offer little more than hollow titillation. We want that half an hour in front of the television back.

The painter's Gestalt must be the gradual unification of perception & experience; deeply felt holistic perception made possible by a steaming pile of life experiences.
We will sell no wine before its time.
~Paul Massson winery advertising slogan.
The scent of linseed oil in an oil painter's studio is nothing short of intoxicating, but at age 53, I am not ready to paint.

Paint? Our two ocular peepholes of perception are barely capable of giving us a baseline understanding. A baseline of understanding that's roughly proportional to the sum of experience and introspective thought.

Superficial thinkers bereft of introspection, might be beguiled with the How of daubing cotton balls, then never quite travel on to the poetic Why or the existential What.

While not ready to paint, I continue to observe painting as I have been for the leeward side of 30 years. One way to explore a painting is to write about it.

Following is a poem I wrote last night about Johannes Vermeer's wistful painting Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Painterly Pearl
Saint Paul, 13 March 2011

A few Dutch painters
pulled white rabbits from
pre-enlightenment top hats

Vermeer's sleight of hand
in Girl with a Pearl Earring
was indirect sunlight

Playing her eyes off the pearl
like a magician performs
a three-cup shuffle

The pearl forever transformed
by light rendered wavy by
the girl's circumstances

He sawed her box in two
long before future historians
could deny his intent

I use the analogy of a magician in the poem. I don't wish to belittle Vermeer's mastery like I perhaps would belittle the hollow technical clouds of a charlatan painting instructor on television.

On the contrary, I am buoyed by the notion that Vermeer harbored deeper intentions than rendering a stunningly mysterious portrait of a young woman. If Vermeer was merely fulfilling a commissioned portrait for a well-heeled patron, then the joke is on me.

Girl with a Pearl Earring has a timeless, lyrical quality about it that makes it impossible to forget.

Since humans share some 40-50% of DNA with the common cabbage, it should come as no surprise that a 17th century human could paint a shared, albeit mysterious perception of a young woman that speaks to us over centuries.

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