I recently read a wonderful article about one of my favourite films, Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The  critic, Peter Bradshaw centres his discussion of the film on the use of the colour red, for obvious reasons. Bradshaw’s analysis interested me because for some time I have been aware of how my own responses to film have become increasingly concentrated on the picture in front of me, not the story being told. Recently, I watched Terrence Malick’s The New World, wallowing in the sensuous imagery, the endless pictorial tableaux. In The Thin Red Line, another Malick masterpiece, I can skip through the (albeit riveting) military action to watch, over and again, the billowing grass on the mountain or the hypnotic swimming scenes. And how else to explain my love of David Lynch’s oft-maligned Mulholland Drive, other than by pointing out the film’s surface brilliance and Lynch’s unique gift for portraying the dark corners of rooms? Therefore, I enjoy the cowboy scene, but the scenes of the creepy Hollywood house enthrall me, with their intimidating shadows and deep, gloomy colours. Is the film’s narrative ridiculous? Like I care.

With Bradshaw’s article in my mind, last week I stood in the Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam, staring at Vermeer’s The Kitchen Maid. Many years had passed since I last looked at this picture, and, as so often when in confrontation with an iconic work of art, my thoughts and feelings rushed and swirled. Once I had become accustomed to the ache of love, I was able to really look at the picture and, eventually, to think about what my eye was drawn towards. Because, shockingly, what kept attracting my gaze were the basket and the pail hanging behind the woman, and the texture of the walls, and the whitewash, flakier under the window than on the wall at the rear of the room. The perspective lines of the window emphasise the pull of the eye, or at least my eyes, towards that place, just as Piero della Francesca’s La Flagellazione should command one’s gaze towards the figure of Christ standing, like Vermeer’s dark corner of a room, to the left of the picture, and in the background.Vermeer the Kitchen Maid

Piero employs the elegant classical architecture as sublime signposting, directing our attention to the picture’s moral centre. In Het Straatje, hung alongside the Kitchen Maid, Vermeer’s chimney pots and rooflines draw my eye to the obscure foliage that climbs up against the gable end of the house furthest into the background, above and beyond the other focal point of the picture, the leaning woman down the passage. That foliage, dull in comparison with the beautiful creeper in the left foreground, is an outdoors dark corner as mysterious and unyielding as the behind the radiator darknesses of Lynch’s Eraserhead (and indeed those radiators reappearing in Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive). Het Straatje, viewed there, and in a room of merciful tranquility on a dull January afternoon, presents a quite amazing spectacle, confounding the very presumptions of picture viewing, leading the eye into banal areas, the eye somehow endlessly readjusting to take in the different elements – the step gables that lead to nowhere, the combination of open and closed windows that. altogether, reveal very little, the part-completeness of the view, whereby nothing is portrayed fully, the unemphatic display of the working women, each as important and unimportant as the next – yet never fully settling on  anything, so that the focus is both complete and blurred. We know what we are looking at, but not what we are looking for. The picture stands, equal in power, in dramatic counterpoise to Piero’s clear vision of Christ.Piero,_flagellazione_11

Except, of course, when I last looked at La Flagellazione, having rushed in to be the first and only viewer in the room at the gallery’s morning opening, I could not pull my gaze from the sumptuous costume of the central figure on the right of the picture, in a most glorious and unforgettable red.

DQ 2011

Vermeer’s Het Straatje

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