Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, I bummed around Europe a lot. Like most Brits headed to the Continent, I started out at one of the northern Channel ports — Dieppe, Dunkirk, Bouloge, Ostend. In my memory at least, the weather was always cloudy or raining, there was a damp chill in the air, and the buildings and people seemed grey and dispirited. All those memories flooded back to me as I walked around the new Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition: Vermeer, Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some very fine works on display; there is Vermeer’s “Love Letter” at the end of the journey, for example: The first time a Vermeer has graced our city and well worth seeing just for that (see image at right). There are some striking portraits by Rembrandt, and fine examples of Dutch maritime, landscape painting and still life painting. I enjoyed many of them. And there are curiosities that are worth scrutinizing — the occasional piece that takes a well known building in Holland and places it in an otherwise imaginary setting, for example. And in some of the interiors, there are splashes of colour.
But the overall impression I get is one of greyness, flatness, a desire for exactness (blame Rembrandt, I guess) that squeezes the life out of some of the works. Standing in front of some of the paintings, I could feel the cold and uncomfortable trickle of dirty rainwater dripping down the back of my neck.
There was, however, one major surprise; a joy I had not expected. The exhibition includes Frans Hals’ double portraits “Portrait of a Man” and “Portrait of a Woman”. I was aware that Hals was known for his “loose” or “lively” style of brushwork, but the painting of the Man’s right hand, cuff and hair are almost impressionistic. It was such a relief after the “accuracy” of so many of the other works.
After the show, we attended a lecture by Dr Timothy Brook who wrote “Vermeer’s Hat” which had entertained me so much last fall when I read it. The book uses a number of Vermeer’s works to paint a picture of the expansion of Dutch trade with the Far East in the 17th century. It is an excellent work. In the lecture, I thought Prof Brook tried to be more of an art critic than an historian, and he was less successful. Still, a standing room only crowd of 120+ appreciated the talk.
Update: The Globe and Mail today has an excellent piece on Kathleen Bartels, the Director of the VAG.