On Wednesday, the quietly incandescent images of the 17th century Dutch master, Jan Vermeer, illuminated Lawrence 231. Brian Wolf, an eminent scholar and professor at Yale University and author of several acclaimed books, gave a lecture entitled “Of Lace and Men,” addressing the social and philosophical milieu from which Vermeer emerged. If one believes that a painter may be psychoanalyzed through his painting, Wolf accomplished this belief with brilliance.
Calling his lecture an “hour long advertisment for a way of thinking about Vermeer,” Wolf showed a postcard of a painting by Vermeer, depicting an artist at his easel. The artist, though, paints not a standard 17th century interior, but Roy Lichtenstein’s “Wham!” This comic juxtaposition of styles, Wolf argued, points to “half-hinted truth,” and “meanings otherwise unnoticed” towards which he wended his way in the course of the lecture
The unruly intrusion of “Wham!” into the superficial calm of Vermeer reflects the tension between what a painting reveals and conceals in its very revelation. Wolf placed this notion in the context surrounding Vermeer. He characterized the work of the 17th century as recreating and constructing, in a painting, the birth and conditions which originate it. The painting internalizes the world, creating a conversation within the painting itself. Most of Vermeer’s paintings take place indoors, reflecting this 17th century way of knowing: to look outwards, one looks inwards.
Wolf turned to John Locke’s model of the mind, the tabula rasa, to further elucidate the context from which Vermeer’s images originate. The mind receives imprints from the outside world, but then, Wolf emphasized, the mind must perceive these impressions, and from these impressions, produce intelligibility. He called the mind a “chamber-like space” and put forward the notion of the “unblinking eye of the mind,” the eye which reads the tabula rasa. The mind becomes a space apart from the world, wherein it can know the world.
Having armed the audience with these notions, Wolf then embarked on an exploration of a painting not by Vermeer, as one might expect, but by his contemporary, Caspar Netcher, entitled “The Lace Maker.” In it, a woman sits on a chair, her back partially towards the viewer, her head bent over her lace industriously, her profile just visible against her smooth cheek. A landscape hangs on the wall over her head, a broom is in the corner, shoes and mussels shells lie in the foreground near the door. A critic of years ago had interpreted this woman as an ideal of womanhood, with the artifacts in the foreground symbolizing her morality; an interpretation which Wolf proceeded to dismantle.
“The painting,” he began, “is a self contained world…with no access to the outside world except through the print on the wall.” The outside world is only accesible to the woman, and to us, the viewers, as an image, an image imprinted upon our owntabula rasa. Who then, Wolf questioned, is the unblinking eye who perceives this impression? Not the woman, who is confined to her lacemaking and indifferent to the print on the wall, powerless to play the intellectual role of “eye.” The gap between her head and the print, Wolf suggested, “suggests a tension between the cognitive agenda of painting and her absorption.”
This tension results from the “gender-based hierarchies” of the painting: the mussel shells symbolize both containment and sexual license, the unworn shoes represent renunciation, but also have a sexual innuendo, being empty and potentially “filled.” Even the broom signifies both cleanliness and vice which requires vigilance. The lacework symbolizes women; the print, men. Women, Wolf extrapolated, may renounce the outside world and embrace the domestic one, but men enforce this renunciation. The print which hangs above the woman, sitting immobile beneath it, represents this enforcement. “‘The Lace Maker,’” Wolf said, “reveals a profound anxiety about female sexuality” rampant in Dutch society at the time. The mussels and shoes are “tips of submerged cultural knowings,” sensual artifacts indicative of a woman’s sexuality, in opposition to the print of the cerebral man. One wonders how much Netcher intended to reveal, and how much, by the mere placement of a print, Wolf reimagined and reconstructed.
This opposition which Netcher sketched between male and female, the cerebral and the sensual, dissolved with the second anxiety Wolf delineated. He argued that Netcher’s woman is a version of the artist, her lacework, a palate, her broom, a paintbrush, her space, the space of artistic production. Netcher was not comfortable with the feminized version of himself he saw in the woman in his painting. As a result, he placed the print above the woman as a reminder, perhaps unconsciously, of the, perhaps non-existant, difference between them.
Netcher’s painting, Wolf continued, is more like the lace-making than the landscape it attempted to parallel. At the same time, in nervously recognizing the similarity between his art and domestic work, Netcher recognized the need to rethink the place of art in society. Instead of embracing his revolutionary subject matter, Netcher attempted to reassert his superiority over it, to distance himself from the woman so like himself. Wolf described this dual movement as “a dialectic between visibility and veiling,” the painting as “exposing the artist’s vulnerability” and the artist as “mistrusting the very domesticity that defines him.”
According to Wolf, this reveals the crucial difference between Netcher and Vermeer. Netcher “shares with Vermeer the instinct to set painting aright, to reconsider meaning, to look outside through the inside.” However, Netcher is trapped by his own anxiety; in attempting to distance himself from his subject matter, he catches himself within it, as the subject of his own painting. Vermeer, on the other hand, does not fear this new domestic space. He, says Wolf, “embraces this new cultural moment,” just as he reverences his female subjects. With his quietly erotic images and worldy approach, Vermeer ushers us into the modern world. Conversely, Lichtenstein, representing the “commercial, the tawdry, the outside world” is “where we least expect to find him: 17th century painting.”
Wolf’s approach to the study of art moves in just such an unexpected manner. Beginning with what appears to be the case, he moves to examine the details casually swept to the side, the cracks in the surface, the mussel shells discarded in the corner. From deducing what they represent and from discovering what they repress or what is pressed upon them, Wolf envisions a new painting in which the artist may expose himself as much as his subject matter. Wolf simply plays a game of hide and seek, catching Netcher often, and Vermeer, not at all. Vermeer is a master precisely because he eludes such exposure, moving in and out of his paintings with the quickness of a glance and the grace of his artists’ hands, ever poised to begin a painting.