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vermeer's wager

29 september 2018

Pascal's Wager advises you to bet your soul on the existence of God (because if you lose, you've got nothing to lose). Vermeer's Wager is more complicated (starting with the fact that Vermeer never spelled it out). As Ivan Gaskell defines it in his fascinating, painstaking book, Vermeer's Wager is about communication. Vermeer bet that he could communicate definite ideas using depictions of the world around him; and he bet that he could convey those ideas wordlessly. But it's still not clear (to me) whether Vermeer won.

Gaskell advances a neoPlatonist reading of a single Vermeer painting, which he calls Woman Standing at a Virginal, now in the National Gallery in London. Gaskell sees the painting as embodying "Ficino's conception of the artist's role in inspiring love through beauty, thereby leading the soul towards ideal forms" (72). Thus, the meaning and method of Woman Standing at a Virginal become central to the Wager. Vermeer bets that he can lead the viewer's soul toward ideal forms through the beauty of his painting.

Gaskell's reading of Woman Standing at a Virginal takes up only a chapter of this 10-chapter book, though. He immediately qualifies it with skepticism about the possibility of "reading" a painting.

A suspicion of linguistic hegemonism leads me to be very cautious with regard to the term reading when applied to a visually apprehensible object. It is, however, a useful term, though my use of it is by analogy not with texts – as might be the case in some studies – but rather with weather forecasting or stargazing. I read a painting much as I might read the sky. (26)
We may think at times that a painter "writes" to us unambiguously, using what images directly mean or the way he or she aligns those images. But it would be so much simpler if he or she just wrote us a note. Images are by nature much fuzzier than words, and all the fuzzier if they are 350 years old and nobody commented at the time about the "language" in which they were couched. Do art historians have some special knack for recovering lost artistic "languages?" But that's a knack that art historians would be wise to disavow, especially since they so often disagree.

Nevertheless, there's something more to a Vermeer than just splotches of color. (Or is there? Remember how in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, the writer Bergotte is obsessed with the "petit pan de mur jaune" in Vermeer's View of Delft: not for what the little bit of yellow wall means, but for the sheer visual wonder of its existence.)

But let's accept that sometimes there are language-like meanings in painting. Woman Standing at a Virginal, for instance, includes a painting within a painting. It hangs on a wall behind the woman, whose head partly obscures it. The inset painting features a Cupid (he must be Cupid, he's a little naked curly-haired baby with a bow). So the painting must mean something something Love. But the Cupid is holding up a little card with nothing written on it, and here our troubles begin.

Gaskell reads the blank card (or tablet, or indeed perhaps a painting-within-a-painting-within-a-painting, though a painting of nothing) as emblematic of the over-plenitude of visual experience, the nothing that means everything. But here he departs with interpretive tradition, because others have wanted to see the interior Cupid as more specific. Given the thousands of Cupids in Western art, it is inevitable that one of them potentially known to Vermeer would be holding up a card. And indeed there is a 1608 engraving by a certain Otto van Veen, where a Cupid holds up a card showing the number 1, and treads on a board with plural numbers written on it. The meaning in van Veen's image – aided greatly, of course, by the presence of even a few numerals – is "a lover ought to love only one."

Gaskell quotes the catalog of the great Vermeer exhibition of the 1990s as saying that "contemporary viewers would have recognized the iconographic source" (46) of the Cupid in van Veen's engraving. But Gaskell isn't so sure, and it's easy to see why. Academics have a way of thinking that any artist or audience knows as much about cultural history as they do. But think of all the in-jokes and Easter eggs you probably missed in the last comic-book movie you saw. Then imagine the situation of a 17th-century art customer, even a pretty savvy one, and the erudition you're assuming from him by speculating that he's au courant with the œuvre of Otto van Veen. Think of how erudite you're believing the painter himself to be. And for that matter, if Vermeer had wanted to remind the viewer to "love only one," why didn't he just paint a "1" on the card?

We're back to something something Love. And Gaskell doesn't take us much further. Woman Standing at a Virginal is clearly about Art and about Love (a picture, a Cupid), and about artifice and the indoors and music and fine clothing. The viewer's eye goes to the woman, who's looking back at the viewer as she cryptically plays the virginal (the keyboard is hidden). Then the eye goes up to the Cupid, who looks back out of a part of the painting that represents painting itself. Hence Gaskell's connection to Ficino ("inspiring love through beauty"). But hence too his undogmatic reading of the picture as one might read the weather.

But what do we mean by "the picture?" Much more of Vermeer's Wager is taken up with this meta-question than with the meaning of the painting, or indeed the Wager itself. For purposes of discussing paintings, art historians and their readers often assume that "the picture" is an unframed flat plane of color that we can scale larger or smaller at our whim. That plane has no frame, it has no gallery context – because it has no physical reality. It exists as a transparency, a slide, an illustration in an art book, a postcard: overwhelmingly, after photography and Walter Benjamin, as a copy.

The picture now exists, just 18 years after Gaskell wrote, pre-eminently as a .gif or .jpg. The idealized notion of a painting as an infinitely reproducible, infinitely rescalable image has been realized in spades. We now have the contents of all the world's art museums a couple of clicks away. This is both great and awful for art history, but more than anything else, it's inescapable.

The picture also exists as a commodity, even when it is "perpetually" held by a great and powerful museum like the National Gallery. The British people own Woman Standing at a Virginal, and have forbidden themselves to de-accession (and thus to sell) the painting. Nevertheless, Gaskell observes, we can't detach any art object from the marketplace. The supply of Vermeers in the world is extremely limited, and none is likely to go up for auction soon. But if a new one is identified, it becomes a very valuable property, as has happened with the questionably-attributed Santa Prassede (discussed by Gaskell) and the Young Woman Seated at the Virginals (which has gone for $30 million or more since Gaskell wrote, and is still in private hands, though touring the world's museums). This commodity matrix means that reading a painting can never be a disinterested activity, at least at some remove.

Gaskell's gamut of topics can become digressive, as when he skewers an Indiana art museum for displaying a donor's hand-tooled handguns – a sharp little essay, but far afield from Vermeer. But he is on more relevant ground when comparing art museums to hospitals. Not just as institutional structures – big buildings on expensive real estate, staffed by experts, funded by donors – but in terms of their social function. Gaskell argues that the museum too plays a therapeutic role. We go to museums to be made whole, and unless we are broken in very simple ways amenable to medical technology, museums may be better at making us whole than hospitals are.

By the end of Vermeer's Wager, I am convinced that art and museums are even more important and more complicated than my art-obsessed self thought before. But as I said, I am still not sure about the Wager. Even Gaskell, as we've seen, has to start from the admission that "accurate denotative abstraction is not directly available to the visual artist" (24). It may be that the best that Vermeer or any bettor can do is to succeed in posing problems for his audience.

A couple of summers ago, I went considerably out of my way to stand for half an hour, in Vienna, in front of The Art of Painting. This picture, presumably very important to the painter and to his widow, since they kept it while they sold many others, is just as enigmatic as Woman Standing at a Virginal. In both, as Gaskell notes, the model plays a crucial, if mysterious role. In Woman Standing, her eyes are locked on ours; in Art of Painting, they're downcast; yet in both, the sense that she knows something inaccessible is foregrounded. One main difference between the two paintings, is that in the Vienna picture she is a conscious, costumed model: a metaphor for the muse, not a metonym for a Dutch housewife. Another is that, in Vienna, we also see the painter, or rather his back, as he tries to capture something (something not very successful, it seems) of that unfathomable model's appearance. (Not her face, though; her headdress.) I came away healthier but I can't say I received much communication from Jan Vermeer of Delft, and not for want of supplementary research before or after. Vermeer's Wager may be a losing proposition, but one that artists are forced to make, anyway.

Gaskell, Ivan. Vermeer's Wager: Speculations on art history, theory, and museums. London: Reaktion, 2000.