The Death of the Symbol

John Haber
in New York City

Jan Vermeer: A Woman Reading a Letter

Like most travelers, I took in Dresden's magnificently restored Kemper Palace in half a day. Raphael's Sistine Madonna was again a death-defying apparition rather than calendar art. By late afternoon, however, I could no longer quite summon up the official history of Western painting. Were both Titian and Albrecht Dürer the High Renaissance? The dark intimacy of Titian's The Tribute Money felt worlds apart from a German Renaissance calm, clumsy, and fastidious hausfrau who mothers Christ, not to mention 30 rooms away. And many more rooms were to come. Jan Vermeer's A Woman Reading a Letter (Kemper Palace, Dresden, 1657)

Echoes of the classroom are only fair. The two institutions—scholarship and the museum—grew up together. Both objectify the private judgments of collectors. Both define styles and yet imply common ground among all periods, in the simply beautiful. No wonder bare walls are giving way to explanatory labels. I think of my work as an extended explanatory label itself! (I have also offered the docent tour to end all docent tours.)

It is an old debate: is art best defined as symbol making or as something that resists interpretation? Does its allegory have a subtext? Has contemporary art triumphed over old narratives with "pure painting," or is it telling new stories entirely? Do true artists never explain their work, or are they the only ones with the right to try? Both sides beg for the vast institution called art history, and neither side is ready to ask how uniform and coherent that institution really is.

I want to make the question more concrete in a context of real history. I want to follow my own adjustments as I faced the mutest artist of all. Maybe my favorite work from that visit is one of the city's two by Jan Vermeer. It shows a woman reading a letter.

A letter

So little seems to be going on—a woman alone in a private room, few props, no motion, no overt emotion, the letter itself a slim ribbon of light. Vermeer makes no fuss about what she might be reading and why it deserves to be painted. He seems to lavish all the subtleties of a great colorist and observer on next to nothing. He captures only the nuances of reflected light, the edges of a stark room of indefinite dimensions, and a surface almost compulsively divided by a window pane and green curtain. Its implied grid calls to mind the explicit cast-iron grid of the window.

I kept looking for meaning in Vermeer's gesture. And I kept returning to the same characteristics—reflected light, intricate but confined spaces, and the slow movement of the eye across a flat surface. In Vermeer's Milkmaid from the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, a blemish in the wall captures the light. In room after room of his 1996 Washington retrospective, as in loans from the Mauritshuis in 2013, they have filled a museum with clarity and light.

No wonder he is known as the painter's painter, the artist who most avoids associations with the transient and the insignificant. For many modern admirers the word anecdotal, mere storytelling, is an insult. A Dutch interior by another fine artist, Gerrit Dou, could indeed be the anecdotal version. I can enjoy it, but I could stare far longer at Vermeer's warm, even light as it slips from window to wall to her face, then back again to her reflection in the window.

To compliment The Remains of the Day, a movie that he had hoped to direct, Mike Nichols has described how the screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, "filled us in completely." Unlike earlier scripts by other hands, not to mention the book, hers was "clearer and more accessible." (Maybe it should have been called The Remains of the Novel.) Vermeer, I can hope, would not have enjoyed that kind of Hollywood tribute.

Yet I think anyone can sense immediately what has absorbed the woman and just parted her lips. Surely it is a love letter, and this is the drama of a young woman on the verge of a larger world. I want to say something about how so much meaning emerges so very quietly. How do viewers know all this, and does it amount to the same kind of symbolism in more obviously narrative or religious art? Is it fair to speak of it as meaning or symbol at all?

A disturbance from outside

I am pretending to find text that Vermeer hides from view. It may not be by a lover at all. Sometimes a gentleman caller just called, leaving intimate written confessions to women, as in the structure of early novels.

If I am wrong, it might even not make much difference, as long as the subject of the letter is personal, preferably a man. At least my idea is plausible. The love letter was a popular theme in painting, if not as much as for French tastes of the following century. A painting in San Diego by Gabriel Metsu, say, shows a man delivering one himself.

Either way, this is a drama. One sees it in a small red curtain flung casually aside over the window or a tapestry threatening to upset a tray of apples. Paul Cézanne agonized the same way over the fall and mass of a white tablecloth until its peaks assumed the majesty of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Vermeer calls for single-minded focus on that one figure, and amid an amazing range of light tones, the letter is easily the brightest white. One feels the woman's quiet attention, stabilized on canvas by the dark pyramid of her lower body, but her eyelids are nearly closed. Somehow, the contents of the letter have presented a decisive choice.

A green curtain in the foreground lets on just what choice. After the great Raphael a dozen or so rooms down the hall, so far beyond Raphael's early years, it does not take much imagination to see a drawn curtain offering a revelation. Even in the nineteenth century, trompe l'oeil can never avoid an association between vision and the visionary. Frederic Edwin Church, the finest painter of the Hudson River School in America, turned one celebrated work into spectacle by exhibiting it in a darkened room, curtained and edged by real plants. The curtain heightens and signals the illusion, asks that one reflect on it, and acknowledges control of the master dramatist behind the scenes, pulling the curtain strings.

When conventions are just taking shape, they have their greatest weight. Vermeer was among the forerunners of photography, for he was to base several works on images created in a camera obscura, a dark room with a pinhole that projects an image from the outside upon a facing wall. The tapestry piled in front at the left suggests the ambitions of an illusionist, and Vermeers recycles his few studio props to create a still life that will enhance each painting. At least one artist I can name is still playing with those props to talk about women.

Also at this time, the stage was adopting conventions that this century still recognizes. The indoor set bared by a curtain was no longer, as in even Raphael's late years, a setting only for private court performances. It had replaced the open-air theaters of the Elizabethans, too.

So a curtain means form, skill, and illusion, but it takes one's breath away too, for it announces that a vision has entered and a drama has begun to take its course. In Vermeer's time, it would also have said a little about the plot of the drama. For one thing, the theater was beginning to come with the presumption that it should teach a lesson. By the seventeenth century, the sentimental tale with a clear moral would be all but mandatory. So Vermeer's painting should present a choice with moral consequences for the woman—and onlooker.

The curtain also hints of the painting's subject. In Dutch homes, short of space and largely without doors between rooms, a curtain provided what privacy there was. A curtain defined a personal space. That rumpled tapestry may cover a bed or bedroom table. Something from the outside, something carried in a letter or even in sunlight, has disturbed her sleep.

Vermeer's women

I am talking about a seventeenth-century girl just on the threshold of seduction or marriage. Something has entered along with the sunlight and letter, flung aside the small, red curtain above the window, and asked to enter even into her bed. Her downcast eyes direct a viewer's own into the painting and into her very being, just like the reflected light that points into the room. To her belong the dark, well-defined forms in the lower third of the painting. Beyond her lie the work's sole blank shape, the hazy rectangle of open window, and just as undefined a life in the outside world, which in a traditional society has always meant a man's world.

For a woman of those days a closed interior is quite literally a part of her separation from the world and therefore figuratively an extension of her virginity. (One can see why Vermeer painted at least one Young Woman Seated at the Virginals.) Conversely, until only recently the word confinement meant pregnancy. Either way, she has a problem. I looked again at the pyramid of her skirt. Real fruit is almost exactly bounded by its front.

Baroque theater took this kind of emotional baggage in stride, and the Dutch loved moral examples. In the previous century, Pieter Bruegel the Elder had filled a large landscape with illustrated sayings, some of them, like a man trying to catch an eel, still slippery in English now. By the time of Vermeer, paintings of sexual transgressions were popular, and the genre had staying power. Early Frans Hals has his share of dissolution and eels as well. Jan Steen, a specialist in them, still has a standing among Dutch art historians that can easily puzzle the rest of the world, including me.

Vermeer shared that taste for narrative. An early work shows virgin goddesses. In another painting in Dresden, a plump, drunken woman revels in the man reaching over her chest. Flemish paintings of the time would have thrown in some bare female flesh. Vermeer substitutes a rich tapestry, probably the same one in front of the woman holding a letter.

Vermeer keeps returning to women awakening to adulthood. They all struggle to manage their sexuality, self-esteem, and some dubious male propositions. A woman at a window raises her pearls or turns her gaze toward the warm, enveloping light. Another woman hides her face in a drink. I do much the same at parties now. In a later painting, a man again leans over a woman's shoulder. She looks out, toward the viewer, with a grin somewhere between dazed, ill at ease, and inane. I caught them all on that vacation to Germany.

Vermeer the postmodern

Postmodern criticism likes to look for moral theater. It places art in context of everyday life and popular culture. The Dutch painters of Vermeer's day, as well as other artists, have been linked with prints and proverbs. For writers such as Svetlana Alpers (on Dutch painting), T. J. Clark (on Impressionism), and a number of impressive feminist historians, art becomes a provocative social document about women creating themselves as subject while subject to a male gaze. Reacting to the preinterpretive purity of older esthetics, critics are recasting art as text.

Maybe Vermeer is the ultimate postmodernist. His women hold a letter the way a saint might hold the instrument of her doom or her miracle. Like a saint, too, she is left with the same demand to think about her virtue and her fate. Religious painters had used props to evoke texts that had already become canonical. Vermeer creates an artistic canon from a fictitious text and makes that text emblematic of his art.

Still, do critics recognize how unusual Vermeer is, even among Delft painters? Do they accept the visual complexity of any painter? Vermeer's narrative resources point back to seeing and painting. Like the curtain, the spare props direct one's eye to the painted surface. There are no donors, no stock figures, and no room for sentimentality—neither the kind that identifies with the woman's experience nor the kind that moralizes over it. One simply shares it. The painting's primary carriers of meaning are nothing more than light and space.

The textual critic knows all that, too. Historians have described the elevation of individual experience in the sixteenth century. They have related it to middle-class houses and a new market for paintings. They have linked light with mental reflection, complex interiors with mental space. I want next to trace Vermeer's use of light and space back to the Renaissance.

The parallel development of oil painting and individualism is not going to lose its mystery without a struggle. I want to show that elements of Vermeer's art become "pure painting" only by first being symbol. It says something that both he and Piero della Francesca became modern only slowly. And yet light and space carry Vermeer's meaning only by refusing traditional religious values as symbol, like the chapel without a religion for Mark Rothko.

Vermeer's light and the Renaissance

Madonna in a Church by Jan van Eyck, another treat for me in Berlin and copied in later Renaissance diptychs, is barely 12 inches high, but it evokes the hushed recesses of a Gothic cathedral. Light floods the airy spaces and gathers in pools on the floor. Tiny candles burn near the alter, where angels sing. Within the nave, and all but two-thirds its size, the Madonna stands with her child. Still another light source, a more gentle light, illuminates her face.

Here van Eyck uses light to create a remarkable interplay between a woman and an interior, much as Vermeer would two hundred years later. He suppresses obvious perspectival clues such as the pillar behind Mary, the church doors at left, or anatomical sense. In that way, he challenges the identification of space with plain drawing, just as Vermeer does by softening the corner of the room behind the open window. Bruges's leading painter a generation or so after van Eyck, Hans Memling, did everything he could to suppress such challenges. Jan van Eyck's Madonna in a Church (Staatliche Museen, Berlin, c. 1425)

The Madonna obviously did not walk in, at least not without stooping more than would be dignified for the mother of God. A copy a century later, by Joos van Cleve, in fact "corrects" the scale, to naturalize her appearance. Here, she is miracle, vision, and symbol. Doctrine had identified her with the Church, and in van Eyck the Virgin's great bulk, delicate features, and S-shaped sway call to mind long-traditional iconic images.

Doctrine referred to Mary's virginity as a closed garden, like Eden. In other church interiors, van Eyck even works images of the fall of man into the architecture, just as an Italian annunciation might break the illusion by depicting Adam and Eve in a garden outside Mary's portico. Leaving them out here, however, does more than make a very strange scene naturalistic. It also stresses the idea of human redemption, which is one reason that the infant appears. The myth of a virgin birth turns out also to underlie that glorious light.

A classic scholarly exposition of "Light as Form and Symbol," by Millard Meiss, came as something of a revelation itself. Northern Renaissance painters were already known for their glowing light, miraculous detail, and density of symbolism. Those features were contrasted with the perspective drawing, clear anatomical forms, and bolder action of Italian painting. In his essay on van Eyck's painting, Meiss (also a distinguished interpreter of fourteenth-century art in Siena), managed to make those features seem inseparable.

Meiss pointed out that an altar always faces east. Therefore van Eyck must have painted strong beams of northern light, which are quite impossible in the northern hemisphere. The light on Mary's face is from nature, and candles over the angel's mass might be from man, but the powerful light entering through the open door must emanate from God. The artist is painting Mary's reception of God, which texts had compared to the passage of light through glass.

What is important to me now is that complex affinity of direct and reflected light, interior space, and a young woman's experience. Meiss's essay might well have been called "Space as Form and Symbol," for in it light and space are one. In Vermeer they connect a man's world and a woman's private chamber—and those apples beside her dress.

Vermeer had other Renaissance models, too, for painting inner sensibility. In composition the Dresden painting is closest not to van Eyck, but to annunciation panels. In one by Fra Angelico, a closed, divided interior again parallels the garden of Eden shown at the rear. Here too, the woman bends patiently toward God's multiply reflected beam of light as it enters from the left and reaches to her face. The similarity to the Vermeer in Dresden is remarkable, but Vermeer has added something only hinted ever at before—the avoidance of narrative.

He has taken the paradox of a medieval icon in a visually precise world, heightened the hints of sexuality and self-reflection, and turned van Eyck's stillness and refusal of overt action against him. From hidden religious doctrine, Vermeer moves to the secrets of the heart. From the experience of a sacred figure, he moves to the sacredness of experience.

Tales that cannot be spoken or unspoken

So what is Vermeer doing? Has he drawn on archaic icons so as to reject the morals and realism of his time? Or has he carried their secular spirit further than anyone had imagined? Has he twisted the conventions of narrative inward? Or has he rejected them to convey a fuller experience? Is he classical, modern, postmodern, or simply the best expression of another culture? There is no one answer.

Vermeer affirms the postmodern idea that all art is a kind of writing, but he also demands that painting stop taking words like text casually as a metaphor for artistic symbolism. The origin of art is not metaphysical but historical. Its techniques change from Italy to the north, from the Renaissance to today, or from forgotten Dutch genre painters to Vermeer.

Structuralism has helped critics see symbol-making behind every human activity. So does an older standard known as iconography. This interpretation treats a symbol as a historical possibility, based on the expectations of artists and patrons in a religious world. Both approaches see symbolism as a basic human need. But neither is my point of view. I can activate the modern and postmodern only by turning them against themselves—and against each other.

I began with two definitions of art, as symbol making and as the sole artificial object that resists interpretation. Both are correct because they are interdependent. Artist's expression needs interpretation, and analysis presumes an instinctive beauty. The beauty of a Vermeer hinges on an outspoken refusal to speak its own language. Roland Barthes described tragedy as the myth of the failure of myth. Vermeer's meaning is the myth of the failure of meaning.

By exploiting the symbolic resources of the day, an artist can pose a situation and invite others to participate. Vermeer uses the very same resources to refuse to tell a story or to pass judgment. It is exactly that mastery of invitation and refusal that allows him or Rembrandt—or many an unsung painter—to get inside art and experience, to seem at times even to be painting love.

A postscript: another lover

Siri Hustvedt practices an impressionistic style of art history. In her 2007 paperback, Mysteries of the Rectangle, she plays the amateur, finding deep meanings in painting. The practice has long gone out of fashion, except on televised series. It resembles Robert Hughes without his massive ego and derogation of art—or Simon Schama without the imaginative leaps and erudition. It can, however, still be entertaining.

In Hustvedt's case, it is, but the amateur stance can also be infuriating. She spends some time on the mystery of Giorgione's The Tempest, starting as ever with her own surprise and concluding with surprisingly little. She had never anticipated the painting's small size and the resulting intimacy. She had forgotten the man at left. Contemplating the work's mysterious subject matter for a chapter, she concludes simply that one may never know, and the painter probably intended it that way.

The writer's foregrounding of the writer rather than artist, however, has a sophisticated point as well. Hustvedt's theme is the rectangle, the painting's frame. Peering through it makes an encounter with the work a kind of voyeurism, and from there it is only a short step to acknowledging the very private wishes of Giorgione's patron. Imagine the same act of regard in the man's distant gaze and the woman's naked body, although—or perhaps because—they will never meet.

This is pleasant and safely Postmodern but not too provocative criticism. One accepts that it restores the old metaphor of a painting as a window onto reality or the imagination. One gets the joke about the male gaze without having to sound feminist in confronting the male aesthete. One accepts the frame as an absolute division and not, as Jacques Derrida argued, a place both in the work and the world able to unsettle both. One does not have to pursue Derrida's idea to further disjunctions with the painting either.

For another example, Hustvedt turns to the most careful observer of all, Jan Vermeer, with his woman raising her pearls toward the window. Hustvedt does not compare her window to the real frame. She plays the clumsy sleuth again, comparing her to Mary's acceptance of God's radiance in an Annunciation. He stumbles one by one upon similar motifs in the Italian Renaissance, as if it did not define the whole subject. Finally, a chance discovery at the Met makes it all clear, thanks to a work by Jan van Eyck or Petrus Christus.

And that is why I mention the book, to pat myself on the back. I compared Vermeer's women ten years ago here to van Eyck's Madonna in a Church. I asked one to see this as part of how Vermeer conveys light as both medium and meaning, the woman as private and longing for the world, her sexuality as pure and impure, and the painting as time bound and an object of contemplation. I do not claim it as much more than a truism, but I did get there first.

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The Web can point one to All About Johannes Vermeer, including what little is known of his life, and to a guided tour of his Delft. Mysteries of the Rectangle, by Siri Hustvedt, was first published in hardcover in 2006 by Princeton Architectural Press.


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