Hi from the Vancouver International Film Festival, in my opinion one of the best film festivals in the world. It is here we have chosen to launch our new film – HOPPER: AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY. And what a first night it was. The film looked, I hope it is not immodest to say, magnificent – a testimony to the many skilled individuals who helped make it – it really was a team effort of people at the top of their game in my opinion. The audience seemed to love it and the Q&A I hosted was very positive. So, a good start. But… do enough people know who Hopper was? Will audiences come to the cinema? Certainly Covid has decimated our audience figures over the past two, nearly three years, and it has not at all returned to normal. We’ll see…
Anyway, more of this to come but I wanted to post here another review by Joe Phelan, an arts reviewer that I hold in the greatest respect in the USA. Here is he reviewing the 2007 travelling exhibition of Hopper’s works. Have a read:
Even people who don’t know the name Edward Hopper (1882-1967) might be very familiar with his images, such as House by the Railroad, Lighthouse at Two Lights or Nighthawks, either in the originals, via reproductions or from the myriad movies they inspired. At the beginning of the 21st century, Hopper’s realistic and representational art, both haunting and iconic, resonates more strongly with our sensibilities than almost any other American painter of his time. “Great art,” he once said, “is the outward expression of the inner life of the artist and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.” A new traveling exhibit focusing on his mature work from 1925 to 1950 is currently packing them in (as Hopper shows always do) at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. This exhibit provides an occasion for some reflections on Hopper’s artistic vision and how he achieved it.
Born in Nyack, New York, a small resort town on the Hudson River which was also the birthplace of another highly idiosyncratic artist, Joseph Cornell, Edward Hopper’s earliest memory was of gazing out the window at the house next door: “there was a sort of elation about the sunlight on the upper part of a house”, he once said. A shy, tall boy, who liked to draw and read, his graphic gifts were recognized and supported early by his middle class, well-read parents, who nevertheless urged him to study commercial illustration rather than painting.
Hopper went to school in nearby midtown Manhattan, where he soon came under the influence of two very talented but very different painters: William Merritt Chase, an American impressionist, and Robert Henri, a realist who would soon found the gritty “Ashcan School”. A fellow student noted that Chase “preached art for art’s sake; Henri art for life’s sake. The difference was monumental.”
Hopper stayed a remarkably long six years at the school, winning prizes and honors. Afterwards he traveled to Europe, where for almost a year he visited museums and galleries while spending the mornings painting on the banks of the Seine. Apart from providing an occasion for a close study of Manet and Degas, his time in Paris allowed him to observe the somewhat shocking difference between the “pleasure loving” Parisians looking for “a good time” on the boulevards and in the cafes and the New Yorkers “with that never ending determination for the ‘long green’.”
Two more European trips followed in quick succession in 1909 and 1910. Shortly after his return from the second trip, Hopper painted Summer Interior, one of the few early works in the exhibit. This brooding, intimate work may have been inspired by Edgar Degas’ more sexually daring Interior, which depicts a certain male-female confrontation. The abstract patch of light, here located on the floor, is a compositional device Hopper loved to use in his mature work in order to depict the indomitable light of nature breaking into the human world of a room. We observe his use of this light in such works as A Woman in the Sun, Excursion into Philosophy, and Rooms by the Sea. Hopper once laconically summed up his achievement by stating that “I guess I’m not very human. All I really want to do is paint light on the side of a house.”
Back in Manhattan, Hopper found the city “awfully crude and raw.” “It took me a decade to get Europe out of my system,” he said. At this time Hopper worked as a commercial illustrator, something he later described as a “depressive experience.” This inner struggle between what Hopper did for a living and his highest artistic aspirations is perhaps evident in New York Corner (New York Salon), the impressionism of which strikes us in the background buildings on the left, while we note an urgent sense of form in the simplified geometry of the windows and shades on the right. This heavy, dreary scene is also the most crowded one Hopper ever painted. In later works, such as Drug Store and Early Sunday Morning, the artist would simplify his street scenes by eliminating any suggestion of the “hustle and bustle” that is taken to distinguish urban life.
Besides earning a living with his commercial work, Hopper began to explore the medium of etching. As we can see in the web feature (see below), it is in this challenging medium, which had at one time or other fully engaged the likes of Rembrandt, Goya and Whistler, that Hopper began to reveal his masterful draughtmanship and his powerful personal vision. We see isolated figures, desolate urban scenes, and nineteenth-century Victorian architecture, all in strong contrasts of light and shadow from unusual and unexpected viewpoints. Hopper seems to be pouring out the darker inner currents which could not find expression in his workaday commercial output. Not surprisingly, when exhibited these pieces were highly praised and quickly sold.
Etching required Hopper to work in his studio, and so he had to rely on his memory or sketches rather than paint from direct sight. He gradually began to invent his subject matter and carefully work out his compositions. If we compare American Landscape with House by the Railroad, or Night Shadows with Nighthawks, we see how much these iconic oil paintings owe to Hopper’s early sketches.
In the early 1920s, Hopper began spending summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a small town on the Atlantic coast which had attracted artists since the days when Winslow Homer painted there. Encouraged by his fellow art student and future wife Josephine Nivison, Hopper started using watercolors. While other artists were painting picturesque coastal scenes, Hopper focused on the ornate Victorian mansions built by rich sea captains in the nineteenth century. The Mansard Roof depicts one such rambling mansion which still exists today. Hopper is both accurate in all his architectural details and engagingly abstract in his converting of the substantial building into a pattern of light and shadow.
The art cognoscenti of Hopper’s day were drawn to the new modernist skyscrapers or to the classical measure of colonial architecture, and found the Victorian style (or Second Empire style, as in House by the Railroad) “hideous.” These nineteenth-century buildings were viewed by left-wing modernists as symptomatic of the vulgar deficiencies of the gilded age culture that produced them. But Hopper loved this kind of vernacular architecture, and in his “masculine independence” he stood almost alone among serious artists of his day in painting them. The Mansard Roof, exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1923 where it won a prize and was purchased by the institution, declared Hopper’s independence of prevailing fashion.
As a result of a few big sales, Hopper was able to buy his first automobile, a used 1925 Dodge. The new auto meant that he and his new wife could seek out new subject matter using the car as kind of studio on wheels. Liberated in this fashion to explore the open road the Hoppers drove through New England, discovering the village of Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. In due course they adopted this location as their summer headquarters, in 1927. Fellow artists were nearby but had not yet discovered the spot, and Hopper remained aloof from them. It was here that Hopper started painting lighthouses, another subject which no one seems to have thought worth painting before him.
Critics soon began describing these utilitarian structures as unattractive, while admiring the artist’s ability to transform them into beautiful images. In the most romantic of his Maine paintings, Lighthouse Hill, Hopper chooses the late afternoon when the sun makes long shadows on the grass, also creating an abrupt contrast between the light on the buildings and the darkness elsewhere. The well-defined forms of the building are contrasted with the bareness of the natural surroundings, inducing a mood of wonder and reflection in the viewer.
Back in New York for the winter, Hopper was living in an apartment in Greenwich Village, and it’s worth noting that many of his painting depict scenes from his own neighborhood. Nighthawks, for example, is based on a long-forgotten all-night diner at Greenwich and 7th Avenue. Hopper’s New York City was not the one celebrated in the art and literature of the twenties. He had no interest in the principal pictorial motifs of the Jazz Age, the skyscraper and the machine, or in their potential as symbols for the commerce, capitalism and power which had overtaken America. As he had done in Gloucester, Hopper found his subjects in the vernacular architecture of the city. He was drawn to the unexceptional and familiar buildings of the nineteenth century, as in Williamsburg Bridge. He used these structures both as backdrops for his quiet human drama and as dramatic actors in their own right who could dominate the scene.
It must be stressed that Hopper and his wife did not turn their backs on the twentieth century. They loved theater- and movie-going. It is no accident, then, that Hopper approached the composition of his mature works, such as Chop Suey, Early Sunday Morning, New York Movie, Room in New York and Nighthawks, as a theatrical director might set the scene of a play. The specific mise-en-scène might be a lunch counter or filling station at night or a hotel room early in the morning. Although Hopper spoke disparagingly of it, his commercial work had taught him to compose images with an implicit story line. He included just enough detail to tempt the viewers to devise a narrative of their own.
Yet these very story-telling details are minimized in the context of Hopper’s broad optical contrasts, designed to secure maximum emotional power from a relatively small number of visual elements. Hopper presents these scenes in such a way that the pictorial drama is constituted almost entirely by the play of light and shadow across the canvas. It is Hopper’s skill in shifting the center of expressive gravity, away from the directly anecdotal and onto the more purely visual drama of light and shadows, that elevates his art above the simple theatricality of the American Scene painters or Norman Rockwell.
“Hopper is always on the verge of telling a story,” observed John Updike. If so what’s the story? Hopper, as I’ve said before, was famously close-lipped about the meaning of his work. The first great essay about Hopper, by Alfred Barr, dates from the 1930s. Interestingly enough from our perspective today, Barr never uses the word loneliness in connection with Hopper’s work. Rather he talks about Hopper as painter of light and architecture. But today Hopper is popularly thought of as a painter of loneliness. What might explain this shift in interpretation is the appearance of David Riesman’s groundbreaking book The Lonely Crowd in 1950. This was a remarkable book on the American psyche that attempted to document the tension between our consumer-oriented, economically ambitious and increasingly prosperous culture and the human and spiritual doubts which are obscured by the power and wealth such a culture produces. The ideas and terminology of Riesman’s book soon began to appear in connection with commentary on Hopper’s work. Riesman’s idea of the deep and abiding loneliness at the heart of the urban dynamo seemed to fit the vision at the core of Hopper’s work perfectly. In the decades since Riesman’s book was published, commentators have tended to describe Hopper as the man who made The Lonely Crowd visible. But although this connection between Hopper and the twentieth-century American experience of urban alienation and isolation was understandable in the light of some of his chosen subject matter, the artist himself did not wish it to dominate his reputation. “The loneliness thing is overdone” he once commented dryly. As curator Carol Troyen points out in her podcast and catalogue essay, Hopper is perhaps best seen as the painter of solitude and serenity.
More troubling to Hopper’s career was a new style of painting on the rise even as New York was coming to dominate the world of art. The notion of “pure painting” independent of life or nature, as practiced by Jackson Pollock, was gaining a foothold in the most avant-garde circles. The brilliantly ferocious champion of Pollock, Clement Greenberg, dismissed Hopper’s methods as “second-hand, shabby, and impersonal,” and thought him “simply… a bad painter.” But for his part, Hopper would remain steadfast in his commitment to realism. Where Hopper’s sentiments truly lay is indicated by the pleasure he expressed on learning that the film director Alfred Hitchcock had said in various interviews that his later films Rear Window and Psycho were to some extent inspired by the painter’s work.
In 1963, four years before his death, Hopper painted a picture that could serve as his final testament. Sun in an Empty Room is one of his most mysterious and beautiful works (and surely an inspiration for Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series). It takes the form of a breathtaking recapitulation of the themes and concerns that had emerged throughout his career. This late painting is evocative of his earliest conception of a figure in a sunlit room as seen in Summer Interior. The painting shows a room which is either not yet occupied or perhaps recently vacated, we cannot tell for sure. But given Hopper’s age at the time, most likely it is a room recently left empty. When asked what he was after in the painting, Hopper responded, “I’m after ME.” At bottom, Hopper’s obsession with painting light on the side of a house was at the same time an obsession with trying to represent his own inner light on canvas.
In one of his few programmatic essays on art, written early in his career, Hopper quotes from an author and an essay he loved throughout his life: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance. “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Hopper’s adoption of the outmoded, the unexceptional, the stark and the seemingly uninteresting in terms of subject matter enabled him to record the compelling tension between the Victorian world of his childhood and the uncertain modern world that had arisen since. One can conceive of Hopper’s “contrarianism” in this context as a reflection of his Emersonian philosophy. He was seeking to make the “great refusal” in art that Emerson had made in letters. He had to reject “pure painting” and so many of the demands of “progress” and “fashion” in order to produce an art that would reflect his immersion in life as it is lived and nature as it is experienced first-hand.
I am sure you have all been sweltering in the heat over these past few weeks – and it isn’t over yet. You’ll know that my passion – apart from film-making – is running so I have had plenty of runs in the sun and it really is something to be jogging along in 40 degrees Celsius. Hopefully, finally we’ll start appreciating the wonders of our planet that little but more and exploit it a little bit less from now on – otherwise we’re in for a tough ride. People have already started growing bananas and avocados in London – which, I know, doesn’t sound too bad but what that reflects is really very worrying. France, for example, is experiencing its worst drought ever.
I have spent so much of my working life making biographies of great artists from the past that I can’t help but wonder what they would make of the way we live today. They had plenty of problems in their own time – health, diet, dentistry issues alone prevent me from ever really wishing to have lived any time but now – but at least they could more or less rely on their seasons to be unchanging. So much of our world seems unstable – will that glacier be there next year, is that cliff about to crumble into the sea, will that crop survive in the new heat (or the increased absence or water)? So, I find I always bring a sense of how my life is now, what I am seeing and experiencing now, to the artworks of the past. Honestly, I think we all do.
I am in to the last 4 weeks of editing my next Exhibition on Screen film – about the life of Edward Hopper (and his wife Jo) – and I know that recent experiences and events in my own life are colouring how I am making this film and how I am seeing this film. So, however absent a filmmaker may try to see, trust me that he or she is always right there, holding your hand as you travel from the first to last minute. For me, what resonates is that my own father was born in New York and met and married my (English) mother there. Thus, the remarkable archive we have of 20s, 30s, 40s New York is a city he would have known and worked in. That guy pushing a rail of shirts down 5th Avenue, that’s my dad. And maybe that woman looking out of the window, maybe that was my mum dreaming of her village in Oxfordshire and the thatched roof cottage in which she was born.
That’s partly why Hopper is so appealing and loved; his paintings start stories but leave you to fill them in and drive them forwards. They are like the opening scene of plays before anyone has spoken the first line. I think his work is wonderful. The film is out in October, and I hope you’ll watch it and agree with me.
APOLOGIES! I have been so busy editing my Edward Hopper film I forgot to post this blog from May! I hope everyone is enjoying their summer – it is scorching in Europe but we’re indoors in the edit suite anyway. All goes well. Hopper will be finished by September – and also we will be returning with our popular Painting of the Week podcast soon. Take care, Phil
I have recently returned from Boston having concluded the final shoot for the next EXHIBITION ON SCREEN film which focusses on Edward Hopper. I have to say it was a tremendously busy week that went to plan. I will talk about the shoot shortly but, first, I have to say the past few weeks have been fantastic. I don’t like to play things down when good things happen. One needs to enjoy them and enjoy talking about them. Why not? There are plenty of day-to-day struggles, so we need to recognise and celebrate some of the great moments we all work so hard for.
Let me begin with My Childhood, My Country – 20 Years in Afghanistan being accepted into a lot of festivals. One cannot possibly attend all of them but when I received an invitation to go to Kathmandu and have a special screening at Film South Asia, well, that really was too good an invite to turn down. I’m always busy and it’s expensive to get there (and I have reduced the amount that I fly these days) but Kathmandu has a special place in my heart. In 1984, 38 years ago, I went there with my brother and partially filmed my very first film about the Dalai Lama. It was a fantastic trip. Then in 1991 it was the first location that my wife Amanda and I went to as a team working for our company Seventh Art Productions. I had moved out of London (having split from my previous excellent producer Michael Whiteley) and we started working together in the back bedroom of our small new flat in Brighton. We decided that the first film we wanted to make at that point was about Nepal and its first democratic election.
That 1991 trip to Nepal was particularly memorable trip because I was providing news footage back to a couple of UK-based news agencies. One asked me to present on camera and the experience of that alone convinced me that it was something I wouldn’t do again. Nor did I ever again want to file news footage where you are running around looking for trouble spots, going to hospitals for people who might have been injured at a polling station even if, as was the case in Kathmandu that day, that was frankly a distortion of the story. Basically, the democratic elections passed off almost entirely peacefully, but the news agencies were only interested in (and willing to pay for) conflict. One funny thing did happen on that trip – the ruling party officials, including the prime minister, just assumed I was BBC. I did not dissuade them of that belief. I got interviews as a result – but I don’t think the BBC reporter (Mark Tully) was thrilled when he turned up…!
Anyway, back to 2022. On this trip back to the festival, my brother was able to fly in from the US, and Amanda could come too, and my son who is the age I was when I first went, camera in hand.
Kathmandu is extraordinary – and we had the best time. Unfortunately, its own excessive traffic and lack of will power to do much about it puts it in a completely unsustainable long-term position, but it’s still a wonderful place to go. What landscapes to explore, what lovely people, what an exciting place. The film was very well received at the festival too – which made it even nicer.
We cut the travel times very fine – and could not afford any delays if we were to get back in time for the first of two BAFTA awards ceremonies that we’d been invited to. The first was in BAFTA Crafts where my and Shoaib’s cinematography was up for an award. Needless to say, on arrival at Kathmandu airport, we were told there would indeed be a two-hour delay and we would possibly not make our connecting flight in Qatar. Well, a shout-out here to British Airways who waited for us at the gate on arrival and sped us through… onto the flight back to London where we had to go straight home to change from hiking gear into our fancy stuff and rush up to London for the ceremony.
We didn’t win but I genuinely feel honoured and delighted to have received a nomination: that alone allows you to put the BAFTA mask on the poster which hopefully will drive some people to go see the film or buy it from our website. To be nominated in both Best Cinematography and also Best Single Documentary is superb and I think they are actually the two best awards to be nominated for because those are the two things that I think will actually encourage people to watch the film.
Soon thereafter Amanda and I were deep into preparing for the 3rd and final Hopper shoot in Boston, Cape Cod and New England. As with any film, so much of it is in the preparation, preparing and organising your interviews, arranging the interview locations, choosing the exact location shots you need, etc. I’ve done this hundreds of times and you must think it all through, in advance, minute by minute: where am I going to be, what am I trying to achieve, where am I going next? It’s complicated and why I’m very fortunate to be working on this occasion with an excellent co-production team out of Washington DC: Michael and Cynthia Cascio.
Between us I think we had the call sheet very well organised but, before catching the flight to Boston, there was a small matter of the second BAFTA. This was a much bigger affair being held at the Royal Festival Hall. I won’t tell you how much tickets cost to attend the BAFTAs. An insane amount. Nominees do not automatically get free tickets. I’ve been offered less by small TV stations to licence my films than these tickets cost, so enormous gratitude is due to ITV, our UK broadcaster, for inviting me on their behalf – and not only me but all four named nominees for the Best Single Documentary award namely myself, Amanda (co-producer), Shoaib Sharifi (co-director), & Clive Mattock (editor).
There are three previous films of mine that were voted for by BAFTA members as one of the top four films of that year, namely Muhammad Ali – In the Eyes of The World,The Boy who Plays on the Buddhas ofBamiyan and In Search of Beethoven. The four films voted for by the members are then put to a jury, but at that point the broadcasters (BBC, ITV, channel 4, 5 and Sky) can resubmit a film that they feel has been overlooked. Thus, the jury gets to watch around nine films to then choose four as official nominations and of course one of those is chosen as the winner. On those three previous occasions we did not even get a nomination – partly I feel as jury members (from the main broadcasters) really were not comfortable with single filmmakers out there with the new small, cheaper cameras. But almost no-one thinks like that anymore so My Childhood, My Country had a better chance this time – but still no guarantee. So, we were absolutely thrilled to have been nominated.
As an aside, I must be honest and say I think that it should just be based on the members’ votes alone but, anyway, it was super that this year that we received those two nominations for Cinematography and Best Single Documentary.
It is very unlikely that an EXHIBITION ON SCREEN film would be nominated as the BAFTAs, as far as documentaries go, really focus on social docs or natural history. So, with the thought that this may never happen again, we therefore decided to take the entire office. BAFTA kindly agreed to supply more affordable tickets if my colleagues didn’t attend the gala dinner (they were eventually much happier at a nearby Italian), but the ceremony and the after-dinner party were OK.
So, on a beautiful sunny Sunday, all 17 of us (my two children came too as they had grown up with this production) found ourselves standing on the red carpet, in front of the BAFTA backdrop, having our official portrait photograph taken. Everyone looking gorgeous. The ceremony itself is 4 hours long (2 hours too long frankly) and begins around 3:30pm. At 6pm the BBC start showing the ceremony on TV having made cuts along the way. Our award came up about 4th and I was 100% sure it was going to another film (a very good film on Grenfell which is both very moving and very well made). So, when the presenter opened the envelope, I was genuinely expecting her words to be ‘And the award goes to Grenfell…’. So, imagine the shock and horror and happiness all the same time when the words that came out were: ‘And the award goes to ‘My Childhood, My Country – 20 Years in Afghanistan’. All the nominees have cameras pointing at us and so ours caught Shoaib jumping up in delight and Amanda, Clive and I looking stunned. My first memory thereafter is the noise my team were making from their seats! We made our way to the stage and en route I prepared myself to make a short speech. Only two days before the Taliban had seemingly announced that all Afghan women now had to wear a burka outdoors; they could barely leave their houses without being completely covered – a completely illogical, retrograde and disgusting decision. I then found myself standing in front of hundreds of the leading lights of television actors, actresses, commissioning editors, producers, etc. And half of whom were women. I was able to make a short speech to point out that most of my company are women, that the four commissioning editors that helped my project from the start were women, but in Afghanistan today women simply can’t leave the house and they certainly can’t work in television, so I requested that commissioning editors & film makers in the audience please don’t forget Afghanistan. I can’t tell you the numerous times over the past 20 years that broadcasters nationally and internationally have said to me that they were not interested in the film because they believed their audience was tired of Afghanistan. I don’t understand how with 160,000 Afghans having died, 3600 international military service people having died and $2.3 trillion spent, how can you not be interested? My film is also a universal story about youth.
Amanda Wilkie, Clive Mattock, Shoaib Sharifi, Phil Grabsky, winners of the Single Documentary Award for My Childhood, My Country – 20 Years in Afghanistan
After the speech, we then went backstage where, after being photographed by about 40 press photographers, we were delighted to discover that we didn’t just receive one BAFTA trophy but four, one each. I was so happy that all four of us could now try to find some space for what is a very heavy & impressive trophy. In our case, two of them. My only disappointment is with the BBC who decided that they would rather keep some of the frankly rather weak elements of the BAFTA show, rather than give any time to best single, best news, best documentary series, best live event. All of these went to the end of the TV programme in a rapid sum up under ‘other awards’. So, my speech never made it. It’s appalling really – this default to celebrity vacuity in place of a little bit of respect for docs and news. They would argue that they are responding to the audience – I think that’s rubbish and, anyway, you can work to create an audience. The BBC putting it at the end is creating the sense that docs & real life are simply not as important. So that is my one gripe of the day.
Anyway, the speech did make it to You Tube and Twitter where it has been seen by many thousands of viewers, but how much more powerful it would have been on the BBC.
Anyways, after the ceremony was over… we had the gala dinner and, much more importantly, the after-dinner disco which went on for 4 hours – and we danced every minute of it! I didn’t dare put my trophy down, so I had a sore arm for days…. I had an absolute ball, and we were literally the last people to leave at 2.30am. We got to bed at 3.30am only to be up again at 5:30am to make our way to Heathrow airport to fly to Boston for the afore-mentioned Hopper shoot.
I didn’t manage to sleep on the plane – I was still too excited at the BAFTA and nervous about the week’s shoot ahead. We had to go now as any later and New England becomes too busy. It was great that Amanda could come too (as she always used to, before kids) and, in short, we had a very successful and enjoyable week of travelling and filming. All the interviewees were tremendous (and tremendously helpful) and all the locations stimulating to film. I can certainly see the appeal this area had to Edward Hopper. It was very hard work trying to keep on top of every moment, making sure to not miss anything but in short it all went to plan.
Now we are editing what I believe will be a very strong film about a genuine American master. There are many pros and cons to running your own company – self-funding your own films, producing your own films, distributing your own films. It is hard, and finance is always a challenge, but what a benefit it is to choose which projects to work on, which festivals to attend, and all with wonderful, smart, loyal colleagues with whom, from time to time, you win a big award and have a fine ol’ party. Our films entertain and they educate to an extremely appreciative audience. Over these past few weeks, we’ve also finished two new Exhibition on Screen films – one with the exemplary Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (about Camille Pissarro) and the second, a fabulous biography of Mary Cassatt, perhaps a somewhat overlooked member of the impressionist group but one with her own voice which was significant and very impactful.
What a few weeks we have had. Even covid has been put to the back of our minds a little (though I still wear my mask on trains and planes) and for now it is all things Hopper – and, come September, our limited cinema release of MY CHILDHOOD, MY COUNTRY – with a special update and Q&A. It never stops but that’s fine by me!
One of the most delightful things to do around the holidays is to visit an art museum and look at a few of the paintings that tell the stories we commemorate on these days. Over the past twenty years, I’ve enjoyed taking such tours. In my experience by far the most popular and satisfying would be “The Christmas Story in Art” tour that the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC offers every December.
With a world class collection that includes Italian Renaissance masterpieces by Duccio, Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Carpaccio, Piero di Cosmo, and Northern Renaissance gems by Jan Van Eyck, Petrus Christus and Gerard David, the NGA is the place to be, if you have the inclination. Even better is to be guided on this adventure by an expert lecture. For many years, my guide there has been senior lecturer David Gariff whose tours are so popular that they sometimes number well over a hundred visitors.
I’ve chosen to focus on one of the most important, beautiful and storied paintings at the National Gallery: The Adoration of the Shepherds 1505/1510 (formerly known as the Allendale Nativity.) This work is attributed by most experts, (with a few notable exceptions) to Giorgione, one of the renowned figures of the Venetian Renaissance.
According to Giorgio Vasari, Giorgione was born in humble circumstances in Castelfranco near Venice. Once he moved to the Serenisima the young man came under the influence of Giovanni Bellini and may have met Leonardo da Vinci on his visit to that city. He certainly digested Leonardo’s sfumato technique, and became a teacher of both Titian and Sebastian Piombo. Unlike both Bellini and Titian, Giorgione specialized in small-scale dreamily poetic canvases designed for the patrician clientele. He was only around 32 when he died of the plague in 1510.
In his Adoration, the Holy Family shelters in front of a dark cave instead of the more familiar rustic hut. The Christ Child lies naked on the ground with only a thin cloth between him and the cold earth as Mary and Joseph bundled up in their cloaks kneel behind him. Inside the cave the heads of familiar ox and ass are barely visible. Directly above the cave, cherubim flutter looking like disembodied heads of children. On the left, a luminous pastoral landscape unfolds culminating in a light on the horizon that marks the dawning of a new epoch. In the center of the picture, two shepherds genuflect before the Child connecting the two worlds of the scene, the natural and the supernatural.
The cave setting derives from the older Byzantium tradition which the Venetians would have considered their own. The position of the Child on the ground seems surprising and unnerving to modern eyes. Scholars have suggested this image represents ideas drawn from the sermons of St. Francis and the writings of St. Bridget of Sweden. In his Admonitions I Francis wrote: “Behold daily He humbles Himself as when from His royal throne. He came into the womb of the Virgin; daily He Himself comes to us with humility.” St. Bridget, for her part, thought that the Virgin was mysteriously spared the pains of childbirth and found the new born infant lying in front of her.
What is striking is the way Giorgione has moved the Holy Family from the traditional center of the picture to the extreme right, and made the alluring and harmonious landscape so very prominent. Giovanni Bellini pioneered such poetic landscape in works such as St. Francis in Ecstasy but never before had it filled so much of the composition. Some will take the landscape for the real subject of the painting, but it seems to me that the two shepherds, one bowing and the other kneeling, are better candidates. After all they are the first men to recognize the divinity of Christ. While we are unlikely to identify with the Magi, those royal wise men, in their pictures, we can easily do so with these common folk. And yet there is something so graceful, gentle, and elegant in their manner as imagined by Giorgione that one writer has called them “princes” in shepherd’s garb.
One of the backstories that fascinates me about this painting is that it was the cause of a quarrel that ended the partnership/friendship between the premier art dealer of the 1930’s Lord Duveen and the legendary American art historian Bernard Berenson. In this period, Duveen was helping Andrew Mellon to acquire masterpieces for his collection which would serve as the core of the National Gallery of Art. Mellon badly wanted a Giorgione which were as rare as they were expensive. Duveen was ready to acquire the Allendale Nativity in 1937 but wanted to present to Mellon with a scholarly consensus about its authenticity. He corralled a group of distinguished art historians who went on record that this was a true Giorgione. But Berenson’s judgment about Italian Renaissance Art was sovereign in America, and especially with Mellon. Duveen needed his seal of approval.
Berenson declined several times to do so, insisting as he always had that it was an early Titian. After Duveen purchased the work, he sent his assistant to I Tatti, Berenson’s estate in Fiesole. The assistant told the art historian they had bought it as a Giorgione and “we must sell it as a Giorgione.” Berenson would not budge. Finally he had his secretary send an astonishingly arrogant letter to Duveen which culminated in this statement of the dissolution of their partnership:
“B.B. no longer sees any reason for retaining his position as the advisor of Lord Duveen. It would be utterly below his self-respect, let alone his dignity, to be kept as a pet, and not as an unquestioned authority.” (Quoted from Rachel Cohen, Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade 2013, Yale University Press)
Ironically, Mellon died a few weeks after this letter. Duveen sold the painting to another great collector of Italian Renaissance art Samuel Kress who donated it to the National Gallery. Twenty years later, Berenson recanted attributing the picture “largely” to Giorgione. Yet Berenson’s protégé the distinguished Harvard professor and NGA curator Sydney J. Freedberg continued to insist as late of the 1990’s that the Adoration was by Titian.
In 2004, British playwright Simon Gray put Berenson and Duveen on stage in a play about the rupture of the friendship called The Old Masters. Set during the rise of Mussolini and the rumblings of war, this “barbarian at the gates” play in which these two men debate the connoisseurship of Venetian art sounds intriguing though I gather from the reviews that the production directed by Harold Pinter and staring Edward Fox as Berenson and Peter Bowles as Duveen was not a great success in London.
Where to start? What a last few days it has been. And indeed what a year we have all had since I last wrote a blog. Are we out of Covid yet? It certainly doesn’t feel like it. Mask on, mask off. 1 in 50 Brits have it – including two of my own colleagues. But if there is one thing you can rely on it’s that Seventh Art keep on doing what we do which, no matter what, is to make and distribute documentaries. We have navigated the choppy waters of the Coronavirus well enough, and have made some super films nevertheless – such as RAPHAEL REVEALED, FRIDA KAHLO, SUNFLOWERS, and, most recently, THE DANISH COLLECTOR. But, without question, our biggest achievement is that we finished a film that I genuinely thought at various times was impossible: MY CHILDHOOD, MY COUNTRY – 20 YEARS IN AFGHANISTAN.
What a wonderful stamp of approval. These are two excellent festivals, very much respected. The competition to get in is fierce and to actually win is simply fabulous.
It was also such a treat to actually watch the films with an audience. They loved it – indeed in Valladolid, they gave it a long standing ovation which left me rather embarrassed. Of course it not me that is moving people – it is Mir and his life story. My co-director Shoaib Sharifi and I certainly have had a very tough journey making this film – and there are others I have to point out in a moment who were absolutely essential – but it is Mir who has lived and struggled, persisted and laughed his way through two decades in that extraordinary, and extraordinarily tough, country.
I can think of various moments 2 or 3 years ago when I thought we simply had to cancel the whole thing. Barely any funding, difficulties in filming, and various other issues. A few deep breaths, a few last gasp attempts, and an extraordinary Head of Production in my wife Amanda who somehow just kept the whole thing moving steadily forwards.
Let me though point out a few others who were critical to this production. Without Amanda, as I mentioned, there would not have been the first film never mind the second nor third. Without Clive, the editor, I don’t know what we would have but it wouldn’t be this – or we’d have simply stopped. If anyone wins an individual award for this film, it should be him. Working with snatches of footage that would arrive from Kabul (and needed transcribing, translating, subtitling before he could even start with it) was such a task. But it was the ability to hold multiple stories in his hands, moving them steadily along with a cinematic feel, an emotional cloak and an intellectual drive, lightly delivered so our audience would not be overwhelmed or confused; that ability is what makes Clive a great editor.
Then I have to thank the one commissioning editor who had faith in this film. Jutta Krug from WDR Germany. I couldn’t get a UK broadcaster, nor (still) a US one. Even reliable friends from the past would not commit up-front when I needed them most. Now, of course, they are all showing it. That’s great but we needed your support 5 years ago… Jutta, though, was there from the start and never wavered – even when we went quiet and she had other film-makers banging on her door, including those with other Afghan ideas. But she always said: I trust Phil and his is the only Afghan film I am backing. I can’t tell you how much that meant and means. More than that, though, she was never content until the film was as good as she thought it could be. She watched every cut carefully and gave her notes with care and authority – even when it meant more hard work on our part. Jutta, without you, this film would never have won these two prizes this week and, more importantly, would not be bringing Mir’s life, his family’s life, and a unique inside look at Afghans and Afghanistan to a worldwide audience. I would also like to thank an ex-colleague of hers, Sabine Rollberg, who was also always a staunch defender of our work and I doubt this film would exist were it not for her steely moral core that motivated her to help us, against all sorts of obstacles. Broadcasters need to find such commissioning editors and support them through thick and thin. I would suggest it has become less true than it was 20 years ago. It’s a great shame because TV remains so hugely important in moulding the society we live in.
Mel Bradley has been such a brilliant colleague – always enthusiastic and insightful, and a wonderful help finding archive and asking the right questions. Angela and everyone at Seventh Art are simply top class – and time and again prove themselves with modesty and calm. Then the team at The Edit who oversaw the complicated post production, and Asa who did the score, and many others on this long journey who have helped. But, above all, I want to express profound thanks to one person: my co-director Shoaib Sharifi.
How he and I met is a remarkable story.
Little did I know that when I was first filming in Bamiyan, there was also a young Afghan filmmaker and journalist in town. Our paths never crossed, though I did once (by accident) film a car he was travelling in (a shot that is actually in the final film). It wasn’t until I hosted a screening in 2004 of the first film, ‘The Boy who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan’, at the superb Frontline Club in London that I met him. He stood up at the end of the film and said” ‘I know that family too’. And indeed he did. Some coincidence. I got talking to him and quickly saw in him something special. I am always questioning myself, and sometimes lack a bit of confidence in my own abilities, but I do sometimes make great choices in who I work with. This was one such moment: Shoaib has over the past 15 years proved himself again and again a wonderful film-maker, a wonderful friend and a wonderful human being. Without him there is no film. Simultaneously he rose to presenting and producing other films – including 2 BBC Panaromas about Afghanistan. More than that, he became first, the voice of BBC Persia (and thus recognised by just about every Afghan) and then the Kabul station chief for the BBC with hundreds working for him. He remains in Kabul with no intention of leaving the country he loves so dearly. It was such a shame he could not be in Cologne or Valladolid but there are no commercial flights out at the moment but I hope there will be other occasions for him to attend and receive the applause he deserves.
So, what does one do next? Well, my number one objective is to get a channel in the USA to show it. So maybe these awards will help. Let’s see.
As for Mir, well, he is staying calm in Kabul and adapting as best he can to the changed circumstances. Every day, little snippets of news emerge from Afghanistan and it is hard to form a complete picture just yet.
The other day, while recording my upcoming podcast series with my pal Laura, she mentioned a painting in the Louvre which I had no recollection of. She pointed out that it is in the same room as the Mona Lisa and that it is absolutely massive. I’m not one to feel embarrassed at not remembering a painting and I told her I had to look this one up. And I’ll be honest: even when I saw it in some of my reference books, it didn’t resonate. I simply had never come across it before.
The artist Veronese (1528 – 1588) sits with Titian and Tintoretto as one of the three great Venetian artists of the 16th century. He is known for his large-scale paintings – often for walls and ceilings. The Wedding Feast at Cana is one such painting. It was commissioned by the Benedictine monks at the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore who wanted to decorate their refectory wall with a painting of the sumptuous feast that Christ is reported to have attended at Cana. It is there that, famously, Christ turned water into wine. A miracle that many have wished they could replicate in the centuries thereafter…
The Benedictine monks lived on the island opposite Saint Mark’s, and this was at a time when Venice was an extremely wealthy empire. Hence the commissioning of great artworks. It was an empire based on its sea-faring expertise and its trading acumen. That vast income helped to build what is still today one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
In the painting, Galilee has become an Italian Renaissance townscape at the heart of which we see a very active and crowded wedding feast under way. Christ naturally sits at the centre alongside his mother and his disciples. Nearby sit Benedictine monks and local nobility. Many are no doubt portraits of actual people. The choice of depicting this miracle may owe something to Venice’s own experiences with wine and water. Throughout history water has been known to cause illness and people have chosen to drink beer or wine instead. Venice, as a small flat island with only sea-water canals, had a particular problem accessing fresh water and relied on collecting rainwater. Food, at the same time, again as throughout history, was a demonstration of wealth. The vast percentage of the world’s population were focused on the cultivation and preparation of food – and to have a lavish feast showed the world you were rich beyond most people’s dreams. Thus, the monks might have been trying to communicate the luxury that would come in Christ’s brotherhood. Veronese, I suspect, was also communicating the wealth of his native state.
Look again at the position and role of Christ. He seems almost incidental. Veronese seems almost more preoccupied with reflecting Venetian life and demonstrating what he and his studio were capable of. Look at the costumes carefully, the food, the perspectives, the faces. It is beautifully crafted. Look at the hustle and bustle of the servants he has clearly depicted in the background. Some of these servants – and maybe other spectators – look down from balconies, staircases and galleries in awe and excitement. There’s an energy to this painting which the monks may not have asked for, but Veronese couldn’t resist adding. These monks were expected to live much of their lives in silent contemplation, but look also at how Veronese has added musicians to the scene. As we showed in our film Vermeer and Music artists knew that just depicting instruments gave spectators a sub-conscious soundtrack to a painting. Again, it all adds to the energy of the work.
This was a Venice that considered itself one of the great empires, but like all empires it faced an inevitable decline. The wealth that it had accumulated through a virtual monopoly on spices was coming to an end. A long decline was now setting in. The final act were the military campaigns of Napoleon at the end of the 1700s. When Napoleon conquered, he brought behind him a huge train to not only support his military ambitions but his civilian ones too. That included art collectors – or, perhaps more accurately, thieves. They stole whatever they could. This painting – having been painted on a canvas (indeed at 10 x 7 metres it is one of the largest works ever painted on a canvas) was one of those that was packaged up and shipped back to France where it has graced the Louvre ever since.
Back in 2005, the BBC’s Radio 4 Today show organised a poll to discover ‘Britain’s favourite painting’. Or, let’s be fair, those Britons who listen to the Today show and could be bothered to vote. 118,000 people did indeed do so and the results were thus:
1st: The Fighting Temeraire – Joseph Mallord Turner with 31892 votes (which was 27.00% of the accepted votes)
2nd: The Hay Wain – Constable with 21711 votes (18.38%)
3rd: A Bar at the Follies Bergere – Manet with 13218 votes (11.19%)
4th: The Arnolfini Portrait – Jan van Eyck with 11298 votes ( 9.57%)
5th: Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy – Hockney with 8890 votes (7.53%)
6th: Sunflowers – Van Gogh with 8603 votes (7.28%)
7th: Rev Walker Skating – Raeburn with 8189 votes (6.93%)
8th place: The Last of England – Madox Brown with 5283 votes (4.47%)
9th place: The Baptism of Christ – Piero della Francesca with 5028 votes (4.26%)
10th place: Rake’s Progress – Hogarth with 3999 votes (3.39%)
Personally, I see some red flags there: where is Millais’ Ophelia? That painting once topped a similar poll. Nothing by Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and yet a Piero della Francesca in the top 10? Is he that popular? And forgive my ignorance perhaps but I have never heard of The Last of England by Ford Madox Brown. Nevertheless it is fascinating that Turner’s painting is in this (albeit flawed) poll: the number one choice. So let’s see if we can understand why.
Personally I love Turner’s works and this is no exception. We’ve yet to make a Turner Exhibition on Screen film, but the possibility has been floating around for a while, and I am still exceptionally proud of our episode of Great Artists based on his artwork. Turner’s narratives tap into my interest of English/British history. His scale and ambition are so frequently breath-taking. His technique is impressive and multi-layered, his use of colour peerless, his exploration of light powerful and moving.
I’ve worked on two films about Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar in our Great Commanders collection. I simply could not read enough about life in those “wooden worlds” – those fighting ships. I was brought up knowing about key battles in our history like Trafalgar and the more I researched it, the more incredible it became. The Temeraire was a key ship that day and now here it is being towed down the Thames to be taken to bits. It is the end of an era – the industrial revolution is well & truly under way. This is the steam age: the age of wind has passed. So there is plenty to peer at, plenty to place you in the late 1830s when history seemed to move so fast.
So the narrative is clear (which helps) and taps into our sense of ‘when Britain ruled the waves’. But the storytelling alone is not enough to explain why it is so popular. Look carefully at how Turner controls your eye. He makes sure you look first on the left at The Temeraire and then through brilliant use of diagonal lines and spots and streaks of white your eye follows a clear path across the painting until finally you are left looking at the fine detail of the building in the hazy distance. Do you see the Houses of Parliament and the clock tower (‘Big Ben’)? Turner was hugely influential on the impressionist painters that saw his work but what is interesting here is this mix of detail. Look again at The Temeraire itself – grand, ethereal, carefully rendered – and the sea and sky which is a sublime ‘impressionistic’ mix of colours and brushstrokes. This all makes it a beautiful and powerful painting that offers all sorts of visceral pleasures. Like a good film, it is a gripping story allied with high craft.
Whisper it quietly, but this surely can be called a masterpiece. Is it ‘the nation’s favourite’? Who knows. But is it one of the greats of British art? Yes. Turner loved it enough to never sell it so he rated it highly. There are dozens and dozens of contenders for favourite paintings awaiting a lunchtime pop-in to the London’s National Gallery (for those fortunate enough to stop by once their doors reopen shortly) but I suspect this piece will make a fair few visitor’s top 10 list.
Some of you in the UK may have visited the National Gallery to see the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition before Covid shut it down. If you did, I expect one painting that may have impressed you is her Judith and Holofernes from around 1620. Interestingly, this violent scene of this particular woman beheading this particular man had been a popular subject for artist through the centuries, not least the 16th when it was covered by, among others, Vasari, Cranach the Elder, Donatello, Giorgione and Caravaggio. It is Caravaggio’s version I urge you to look at today.
As outlined in the Book of Judith, Holofernes was the leader of an Assyrian Army in the 6th century BC who attempted to conquer Israel. Judith, a fair young widow, took it into her own hands to save the besieged town of Bethulia (possibly modern Meselieh in the Palestinian West Bank) by donning fine clothes, gaining access to his tent and filling the foolish soldier with wine. When the opportunity offered itself, she drew a sword and cut off his head. As a result of this murder, Israel was saved. By killing him, she prevented the Jewish people from having to worship the Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar. Thus, her act kept her people on the path of the one true God.
Such a narrative was highly topical at the time of Caravaggio. Repressing heresy and regaining control were central to Papal thought at this time, known as the Counter-Reformation. The Church had lost various territories including England and parts of Germany and France, who were rejecting the authority of Rome – and its taxes. The Church had decided to fight back.
By the latter half of the 16th century, the Church had militarised in order to reclaim what it felt was rightly its own. Religious orders like the Jesuits went out to convert – or kill. Even monarchs feared for their lives. Elizabeth I of England survived multiple assassination attempts; others were not so lucky. Judith became a torchbearer for such violent demonstrations of renewed Catholic dogmatism.
The era of the rebuilding of Rome – as we will see in our soon-to-be-released film on Raphael – was a direct product of this Counter-Revolution. The Popes were determined to show the renewed glories of the Catholic Church; they positioned themselves as the true heirs of the Roman Empire, a Christian Empire.
A young Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio arrived in Rome at this time. He was but a jobbing artist until his mid-20s, and then a painter of semi-nude boys for a cardinal who liked the company of young men. He started to be noticed and left the cardinal’s palace to get bigger commissions. In 1599 he was asked to paint this. The money was one thing, kudos another, but the drama and subtexts clearly appealed.
Here was a chance for an artist to depict beauty, horror and drama on a surface level, and the Church’s message at a deeper level. Caravaggio shows the moment of death – the shock, the scream, Judith’s own revulsion at what she has to do, alongside her maid’s similarly appalled gaze. It is all too realistic – and it is likely Caravaggio had been to at least one of the many decapitations that happened in Rome. This method of execution was a relatively frequent form of legal punishment in the papal State – with the heads then hung from the Castel Sant’Angelo. If there was already one thing that appealed to Caravaggio, it was pushing at the limits of how dramatic, horrific and affecting a painting could be.
One thing he did not do was paint Judith nude, as others before him had done. Caravaggio probably knew other artists were using the story to display their ability to paint the human form, but I think he was more interested in probing the reality of a situation. Indeed he is known for having used ‘ordinary’ people as models. It has been suggested that his model for Judith was his mistress or a local prostitute. One wonders if Holofernes is perhaps a self-portrait. So we have these many possible layers upon layers of meaning and insinuation… It is a truly fascinating work of art.
Caravaggio’s life was one full of drama; knives and swords play as much a part in his biography as they do in his paintings. Thus, once again, biographical knowledge helps explain the artwork… and the artwork helps explain the biography.
Some time ago, when we were making the series Great Artists, one of the episodes focussed on the French artist Jacques-Louis David. I’d first become aware of him when making an earlier film about Napoleon due to his 1800-1801 painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps, which is as fine a piece of propaganda as you’ll ever see. Where there was, in fact, a mule, here you see a fine stallion. I became interested in the artist – and what a life story he has.
What an extraordinary time that was to be a leading establishment painter in France. David straddled the revolution and then the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. Next time you are able to visit the Louvre, seek out his works: they are monumental in so many ways. But it’s actually a painting now in Brussels (although a decent copy by Serangeli is also at the Louvre) from 1793 that is the subject of this latest brief commentary. It is called The Death of Marat.
It is an archetypical history painting – indeed, it shows an actual event and was painted in the days and weeks after it happened. It is perhaps the most famous painting of the French revolution.
So first, the history: the French Revolution of 1789 was a bloody affair and its violence increased and spread throughout the early 1790s. Joseph Guillotine’s invention was but one example of the torture and death that accompanied the fall of the monarchy and the chaos that ensued. Born in 1748, Jacques-Louis David had a wealthy upbringing, despite his father having died as a result of a duel when Jacques-Louis was 9. Notwithstanding that, by his early 50s and the height of revolution, he had become an ardent rebel, part of a group called the Jacobins that included Danton and Robespierre. During what is known, for good reason, as ‘The Terror’, one of David’s friends, the publisher, journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat was murdered by a female assassin, Charlotte Corday. Murdered, as you can see, in his bath – with Corday’s letter of introduction in his hands. She later claimed that she blamed Marat for countless deaths and killing him was killing one man to save 100,000. David, on the other hand, held him in great esteem, thinking him a great speaker and thinker. David had been in that very room only 24 hours earlier – the room where his friend is now depicted taking his last breath.
It is thus a painting of a murder that has just happened, a raw painting, the vulnerability of someone in their bath being stabbed to death, almost Christ-like at a time when religion had been banned, with the open gash visible to all. Marat apparently was in his bath because the cold water eased a terrible itchy skin disease that he suffered from. Perhaps Corday knew that Marat would be bathing and helpless – but it still feels a brutal and defenceless way to die. Although the knife is on the floor, in reality it was left in his chest, and Corday herself did not apparently try to flee – though David chooses not to paint her in the scene.
The painting thus has all the drama of a great novel and it is fascinating historically. But as an artwork? Well, actually I think this neo-classical work is indeed a very fine painting. There is something of Michelangelo about it. The composition, the detail, the drama, the lighting… all are highly skilled and exemplary storytelling. It may not be accurate – no unsightly skin rashes on view for example – but it tells a gripping story with great craft.
By 1794 the Jacobins themselves were on the run – David only just survived by renouncing his association with them and, having been imprisoned in the Louvre (the former royal palace), was fortunate that his skills as a painter were recognised by a young Corsican army general by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte. He was released and the rest, as they say, is history.
One of our first Exhibition on Screen films was dedicated to one of the most famous paintings in the world, the rather enigmatic Girl with a Pearl Earring. The film’s director David Bickerstaff and I spent a good deal of time at the Mauritshuis in the Hague, where the painting lives, and in Delft nearby trying to learn as much as we could about the work and its artist. Little correspondence survives from the 17th century life of Johannes Vermeer but one can still piece together his life – not least by looking carefully at the 35 or 36 paintings of his that have survived.
Girl with a Pearl Earring, and the Mauritshuis, were certainly worth a film on their own account but when the National Gallery of London informed us they were doing an exhibition entitled ‘Vermeer and Music’ we jumped at the chance to look again – and in a different way – at this extraordinary man. Many of his artworks are interior views with female protagonists but almost a third of his surviving artworks also reference music in some way – and it is fascinating to ask ‘why?’.
Of those dozen works, A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal is a particular favourite of mine. It is actually one the National Gallery in London owns – though it is not always on show. What we see is a young woman seated presumably at home in front of the family virginal. On the left is a viola da gamba, with a bow on top of it strings. On the virginal is a landscape (a painting within a painting) and on the wall another painting – the one on the wall is actually known to have been owned by Vermeer’s mother-in-law and is today on show at the MFA in Boston.
The painting was made when Vermeer was around 38, married with many children and working hard to maintain a business as an artist. Little is known about who commissioned his works, etc, but he does seem to have worked slowly and that reduced his output. Nevertheless, this work would appear to have been created at the same time as A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal so perhaps they were a twin commission from some wealthy Delft businessman.
Look again at the painting – there is so much carefully rendered detail. The virginal, for example, is exquisite. Keyboard instruments like this often feature in his works. These harpsichords – or virginals (maybe thus called as they sound like young girls or (according to another theory) because they were often played by nuns lauding the Virgin Mary) – were common in well-to-do homes and would sit on side-tables or on legs. Learning to play a keyboard was something young women of a certain class were expected to do – indeed right up to the 19th century. (A million pianos a year were built in Paris in the mid 1800s, for example). This young woman is well-dressed and well-presented. Alongside her is a viola da gamba – this perhaps suggests another member of the household who would know how to play it and, of course, is a reminder to us that music in the evening was a key source of entertainment in the pre-television world. Moreover, the viewer of paintings like this would know what these instruments sounded like and would almost ‘hear’ them while regarding the work. Vermeer is offering a soundtrack to accompany his painting, even if the soundtrack is in the viewers’ mind only.
And an additional word to the wise. Vermeer was not averse to having a bit of cheeky, slightly ribald, fun in his paintings too. Indeed, it’s a recurrent theme in Dutch art at this time – and at a time when naturally people were more open about bodily functions and sexual desire than we actually are today. The viola’s shape represents a female form – and the position of the bow, and indeed its angle, is not an accident. Look at the young woman’s slightly blushed cheeks and wry smile – is there more on her mind than a musical score? What at first glance may seem a staid, formal representation of a young woman practicing her music is, I would contend, a little bit more than that.
And one final thought: some have argued that his works are so detailed that he must have used mirrors or similar to them copy from. I’m not convinced – nor are these claiming to be accurate representations of events in actual rooms. Often in his paintings the perspective is simply impossible. No, these scenes are made up and created in his mind. In this case, maybe the young woman sat first, then he may have added the viola, added the paintings, added the curtain. In short, never take anything for granted in Vermeer’s work. Things are rarely as they seem at first glance. You need to look and look again to really appreciate his genius.